Understanding the Complexities of Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) Research

We often get asked about Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) and how often violence really happens between partners. The research is complicated, but the issue is far too important to dismiss, so a two-part discussion seems warranted (Part II will post in December).

Types of IPV

Woman being reflective

Definitions might be the best place to start. IPV is a catch-all category, referring to all incidents of physical, sexual or psychological aggression in intimate relationships. Experts (both advocates and researchers), though, tend to disagree with how to characterize IPV. Those working within domestic violence community services most often use the term domestic violence, and deal most often with some of the most dangerous situations where there is significant fear and risk of injury or death. Some (by no means all) in the domestic violence advocacy community have argued that all violence, regardless of circumstances, is fueled by a single theoretical model of male power and control.  Other experts, often researchers studying IPV in basic science, are much more likely to use the term IPV to study a broader range of behaviors under that label. Such researchers report evidence of a more nuanced view, adopting either a model differentiating IPV by types or by intensity. There is merit in the different viewpoints, and their history, and differences in viewpoint are largely driven by differences in experience or types of data.

PREP Inc. believes typology models have been particularly useful for fostering discussions about implications for the relationship education field. At the simplest level, PREP sees IPV in two broad categories (based on the work of Michael Johnson and colleagues). One type is intimate terrorism, describing a relationship marked by control and subjugation between perpetrator and victim. The other is situational couple violence (or, what PREP calls arguments-that-get-physical), which is a pattern marked by poor conflict management and difficulties regulating negative emotions, with these dynamics spilling over into physical aggression.

Rate of Occurrence

One of the factors in support of there being different types in patterns of aggression is that some type of IPV is extra-ordinarily common. In one recent study, Galena Rhoades anStats from Rhoades Before I Do reportd Scott Stanley reported that, among couples recently marrying, 53% reported at least one instance of IPV in their history, with IPV defined as one or more of the following forms of aggression: grabbing, slapping, throwing something that could hurt, pushing or shoving, twisting the partner’s hair or arm, sustaining an injury, or feeling physical pain the next day due to a fight with their partner (taken from the Before “I Do” report). In their larger, national sample, Rhoades and colleagues reported that 48 percent of the unmarried adults reported some sort of physical aggression in the history of their relationship (Rhoades et al., 2010).

Various findings of this sort are surprising to many because the numbers reported are so high. However, such findings align with other, older studies: For example, of 272 newlywed couples surveyed within one month of their wedding about their recent experience with physical aggression, 31% of males and 44% of the females report at least one incident of aggression within that past year in their relationship (O’Leary, et al., 1989). That’s a sample of mostly happy couples about to get married.

How does that compute?

Researchers get such large numbers for IPV because of the high prevalence of couples who have trouble with emotional control and conflict management, who engage in arguments-that-get-physical. Clearly, this type of IPV is common especially among younger couples (Capaldi et al., 2007), even after committing to marriage.

What to take from this…

man_yellingAll physical aggression is dangerous, and none of it is acceptable. However, we do not believe that it all stems from the same mechanisms. There are different reasons why couples experience aggression in their relationships. There is some evidence that IPV risks can be lowered by at least some types of relationship education (most likely those types offering people skills to manage conflict in healthier and safer ways). Addressing patterns like intimate terrorism is a much more complex subject than we address here.

Unfortunately, people hitting people in romantic relationships is common and is dangerous, especially for women and children, no matter the type. The research tells us that the people you work with have a high probability of experiencing IPV, especially arguments-that-get-physical. The good news is that education can support couples with skills to better manage emotional regulation and conflict management. However, it is also important to be aware of further resources in your community that can help people experiencing various patterns of unsafety in their relationships. That’s one of the most important things a well-run program can provide: information and connection to other resources that may be needed by those who walk through your door.

If you want to read more about some of the issues in understanding and intervening around IPV, Making Distinctions Among Different Types of Intimate Partner Violence: A Preliminary Guide is a terrific resource. It was prepared a group of authors that includes researchers, advocates, and policy experts.

Guide to Types of IPV image

For PREP Inc.’s quick guide for educators on our approach to IPV, see: Domestic violence statement from PREP 2018.

Lastly, if you or someone you know is in dangerous relationship or has fear of being harmed, the National Domestic Violence Hotline number is:  800-799-7233.

Domestic Violence Hotline



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