Domestic Violence Is Not the Result of Patriarchy

As you may know, Johnny Depp is suing his ex-wife Amber Heard over an op-ed she wrote in the Washington Post in 2018, in which she claimed to be a victim of domestic abuse. The legal battle has come to the courts of Virginia, US, and the hearings are broadcast live. The defamation trial features painful accusations of domestic abuse in which Depp has several audio recordings of Heard admitting to hitting him and threatening him: “Tell the world, Johnny. I, Johnny Depp, a man, I’m a victim, too, of domestic violence, and see how many people believe or side with you.”

As a doctoral psychology and relationship researcher, currently writing my dissertation on the topic of intimate partner violence, I’ve been following this case with close attention and deep frustration at the double standard with which society addresses the topic of domestic abuse. In this article, I argue against the publicly endorsed gender paradigm in domestic violence and, instead, offer a gender-neutral perspective from psychology that is rooted in empirical evidence

Intimate partner violence (IPV) is a global public health and human rights issue. Recently, social isolation and stay-at-home measures due to COVID-19 have further exacerbated this issue as there has been a dramatic increase in IPV cases worldwide. IPV refers to any behavior carried out to inflict harm to romantic partners; however, it is commonly associated with male-inflicted violence. This popular belief is referred to as the “gender paradigm” and stems from a patriarchal view of domestic violence. From this perspective, men in Western cultures are socialized to dominate women and even have the right to use violence to establish power and control over women. However, research consistently finds that women in heterosexual relationships tend to perpetrate violence against intimate partners at least as often as men (if not more). According to the CDC, one in seven men in the US has been the victim of physical abuse by an intimate partner in his lifetime, and one in 10 men has experienced rape, physical violence, and stalking by an intimate partner. Recent data from the Office for National Statistics points out that of every three reported IPV cases in the UK, two victims are female, and one is male. These numbers may even be gross underestimations considering male victims of domestic abuse are less likely to view abuse as a crime and usually don’t report it to friends or the police.

Indeed, male victims of domestic abuse are often met with suspicion or disbelief and have difficulty finding public help because services or shelters for domestic abuse mostly focus on female victims. Moreover, female-inflicted violence towards men is not taken as seriously in courts and tends to be viewed as less severe despite data suggesting that men are more likely to get physically injured by female intimate partners. In addition to physical injury, male victims of IPV also suffer psychological consequences, such as post traumatic stress symptoms.

Consequently, the view that all acts of domestic violence are the result of patriarchy alone is not only misleading but also dangerous because a) it ignores male victims, and b) it fails to explain female-inflicted violence towards male intimate partners. It is, therefore, time for a major revision of our thinking, and time to replace the gender paradigm of domestic abuse with a scientifically sound perspective of the issue that is rooted in facts, not ideology.

So, if not the patriarchy, what is factually driving IPV?

The patriarchal view of IPV has long been debunked by an enormous volume of empirical evidence suggesting that there are biological and psychological factors that place people (both men and women) at an increased risk of IPV perpetration. Everyone who is in, or has ever been in, a relationship knows that conflict is inevitable. In all relationships with high interdependence (meaning that the partners’ lives are intertwined), conflicting interests are expected to occasionally rise to the surface. This is referred to as “situational couple violence.” When partners fail to reach an agreement or resolve a problem, frustration, anger, and insecurities can arise and cause a nonviolent conflict to suddenly escalate and turn into a violent conflict. From this interdependence perspective, IPV can be understood as an impulsive behavior that emerges when partners (both men and women) experience upset or threat in their relationship. Indeed, people perpetrate violence against intimate partners at alarming rates. In the US, one in six couples experience at least one act of IPV every year. However, not all men and women resort to violence during conflict.

A large body of research suggests that individual differences in attachment styles and the way they interact in a couple dynamic can predict IPV perpetration by both men and women. Attachment theory explains that we are born with an innate attachment system that is influenced by our early childhood relationships with caregivers and can affect how we relate to romantic partners. For example, people with parents who were responsive to their needs and made them feel safe tend to develop a secure attachment style. People with a secure attachment style feel safe in their relationships, are comfortable with intimacy, and can easily rely on others. Conversely, people with parents who were unresponsive to their needs and neglectful or inconsistent in caregiving tend to develop an insecure attachment style, which is conceptualized along the two dimensions of anxiety and avoidance.

