IPV: Evolutionary Psychology Perspectives

Something to read while sheltering in place…

Among the more notable findings from the Tulane University/U.C. Davis national survey of batterer intervention programs (click on the ADVIP home page for the link), 80.3% of program directors said that male-perpetrated intimate partner violence (IPV) is motivated by a desire to dominate and control, compared to the 23.9% who cited this motive for female-perpetrated IPV. But research indicates that men and women use various forms of relationship aggression for roughly the same reasons, and that includes the desire to dominate their partner. I know some BIP facilitators who believe that the female offenders in their groups are mostly victims. There is research finding that female offenders are more likely than male offenders to be poor, and to be overwhelmed with special problems such as lack of child care – but they aren’t any more likely than our male offenders to be victims. We are not doing our female clients – and especially not their partners – a favor by downplaying their abuse.

We can all agree that, on the whole, the clients enrolled in our programs, regardless of how they were referred, need to take full responsibility for their own behavior. On the other hand, we cannot entirely dismiss client complaints about their own victimization at the hands of their partners. This is often pure victim-blaming of course, but not always. In “mandatory arrest” states such as California, police will often arrest a suspect with minimal evidence of a crime, relying on poorly-conceived “dominant aggressor” guidelines. Low-income male defendants who need to get back to work and cannot afford to go to trial sometimes will take a plea deal, often in marginal cases when their guilt is far from evident. One long-term study in Oregon found that men arrested on a domestic violence charge were usually guilty of that particular offense, but that their partners had perpetrated just as much physical and emotional abuse as they had throughout the course of the relationship (Capaldi, Shortt, Kim, Wilson, Crosby, & Tucci, 2009). Some client complaints are legitimate, and to dismiss them out of hand is to put at risk the client-facilitator working alliance, necessary for group engagement, client motivation to change, and positive treatment outcomes – primarily, a cessation or reduction in violent and abusive behavior. Additionally, when the complaints have merit, it is important that the facilitator acknowledge them in order to help clients identify the mutual abuse dynamics that may have led to violence. Not all abuse dynamics are of the type identified by Lenore Walker, assumed to involve a entirely-guilty perpetrator and an entirely blameless victim.
Below are some notes I have put together for a presentation I will be giving in San Francisco in the Fall, on the role of gender in intimate partner violence, and some of the explanations for IPV dynamics from an evolutionary psychology perspective. At some point I will flesh out these notes for a paper I will submit somewhere for publication. Meanwhile, I hope you find this information helpful in your work. If you would like to read some of the cited studies, contact me and I will send you the full list of references.

Aggression Outside and Inside the Home

The views expressed by BIP directors on motivation to control are concerning because we are supposed to be experts in our field, with accurate knowledge about the causes, dynamics, context and impact of IPV. To be fair, there are reasons for such lack of knowledge. Many of us were initial trained in Duluth or some other gender-based model, which Probation and victim advocates typically favor, and few of us are researchers with access to the latest social science data that might challenge what we were taught. Furthermore, work primarily with male offenders, who in these groups are more often than not the predominant relationship aggressors and who routinely lie, minimize and blame. And of course, men are far more outwardly aggressive in general than women. Women have been shown to use comparable, or higher, rates of indirect aggression (Archer, 2004; Bjorkqvist, 1994), such using malicious gossip and ostracizing others from their social groups, and in laboratory studies will engage in direct aggression (e.g., administering a series of electric shocks) when they feel justified or when they can do so anonymously (Frodi, Macaulay & Thorne, 1977; Richardson, 2005). Still men perpetrate the great majority of violent crimes, and engage in the majority of public displays of aggression, including verbal aggression (Archer, 2004). Just watch the news or read any daily newspaper. It’s obvious.

And yet, things are very much different in the home and among intimate romantic partners, as rates of aggression are very comparable across gender, across all ethnic groups and sexual orientations. Except for child sexual abuse, women are responsible for the majority of child abuse (largely due to their greater caregiving role; McDonald et al., 2006), and, while rates of sexual IPV and the more threatening forms of stalking are largely perpetrated by men, women perpetrate physical and psychological abuse and engage in controlling behaviors at rates equal to or higher than men (see PASK findings and reports from the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey by going to www.domesticviolenceresearch.org.) In about 60% of relationships where there is violence, both partners are physically violent, and in an even higher percentage of relationships both partners are either physically or emotionally abusive (Langhinrichsen-Rohling, Misra, Selwyn, & Rohling, 2012). Additionally, the causes of IPV perpetration, also known as risk factors, are very much the same for men and women, and include: Low income/unemployment, aggressive personality, abuse/dysfunction in childhood, alcohol and drug abuse, and being in a high conflict relationship (Capaldi, Knoble, Shortt, & Kim, 2012) . Women and men are motivated to abuse partners for the same reasons as men – to control, in self-defense, in retribution, to punish, due to jealousy, as a means of communication or expressing emotions, or due to the effects of alcohol and drugs (Langhinrichsen-Rohling & McCullars, 2012).

