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Theories and Research of Family Violence

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Family
Wordcount: 2304 words Published: 23rd Sep 2019

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Analyze Theories and Research of Family Violence


Interpersonal violence occurs at many levels and has many causes – individual, family, society (Lawson, 2013). Theoretical concepts such as the nested ecological model and family systems models attempt to explain the relationships between factors – societal, cultural, psychological, interpersonal/family (Lawson, 2013). Combinations of these theories for family violence may are most promising for both treatment and explanation (Lawson, 2003). Research is needed to test the functionality of these models.

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Oka & Whiting (2011) also stress the need for further research.  These authors introduce contemporary theories focusing on personal responsibility, compulsory relationship termination for safety reasons, and emphasis on training with violence issues. On this note, different kinds of violent relationships and different types of violent men and women require unique kinds of treatment programs. The theoretical models and treatment interventions, whether traditional or contemporary, thrive within Bronfenbrenner’s (1979) ecological framework.

Primary Theories on Family Violence

Lawson (2011) divides the traditional theoretical influences on violent behavior into three categories – behavioral genetics, biological factors, and non-biological factors – which includes everything else. He also discusses Bandura’s learning theory, family systems theory, and intimate relationships theory. There is much overlap in these concepts. For example, family systems and intimate relational concepts are also non-biological factors. Thus, these theories may be oversimplified and narrow in focus, but they do provide a starting point to analyze violent behavior.  

 Behavioral genetics explains violent behavior that is inherited. “Genetic influences are probabilistic, not deterministic, factors of aggression and are contingent on environmental factors for expression of violence in relationships. (p.18).” Biological factors, like diabetes, may also affect behavior. The largest, most encompassing factors are non-biological.  These will be discussed individually: 

  • The social cognitive theory also called learning theory, is learned through conditioning and observation (Bandura, 1979).
  • The social cognitive theory proposes that children learn from parents and the use of force is the most effective way to obtain compliance from less powerful family members.
  • Social information processing theory holds that perpetrators of IPV possess deficits in decoding relationship information, which results in misattributions and unlikely expectations for children and partners.
  • The feminist sociocultural theory holds that almost all family violence is based on the patriarchal values of our society. These values are endorsed by a culture in which male domination of women and children is both covertly and overtly reinforced.
  • Psychopathological factors are the strongest predictors of IPV and brutality.  Lawson (2011) identified distinct subtypes of male partner-abusers characterized by one or more of the following personality features Antisocial, borderline, narcissistic, dependent, and passive-aggressive. Antisocial and borderline features have been the crucial characteristics found in most of these studies. Other psychological problems related to IPV include mood disorders, bipolar disorder, and emotional dysregulation. The origins of these problems often are addressed within the context of insecure attachment, trauma, and psychodynamic theory. Lawson further suggests a relationship between borderline personality disorder and anxious attachment and between antisocial personality disorder and avoidant attachment.
  • Spitz and Bowlby’s concepts of attachment theory suggest that disruptions in a predictable, caring, and safe childhood environment create maladaptive models of relating that lead to dysfunctional emotional regulation strategies in close relationships as the client ages (Bretherton, 1992).
  • Intimacy-demanding relationships, regardless of sexual orientation, increase the risk of violence for some individuals. For example, research indicates rates of IPV in gay and lesbian relationships are like those of heterosexual relationships.
  • Family systems theory views behaviors as having multiple causes as well as reciprocal causality in the interactions between people. Family interactions are regulated by family rules and feedback systems that to varying degrees include the influence of all members present in the immediate family as well as extended family and intergenerational influences.

Theory to Practice in MFT

Treating family or couple violence has been controversial for a long time. The traditional model for treating violent couples has been to separate them and assign the male offender to a batterer intervention program (BIP), while female victims are sent to a support group. Great care must be taken on how you set up informed consent. This may have large implications on safety should you determine that couple therapy is not appropriate or mandated. Further, reporting laws come into effect.  Often , states discourage programs that offer conjoint therapy as the primary mode of treatment. BIPs are typically psychoeducational groups for violent men who are taught anger management skills, gender equality, and responsibility. Treating men in male-only groups prevents couples from being together for safety reasons, and perpetrators of violence have separate issues to work through than victims of violence. However, unintended consequences are that batterers who work together may empathize with one another and reinforce or generate new abusive behaviors.  Further, batterer intervention groups show different levels of success in treating the problem, with recidivism and dropout very common. Another challenge with most BIPs is that all violent men are not the same, and  the violence is not always one-sided (Babcock, Green, & Robie, 2004).

Treatment models for offenders based on social cognitive theory and social exchange theory assume that family violence is caused by (a) a lack of behavioral skill that impede the appropriate expression and processing of feelings, leading to unacceptable expression of anger; and (b) a lack of cognitive skills, resulting in distorted cognitions and statements about oneself and one’s intimate partner (Murphy & Eckhardt, 2005). Treatment approaches emphasize cognitive restructuring, emotional regulation, and relationship skills training (Eckhardt et al., 2013). The treatment methodologies include motivation to change, commitment to nonviolence, appropriate assertiveness, use of time-out procedures, changing attitudes toward women and violence, examination and challenge of maladaptive beliefs, responsibility plans, anger and stress management, relaxation training, and communication skills.