Attachment anxiety is characterized by attempts to maintain closeness to a partner, such as clinging, and an overdependence on a partner for security and stability. People with an anxious attachment style tend to be more sensitive to cues of rejection by their partners and constantly fear being abandoned. As a result, anxious people may use controlling or coercive behaviors, often violent in nature, as a means of getting close to their partners when they experience distress or feel threatened in their relationships.

Attachment avoidance, on the other hand, is characterized by a fear of intimacy and of getting too close to a partner. People with an avoidant attachment style tend to be more self-reliant and fear becoming dependent on others. Avoidant people are also more likely to ignore the signs of trouble in their relationships and tend to evade conflict by shutting down or escaping.

The research into attachment styles and IPV consistently shows that people with insecure attachment styles, specifically those with an anxious attachment style, tend to perpetrate more violence against intimate partners. However, the way partners’ attachment styles interact in a couple may be especially predictive of IPV perpetration. Specifically, the pairing of anxiously attached and avoidantly attached partners can be a recipe for disaster. For example, while the avoidant partner wants to evade intimacy, the anxious partner wants to seek constant reassurance and be physically close to their partner. The avoidant partner, who is uncomfortable with intimacy and wants to feel independent, may perceive the anxious partner as needy and clingy. Consequently, when the anxious partner’s attachment needs are not met by the avoidant partner, they can feel rejected and could resort to maladaptive “protest behaviors” (like children throwing tantrums) to get close to their avoidant partners.

The pairing of anxious and avoidant individuals is often referred to as the anxious–avoidant trap because it can trap couples in a toxic cycle of pursuit and withdrawal, pushing and pulling. It is therefore expected that these couples will report more violence in their relationships. One study in particular showed that anxious women who are paired with avoidant men demonstrate pursuit and withdrawal patterns whereby the woman demands more closeness than the man could tolerate. Consequently, the avoidant man’s attempts at withdrawal only aggravate the demands from their anxious partner, which could lead to the use of violence by both members, each for different motives: gaining closeness versus gaining space. Moreover, a breakup is a tough pill for the anxiously attached person to swallow because their nightmare of being abandoned by their partner and losing the relationship has become reality. This may be why people with an anxious attachment style are more likely to stalk ex-partners and seek revenge.

This gender-neutral perspective of domestic violence provides a well-rounded and scientific understanding of the issue by explaining the underlying mechanisms that can lead to IPV perpetration. However, although attachment styles offer a solid rationale for why people resort to violence, they, of course, don’t excuse abuse. The good news is that attachment styles can change over time, and it is possible to develop a more secure way of relating to others through personal development and professional help. Therefore, public and therapeutic interventions need to be further developed and made accessible for both victims and perpetrators of domestic violence.

Domestic violence will never stop as long as we explain it through the lens of patriarchy and minimize, or ignore altogether, the biological and psychological factors associated with domestic abuse. By blaming the patriarchy for domestic abuse in general and suggesting that all men are socialized to abuse women to gain power over them and are, therefore, the sole perpetrators of domestic violence, we ignore male victims of domestic abuse and discourage them from coming forward and speaking up.

Finally, domestic violence should not be minimized or justified by arguing that it is mutual.

By claiming that all women are victims of male dominance and suppression and will resort to violence only as a means of self-defense, we remove all responsibility from female perpetrators of domestic abuse. As a society, we should have zero tolerance for domestic violence no matter the sex or gender of the perpetrator.

The topic of domestic abuse has never been more important than in the time of COVID-19 and #MeToo, and I hope that the Depp v. Heard case can put an end to the gender paradigm in domestic violence and spark a wind of necessary social change by reframing the conversation we are currently having about domestic abuse to one that empowers both female and male victims of abuse.

If you or someone you know is a victim of domestic abuse, please reach out for help from resources such as the National Domestic Violence Hotline (US), the Mankind Initiative (UK), 1800RESPECT or Mensline (AU).


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://quillette.com/2022/05/21/why-the-depp-heard-case-should-change-the-gender-paradigm-in-domestic-abuse/
6 Likes

While it lacks sense to neglect the reality that women sometimes visit abuse of various kinds on their partners in heterosexual relationships, it certainly defies common sense to suggest that women are equal-opportunity offenders in this regard. Again - where are the men’s abuse shelters? Aggression is fueled by testosterone; testosterone also is the key hormone in the sexual dimorphism that makes male aggression so much more physically consequential, than female aggression.

