I provided therapy services for 35 years and specialized in working with intimate partner abuse victims. They often asked something like, “Why does my partner hurt me?” That is, when they were not blaming themselves. Many professionals focus on what can be done to stop abuse. I believe answering victims’ questions enables more progress on intervention and prevention.
These statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Preventioni demonstrate the intimate partner abuse public health crisis.
- 41% of women and 26% of men experienced contact sexual violence, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner and reported an intimate partner violence-related impact during their lifetime.
- Over 61 million women and 53 million men have experienced psychological aggression by an intimate partner in their lifetime.
Research agrees with what I know from my work: the emotional, mental, and spiritual forms of violence have as much impact, and sometimes more, as physical abuseii
This article explores why intimate partner abuse happens and what we can do to eliminate it.
Evolution of Views on Domestic Abuse
I began my career as a therapist early in the domestic abuse grass roots movement. Police rarely intervened in domestic situationsiii because it was viewed as a private matter. In recent decades, it became viewed as a civil rights crime, one at first mainly attributed to patriarchy. Gradually, we realized that same sex and transgender violence occurs, and that female abuse of males exists. Patriarchy no longer seemed the only answer.
During my work with victims, I saw that intimate partner abuse occurs across all gender identities, sexual preferences, socioeconomic classes, and races. Abuse is abuse. It’s not okay, whoever perpetrates it.
During victims’ healing work, they come to accept what is and stop looking for a rational answer from their partners. Accepting “it is what it is” helps them focus on what they need considering the reality of their behavior.
Yet, I began to ask a deeper question, one that goes beyond seeing IPV as purely an individual problem. How come abuse is so prevalent? Is there something culturally that contributes to intimate partner abuse?
My question brought me to Riane Eisler’s books. Her historical research and analysis hold answers to all forms of violence and oppression.
Her answers provide a better explanation than any abusive partner could give victims. I found her information released victims from the private shame of being abused. It also insulates them from accepting their partners’ blame and focuses on what they can change.
Imbalance of Power
It is evident from their behavior that those who use abuse feel entitled to power over their partners. They use physical and/or emotional abuse to create an imbalance of power. This impacts victims’ abilities to protect themselves.iv Abuse is especially traumatic coming from a partner. Yet, often society views trauma symptoms as victim flaws rather than a result of abuse, reinforcing the power inequality.
An imbalance of power has existed between males and females for centuries. However, as Riane Eisler says, “The underlying problem is not men as a sex.”v As I explored Eisler’s work, my experience with victims resonated with what she sees as the root of violence and oppression in our society. Her booksvi unveil that beliefs in the right to domination lie at the heart of all society’s forms of violence and injustice.
The problem lies in a social system that rigidly defines masculine and feminine, and values males over females. Masculinity is associated with domination and violence, while femininity is linked with submission and weakness. This affects all gender identities because assumptions and beliefs about power flowing from this social organization become normalized.
Eisler’s research identifies four basic Domination assumptions. They underlie our concepts of power in relationships and in societal institutions. Consider examples as you read.
- Power is finite.
This assumption holds that there is only so much power or success available, so one must protect theirs. The zero-sum belief that when others succeed or receive benefits, it reduces our ability to succeed undermines empathy. It causes us to feel threatened by others’ strength, success, or differing opinions. Feeling “less than” undermines self-esteem and relationships. Toxic forms are devaluing, criticizing, denying perceptions, taking away rights, and physical harm.
- Differences are threatening.
Instead of conflict being viewed as normal and an opportunity to learn about others, expressing different opinions, thoughts, or feelings becomes a threat. Distrust of anything different grows and along with the previous assumption, interferes with any efforts to discuss and negotiate. This makes it impossible to find win/win solutions.
- Power comes from power over others.
This is where entitlement comes in. The only way to feel powerful is to dominate. This ignores other ways of having power, such as the “power within” we each have. Sharing power has no value and this prevents mutuality. Acting on this belief propels domination. When we believe this, we feel controlled or abused if our views do not “win.”
- Some people/groups have greater worth.
The past three assumptions end inevitably with viewing some people’s rights and opinions as legitimate, while others are not. There is no room for constructive disagreement or empathy for those who differ. Disagreement becomes viewed as disloyal, evil, or bad. The supposition of entitlement becomes embedded and interferes with respect and empathy for others’ rights. This results in an abuse of power and oppression of those seen as less worthy.
