Intimate Terrorism Essay

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Abusive behavior within violent relationships is heterogeneous and likely differs with respect to etiology, course, mutuality, and severity. This has resulted in researchers and clinicians postulating various subtypes or categories of violent relationships. For example, while some violent relationships are characterized by both partners perpetrating infrequent use of less severe forms of violence, others are characterized by one-sided battering with the goal of physically and psychologically subduing the victim. The method of intervention and the processes underlying these two scenarios likely differ substantially. Thus, understanding the characteristics of specific types of violence may be crucial for effective intervention in which treatment can be adapted to the needs of each group.

Michael Johnson and his colleagues reviewed qualitative and quantitative research and posited that couple violence in families takes one of two distinct forms—situational couple violence (previously labeled common couple violence) or intimate terrorism (previously labeled patriarchal terrorism). The motivation to control one’s partner is the primary variable distinguishing these two groups. Unlike those experiencing situational couple violence, whose aggression is likely a response to a specific event or stressor, intimate terrorists’ desire to control results in continuous destructive abuse that takes many forms.

Intimate terrorists go to extreme measures to dominate their partners through intimidation created by threatened and actual violence, forced isolation from others, and economic or other types of dependency. The purpose of these dehumanizing and harmful acts is to force their victims into submission and powerlessness through the loss of identity and self-esteem. Their aggression, which is commonly fueled by a desire to increase control and/or a desire to manifest their control over their partner, often escalates in intensity in an effort to extract more convincing signs of obedience. Intimate terrorists, who typically believe in patriarchy, often maintain that it is their right to control “their” women whom they regard as “property.” In the spectrum of domestic violence, intimate terrorists are the most extreme, engaging in highly destructive predatory practices.

Johnson has argued that violence perpetrated by intimate terrorists is frequent, severe, and potentially injurious in nature, primarily initiated by the male partner, and rarely involves violence in self-defense by the victim. Fortunately, intimate terrorism is less prevalent than situational couple violence. His research has demonstrated that, relative to those experiencing situational couple violence, women experiencing intimate terrorism report greater frequency of violence, physical injury, time off from work, psychological distress, and use of certain drugs. Johnson noted that violence research conducted in shelter and clinical populations typically identifies relationships characterized by intimate terrorism, whereas research conducted with community samples generally reveals relationships characterized by situational couple violence.

Given Johnson’s typology, as well as the intimate partner violence classification systems developed by others, it is apparent that the underlying processes and goals of violence perpetration vary by offender or couple. Although some perpetrators may use violence to control their victim (intimate terrorism), others may use violence in response to a stressful situation due to a lack of alternative adaptive coping mechanisms (situational couple violence). Thus, a one-size-fits-all conceptualization and treatment approach would likely be less effective than individually tailored treatments. For example, couple counseling is likely to be dangerous and contraindicated for those experiencing intimate terrorism, but may be appropriate for some couples experiencing situational couple violence. Despite the potentially useful treatment implications of Johnson’s typology, other classification systems should also be considered when developing treatment programs for violent perpetrators. Researchers have found support for a different set of subtypes of offenders and, in particular, there is evidence from Johnson and others that there are likely more than two subtypes of partner violence perpetrators.


  1. Holtzworth-Munroe, A., & Stuart, G. L. (1994). Typologies of male batterers: Three subtypes and the differences among them. Psychological Bulletin, 116, 476–497.
  2. Johnson, M. P. (1995). Patriarchal terrorism and common couple violence: Two forms of violence against women. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 57, 283–294.
  3. Johnson, M. P., & Leone, J. M. (2005). The differential effects of intimate terrorism and situational couple violence: Findings from the National Violence Against Women Survey. Journal of Family Issues, 26, 322–349.
  4. Leone, J. M., Johnson, M. P., Cohan, C. L., & Lloyd, S. E. (2004). Consequences of male partner violence for lowincome minority women. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 66, 472–490.
  5. Stuart, R. B. (2005). Treatment for partner abuse: Time for a paradigm shift. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 36, 254–263.

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