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#10 Motivations for Men and Women’s Intimate Partner Violence Perpetration: A Comprehensive Review

Jennifer Langhinrichsen-Rohling, Adrianne McCullars, & Tiffany Misra
168 pages.
Full manuscript available in Partner Abuse Vol. 3, Issue no. 4 (2012), pp. 429-468.

The current review addresses two central questions: 1) What motivates partners to perpetrate IPV and  2) Whether such motivations differ between men and women?  Delineating whether there are gender differences in motivations for perpetrating IPV has important clinical and policy implications. Specifically, if men’s violence is enacted in order to subjugate women and keep them in a position of vulnerability and disempowerment, then the treatment of men’s violence will best be understood in the context of societal inequities for women. Correspondingly, if women’s violence is primarily enacted out of self-defense in response to their male partner’s violence, they should not be considered “husband batterers”. Furthermore, they are unlikely to benefit from being mandated to abuser/batterer treatment programs that were designed specifically for men. On the other hand, if both men’s and women’s violence is motivated by anger management concerns, lack of skills to communicate successfully with intimate partners, or because of jealousy perhaps resulting from an inability to securely attach to one’s partner, different types of IPV interventions are likely to be necessary and these interventions may not need to be so gender-specific. Instead, less gender-specific interventions that take into account these latter types of motivations for violence may need to address perpetrator-specific psychological issues as well as relationship-specific concerns.

We collected and summarized all available papers that report empirical data related to men’s and women’s motivations for IPV (n = 73 empirical studies; n = 1 book chapter; 75 total samples). Included studies were published in 1990 or later, appeared in peer-reviewed journals, and contained empirical data. To facilitate direct gender comparisons, the motives reported in each obtained study were coded by the current authors into seven broad categories:  (a) Power/Control, (b) Self-defense, (c) Expression of Negative Emotion (i.e., anger), (d) Communication Difficulties, (e) Retaliation, (f) Jealousy, and (g) Other.  These studies were also coded by the nature of the sample they assessed as follows: large population samples, smaller community samples, university/schools, clinical samples, and justice/legal related samples.  To facilitate a further understanding of gender differences or similarities in motivations for IPV perpetration, existing empirical studies were also coded for whether they measured motivations for men’s physical violence, motivations for women’s physical violence, or both. When gender comparisons were available, studies were further coded as to whether the study reported the correlations between violence perpetration and some measured motivational risk factor. Additionally, when gender comparisons were available, studies were then coded as to whether the study specifically compared the degree to which men and women self-reported the same motivations for their violence.

The existing heterogeneity in methodology, measurement, and construct development may reflect the inherent challenge of determining a person’s motivation for committing violence. Motivations are internal experiences that may be difficult for even the perpetrator to discern. For example, when something like anger is self-reported as a motive for IPV, what might underlie that anger (hurt, jealousy, discomfort from lack of control, inability to communicate one’s needs)? This specific difficulty is reflected in the studies included in this review as various researchers collapsed anger with retaliation (Kernsmith, 2005), jealousy (Harned, 2001), or other emotional dysregulation problems. It is also possible to argue that anger is not a motive for violence; it is an emotional state that is the context in which violence often occurs. Differentiating motives, reasons, functions, justifications, and contexts is a challenge that faces researchers in this area.

Still other studies included in this review had difficulty distinguishing between violence committed in self-defense and violence committed as retaliation for pre-existing abuse of an emotional, physical, or sexual nature (Kernsmith, 2005). However, some authors have worked hard to correct this concern (Shorey et al., 2010); these authors created a motivations for self-defensive aggression scale. Moreover, very few of the currently published studies separated proximal from distal motives and fewer, if any, relied on multifactorial theories that integrate motives across time or understood changes in motives for perpetrating violence as a function of individual or relationship development. Finally, even when a perpetrator is able to accurately introspect about and subsequent identify their relevant motives; social desirability concerns may preclude admission of these motives on a self-report measure or via a face to face interview. Unfortunately, social desirability measures are not routinely included as part of the assessment strategy used in this field.

Individually, particular motives may be more acceptable to report than others; however, the acceptability of reporting specific motives may also vary by gender. For example, it might be particularly difficult for highly masculine males to admit to perpetrating violence in self-defense, as this admission implies vulnerability. Conversely, it may be more culturally sanctioned for women to admit to perpetrating violence as a result of jealousy related to their partner’s infidelity than to admit to committing violence as a power and control strategy.  A better understanding of gender socialization processes related to admission of motive would be helpful.

