Thinking and understanding:
Overviews of varying theoretical perspectives on DVA.
DVA is inherently complex to understand and to intereve, due to the deep-seated connections between the victim and the perpetrator(s). The psychological, physical, emotional, economic dependancy victims have on their abusers can make their self-identification as victims challenging, can create immense barriers to motivations and capacity to change and can create social shame. There is a culture surrounding DVA, much ingrained from traditional views of secrecy, normalised roles, social stigma and societal denial.
Broad thinking is important to help develop contextual understandings, to work toward the elimination of DVA. Theories help explain the possible causations for DVA and is equally as important to help guide practical interventions, to optimise the chance of attaining positive outcomes for individuals to live safer more fulfilled lives.
There is not one theory which can exclusively or universally explain DVA; theory can often provide a partial explanation, yet one which may not apply to all diversities of DVA and may also contain limitations or oversights in the explanation or applicability. Thus whilst theories can be helpful, stringent adherence to one in isolation by professionals, would be narrow-minded and may be harmful. Theories must be drawn upon with a sociological imagination and used in combination with other knowledge, to formulate contextual understandings.
This page encompasses a list of a few key theoretical concepts which are prominently used to explain DVA. Below are simplified overviews of these theories, to develop more robust knowledge, practitioners should engage in more in-depth research and reading where applicable. Understanding the broader spectrum of theoretical approaches may support social work practitioners to effectively intervene and empower female abuse victims and those at risk.
Feminist Theories and domestic abuse
Feminist theories are perhaps the most influential in progressing social change toward DVA attitudes in the UK. Feminist theories are rooted in gender inequalities, patriarchy and traditional gender roles and have significantly helped to shape and establish legislation and social concepts of abuse against women.
Feminist theories on DVA suggest there is a culture of gender inequality and male-centric societal norms, which are suggested to place blame on female victims. This is said to legitimise the illicit actions of the perpetrator. Additionally, there is a history of ‘silence’ and a culture of viewing DVA, particularly spousal, as private and a social issue which should remain within the family and not be interfered with (Yikes, 2001; DeKeseredy, & Dragiewicz, 2007).
The patriarchal culture that the UK is suggested to poses, is inferred to be providing men with motives and reasoning for abusive behaviours. Suggesting that they hold a superiority to females and that it is a mans inherent right to control or abuse a female and that this is normalized behaviours. Feminist theories of DVA suggest that patriarchal structures and male dominent power in UK society lowers women’s options and their resources, limiting their abilities to alter their abusive circumstances (Yikes, 2001; DeKeseredy, & Dragiewicz, 2007).
Feminist theories of DVA also suggest that it may occur as a reaction to Feminism. Inferring that men are struggling to maintain control over their families in the current climate of female empowerment and males are subsequently losing their ‘place’ in society, so are resorting to abuse as a control mechanism (Yikes, 2001).
Feminist theories primary limitation is that it fails to account for female perpetrators, either against males or in a same-sex relationships (Merrill, 1996). Feminism also broadly overlooks that not all males are abusive domestically (Yikes, 2001). It also ignores class, isolation and sociological back ground as factors of prevalence (Yick, 2001).
Sociological theories and domestic abuse
Social Learning Theory (Bandura & Walters, 1977), is an example of a sociological perspective on DVA; it examines how DVA may be learned and perpetuated by perpetrators experiencing abuse during their socialization and suggests that if there is positive reinforcement for this abuse, then they will learn this behaviour to be a positive, which may perpetuate cycles of intra-familial abuse (Mihalic & Eliot, 1997; Barnett et al., 2005; Abbassi & Aslinia, 2010).
DVA existing in a person’s family of origin has been substantially linked to a re-occurrence or continuation of this in their own family network (Kolbo et al., 1996; Abbassi & Aslinia, 2010). However, studies show that the mass majority of individuals who grew up in domestic abuse situations, will not go on to perpetuate these behaviours, which potentially contradicts the foundations of social learning theory (Ali & Naylor, 2013).
