Gendered Communication and Intimate Partner Violence

Michael Johnson. The Handbook of Gender and Communication. Editor: Bonnie J Dow & Julia T Wood. Sage Publications. 2006.

The point of this chapter is that one cannot understand the role of communication in intimate partner violence without making distinctions among the major types of violence. Unlike most other kinds of violence (such as a mugging), which are essentially situational and do not involve a continuing relationship between the parties involved, personal relationship violence arises out of and shapes the dynamics of an ongoing relationship, in some cases but not always being a central feature of it. Thus, the most important distinctions among types of intimate partner violence go beyond the single incident to focus on the role of the violence within the context of the whole relationship between the partners.

My discussion of the implications of such distinctions for the analysis of violence and communication in intimate relationships begins with a discussion of the typology I have developed that is rooted in relationship patterns of coercive control. This first section defines and describes the three major types, addresses some of the methodological issues involved in assessing them, and discusses their relationships to gender and gender issues. The second major section briefly reviews the literature on communication and intimate partner violence, taking into account the implications of the control typology for assessing that literature. The final part of this second section focuses more closely on gender and communication in violent relationships. The third major section deals with communication about violent relationships, addressing both private and public speech. The conclusion briefly addresses some of the more general implications of this typological approach to gender and communication in and about violent relationships.

Types of Intimate Partner Violence

The typology I have developed (Johnson, in press) is organized around issues of relationship power and control. Intimate terrorism, the first of the three types of intimate partner violence, involves a violent attempt to take complete control of, or at least to generally dominate, a relationship. The second, violent resistance, involves the use of violence to resist such an attempt; the third, situational couple violence, is a product of particular conflicts or tensions within the relationship.

Intimate terrorism, violent resistance, and situational couple violence have different origins, dynamics, and consequences. They require different theoretical frameworks to explain them and different strategies for prevention or intervention. I will briefly summarize some of the evidence about differences among them below, but first I want to make the general point that failures to acknowledge these differences have produced a number of major errors in the empirical literature on intimate partner violence. By extension, until a broad program of research investigates differences among the causes and consequences of the various types of intimate partner violence, scholars and clinicians won’t know how widespread the errors are. Two examples will illustrate the basic processes by which such errors are produced.

First, when researchers inadvertently aggregate different types of violence under one label, they produce data that are an “average” of the characteristics or correlates of the types that are aggregated. For example, a recent meta-analysis of the literature on the relationship between growing up in a violent home and subsequently becoming part of a violent marital relationship indicates quite small effects (Stith et al., 2000). This calls into question what is often claimed to be one of the best-established phenomenon in the literature on intimate-partner violence, often referred to as the “intergenerational transmission of violence.” However, those who have conducted research supporting the intergenerational transmission claim do not distinguish among types of violence, instead examining the effects of childhood experiences of any sort of violence in the home on any adult perpetration of intimate partner violence. This would not be a problem if the effects of childhood experiences on different types of adult violence were the same, but a recent study differentiating among the types finds that intimate terrorism is strongly related to childhood experiences of violence but that situational couple violence is not (Johnson & Cares, 2004). The “average” relationship, dominated by situational couple violence, does not represent the relationship that is of most interest, the effect of childhood experiences of family violence on the likelihood of becoming a wife beater—an intimate terrorist.

Second, sometimes research on one type of intimate partner violence is used to draw conclusions about quite a different type. For example, in the late 1970s Suzanne Steinmetz used data from general survey samples that were dominated by situational couple violence (Johnson, 1995, 2001) as evidence about the nature of intimate terrorism (Steinmetz, 1977-78), which led her to the incorrect conclusion that that there were as many battered husbands as battered wives. This is the error that produced the decades-long and continuing debate over the gender symmetry of domestic violence.

The typology of intimate partner violence presented below has its roots in this debate about gender symmetry. For decades, feminist theorists have argued that domestic violence is largely male perpetrated and rooted in the patriarchal traditions of the Western family (Dobash & Dobash, 1979). In contrast, family violence theorists have argued that domestic violence is rooted in the everyday tensions and conflicts of family life and that women are as violent as men in intimate relationships (Straus, 1999). As it turns out, they were studying different phenomena, one largely male perpetrated, the other roughly gender symmetric. On one hand, feminist theorists, using agency samples, were studying the types of intimate partner violence that are rooted in large part in the dynamics of patriarchal control (intimate terrorism and violent resistance). On the other hand, family violence theorists, using general survey data, were studying situational couple violence, which is rooted in the dynamics of family conflict.