What does distinguish male and female perpetrators is the impact that it has on victims. Women are injured at higher rates than men, particularly with severe injuries requiring medical treatment, and suffer more mental health problems (Lawrence, Orengo-Aguavo, Langer, & Brock, 2012) . They are also the victims in around 80% of intimate partner homicides (Hamel, 2019). Although children who witness IPV are more likely to become aggressive and dysfunctional adolescents and adults regardless of the sex of the abusive parent (children learn from observation), they are more impacted by father’s violence in the short run, especially in terms of greater internalized symptoms, such as depression and PTSD (fathers’ violence is more consequential and scarier; MacDonnel, K. Watson 2012).

Gender Roles

The BIP standards in California, and most states, mandate that we incorporate into our curricula information about the use of “power and control” tactics and “gender roles.” By the latter, it is understood to mean that we are supposed to educate our male clients about how they use physical, sexual and psychological abuse in order to maintain their status as men, which is supposedly sanctioned by a patriarchal, male-dominated society, and women stay in abusive relationships because they have been taught to be submissive. The standards tell us to educate our male clients about “male privilege” (e.g., insisting on making all the important decisions, expecting sexual favors), but nothing is said about “female privilege” (insisting that the partner work extra hours so she can have nicer things, assuming she will get the children in the event of a divorce). However, as mentioned already, rates of physical and psychological abuse and controlling behaviors (possessive jealousy, intimidation, degradation of the partner) are comparable across gender. Furthermore, research indicates that traditional gender roles and sexist attitudes do not directly predict IPV by men, because men with egalitarian values are just as likely to abuse their partners. Male abusers cite outdated social roles to excuse their violence, but what actually drives the violence are the risk factors cited above, along with pro-violent attitudes and a general desire to dominate partners (Straus, 2008; Sugarman & Frankel, 1996). These are the same motives that drive female-perpetrated IPV.

Does this mean that patriarchal social structures do not contribute to male-perpetrated IPV? No, social factors are important, but individual and relationship factors are as or more important, and the exact mechanisms by which social factors impact rates of IPV are complex and not completely understood. Some international surveys find higher rates of male-perpetrated IPV in more patriarchal countries (Archer, 2006; (Schmitt, 2015), but at least one review found no such differences (Esquivel-Santovena, Lambert, & Hamel, 2013). One possibility is that marital conflict is intensified in countries with stronger patriarchal structures, as women resist their partners’ attempts to control what happens in their domain, and research does find a high correlation between marital conflict and marital violence. But there many other reasons why couples fight, which has to do more with personality differences and relationship dynamics. In the most egalitarian countries there are men who dominate their wives, and in the most patriarchal countries there are women who dominate their husbands
The higher rates of aggression by men outside the home have been explained according to Gender Role Theory, which holds that prevailing cultural norms discourage direct female aggression (Eagly & Steffen, 1986). But in the home and among intimate partners, female-perpetrated aggression has much greater social support than male-perpetrated aggression (Johnson & Ferraro, 2000; Straus, Kaufman-Kantor, & Moore, 1997). This higher tolerance for female-perpetrated IPV can be regarded as a form of “benevolent sexism” (Glick & Fiske, 2001), which of course varies across cultures. In the U.S., these tolerant attitudes may help to lower rates of IPV against women, whereas this may not be the case elsewhere (Esquivel-Santovena, Lambert, & Hamel, 2013).

Evolutionary Psychology Explanations

As an alternative to Gender Role Theory, I have found Social Learning and Attachment perspectives much more useful in understanding the causes and dynamics of intimate partner violence, and as a basis for my batterer intervention curriculum. The outcome literature on BIPs does find greater support for these alternatives. But more and more I have become impressed with theories developed by evolutionary psychologists, in particular Sexual Selection Theory, which provides a credible, comprehensive account of IPV perpetration and motivation dynamics, and helps in resolving some of the contradictions already mentioned with respect to aggression outside versus inside the home. According to Sexual Selection Theory, over the past 200,000 years natural selection processes have resulted in a differentiation between men and women in their reproductive strategies for ensuring descendants. Essentially, due to the prolonged period of gestation, women’s reproductive interests are best served seeking a mate, or mates, who will provide resources to enhance the survival of her offspring, whereas men can mate with numerous partners. Monogamous relationships are, however, usually advantageous to men as well, because an investment of resources in one partner increases the odds of the children surviving, with a greater certainty of paternity.

When evolutionary psychologists first started to examine IPV, they focused on male aggression. They found that men seek women who are young and physically attractive because these features correlate with fertility, which is why women are often treated as “sex objects.” When they suspect their partner might cheat on them or leave the relationship, men will employ a variety of strategies in response, to avoid losing the partner or being cuckolded (unwittingly having to raise another man’s child). Such “mate retention” strategies include working harder to earn more money, showering the partner with attention and gifts, and letting her have her way – as well as what is known as “mate guarding,” which involves possessive behaviors and sometimes physical assaults (Wilson & Daly, 1992). Science then, evolutionary psychologists have broadened their focus to include female behavior. Across cultures, more men than women (60% versus 40%) at least once have tried to “poach” someone else’s partner (have an affair), but female poachers tend to be more successful. Women tend to regard men as “success objects” and will seek to improve their looks or grant more sexual favors to hold on to their mates and those resources, but sometimes use aggression (Cross & Campbell, 2011, Geary, 2010; Harris, 2003; Miller & Fishkin, 1997) against female rivals, or their male partners, to advance their reproductive interests. Just like men, it is jealousy that typically drives some of them to become controlling and violent (Buss, 2013; Geary, 2010). Women also report experiencing the same levels of anger as men, the other primary emotion linked to aggression (Averill, 1983; Brody & Hall, 2008).

