This review reflects the complexity of women’s motivations for using IPV and reveals several important trends. Specifically, women’s motivations tended to be more closely related to expression of feelings and response to a partner’s abuse than to the desire for coercive control. This review also highlights methodological limitations of the current research, thereby emphasizing the need for further research.
Women’s motivations for IPV can be examined from the vantage-point of a nested ecological model (Archer, 2000
; Dasgupta, 2002
; Heise, 1998
). This model proposes four interactive levels, each of which potentially affects women’s IPV motivations: 1) macro-system including pervasive beliefs like prescribed gender roles; 2) exo-system including societal structures like the neighborhood and workplace; 3) micro-system including relationship characteristics; and 4) individual including personal characteristics (Dasgupta, 2002
In western societies, IPV occurs in a macro-and exo-system in which men generally have more physical and social power than women, and women are socialized to assume a more passive role than men (Dasgupta, 2002
; Heise, 1998
; Worcester, 2002
). Women therefore are unlikely to be successful in controlling their partners, even with the use of physical IPV. It follows that the desire for coercive control was not endorsed in any study as the most frequent reason for IPV. However, control cannot be ignored as a motivation given that women listed it in two-thirds of included studies. This is concordant with Hamby’s (2009)
report that men and women both use IPV for coercive control. Kernsmith (2005)
hypothesized, however, that men and women may define and use control differently; women use control to gain autonomy in relationships, whereas men use control to demonstrate authority.
Women in the included studies discussed micro-system factors influencing their use of IPV. Specifically, women reported feeling angry after futile attempts to get their partner’s attention. In a review paper about women and anger, Thomas (2005)
similarly found that women felt powerless when significant others ignored them, and that this powerlessness commonly provoked anger. Adhering to female gender expectations, some women may stifle this anger (Flemke & Allen, 2008
; Thomas, 2005
). Suppressed anger generally does not dissipate, and may eventually lead to overt aggression (Thomas, 2005
In addition to anger, self-defense and retaliation were common motivations described by women in the included studies. However, this review demonstrates the difficulty in defining and measuring self-defense and retaliation. Many women discussed using physical aggression after their partner’s IPV to minimize personal injury (Downs, Rindels, & Atkinson, 2007
; Flemke & Allen, 2008
; Miller & Meloy, 2006
; Seamans, Rubin, & Stabb, 2007
; Ward & Muldoon, 2007
). All would agree this is self-defense (Wimberly, 2007
). Women also described using IPV because they did not want to internalize images of themselves as victims (Seamans, Rubin, & Stabb, 2007
). Although these women were arguably using IPV to protect their emotional health, this does not meet the legal definition of self-defense (Wimberly, 2007
). Whether this should
fall into a more conceptual definition of self-defense or whether it is more consistent with retaliation is controversial. It is similarly conceptually unclear how to categorize women’s IPV in response to their partner’s verbal abuse which may include threats of physical harm.
Some women described initiating
IPV as a pre-emptive strike because of concern that their partner would become violent. Saunders (1986)
offered a criminal justice definition of self-defense which emphasized situations when a victim has been assaulted and
when a victim believes she is in imminent danger. This definition includes the initiation of IPV, thereby allowing for the reasonable fear of imminent danger to take into account prior incidents. Despite these definitions, it is unclear how consistently researchers or participants viewed pre-emptive IPV as self-defense.
Women’s IPV may be related to individual factors which encompass childhood experiences and personality traits. Studies have documented the association between women’s IPV and personal histories of child abuse, violence exposure, and substance abuse (Field & Caetano, 2005
; McKinney, Caetano, Ramisetty-Mikler, & Nelson, 2009
; Swan & Snow, 2006
). These studies were not included because they did not measure how these attributes directly affected women’s IPV motivations. Most included studies did measure socio-demographic characteristics, but women generally did not discuss them as primary IPV motivations.
Several methodological limitations of the included studies must be considered. The majority gathered data through interviews or written questionnaires. Both methods have potential biases. In interviews, women and men may remember and verbalize motivations differently, and both may be tempted to provide pro-social responses. Only two of the included studies measured social desirability bias (Henning, Jones, & Holdford, 2005
; Saunders, 1986
). Saunders (1986)
found that IPV data and social desirability were not correlated, while Henning, Jones, & Holdford (2005)
found that participants were more likely than normative samples to provide socially desirable responses. In a meta-analysis of IPV self-reporting and social desirability bias, Sugarman & Hotaling (1997)
found that the correlation was stronger for perpetration than for victimization, but that there were no between-sex differences. Biases also may occur in qualitative data coding. Coders may identify different themes based on their own gender or theoretical vantage-point (Hamberger, Lohr, Bonge, & Tolin, 1997
Questionnaires similarly have limitations. None of the questionnaires in the included studies had complete psychometric testing. Additionally, authors were only able to comment on the motivations about which they asked. Hence, some motivations may have been missed.
