Violent Resistance and Domestic Abuse
Many victims of violence fight back and abused women are no exception. In this post, we discuss the use of violent resistance by victims of domestic violence, how to distinguish between violent resistance and violence from a primary abuser and how this can raise the risk to the victim and her children.
The narrative most often associated with victim/survivors of domestic abuse is one of passivity. However, many women show great strength and resilience in the face of abuse and those who show resistance either by fighting back, managing the abuser's behaviour, or by seeking help can encounter difficulties as they do not give the appearance of a 'typical victim'. Violence is not the only strategy that women use against an abusive partner which can include methods to resist coercive control, suicide, seeking help and separation. These methods may also put the victim/survivors further at risk with separation, perhaps the most crucial form of resistance, having the potential to cause an escalation of abuse and increase the risk of homicide.
This post will focus on male violence against female victims as that is where the majority of research lies, however, it is widely acknowledged that anyone can be a victim of domestic violence and abuse, regardless of their gender and/or sexual orientation.
The use of violent resistance
Victims may use violence or force in an effort to: stop the abuse that is being used against them, protect themselves and their children, or establish some form of equivalence within the relationship. Whatever their motives, as well as being at an increased risk of future abuse, those women that act aggressively to an abusive partner are more likely to suffer injury themselves. An abusive male partner is far more likely to retaliate and inflict injury on a woman if she is the first in an incident to use or threaten violence or if she responds with violence herself.
The risk of serious harm is also increased if the partner has superior upper body strength (the role of physical strength in violent conflict has been demonstrated in research on bullying) with size and physical strength important factors in explaining gender differences in domestic violence. At least in incidents in which weapons are not involved, the person with superior physical power (especially upper body strength) is much more likely to be the one who employs violence during conflict. Women whose partners are bigger and stronger are therefore more vulnerable to assault and much more likely to suffer injury than women of similar size and strength to their partners.
Resisting the abuser aggressively can also lead to allegations of 'mutual violence' or 'couples violence' from services that victims seek out for help. In relationships where domestic violence exists, violence from the victim is not equal, whether the victim fights back or instigates violence in an effort to diffuse a situation. When working with families where violence is alleged or evident from both parents it is important to assess who the primary abuser is and whether any female violence is in larger part resistance to ongoing abuse.
Recognising the primary abuser
The main objective of domestic abusers is to dominate and control their victims. Research has demonstrated that women's violence within a relationship is different to men’s in terms of frequency, severity, motives, consequences, and the victim’s sense of safety and well-being. Victims are more likely to be physically and psychologically injured and report feeling frightened, helpless, alone, and trapped. Therefore, when a woman engages in physical resistance it is important to consider who has the power and control in the relationship. To maintain power and control within a relationship an abuser will often:
Isolate the victim from their family, friends and any other structures of support
Use emotional abuse such as gas lighting, putting the victim down and diminishing their self esteem
Create fear in their victim using intimidation and threatening physical and/or sexual violence as well as threatening family members, children, personal belongings or pets
Dictate what the victim can wear, say and do.
Another important factor in determining who the primary abuser is when violence is used by both partners is when each partner ends their use of violence. The victim’s use of violence ends when the relationship ends or the abuser stops using abuse. However, the primary abuser will often continue to abuse their victim indefinitely and often more intensely as they feel a loss of control over their victim, either within the relationship, or when it ends. The more control the abuser feels they are losing, the more abusive they may become.
The characteristics of violent resistance
The following are indicators that reports of aggression from a female partner could be considered as being violent resistance rather than a pattern of abuse from a female perpetrator:
The target of the violence is the partner and not anyone else (i.e the children or family members)
Violence is being used to stop and/or escape ongoing abuse and is considered by the victim as a form of self-protection
Violence is being used to reclaim and restore dignity as a response to abuse
The motivation behind the violence is to retaliate and/or resist abuse both in the moment or with the intention of stopping future violence
The target of the violence holds the key to their own protection. By stopping their own violence against their victims, the target would also end their partners’ use of violence towards them.
The use of violence is rarely the first or only tactic used by victims of ongoing abuse, a variety of other methods are often used to stop or reduce the abuse, such as:
Threats to leave the relationship
Seeking help from others such as family, friends, and police
Threats to expose the offender to others and shame him to end the abuse
Threats to hurt their partner in other ways such as emotionally, economically, or damage his property.