All of us have been influenced by beliefs and prejudices that permit domination and abuse. Socialization begins young and is inhaled like the air we breathe. Our perceptions are affected, even when we do not endorse inequality. This doesn’t mean we will use abuse, but we may be seduced into seeing domination assumptions as normal. For instance, we often view males as assertive but females as bossy when their behavior is similar.
In my book, Coercive Relationships: Find the Answers You Seek, I write about how abusive partners’ beliefs mirror Eisler’s domination beliefs. When we understand how cultural assumptions feed into abuse, we stop stigmatizing victims.
Eisler’s work identifies another set of assumptions throughout history that encourages respect and equity. She calls these partnership assumptions, and they juxtapose with the domination ones. Consider examples of these in our institutions and relationships.
- Power is infinite.
This assumption says genuine power comes from within. It is not about force or brawn. We possess power when we are aware of our emotions, believe in ourselves, and express what we think confidently and respectfully. This belief recognizes everyone’s contributions, seeing them as something to build on.
- Diversity empowers.
This begins with recognizing difference and diversity as a given. Even within a family, we often have divergent experiences that lead to differences in perceptions. Diversity empowers us when we are curious about why others think and feel the way they do. This frees us to explore common ground. These behaviors produce empathy and community, which then encourages creative problem solving.
- Power Flows both ways.
Partnership assumptions see power as shared. People work together with give and take. It is not always 50/50, but decisions are fair when they can’t be mutual. This is true for personal relationships as well as institutions where there are hierarchies of responsibility. Organizing with partnership assumptions makes organizations more efficient and equitable. “Power to” and “power with” strategies lead to working together.
- All have inherent worth.
Partnership recognizes that everyone has inherent dignity and worth regardless of status, class, race, gender identity, or other attributes. Humans survived because of our ability to form communities and help one another. Respect for everyone provides space for the other three partnership assumptions to take root.
Partnership assumptions have existed throughout history, even when the main influence is domination. Religious and spiritual organizations and democratic societies incorporate these beliefs.
Call to Action
Personal and institutional beliefs are often contradictory. George Orwell coined the term “doublethink”vii to describe holding opposing beliefs without being aware of contradictions. One example is “boys will be boys” when they fight, as if fighting is inherently normal and natural for one gender. Another example is religious leaders who teach respect, humility, and love and yet sexually abuse youth.
Eisler says “. . . intimate relations are where we first learn to accept domination and control as normal, inevitable, and right or where we learn partnership ways of life.” Acknowledging any conflicts in our beliefs frees us to adopt partnership values and relationships that promote non- authoritarian institutions.
What we can do to shift our culture:
- Examine ourselves for contradictory values and beliefs
- Work on self-confidence
- Release the need to be right
- Accept differences as normal
- Exercise curiosity about others’ points of view
- Search for common interests and solutions
- Communicate respectfully
The prevention of intimate partner abuse rests on us. Our efforts can uproot the acceptance of domination beliefs and behaviors. This will alleviate not only intimate partner abuse, but other forms of violence as well.
ii “Physical health Consequence of Physical and Psychological Intimate Partner Violence,” A.L. Coker, P.H. Smith, L. Bethea, M.R. King, R.E. McKeown. (Archives of Family medicine, Vol. 9, pp. 451-57 (May 2000)
iii One summary of how police responses have changed is https://www.findlaw.com/family/domestic- violence/domestic-violence-history-of-police-responses.html. Quote at the end of the article: “domestic violence is now rightly seen as a serious crime against society in which victims should be provided the maximum protection from the law.”
iv Coercive Relationships contains an in-depth list of coercive behaviors and a chapter on the injuries it causes. My book and blog can be found at https://madisonmentalhealthcounselor.com/
v The Chalice and the Blade, Riane Eisler (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1987, 1995)
vi Riane Eisler books: The Chalice and the Blade, The Power of Partnership, The Partnership Way, Tomorrow’s Children, The Real Wealth of Nations, Nurturing Our Humanity
vii 1984, George Orwell (New York: American Library, 1961, 1977)
Jennifer Parker, MSSW
Jennifer Parker, MSSW has 37 years’ experience with intimate partner violence (IPV) therapy and training. Jennifer writes a blog and presents workshops on intimate partner abuse interventions. She published Coercive Relationships: Find the Answers You Seek in March 2021. Anyone interested in her blog can sign up for email notifications here. Her book is available on Amazon or through other platforms.