With regard to the feminist approach, treatments largely are psychoeducational, emphasizing resocialization and egalitarian relationships between males and females. Interventions focus on changing attitudes that support male privilege, dominance, power tactics, intimidation, and self-justification for abuse.  Since this approach is basically macro systemic, social and political action is viewed as a large part of the change process, with a focus on institutions and male privilege (Eckhardt et al., 2013).

Emerging treatment models are beginning to integrate elements of psychodynamic and attachment counseling approaches with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) interventions (Sonkin & Dutton, 2003). These models go beyond CBT and feminist approaches to include factors related to abusers’ early and current relationships that increase the risk of IPV (Murphy & Eckhardt, 2005).

Consistency with Family Systemic Patterns

Oka & Whiting (2011) note:

Contemporary theories of family therapy are often more sensitive to gender, power, culture or societal influences than were early MFT theories. Many contemporary theories are founded in postmodern philosophy, which emphasizes creating meaning through language construction and relationships. In addition, many theorists advocate that the relationship between a therapist and his/her clients should be collaborative, rather than hierarchical. Many theories are strength-based, focusing on what clients do well,

rather than what is going wrong. These issues are relevant when considering

violence in treatment (p.32).

Thus, these authors suggest using collaborative language and listening to the way people explain their lives through the story rather than the more traditional narrative approach to treatment.  This type of methodology also lends itself to the solution-focused model. The therapist becomes neither the judge nor the expert, so he/she works directly and actively with the clients to produce solutions rather than super-imposing his/her own view of the situation.  The therapist in the collaborative setting would not take on the role of the expert.  He would ask his clients to tell about their own experience with violence, drugs, abuse, or leaving an abusive relationship.

Role of Culture, Race, Ethnicity, Religion, Poverty, Financial, and Social Stress

Domestic violence screening programs are becoming a means to identify previously unrecognized victims of abuse.  Unfortunately, lack of resources, time and increased workloads still present barriers to the use of assessment tools (Day et al., 2015).  Of course, a variety of cultural aspects create issues for social workers and marriage and family therapists.  Carranza (2008) tells of her experience with Sudanese immigrants.  The husband begins his first session by informing his therapist that men beat their wives in Africa.  Through Carranza’s therapeutic collaboration, the husband agrees to be open-minded about his behavior, and he learns that it is inappropriate behavior in Canada.  Unfortunately, the wife cannot accept the new paradigm.  Oddly enough, the husband’s second wife cannot accept the paradigm either.  So, narrative therapy and the family systems approach do not work in this situation.  Simply because the husband changes his behavior does not guarantee that the wife will change her behavior too. The therapist, who preferred the narrative approach, eventually learns new methodologies.

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Working with a solution-focused family therapy model, the therapist can help each family member describe specifically what has previously happened and how they want things to be different.  This model of therapy can be used with people from all cultures and socio-economic backgrounds.  It is important to note that each client is unique and comes to us from a variety of experiences and circumstances (Teichner et al., 2001).


  • Babcock, J. C., Green, C. E., & Robie, C. (2004). Does batterers’ treatment work? A meta-analytic review of domestic violence treatment. Clinical Psychology Review,23, 1023–1053.
  • Bretherton, I. (1992). The origins of attachment theory: John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth. Developmental psychology28(5), 759. Bronfenbrenner, U. (1979). The ecology of human development. Harvard university press.
  • Carranza, M. (2008). Therapeutic interventions in domestic violence with immigrant couples. In J. Hamel (Eds.), Intimate partner and family abuse:
  • Day, S., Fox, J., Majercik, S., Redmond, F. K., Pugh, M., & Bledsoe, J. (2015). Implementing a domestic violence screening program. Journal of trauma nursing22(3), 176-181.
  • Eckhardt, C. I., Murphy, C. M., Whitaker, D. J., Sprunger, J., Dykstra, R., & Woodard, K. (2013). The effectiveness of intervention programs for perpetrators and victims of intimate partner violence. Partner Abuse4(2), 196-231.
  • Lawson, D. (2013). Family violence: Explanations and evidence-based clinical practice.  Alexandria, VA: American Counseling Association. 
  • Murphy, C. M., & Eckhardt, C. I. (2005). Treating the abusive partner: An individualized cognitive-behavioral approach. Guilford Press.
  • Oka, M. & Whiting, J. B.  (2011) Contemporary MFT Theories and Intimate Partner Violence: A Review of Systemic Treatments, Journal of Couple & Relationship Therapy, 10:1, 34-52, DOI: 10.1080/15332691.2011.539173
  • Sonkin, D. J., & Dutton, D. (2003). Treating assaultive men from an attachment perspective. Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment & Trauma7(1-2), 105-133.
  • Teichner, G., Golden, C. J., Van Hasselt, V. B., & Peterson, A. (2001). Assessment of cognitive functioning in men who batter. International Journal of Neuroscience111(3-4), 241-253. Retrieved from https://nsuworks.nova.edu/cps_facarticles/309/ on 2/10/2019.


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