It is also possible that some motives may be more acceptable to report in particular settings. For example, individuals facing criminal charges may be more likely to invoke self-defense as a perpetration motive than individuals gathered in a university study, regardless of their gender or their experiences with IPV. This is important to consider as 36% (n = 27) of the study samples in this review were drawn from university/school settings and 34% (n = 25) were drawn from legal, criminal justice settings. Only 3% of the papers (n = 2) included in this review obtained data from a large population based sample. Overall, as a consequence of experiencing pressures that may differ as a function of individual differences, gender roles, and/or setting, the conclusions drawn about men and women’s motives for perpetrating IPV must be viewed with great caution.

However, in spite of the challenges embedded within this field, several important findings can be gleaned from this review. First, there does seem to be consensus about the main motivations to consider as findings from the majority of the studies fit into the motive coding scheme developed by the current authors. Sixty-one percent of the samples included in this review assessed for motives of self-defense; 76% assessed for power/control motives. This not surprising as these two motives are the cornerstone of the main gender-sensitive theories regarding the perpetration of IPV by women versus men; they are also consistent with the Duluth model of intervention for domestic violence (Pence & Paymar, 1993). Other common motives assessed across these studies were anger/expression of negative emotion (63%) and using violence to retaliate (60%). Common measurement of these motives is consistent with the other set of widely used interventions for perpetrators of IPV (e.g., anger control interventions; Rosenbaum & Leisring, 2001).  It is worth noting that 47% of the studies measured communication difficulties as a motive for perpetrating IPV; similarly, 49% measured jealousy as a motivational precursor. These motives best fit with models that demonstrate that relationship dissatisfaction is an important risk factor for IPV and it is a risk factor that may be especially helpful when explaining the antecedents to what has become known as common couple violence (Langhinrichsen-Rohling, 2010).

Second, studies that considered the most frequent motivations for perpetration reported by men and women often generated similar motives. For example, Kernsmith (2005) reported that the most common reason that both men and women chose to use intimate partner violence was to get back at a partner for emotionally hurting them. Kernsmith also indicated that self-defense, anger, and stopping a partner from doing something were common motives for both men and women. Leisring (2011) reported that college women’s most common motives for perpetration of minor physical violence were in retaliation for emotional hurt, anger, and because of stress or jealousy. Similarly, Shorey et al. (2010) concluded that, for both men and women, the most common motives for perpetrating violence to retaliate for emotional hurt, to express anger, to express feelings that they could not put into words or communicate, and to get their partner’s attention. 

Finally, one of the main purposes of this review was to address the question of whether or not there are gender differences in motivations for perpetrating IPV.  This seemed possible given that 46 of the 75 study samples (61%) contained data from both men and women. Contrary to expectation, relatively few papers contained data from only one gender (n = 24, women only; n = 6, men only). It was unexpected that majority of the single gender papers focused on explaining women’s perpetration of violence. Very few papers included only men’s reports, perhaps suggesting that men’s self-reports of their motivations were considered more suspect. Alternatively, some researchers in this area may have thought that men’s motives for perpetrating violence were self-evident and thus not as worthy of extensive study.

Across this review, there were 18 study samples that provided a direct comparison of men and women’s motives for perpetrating IPV. Some of the gender comparisons seemed more direct than others. For example, when the men and women are recruited in the same way from the same location, they are likely to be similar. In contrast, comparing male domestic violence (DV) perpetrators to women residing in a battered women’s shelter is likely to be problematic (e.g., Barnett et al., 1997). Likewise, it may be that women who are mandated to DV perpetrator programs differ in some substantial ways as compared to men who are mandated to DV perpetrator programs. Therefore, it is important to note who the men and the women are in the studies that compare men and women’s motivations for perpetration.

In spite of all of these limitations, it is worth noting that the hypothesis that men would report perpetrating violence as a means of power and control more frequently than women was only partially supported. While three of six correlational studies that included data related to this motive did report obtaining significant associations between power/control motivations for men but not women; the other three indicated that the findings for men and women did not differ. However, consistent with gender-specific theory, none of the obtained correlation studies reported stronger associations between power and control motives and perpetration for women as opposed to men.

With regard to the direct comparison studies, four of the 12 papers considering gender differences in the power/control motive did not subject their findings to statistical analyses. Of the remaining studies, three reported that there were no significant gender differences in being motivated by power/control to perpetrate violence. One paper found that women were more motivated to perpetrate violence as a result of power/control than were men. The remaining three papers found, as expected on the basis of gender-specific theory, that men endorsed more power/control motives for their violence than did women (Barnett et al., 1997; Ehrensaft et al., 1999; Shorey et al, 2010). The final direct comparison study had mixed findings (Makepeace, 1986).

In a methodological advance, Shorey and colleagues (2010) reported effect sizes for their obtained gender differences. Worth noting is that all the effect sizes for gender differences in men endorsing power/control motives more than women would be classified as small in size. This suggests that these gender differences are weak. However, the Shorey et al. (2010) study was also conducted with a college student sample. Thus, stronger effects might be obtained with a different type of sample but utilizing the same measurement strategy. Thus, only two papers report any evidence that this motive is stronger for women than men; however, there are few, if any, indications that there is a strong effect such that power and control is much more of a motive for men’s as opposed to women’s violence.

