One in 4 women and one in 10 men can experience Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) and violence can take various forms: it can be physical, emotional, sexual, or psychological (Smith et al., 2018). People of all races, cultures, genders, sexual orientations, socioeconomic classes, and religions experience IPV. However, there are different typologies of IPV—both types of violent offenders and violent relationships.
Johnson and Ferraro (2000) identified four types of violent heterosexual couples: those experiencing “situation couple violence,” “intimate terrorism,” “violent resistance,” and “mutual violent control.” Situational violence is not connected to a general pattern of control and arises in the context of a specific argument in which one or both partners lash out physically at the other. In contrast, the distinguishing feature of intimate terrorism is a pattern of violent and nonviolent behaviors that indicates a general motive to control. Violent resistance involves violence that is enacted to resist intimate terrorism and may have the primary motive of wanting to protect oneself. Mutual violent control involves a pattern in which both husband and wife are controlling and violent.
According to Stith et al. (2012), not only does the relational context of violence vary, but the characteristics of those who are violent are not the same. There is a growing consensus that there exist two types of male perpetrators: those described as “characterological” and those described as situational. For characterological perpetrators, violence is a part of an overall effort to dominate and control a partner. Situational perpetrators, on the other hand, tend to be in relationships where there is more likely to be reciprocal violence and where violence serves to exert control over specific interactions, rather than as part of an overarching pattern of domination.
Situational IPV is hypothesized to be the most prevalent form of relational violence. In fact, John Gottman and Neil Jacobson’s (1998) 10-year, 200-couple study of IPV found that 80% of IPV is situational and only 20% is characterological. Police reports bear these 89%/20% estimates out. Characterological incidents (rightfully so) get media attention and it is the victims of characterological IPV that show up in shelters, but the vast majority of IPV is situational.
In terms of situational violence, Gottman and Jacobson (1998) found that not one of the situational violence couples escalated to characterological domestic violence. They also found that situational IPV does not involve control or dominance and that perpetrator showed remorse, understood the impact, internalized the blame, and sincerely wanted to change. They also found that the violence was reciprocal and that there was no clear perpetrator or victim.
Gottman and Jacobson’s theory about situational IPV is that: 1) a lack of social skills in expressing needs and dealing with conflict leads to an escalation, and 2) flooding or Diffuse Physiological Arousal (DPA) plays a major role in escalation toward physical violence. Therefore, couples with situational violence can benefit from learning social skills to express needs and to better deal with conflict. Flooding, or DPA, is the physiological response to a perceived threat or attack that leads to a “fight, flight, or freeze” response. Couples with situational violence can also benefit from learning to identify flooding, take a break, and do physiological self-soothing.
While situational IPV tends to be reciprocal, characterological IPV is asymmetrical with a clear perpetrator and victim. It is characterized by controlling, dominating behavior, or belligerence. The perpetrator has little remorse and tends to blame the victim. The victim has no control over the perpetrator or the violence and fears the perpetrator. And characterological perpetrators are overwhelmingly men. Numerous studies have found that male violence does much more damage than female violence: women are much more likely to be injured, much more likely to enter the hospital after being assaulted by their partner, and much more likely to be in need of medical care. Wives are much more likely to be killed by their husbands than the reverse; in fact, women in general are more likely to be killed by their male partner than by all other types of perpetrators combined.
Gottman and Jacobson found that there are two types of male characterological perpetrators: “Pit Bulls” and “Cobras.” Cobras are typically violent in all aspects of life; Pit Bulls are typically violent to their intimate partner only. Shelter victims are mostly victims of either Pit Bulls or Cobras.
Pit Bulls have major fears of abandonment and are extremely jealous. They are suspicious of their partner becoming independent and try to keep their partner socially isolated. They are domineering, condescending, and lecturing. They lead with their forehead when they speak with their victim. Their anger builds gradually when getting more belligerent and contemptuous. Their pulse rate slowly increases with anger and is high when they strike.
Cobras are violent in relationships outside the couple relationship. They use fear and intimidation to get power and control. They lead with their chin when they speak with their victim. They begin with high levels of belligerence and are provocative and domineering. They look threatening from the beginning and do not appear calm. Interestingly, their heart rates drop before they strike, so that they are at their calmest when they strike. They can be charming, highly manipulative, and seductive. They can use weapons to threaten their victims and often surprise them. They show no remorse.
If you or someone you know is a victim of characterological violence, I strongly encourage you to seek professional help. This is the single most important step in escaping safely from an abusive relationship. No matter where you are in the United States or Canada, battered women can call the toll-free Domestic Violence Hotline. The number is 1-800-799-7233. You can also visit http://thehotline.org or text LOVEIS to 2252.
Jacobson, N.S., & Gottman, J.M. (1998). When men batter women: New insights into ending abusive relationships. Simon & Schuster.
Johnson, M.P., & Ferraro, K.J. (2000). Research on domestic violence in the 1990s: Making distinctions. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 62, 948-963.
Smith, S.G., Chen, J., Basile, K.C., Gilbert, L.K., Merrick, M.T., Patel, N., Walling, M., & Jain, A. (2017). The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS): 2010-2012 State Report. Atlanta, GA: National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/pdf/NISVS-StateReportBook.pdf
Stith, S.M., McCollum, E.E., Amanor-Boadu, Y., & Smith, D. Systemic perspectives on intimate partner violence treatment. Journal of Marital & Family Therapy, 38(1), 220-240.
© 2023 Michael Brown, MSC, LMFT, dba Happy Couples Healthy Communities