The role the Patriarchy plays in all this is multilevel: Patriarchy is predicated after all on settled patterns of life which physically isolate women in private households (the social isolation of women from one another is a key factor in the dynamics of Patriarchy); Patriarchy places the private property of the household at the center of economic life, and makes control of women by men of critical importance; muscle-power is one of the most important factors of production in the pre-Modern Patriarchate, and in such contexts of very low economic productivity, the male testosterone-sculpted physiognomy gives the average man an incontestable advantage when it comes to the physical domination of isolated women (especially if those women also have children whose welfare they are concerned with). Patriarchy in effect makes women into property, with very limited rights; down the long centuries of pre-Modernity, Patriarchy normalized male violence against their partners, including marital rape. Patriarchy invariably made it easier for men to divorce, selling his wife and children into slavery if necessary.

All this talk of attachment-styles governing relationships matters little in a pre-Modern context, where people had limited volition in marriage, so who you ended up with would not be significantly influenced by personality-dynamics. All these niceties only come into play when you reach the High Modern period, with Industrialization.

We can say that the ability of women to abuse their partners in Modern times has marginally increased, but the male-dominated society of the Patriarchate has had more than enough inertia built up in pre-Modern times, to carry over robustly into the Modern; and only in the affluent West, do women have sufficient social, political, and economic power, to serve in a turnabout-role and abuse men (such abuse, in contrast to male domestic violence, is overwhelmingly emotional abuse). It is no surprise that the issue of (alleged) female IPV is highlighted by the spectacle of individuals with very high social status who belong to the most affluent Western society.

So sure, there is episodic, opportunistic abuse of men by women in heterosexual relationships; but there exists no systemic or historical-institutional support of such violence (no systemic misogyny), as men enjoy over women. It is foolish and dangerous, to delude ourselves otherwise.

5 Likes

Most people I know who have suffered from abuse were routinely beaten, humiliated, and systematically abused by their mothers.

4 Likes

“Patriarchy” might be the preferred explanation in Gender Studies faculties but in the real world most people would simply explain that men are categorically stronger than women and vastly more likely to seriously injure or kill their intimate partners than the reverse. This is by virtue of their physical capability, not some belief in the power of the “patriarchy”.

The fact is if I were a violent guy I could break my wife like a twig - and I am not some exceptionally powerful man and she is not some exceptionally weak woman. The strength disparity is huge even between average couples. Sure she could injure or kill me if she really wanted to if she snuck up on me or got me in my sleep with a kitchen knife. But unless she was a complete psychopath pretty improbable that she could injure me seriously without much more concerted effort than I would need to accomplish the same. You don’t need to be a scientist to understand this common sense reality.

I am not saying that men can never be abused by women, but it’s ludicrous of the author to ignore this elephant in the room. It’s not unlike claiming that all dogs can be violent while ignoring the vast power difference between, say, a pitbull and a toy poodle.

Women who are violent have to be more violent, more aggressive, more unhinged to do the same damage on their partners. That’s just physical reality of sexual dimorphism.

9 Likes

As little children. Not as grown men.

2 Likes

And your evidence that that is not often the case? As you point out most husband’s:

But that doesn’t often actually happen does it? Husband’s are well aware of their greater strength and evidently hold back, while wives, well aware of their lesser strength, are not restrained by the fear of causing great damage to their partner.

9 Likes

We could blame a lack of funding.

Three years ago, in his own home, Silverman opened the Men’s Alternative Safe House (MASH), which until last week held the distinction of being the only privately funded shelter for male victims of domestic abuse in Canada. Now, with no public funds to help, the maintenance and grocery bills associated with running his shelter have become too onerous for him to handle. Silverman has sold his home.

But even without govt funding I’d bet private citizens would take it upon themselves to raise the money for women’s shelters. People would pay out of pocket. Kind of like Earl Silverman did for his men’s shelter except he’d have more help. So the lack of men’s shelters is a result of lack of funding for men’s shelters which is a result of the gender empathy gap in full swing today.

Too bad Silverman wasn’t a Hollywood star like Johnny Depp. With that kind of status he’d have gotten mucho attention and empathy.

You can say this:

the social isolation of women from one another is a key factor in the dynamics of Patriarchy

and still maintain that we live in a Patriarchal society? Women pretty much rule the social realm. They decide what is acceptable and what isn’t. They’re expert networkers, esp with the technology we have today. I know that my wife is a networking goddess and thanks to her I’ve had many opportunities of all kinds I’d otherwise have missed out on.

