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Understanding the Complexities of Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) Research (Part II)

Love Shouldn't HurtLast month, we covered general definitions and rates of occurrence for the type of Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) that we call arguments that get physical.

This time around, we want to narrow in on the particulars of physical aggression in the relationships of a slice of the population that many facilitators serve: young couples. Regardless of marital status, the late adolescent and early 20-something years are filled with romantic relationship experiences that have a significant impact on their lives. Unfortunately, part of what we know about that experience is that aggression in romantic relationships is prevalent among younger people. In fact, in one survey of individuals (ages 18-24) in a romantic relationship, 55% reported experience with physical aggression with their partner (Morse, 1995), paralleling the high rates reported by Rhoades and colleagues (2010) with a much more recent sample. Morse found that the rate decreased from 55% to 32% over the next 10 years. Kim et al. (2008) studied a sample of males who were at risk (on various dimensions) from their late teens up to age 31, finding a very large reduction in aggression in romantic relationships over this time period. O’Leary (1999) echoes similar findings, estimating that aggression in romantic relationships increases in prevalence up to age 25 and declines steadily from age 25 to age 35. While the likelihood of IPV in romantic relationships goes down age in general, it goes down the most for those who break up and are in new relationships (Shortt et al., 2012), thus suggesting that IPV is reduced by age for two reasons: one is that people are less likely to be aggressive as they mature and the other is that many unhealthy relationships that include aggression end.

Mutuality of IPV

What much of the research reflects is that aggression between intimate partners early in adulthood appears to be mutual (Capaldi, Shortt, & Crosby, 2003; Cascardi, Langhinrichsen, & Vivian, 1992; cf. Johnson & Ferraro, 2000). Capaldi et al. (2007) conducted a study to further test this phenomenon. They studied sex differences in the initiation of physical aggression using a sample of at-risk males (and their partners). The findings indicate that the young women were more likely than the men to initiate physical aggression during late adolescence (ages 17-20) but that males and females were similarly likely to initiate aggression by the mid-twenties.

As we have noted, there is a lot of hitting in the relationships of young adults, and a lot of that is initiated by women as well as men. In fact, Straus (2009) reviews decades of research showing that men and women are equally likely to initiate IPV, and largely for the same reasons (e.g., coercion, anger, or punishment—particularly for infidelity). At the same time, experts note that women tend to suffer greater, and longer-lasting, negative consequences of IPV (e.g., Straus, 2009), likely because of the difference in size and strength of the average man and woman. This fact explains why there has been so much more development of policies and services for women as victims of domestic violence than for men. Nevertheless, as Straus notes, many who sustain injuries resulting from IPV are men (1/3rd). One can recognize that both men and women are at risk for harm when it comes to aggression in romantic relationships without diminishing the greater, average, risk to women.

Moving Forward

Recognizing the prevalence of aggression in intimate relationships can help facilitators and program managers understand what relationship experiences participants bring to relationship education training. And while we might wish it otherwise, the teens and the early 20s are years where aggression is particularly likely. These data emphasize why relationship education to younger individuals is so critical to the health and well-being of those engaged in romantic relationships. Indeed, scholars such as Alan Hawkins (2017) have suggested much more attention be paid to relationship education opportunities with teens and young adults.

The sort of mutual aggression Michael Johnson referred to as “commonly occurring couple conflict” is, indeed, common. While there are various motives for aggression as noted earlier, many teens and young adults resort to physical aggression in the absence of knowing better strategies to handle conflict. The type of intervention, according to Capaldi et al. (2007), that makes the most sense for many young adults will include a focus on relationship processes and healthier conflict management skills. More generally, we believe that it is crucial for relationship education efforts to help those in their teens and twenties gain a better understanding of what comprises safe and healthy relationships. That can help people learn to either build such relationships or recognize when some relationships would be better off ending. Such efforts can include relationship education approaches focused on either individuals or couples.

The stakes are high, and studies like those covered here remind us of how great the need for efforts to help young adults to have healthy relationships.

For a closer look at the outcome research that helps us understand how PREP’s curricula supports healthy relationships that utilize effective conflict resolution skills, stay tuned for next month’s PREP Insight post.


Capaldi, D.M., & Gorman-Smith, D. (2003) The development of aggression in young male/female couples. In P. Florsheim (Ed.), Adolescent romantic relations and sexual behavior: Theory, research, and practical implications (pp. 243-278), Mahwath, NJ: Erlbaum.

Capaldi, D. M., Kim, H. K., & Shortt, J. W. (2007). Observed initiation and reciprocity of physical aggression in young, at-risk couples. Journal of Family Violence, 22, 101 – 111.

Hawkins, A. J. (2017). Shifting the relationship education field to prioritize youth relationship education. Journal of Couple & Relationship Therapy. Advanced online version.

Johnson, M. P. & Ferraro, K. J.  (2000). Research on domestic violence in the 1990s: Making distinctions.  Journal of Marriage and the Family, 62, 948-963.

Kim, H. K., Laurent, H. K., Capaldi, D. M., & Feingold, A. (2008).  Men’s aggression toward women: A 10-year panel study.  Journal of Marriage and Family, 70, 1169-1187.

Morse, B. J. (1995). Beyond the Conflict Tactics Scales: Assessing gender differences in partner violence. Violence and Victims, 10, 251–272.

O’Leary, K. D. (1999). Developmental and affective issues in assessing and treating partner aggression. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 6, 400–414.

Rhoades, G. K., Stanley, S. M., Kelmer, G., & Markman, H. J. (2010). Physical aggression in unmarried relationships: The roles of commitment and constraints. Journal of Family Psychology, 24, 678-687.

Shortt, J.W., Capaldi, D.M., Kim, H.K., Kerr, D.C.R., Owen, L.D., & Feingold, A. (2012). Stability of intimate partner violence by men across 12 years in young adulthood: Effects of relationship transitions. Prevention Science, 13, 360 – 369.

Straus, M. A. (2009). Why the overwhelming evidence on partner physical violence by women has not been perceived and is often denied. Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment, & Trauma, 18, 555 – 571.

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