All of the included studies were located in industrialized, English-speaking countries. The role of women in developing or culturally dissimilar developed nations may be different, thereby affecting the motivations for IPV (Archer, 2000
). Additionally, over two-thirds of the studies recruited women from IPV shelters, jails or batterers’ treatment programs. This group represents only a small proportion of women involved in violent relationships, and these relationships generally have severe and frequent IPV. Underlying motivations for these women likely differ from motivations for community-based women.
As the field of IPV research has grown, it has become increasingly clear that women use IPV. Documentation of this aggression has sparked intense controversy. In order to address these controversies and inform practice, research must move beyond counting acts of IPV and consider the broader context of why intimate partners resort to aggression.
Our review suggests important considerations for research, and for policy and intervention design. First, research should enroll women from diverse sites, and should consider assessing how motivations vary based upon the setting from which women were recruited, or the type or severity of women’s violent relationships. Second, all studies of IPV motivations should include a measure of social desirability bias. Third, coders in qualitative research should be blinded with regard to study participant sex. Finally, the difficulty defining self-defense and retaliation suggest that further research in this area is required. Specifically, focus groups of abused women from a diversity of backgrounds are needed to better understand how women define these constructs. Content from these focus groups, as well as input from IPV experts, could then be used to develop and test instrument items, including an exploration of their factor structure. Results from these studies could then contribute to the development of a broader, psychometrically sound measure of women’s motivations for using physical IPV.
Legal policies must recognize that women commonly use IPV in response to their partners’ violence. Such an acknowledgement is supported by Miller (2005)
who contended that mandatory arrest policies fail to recognize that many women who use IPV are also victims, thus inappropriately subjecting a proportion of women to court-mandated batterer’s programs. Increased training for police may help them to accurately determine whether women’s use of IPV is primarily related to self-defense (Kernsmith, 2005
Many existing IPV batterers’ treatment programs are based upon models of male-perpetration. These programs need to be adapted to meet the unique needs of women who use IPV. IPV treatment programs should explore ways to effectively address the inter-related triad of feeling ignored, powerless, and angry. Helping clients to verbalize and increase awareness of such emotional experiences, describe how these experiences may relate to other emotions, and link these emotions with behavior may be useful. Additionally, developing programs that empower women and bolster self-image, as well as programs that teach anger management strategies, may be useful in prevention of women’s use of IPV and in treatment programs for women who use IPV.
Key Points of the Research Review
- Existing studies on women’s motivations for using intimate partner violence (IPV) have the following methodological limitations: 1) most recruit subjects from IPV shelters, jails or batterers’ treatment programs which represent only a small proportion of women involved in violent relationships; and 2) data come predominantly from small qualitative studies or from author-created questionnaires without comprehensive psychometric validation; social desirability bias was rarely measured.
- Evidence suggests that women commonly use IPV in response to their partner’s violence either in self-defense or in retaliation. However, the definition of self-defense was inconsistent between studies.
- Anger expression was a recurrent theme, and women frequently stated that they used IPV because they felt ignored.
- Coercive control was mentioned by women as a reason for IPV, but was not endorsed in any of the included studies as women’s most frequent motivation.
Implications for Practice, Policy, and Research
Studies increasingly document that women use intimate partner violence (IPV). Most of these studies, however, count the number of acts of IPV over a specified time period and do not further investigate the context of the IPV. Consideration of women’s motivations for using IPV is essential to develop effective policies and interventions. Therefore:
- Clinicians are encouraged to consider that women often use IPV for the purposes of self-defense and for retaliation, and because they feel angry, powerless and ignored. Empowering women and bolstering self-image, as well as teaching anger management strategies, may be useful in the treatment of women who use IPV.
- When considering mandated arrest policies, policy makers should recognize that women commonly use IPV in response to their partner’s violence.
- There is a relative dearth of research in this area. Therefore, there is a strong need for researchers to conduct rigorous, methodologically sound studies investigating why women use IPV. These studies should seek to enroll a representative community-based sample of women. Focus groups and subsequent development of a questionnaire measuring self-defense and retaliation are also needed; data from these studies could contribute to the development of a broader, psychometrically sound measure of motivations.