Domestic abuse often occurs in cycles that consist of periods of good times, peace, escalation and abuse. Each relationship is different and not every relationship follows the same cycle at the same rate, some abusers may cycle rapidly, others over longer stretches of time. The cycles of good and abusive times can be incredibly damaging to the victim trapping them into a cycle that they cannot easily remove themselves from. Many men who are abusive can also appear loving and kind much of the time, often as a tactic of control, thus causing cognitive distortions and confusion in their partner which they may seek to relieve by actions such as minimising the abuse, blaming themselves or, investing more heavily in the relationship.
Often a victim is more forthcoming about any violent resistance she may have used. Victims tend to self-blame, particularly if the perpetrator has spent many years blaming her for the violence and abuse that he has used, and so she may disclose her own violence quite readily. It is important to look at the circumstances behind any violence used by them, this can include not just physical violence from the other partner but also as a way to resist coercive control or other forms of abuse as mentioned above. Clinical impressions are not always helpful especially as some of the most controlling and dangerous men are able to present themselves very well and many abused women present with issues such as poor mental health or drug and alcohol abuse as a direct result of the abuse.
Risk management and child protection
DV-ACT believe that the safety of the children must always remain the primary concern and they should be protected from any violence or abuse within the home. When parents blame each other or disagree about who poses the main risk professionals involved in the family need to resolve this at an early stage, in particular, it must be clear which parent is the primary protector of the children when risks occur. It may be necessary to have an expert domestic abuse risk assessment completed that will set out the risks clearly, determine who the primary perpetrator is and make recommendations as to how to best manage the risks. Assessments from DV-ACT experts can be provided at any stage of the case and will take into account all types of abuse used.
For those families living in a home where abuse and coercive controlling behaviours are being used, it is important that a safety plan is in place that will specifically address all the abusive behaviours being used. For our full guidance on safety planning with families please visit our post How to Complete Safety Planning with a Family and for coercive control risk management and safety planning please visit Coercive Control: Management and safety planning for social workers. We also have key insight from our experts to help support the work of professionals working with families here
References and resources
Connor-Smith, J. K., Henning, K., Moore, S., & Holdford, R. (2011). Risk assessments by female victims of intimate partner violence: Predictors of risk perceptions and comparison to an actuarial measure.
Enander, V. (2011). Violent women? The challenge of women's violence in intimate heterosexual relationships to feminist analyses of partner violence.
Hayes, B. E. (2013). Women’s resistance strategies in abusive relationships: An alternative framework.
Johnson, M. P. (2006). Conflict and control: Gender symmetry and asymmetry in domestic violence. Violence against women.
NCADV - Who is Doing What to Whom? Determining the Core Aggressor in Relationships Where Domestic Violence Exists.
Stark, E. (2009). Coercive control: The entrapment of women in personal life. Oxford University Press.
Helplines are available in the UK as follows:
National Domestic Violence Helpline – 0808 2000 247
The Men’s Advice Line, for male domestic abuse survivors – 0808 801 0327
Respect phoneline for perpetrators of domestic abuse - 0808 8024040
Childline - 0800 1111 you can also go to https://www.childline.org.uk/get-support/
NSPCC (Monday to Friday 8am – 10pm or 9am – 6pm at the weekends) - 0808 800 5000 or Contact counsellors 24 hours a day by email or online reporting form firstname.lastname@example.org
Online community support - With Abuse Talk you can join the discussion on domestic abuse through a weekly Twitter Chat every Wednesday 8-9pm GMT www.twitter.com/abusetalkonline there is also a forum https://jennifergilmour.com/community/ which is available 24/7 and even houses a solicitor who will answer questions and queries for no charge, and a podcast which delivers a series of interviews with those that work in the domestic abuse sector. Available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and more.
DV-ACT are a team of domestic abuse experts, available throughout the UK, who provide assessments, programmes, consultancy and training to local authorities and the family courts. Our experts have decades of experience working directly with domestic abuse perpetrators and victims, as specialist assessors and as expert witnesses in the family courts.
DV-ACT was formed with the aim of using our expertise to help safeguard children from abuse, this is at the heart of everything that we do. To read more about us please visit our post - Who are DV-ACT?