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Journal Issue: Domestic Violence and Children Volume 9 Number 3 Winter 1999

Emerging Strategies in the Prevention of Domestic Violence
David A. Wolfe Peter G. Jaffe

Underlying Causes of Domestic Violence

Public health campaigns to eliminate health risks and to encourage healthy behaviors among particular segments of a population can serve as one type of model for domestic violence prevention strategies. Approaches within this model identify and address the underlying causes of this health problem and often also use positive messages about what constitutes healthier behavior to promote change to those healthier behaviors.3 Similarly, domestic violence prevention strategies must include some understanding of the underlying causes of domestic violence as well as a vision of what constitutes a healthy, nonviolent family.4

It is very difficult to identify the underlying causes of domestic violence; experts in the field do not agree as to what these causes are. As a result, there are several different, and at times overlapping, theories of causation.5 Despite these differences, all these theories share some commonalities, which can serve as a foundation for domestic violence prevention strategies.

Biological Theory

According to this theory, violent behavior is biological and organic and can be explained by genetics, biochemistry, and changes in brain development due to trauma. For example, it is believed that some abusive men have histories of head injuries, which have affected their ability to solve problems and control impulsivity.6 Researchers in this camp have linked the trauma of early exposure to chronic violence to changes in a child's brain functioning that lead to violent behavior as an adult.7

Individual Psychopathology Theory

From this perspective, domestic violence is rooted in individual psychopathology or dysfunctional personality structures, which are more likely than biological factors to be learned and shaped by early childhood experiences. Research in this area includes studies of male batterers, showing that witnessing domestic violence or being the victim of abuse undermines one's ability to trust and to regulate emotions and results in hostile, dependent, insecure individuals with little ability to develop healthy relationships.8 Similar research shows that male batterers are more likely than nonbatterers to score poorly on mental health tests (for example, anxiety, depression, mania, psychosis) and criminality indicators (for example, antisocial personality and stranger violence).9

Couple and Family Interactions Theory

This theory suggests that domestic violence is rooted in the faulty interactions of a couple and family system, and that an individual's violent behavior cannot be addressed without understanding the context, characteristics, and dynamics of the familial relationships.10

Social Learning and Development Theory

This perspective suggests that domestic violence is learned behavior that is modeled, rewarded, and supported by families and/or the broader culture. Analyses based on this theory focus on the ways children learn that aggression is appropriate to resolve conflicts, especially within the context of intimate relationships.11 Researchers have found that batterers are much more likely to have had violent fathers than are nonbatterers.12 Developmental research shows that early intervention with children from violent households may restore normal developmental processes, such as empathy and self-control, and minimize the risk of further harm caused by exposure to abusive adult models.13

Societal Structure Theory

According to this view, domestic violence is caused by an underlying power imbalance that can be understood only by examining society as a whole. The analysis focuses on patriarchy or male domination over women and children through physical, economic, and political control. Domestic violence reflects women's inequality in the culture and the reinforcement of this reality by various institutions.14

Commonalities Across Causation Theories

Despite the diversity of views regarding the underlying causes of domestic violence, there are some beliefs common to all these theories. They include: (1) that domestic violence has been ignored as a major social problem until recently and remains poorly understood;15 (2) that domestic violence is a complex problem impacted by multiple variables;16 (3) that childhood trauma, either through exposure to violence or some other trauma, influences the likelihood of domestic violence;17 and (4) that as long as domestic violence is condoned as accepted behavior by public attitudes and institutions, there is little chance of preventing it.