Warranting further consideration, while most relationship behaviors, including violence, can be understood as a way to influence, manipulate, and/or control one another, some perpetrators are likely to use this strategy exclusively and without remorse. Regardless of their gender, these perpetrators are likely to need different intervention strategies than those whose violence is more related to the emotional ups and downs that can be typical in less secure or unstable relationships (Johnson, 2005; Langhinrichsen-Rohling, 2010).

The notion that the self-defense motive is more common for women than men also received some empirical support. Of the ten papers containing gender-specific statistical analyses, five indicated that women were significantly more likely to report self-defense as a motive for perpetration than men. However, four papers did not find statistically significant gender differences. Only one paper reported that men were more likely to report this motive than women (Shorey et al., 2010). The degree to which this finding holds for women in all samples and settings, is consistent over time, and is relevant for women of different ages and ethnicities warrants additional consideration.  Still, despite findings of gender differences in half of these studies, it is important to point out that self-defense as a motive for violence is endorsed in most samples by only a minority of respondents, male and female.  For non-perpetrator samples, the rates of self-defense reported by men ranged from 0% to 21%, and for women the range was 5% to 35%.  The highest rates of reported self-defense motives (50% for men, 65.4% for women) came from samples of perpetrators, who may have reasons to overestimate this motive.  In addition, further work needs to be done to distinguish between self-defense and retaliation for previously experience violence as these motives were difficult to separate in many of the papers included in this review.

None of the included papers in this review solely reported that anger/retaliation was significantly more of a motive for men than women’s violence; instead, two papers indicated that anger was more likely to be a motive for women’s violence as compared to men. This is important because within the United States’ culture, it may be more acceptable for men to experience and express anger than women because of socialization processes or adherence to traditional gender roles (Fischer & Evers, 2011; Shields, 2002). Women who perpetrate violence may particularly need more productive ways to manage anger within their personal relationships (Goldhor-Lerner, 1985). However, making conclusions about gender differences related to the anger motive is particularly uncertain because many authors measured this motive in conjunction with something else (i.e., jealousy, retaliation) and a substantial subset of papers in this area did not subject their findings to statistical analyses (5 of 13 studies). A better and clearer understanding of how this motive influences the perpetration of IPV is warranted.

Finally, contrary to expectation, jealousy/partner cheating seems to be a motive to perpetrate violence for both men and women. This motive has been linked with an insecure attachment style in romantic relationships (Buunk, 1997; Guerrero, 1998; Hazan & Shaver, 1987; McCullars, 2012). Thus, it might be that less secure and stable relationships are more susceptible to IPV because they are unsure of the commitment and fidelity of their partner. However, given the extremely small number of papers that are summarized here, these findings should be considered preliminary.

Taken as a whole, however, the findings gleaned from this review suggest that this area of the IPV field is in its infancy. Researchers have employed different measurement tools, focused on different motives, reported findings in different ways, made use of different informants, differed in whether or not they measured both men and women, and utilized different samples. Moreover, this paper has exclusively focused on understanding the motives precipitating physical violence. Other motives are likely to be more relevant for the perpetration of psychological or sexual violence.  Likewise, those who perpetrate across a variety of relationships or on multiple occasions are likely to use violence differently than individuals who have perpetrated a limited amount of violence in the context of one problematic relationship. As a consequence, making meaningful conclusions on the basis of the articles included in this review was not fully possible.

Nonetheless, it seems clear that both men and women perpetrate violence in response to a variety of motives. Violence can occur as a consequence of not knowing how to appropriately manage anger, jealousy, and communication difficulties (Langhinrichsen-Rohling, 2010). The context in which the emotion occurs may also further motivate or inhibit violence (e.g., learning about a partner’s infidelity after having a few drinks versus having a partner wear revealing clothes to a work function where one is trying to impress one’s boss). A better understanding of what motivates individuals to stop using violence over time or to refrain from violence in a context in which violence has often been deemed culturally acceptable would also be valuable.

In summary, much work remains in order to understand the motives underlying both men and women’s perpetration of IPV. The types of motives that are measured need to be theoretically based and consistent across samples to facilitate comparisons. Allowing perpetrators to endorse a variety of motives, as experienced across a range of contexts is likely to lead to a deeper, proximal/distal and multifactorial understanding of what underlies IPV. Integrating qualitative and quantitative methodologies is necessary. It may also be that there are individual, interpersonal, environmental, and societal motives that facilitate violence perpetration. Measuring the full array of these disparate motives in both men and women who are perpetrators will be essential. Developing a clearer picture of what motivates violence, for whom, and under what conditions will better inform violence prevention and intervention efforts. It may also facilitate theory development in the field of IPV.


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