But I think they were before as well. Sewing circles were about more than just sewing, I’m sure.

13 Likes

That’s not an accurate representation of the science, from wiki:

In humans, testosterone appears more to promote status-seeking and social dominance than simply increasing physical aggression. When controlling for the effects of belief in having received testosterone, women who have received testosterone make fairer offers than women who have not received testosterone.

The article also mentioned that higher testosterone levels in men lead to them making fairer offers.

10 Likes

From my anecdotal experience attachment theory certainly rings true but I suspect domestic violence has multifactorial causes that might include a personality type high in neuroticism & masculine traits such aggression, dominance, control & discipline etc (which can be found in both sexes). Lack of impulse control is also notable. There’s also an entitlement/expectation/justification quality that stems from antiquated beliefs there that I believe tends to be more common in traditional cultures that might implicate patriarchal influences as well.

5 Likes

Indeed! But many of them grow up to be men who abuse others. The cycle of toxic matriarchy is difficult to break…

3 Likes

Yup. Even in real patriarchies – the West being the polar opposite of a patriarchy now – virtually all socialization is done by women. We are first physically hit by mom, yelled at by mom, taught how to behave by mom. Then in school, teachers are predominantly female, especially at first. As males grow, they learn that in our toxic matriarchal society, if they don’t want to end up on the scrap heap – and no one will give a damn if they do – they must compete for money and status sufficient to attract a female. This female, living off your income, will also complain that her income is less than yours, which is rather remarkable if you think about it – she gets to spend the money that you make and she feels Oppressed by that. Such is matriarchy. The male also knows that he can be disposed of at any time, and not less – and often much more – than half of his wealth will be taken by his ex. He does well if he stays out of jail since the female is presumed honest when she claims abuse – he must prove his innocence and even that might not work. He knows that once his income fails, he will probably be scrapped. This is called Privilege.

16 Likes

Back in the 80’s, while my now wife and I were dating, she and I watched “The Burning Bed”, starring Farrah Fawcett. The movie culminates in Fawcett’s character, an abused wife, tying her sleeping husband to the bed and lighting it on fire.

My soon-to-be spouse looked over at me, raised an eyebrow, and said “Go to sleep.”

I totally cracked up. And I knew at that moment that I’d never be abusive towards her. Checkmate.

3 Likes

“The Patriarchy” as expressed by some is a completely nonsensical idea. Matriarchal structures are profoundly unhealthy. Western society, as it stands today, is afraid of manhood… and, from the looks of things, they are now afraid of womanhood as well. There are binaries for a reason. Balance lives between them.

5 Likes

This article seems to assume (perhaps I misread) that IPV is the exclusive domain of hetero couples.

But were the perpetrators 2 male and 1 female (as would be implied)? Or 3 male? Or 2 female 1 male?

It seems to me to be as important, if not more important, to look at who the perpetrators are, as it is the victims.

EDIT: OTOH, the “patriarchal” model may be silly, and the mechanisms described may occur in both men and women; but we still need to know the relative prevalence of who is doing the perpetrating. So IF the prevalence of perpetrating IPV is much higher in men (I don’t know if that is true or not), then that fact should not be ignored or diluted simply by disavowing patriarchy as a meaningful underlying mechanism. Nor should we ignore the difference in physical damage inflicted by men vs women.

4 Likes

I like it. We need the ‘poles’ of masculine and feminine to define the geography.

1 Like

I seem to recall reading somewhere that the highest incidence of domestic abuse is seen with lesbian couples.

3 Likes

But Katie Atkins says some people still fail to understand that abuse is about power and control and not necessarily about traditional ideas about physical strength.

“There’s a misconception with LBGTQ domestic violence that if someone’s abusive, it’s the person who’s more masculine or the person who is more butch who is at fault and that is absolutely not true,” she says

https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&source=web&rct=j&url=https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-29994648.amp&ved=2ahUKEwi6iZWEnPH3AhXTTWwGHWm6CzMQFnoECAkQAQ&usg=AOvVaw2b0oUmRcmvnTqVW8UR-dqw

2 Likes

Seriously good point. I completely overlooked that as well. Thanks!

1 Like

I considered that, but dismissed it as significant with the statistical effects of LGBTQ IPV likely being lost in the rounding.
Why does everything have to revolve around LGBTQ people these days?

3 Likes