Intimate Terrorism

In intimate terrorism, the perpetrator uses violence in the service of gaining and holding general control over his or her partner. The “control” that is the defining feature of intimate terrorism is more than the specific, short-term control that is often the goal of violence in other contexts. The mugger wants to control you only briefly in order to take your valuables and move on, hopefully never to see you again. In contrast, the control sought in intimate terrorism is general and long-term. Although each particular act of intimate violence may have any number of short-term, specific goals, the violence is embedded in a larger pattern of coercive control that permeates the relationship. This is the kind of violence that comes to mind when most people hear the term domestic violence, and in heterosexual relationships it is largely male perpetrated.

Gendered Communication and Intimate Partner Violence

Figure 5.1 is a widely used graphic representation of intimate partner violence deployed in the service of general control. This diagram and the understanding of domestic violence that lies behind it were developed over a period of years from the testimony of battered women that convinced the staff of the Duluth Domestic Abuse Intervention Project that the most important characteristic of the violence they encountered was that it was embedded in a general pattern of coercive control (Pence & Paymar, 1993).

Patterns of coercive control cannot, of course, be identified by looking at violent incidents in isolation. They can only be identified from more general information about the relationship—information about the use of multiple tactics to control one’s partner. A brief tour of the wheel might clarify the pattern of intimate terrorism that Catherine Kirkwood calls a “web” of abuse (Kirkwood, 1993).

It is not unusual for an intimate terrorist to deprive his partner of control over economic resources. He controls all the money. She is allowed no bank account and no credit cards. If she works for wages, she has to turn over her paychecks to him. He keeps all the cash, and she has to ask him for money when she needs to buy groceries or clothes for herself or their children. He may require a precise accounting of every penny, demanding to see the grocery bill and making sure she returns every bit of the change.

This economic abuse may be justified through the next form of control, male privilege: “I am the man of the house, the head of the household, the king in my castle.” Of course, this use of male privilege can cover everything. As the man of the house, his word is law. He doesn’t have to explain. She doesn’t disagree with him. She is to do his bidding without question. And she doesn’t talk back. All this holds even more rigidly in public, where he is not to be humiliated by back-talk from “his woman” (Dobash & Dobash, 1979).

How does he use the children to support his control? First of all, they too know he is the boss. He makes it clear that he controls not only them but their mother as well. He may use them to back him up, to make her humiliation more complete by forcing them into the room to assist him as he confronts her, asking them if he isn’t right, and making them support his control of her. He may even have convinced them that he should be in charge, that he does know what is best (father knows best), and that she is incompetent or lazy or immoral. In addition, he may use her attachment to the children as a means of control, by threatening to take them away from her or hurt them if she isn’t a “good wife and mother” (Dobash & Dobash, 1979). Of course, being a good wife and mother means doing as he says.

He may also use isolation to keep her away from everyone else and make himself her only source of information, of support, of money, of everything. In a rural setting, he might be able to literally isolate her, moving to a house trailer in the woods, with one car that he controls, no phone, keeping her there alone. In an urban setting, or if he needs her to go out to work, he can isolate her less literally, by driving away her friends and relatives and intimidating the people at work so that she has no one to talk to about what’s happening to her (Pence & Paymar, 1993).

When she is completely isolated, and what he tells her about herself is all she ever hears about herself, he can tell her over and over again that she’s worthless—humiliating her, demeaning her, emotionally abusing her. She’s ugly, stupid, a slut, a lousy wife, an incompetent mother. She only manages to survive because he takes care of her. She’d be helpless without him. And who else is there to tell her otherwise? Maybe he can convince her that she can’t live without him (Chang, 1996; Kirkwood, 1993).

If she resists, he intimidates her to show her what might happen if she doesn’t behave. He may scream at her, swear at her, smash things, let her see his rage. He may kick her cat, hang her dog, threaten to hit her or beat her or pull her hair out or burn her or tell her he’ll kill her and maybe the kids, too.

Putting all these means of control together, or even a few of them, the abuser entraps and enslaves his partner. If she manages to thwart one means of control, there are others at his disposal. Wherever she turns, there is another way he can control her. Sometimes she is ensnared by multiple strands. She can’t seem to escape—she is trapped. But with the addition of violence there is more than entrapment. There is terror.

For this reason, the diagram does not include the violence as just another means of control, another spoke in the wheel. The violence is depicted, rather, as the rim of the wheel, holding all the spokes together. When violence is added to such a pattern of coercive control, the abuse becomes much more than the sum of its parts. The ostensibly nonviolent tactics that accompany that violence take on a new, powerful, and frightening meaning, controlling the victim not only through their own specific constraints but also through their association with the general knowledge that her partner will do anything to maintain control of the relationship, even attack her physically. Most obviously, the threats and intimidation are more than idle threats if he has physically assaulted her before. Hs “request” to see the grocery receipts becomes a “warning”; his calling her a stupid slut may signal the potential for a vicious physical attack. As battered women often report, “All he had to do was look at me that way, and I’d jump.” What is for most of us the safest place in our world— home—is for her a place of constant fear.

