Conflict Tactics Scales Essay

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The Conflict Tactics Scale (CTS) and the Revised Conflict Tactics Scale (CTS2) are the best known and most widely used quantitative techniques used to obtain estimates of violence in intimate relationships. Murray Straus developed the CTS in the 1970s and the original or a modified version appears in over 150 scientific journal articles and at least 15 North American books. The CTS generally consists of eighteen items that measure three different ways of handling interpersonal conflict in intimate relationships: reasoning, verbal aggression (referred to by some researchers as psychological abuse), and physical violence. The items are ranked on a continuum from least to most severe, with the first ten describing nonviolent tactics and the last eight describing violent strategies. The last five items make up what Straus and his colleagues refer to as the “severe violence index.”

The CTS used to measure violence that occurred in the past year is usually introduced to respondents as follows:

No matter how well a couple gets along, there are times when they disagree on major decisions, get annoyed about something the other person does, or just have spats or fights because they’re in a bad mood or tired or for some other reason. They also use many different ways of trying to settle their differences. I’m going to read a list of some things that you and your partner might have done when you had a dispute, and would first like you to tell me for each one how often you did it in the past year.

The CTS is commonly recognized as a reliable method of capturing data on violence in intimate relationships. Moreover, many social scientists contend that CTS data are the best available when it comes to estimating the extent of intimate heterosexual violence in the population at large. Still, scores of researchers criticize the CTS for the following reasons:

  • Since the CTS rank orders behaviors in a linear fashion, it incorrectly assumes that psychological abuse and the first three violence items (e.g., slaps) are less injurious than those in the severe violence index. This is problematic because emotional abuse is often more painful than physical violence, and a slap can often draw blood or break teeth.
  • The CTS misses many types of abuse, such as scratches, burns, and sexual assault.
  • The CTS simply counts the raw number of violent acts committed and thus cannot tell us why people use violence. Even though CTS data almost always show that men and women are equally violent, the fact is that they use violence for different reasons, with women using violence primarily to defend themselves and men using violence mainly to control their partners.
  • The CTS only situates violence in the context of settling conflicts or disputes. Hence, it ignores assaults that “come out of the blue” and control instigated assaults that are not rooted in conflicts or disputes.
  • The CTS overlooks broader social psychological and social forces (e.g., patriarchy) that motivate people to assault their partners.

These and other critiques have been widely voiced for close to 20 years. Still, few researchers who use the CTS seem aware of them. However, in the mid-1990s, Straus and his colleagues developed the CTS2 to address some of the criticisms. For example, it includes more physical and psychological abuse items, as well as seven types of sexual assault. Further, to help researchers determine the difference between behaviors that cause physical injury and those that do not, the CTS2 includes several injury or physical outcome measures, such as “I needed to see a doctor because of a fight with my partner.”

The CTS2 contains 39 questions and is deemed by many researchers to be much better than the CTS. Nevertheless, the CTS2 still situates abuse in the context of settling disputes or conflicts, and it provides no data on the contexts, meanings, and motives of violence. This is a major problem because fathers’ rights groups and others critical of woman abuse research use sexually symmetrical CTS2 data to support their claim that men and women are equally violent. This has devastating effects on abused women and their struggles for effective social support services.

Both versions of the CTS have serious pitfalls, but this does not mean that social scientists should not use them. For example, researchers such as Daniel Saunders, Walter DeKeseredy, Martin Schwartz, and Shahid Alvi show that one key problem can be avoided by adding questions about motives, meanings, and contexts in different sections of the CTS or CTS2. Further, using supplementary openand closed-ended questions provides respondents with more opportunities to disclose abusive experiences than they have by only completing the CTS or CTS2. For example, many people may not report incidents for several reasons, such as embarrassment, fear of reprisal, shame, or reluctance to recall traumatic memories. However, if respondents are asked again later by an interviewer or asked to complete self-report supplementary questions, some silent or forgetful participants will reveal in this second round having been assaulted or abusive.

The CTS and CTS2 have strengths and limitations, and researchers devote a substantial amount of time and effort to either attacking or defending their scientific value. Such debates will never end. Still, the CTS and CTS2 can help elicit rich data on intimate violence if researchers use one or the other, as well as supplementary measures of violence and questions about the specific context, meanings, and motives of respondents.


  1. DeKeseredy, W. S., Saunders, D. G., Schwartz, M. D., & Alvi, S. (1997). The meanings and motives for women’s use of violence in Canadian college dating relationships. Sociological Spectrum, 17, 199–222.
  2. DeKeseredy, W. S., & Schwartz, M. D. (1998). Measuring the extent of woman abuse in intimate heterosexual relationships: A critique of the Conflict Tactics Scales. Retrieved from
  3. Straus, M. A. (1979). Measuring intrafamily conflict and violence: The Conflict Tactics (CT) Scales. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 41, 75–88.
  4. Straus, M. A., Hamby, S. L., Boney-McCoy, S., & Sugarman, D. B. (1996). The revised Conflict Tactics Scales (CTS2): Development and preliminary psychometric data. Journal of Family Issues, 17, 283–316.

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