Situational Couple Violence Essay

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Researchers and clinicians have long been in agreement that men engaging in intimate partner violence (IPV) constitute a heterogeneous group. Some have attempted to address this issue by categorizing violent men or violent couples into subtypes. This essay discusses one such subtype: situational couple violence.

In theory, the etiology, course, and treatment for IPV may differ depending on the subtype under consideration. Typologies have been constructed in an effort to improve knowledge and understanding of IPV, including identification of different underlying processes resulting in violence. It is also believed that reliable and valid typologies of IPV may lead to increases in therapy effectiveness, eventually resulting in subtype-treatment matching in which treatment is tailored to the needs of each group.

On the basis of a review of qualitative and quantitative research, Johnson and his colleagues theorized 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 primary variable distinguishing these two groups is the use of a general pattern of control by one partner, typically the male.

Unlike the abuse that arises from intimate terrorism, which is aimed at partner domination and control and is typically severe and injurious in nature, situational couple violence may be best understood as an inappropriate attempt to cope with conflict or stress. Situational couple violence occurs in response to a specific event or stressor rather than a result of a general pattern of domination and oppression. Johnson and colleagues conceptualize this type of violence within family conflict theory in which some individuals view violence as an acceptable form of conflict resolution under certain circumstances.

Johnson and colleagues have found that, relative to victims of intimate terrorists, victims of situational couple violence report a lower frequency and severity of IPV victimization, as well as lower likelihood of violence escalation. In addition, victims of situational couple violence are less likely than victims of intimate terrorism to be injured from IPV, to experience symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder, to miss work, to seek formal help, and to use certain types of drugs (e.g., pain killers and tranquilizers).

This typology has direct implications for the treatment of IPV. For example, whereas couples counseling might be dangerous and contraindicated for those experiencing intimate terrorism, it might be appropriate for some couples experiencing situational couple violence. However, as with any classification system, the reliability and validity of this typology should be firmly established prior to making assumptions about therapy applications. This caution may be particularly relevant because researchers have hypothesized and found support for a different set of subtypes of offenders and in particular there is evidence 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 low-income minority women. Journal of Marriage and 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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