Violent Resistance

What is a woman to do when she finds herself terrorized in her own home? At some point, most women in such relationships do fight back physically. For some, this is an instinctive reaction to being attacked, and it happens at the first blow—almost without thought. For others, it doesn’t happen until it seems the assaults will be endless if she doesn’t do something to stop him—so she fights back. However, for most heterosexual women, the usual size difference between them and their partner ensures that violent resistance won’t help and may make things worse, so they abandon violence and turn to other means of coping. For a few, eventually it seems that the only way out is to kill their partner.

The critical defining pattern of violent resistance is that the resistor, faced with an intimate terrorist, uses violence, but not in an attempt to take general control over her partner or the relationship. Violence in the face of intimate terrorism may arise from any of a variety of motives (Swan & Snow, 2002; Walker, 1989). She may (at least at first) believe that she can defend herself, that her violent resistance will keep him from attacking her further. That may mean that she thinks she can stop him right now, in the midst of an attack, or it may mean that she thinks that if she fights back often enough he will eventually decide to stop attacking her physically.

Even if she doesn’t think she can stop him, she may feel that he shouldn’t be allowed to attack her without getting hurt himself. This desire to hurt him in return even if it won’t stop him can be a form of communication—“What you’re doing isn’t right, and I’m going to fight back as hard as I can.” Or it may be a form of retaliation or payback, along the lines of “He’s not going to do that without paying some price for it.” In a few cases, she may be after serious retaliation, attacking him when he is least expecting it and doing her best to do serious damage, even killing him. But there is another, more frequent motive for such premeditated attacks—escape. Sometimes, after years of abuse and entrapment, a victim of intimate terrorism may feel that the only way she can escape from this horror is to kill her tormenter.

Situational Couple Violence

The first two types of intimate partner violence may be what most of us think of when we hear the term domestic violence, but the most common type of intimate partner violence does not involve any attempt on the part of either partner to gain general control over the relationship. The violence is situationally provoked, as the tensions or emotions of a particular encounter lead someone to react with violence. Intimate relationships inevitably involve conflicts, and in some relationships one or more of those conflicts may escalate to violence. The violence may be minor and singular, with one argument at some point in the relationship escalating to the level that someone pushes or slaps the other, is immediately remorseful, apologizes and never does it again. Or it could be a chronic problem, with one or both partners frequently resorting to violence, minor or severe.

The motives for such violence vary. A physical attack might feel like the only way one’s extreme anger or frustration can be expressed. It may even be intended to do serious injury as an expression of anger. It may primarily be an attempt to get the attention of a partner who doesn’t seem to be listening. There can be a control motive involved, albeit not one that is part of a general pattern of coercive control. One partner may simply find that the argument is not going well for him or her, and decide that one way to win this is to get physical.

The separate violent incidents of situational couple violence may look exactly like those involved in intimate terrorism or violent resistance. The difference is in the general power and control dynamic of the relationship, not in the nature of any or all assaults. In situational couple violence, there is no general pattern of exerting coercive control. It is simply that one or more disagreements have resulted in violence. The violence may even be frequent if the situation that provokes the violence is recurring, as when one partner frequently feels that the other is flirting and the confrontations over that issue regularly lead one or the other of them to lash out. And the violence may be quite severe, even homicidal. What makes it situational couple violence is that it is rooted in the events of a particular situation rather than in a relationship-wide attempt to control.

How do We Know about These Types?

The descriptions of the three types of partner violence that you have just read are derived from 30 years of social science research on violence between intimate partners, research that generally did not make the distinctions that I describe. How, then, can we manage to come to conclusions about these different types of partner violence from research that doesn’t distinguish among them? There are two answers to that question. First, some of the more recent research does operationalize the distinctions. Second, there are ways to tease out of the research that didn’t make distinctions information regarding the different types of partner violence. One way is based on the sampling biases of the two major types of domestic violence research. The violence in general survey research is almost entirely men’s and women’s situational couple violence. Thus, any general survey research that compares violent with nonviolent men or women—or victims with nonvictims—can be assumed to tell us mostly about situational couple violence. In contrast, the violence in agency samples is primarily men’s intimate terrorism and women’s violent resistance. Thus, agency-based studies can be used to inform us regarding those two types of violence. Another way to discern types in research that didn’t explicitly note them is to look for patterns associated with violence that show the characteristics of each of the types. Here is an example. Recent research that has operationalized the distinctions has shown consistently that intimate terrorism is more likely than situational couple violence to be frequent and severe (Graham-Kevan & Archer, 2003, 2005; Johnson, 2001, in press; Johnson & Leone, 2005; Leone, Johnson, & Cohan, 2003; Leone, Johnson, Cohan, & Lloyd, 2004). It follows that violence that is frequent and severe is likely to be intimate terrorism and violence that is infrequent and mild is likely to be situational couple violence. Thus, if studies show that anger management therapy is effective only in the treatment of men whose violence is infrequent and mild, we have indirect support for the conclusion that it is effective for situational couple violence but not effective for intimate terrorism. With these strategies in mind, we can examine the literature on communication in violent relationships.