Evolutionary psychologists study mate retention tactics with a questionnaire known as the Mate Retention Inventory, or MRI (Shackleford, Goetz, & Buss (2005). The MRI category known as Direct Mate Guarding includes the sub-categories of Vigilance (e.g., “called at unexpected times to see who my partner was with”), Concealment of Mate (e.g., “refused to introduce my partner to my same-sex friends”), and Monopolization of Time (e.g., “insisted that my partner stay at home rather than going out”). Results from mate retention studies conducted with married couples in the United States (Buss & Shackleford, 1997), Spain (De Miguel & Buss, 2011), and Croatia (Kardum, et al., 2006) indicate that these tactics are used by women at rates at least equal to men, and in some studies at higher rates. One difference across gender is that women tend to use these tactics throughout the relationship, whereas men are more likely to use them when suspecting their partner of cheating, which explains why women are so often killed when they try to leave. Another difference is that men tend to more readily succumb to these tactics, scoring significantly in the Submission and Debasement category (e.g., “became a slave to my partner,” “gave in to my partner’s every wish.”).

The mate guarding tactics found in these studies among jealous, insecure men and women are roughly the same as those identified in the ubiquitous “power and control” wheel which, as I noted earlier, have been determined to be perpetrated equally across gender in the general population and among clients court mandated to a BIP. In my own study of 400 men and women in California batterer intervention programs, there were no significant differences across gender for perpetration of 47 of the 62 items. Men reported significantly more perpetration for 6 items: “tries to restrict partner’s movements,” “controls the money and excludes partner from financial decisions,” “withholds child support,” forgets important things (e.g., to pay bills or relay calls/messages)”, “pressures partner to have sex when he/she doesn’t want to,” and “pressures partner to engage in unwanted sexual practices (but the latter item rarely endorsed, with 80% of the sample indicating they never engaged in this behavior.) Women reported significantly more perpetration for 9 items: “searches partner’s purse/wallet/cell phone calls,” “makes fun of partner’s sexual performance,” blames partner for all the problems in the relationship,” “nags” (repeated and excessive complaints or requests), “refuses to accept ‘no’ for an answer,” “calls, pages or text messages constantly,” “withholds affection or sex,” locks partner out of bedroom or residence when angry,” and “tells children negative things about partner” (Hamel, Jones, Dutton, & Graham-Kevan, 2015).

Studies on intimate partner homicides (IPH) find jealousy to be a motive as much for female killers as male killers. However, it is the case that most IPV is perpetrated by men, and compared to men women are more likely to kill in self-defense. Clearly, male-perpetrated relationship violence is far more dangerous. Although female killers can, and do, use weapons such knives or guns, men are on the whole bigger and stronger than women, and can overcome them with physical force. Men, who have evolved to compete for partners against same-sex rivals and amass resources, are driven to overcome their fears of danger; whereas women experience higher levels of fear, in order to avoid situations that would threaten successful child-rearing. Circling back to the previous question as to why there is relative gender symmetry in the home, but not outside the home where women rarely assault men, some evolutionary psychologists theorize that women’s fear instincts are disinhibited in the home (possibly due to the effects of oxytocin; Cross & Campbell, 2011), where they are motivated to defend their natural maternal and resource-seeking interests (Allen & Hawkins, 1990; Cross, Tee, & Campbell, 2011; Saini, Drozd, & Olesen, 2017; Straus, 1999).

Without a consideration for cultural factors, Sexual Selection Theory, by itself, cannot account for the variety of ways in which men and women try to secure the material and social resources with which to survive. Sexual Selection Theory best explains IPV and IPH when combined with findings from studies on adult attachment, human cognition, and leaning. I leave you with this quote from Harris (2003), on their Social-Cognitive model:

“[The model is] consistent with natural selection and with jealousy serving the adaptive function of protecting a valued relationship, which presumably would have aided in increasing one’s fitness…Determining that the self may have contributed to the mate’s infidelity can help identify areas in which to improve the relationship. Forming emotional attachments to others is important to both men and women, and to the degree that those attachments are threatened, jealousy will be elicited…This view provides a way for culture to impact jealousy: in that what is perceived as a personal threat will to a large extent be influenced by the values of one’s culture” (p. 120).

The takeaway is that IPV is a human problem, not a gender problem, and if we do not grasp this essential fact, we will be limited in our efforts to hold perpetrators accountable and keep victims safe.
What are your thoughts? Let me know!