Social learning theory also appears to overlook structural influences which may increase stress, cause conflict and incidentally stimulate and foster an environment of DVA (Barnet et al., 2005; Ali & Naylor, 2013).
Structural and Situational theories and DVA
Structural theories of DVA suggest that living in a society that is filled with stress, frustration, anger and violence, often caused by structural inequalities, can be accumulating factors which produce abusive outcomes within familial networks. Yet these theories are problematic as not everyone who feels stress and frustration will perpetrate abuse against those closest to them (Jenkins & Schock, 1992; Yick, 2001).
Situational theories suggest that there are contextual elements of a person’s life that can evoke DVA, for instance; misusing substances. Substances may impair people’s judgments and lower their usual standards of behavior. Whilstthese theories have a strong evidence-base of support, they are considered only partial theories, as they are potentially only partial explanations as not all inebriated individuals, resort to abusive behaviours (Jenkins & Schock, 1992; Yick, 2001).
Psychological theories and DVA
Psychological theories focus on the biology, personality, mental health and levels of self-control that individuals in DVA situations possess (Meier, 1993; Corvo & DeLara, 2010; Ali & Naylor, 2013).
Psychological theories about DVA frequently overlook the structural factors of society, social patterns and social contexts which may indirectly promote DVA, such as; unemployment and poverty (Corvo & DeLara, 2010; Ali & Naylor, 2013).
What stops people leaving a DVA environment, relationship or situation?
There is an overly simplified ideology that domestic violence and abuse can be stopped if a person were to leave the situation in which it is occurring. The reality of this is however very complex and this mindset is dangerous for social workers.
The skills section highlights how proportionate interventions are needed and how protection is vital yet can be reduced if a person separates from their abuser.
Below is a simplified list of a few key reasons victims of DVA may feel unable to leave a DVA relationship or circumstance.
- Financial dependency on their abuser
- Nowhere else to go
- Lack of support network if they leave
- Fear of not being believed
- Fear of what may happen to them or others (especially prevalent if they have shared children with their abuser, this can prevent leaving)
- Internalised view of the abuse; thinking its their fault or they are not worthy of living a different reality which is safe and abuse free
- Normalised view of the abuse (believing this is just what a relationship or family dynamic is like)
- Fear of community rejection
- Traumatic bonding to their abuser; they love the person they are being abused by and do not want to leave them, they hope that they will change.
- Lack of perceived choices
Power, control, change.
Power and Control Wheel
The Duluth model established a wheel to demonstrate the power and control that male exist in domestically abusive relationships.
This model is useful for practitioners to understand the cycles of abuse and the elements which may influence the contextual circumstances of a person being supported.
Change that lasts
Womens aid have developed a effective communication procedures that help support 'change that lasts'. This link will take practitioners to the page which explores change in a meaningful way, including case studies.
The danger of separation/leaving
When domestic abuse is identified, especially in households with children, social workers will often request the victims leave their homes, or separate from the abusive partners. Whilst this may seem the logical solution, separation or leaving is repeatedly evidenced as the most dangerous time for DVA victims. Leaving relinquishes a degree of control which is often not well received by partners whom are abusive.
As a social worker you should be aware that the three months following a separation or relocation is a period of imminent danger for victims, with two years being recognisied as the period of time it takes for the threats to subside in most cases. Homicide is most likely during this time (Monckton Smith, 2019).
As social workers we need to be mindful of what we are asking people to do, and understand and manage the risks if we ask individuals to take this course of action. The threat extends to children of the victims also, with child homicides and abductions occurring at a much higher rate following a separation of parents or custodial disagreements following a termination of relationship.
8 stages of homicide
Dr Jane Monckton Smith (2019).
It is helpful for practitioners to recognise the imminent threat of homicide that domestic abuse presents. New research by Dr Jane Monckton Smith explores the potential of eight stages of homicide. The attatched video is a short overview of these stages and provides insight to the research findings. This may support practitioners to identify risk and the level of risk