Communication within Violent Intimate Relationships

There is a sizable literature on communication patterns in violent intimate relationships. Like research on intimate partner violence conducted in other disciplines, that done in communication is limited in two ways. First, the majority of research by communication scholars does not recognize or distinguish among different types of intimate partner violence. For reasons explained previously, it is likely that most of the violence among the couples involved in this research was situational couple violence, and I make that assumption in reviewing the literature. The important issue of applicability to intimate terrorism will have to be handled much more speculatively.

Second, most of the research does not focus specifically on communication during violent incidents. It involves either self-reports of general patterns of communication and conflict in the relationship or observation of communication patterns in laboratory settings that are unlikely to be reasonable facsimiles of what happens during incidents that actually involve violence. Situational couple violence may well be rooted in patterns of communication during conflict that facilitate or at least do not inhibit an escalation to violence. In contrast, the communication involved in intimate terrorism is less likely to be exhibited in the laboratory context or during normal conversation or conflict. Thus, both caveats suggest that we view the research primarily as informing us about situational couple violence.

Communication Patterns in Situational Couple Violence

It has long been observed that physically violent relationships almost always also include verbal aggression, defined as an attack on a person’s self-concept, including character attacks, competence attacks, physical appearance attacks, and so on (Infante & Wigley, 1986) and that verbal aggression can be devastating to individuals and to relationships (Sabourin, 1996; Straus & Sweet, 1992). In studies of the communication patterns of violent couples, the relationship between verbal and physical aggression is most often treated as causal, the most common model being some version of the catalyst hypothesis (Roloff, 1996) in which a hostile predisposition turns to violence when provoked by verbal aggression. It has also been noted, however, that verbal aggression does not inevitably lead to violence, for a number of reasons. For example, Infante’s model presumes that verbal aggression leads to violence only when it sets off a hostile predisposition in the recipient. In the absence of such hostility, the verbal aggression may be “ignored or viewed as good-natured kidding” (Infante, Chandler, & Rudd, 1989, p. 166). More recently, Roloff (1996) has made effective use of the general literature on the interaction processes involved in violence (Felson, 1984) to identify four general factors that “might cause verbal aggression to lead to physical aggression” (Roloff, 1996, p. 23), implying that when these factors are missing, verbal aggression may not escalate to violence. The first factor is face loss, especially when the verbal aggression involves central aspects of the individual’s self-concept and when the attack is public and seen as illegitimate and unmitigated. The second is desire to control, about which I will have more to say in the later section on intimate terrorism. The third escalating factor is violence potential (experience with and willingness to use violence), and the fourth is anger.

Roloff’s (1996) discussion of factors that might influence verbal aggression to escalate to violence does not inform us of the source of the verbal aggression in the first place. Although Infante and his colleagues (1989) did discuss a number of possible reasons for verbal aggression, their major focus has been on argumentative skill deficiency. The basic scenario involves a disagreement in which one or both of the partners “[lacks] the verbal skills for dealing with social conflict constructively” (p. 166). This skill deficiency leads the deficient partner to turn to verbal aggression as a means of winning the argument. A general norm of reciprocity in relationships then contributes to escalation, as each partner responds to verbal aggression with more verbal aggression (negative reciprocity). Such an escalation is most likely when both partners have skill deficiencies.

Indeed, there is considerable evidence from work done in this tradition that situationally violent couples are more verbally aggressive and deficient in argumentative skills than are nonviolent couples (Infante, Myers, & Buerkel, 1994; Infante & Rancer, 1996; Sabourin, 1996). Similarly, Feldman and Ridley (2000; Ridley & Feldman, 2003), working in a family conflict tradition, find that both men and women in violent relationships show more unilateral verbal aggression, more mutual verbal aggression, less constructive relative to destructive communication, and less problem solving.

The primary model constructed from this line of research most closely resembles what we know about situational couple violence. It is not very gendered and seems to involve an almost inadvertent escalation of conflict into violence. The core problem is one of communication skill deficiencies for which an individual compensates with verbal aggression that then escalates into violence. All we need to do to intervene is to improve the couple’s communication skills through methods such as cognitive restructuring or argumentative skills training (Sabourin, 1996, pp. 215-217).

As is common in the literature on domestic violence in other disciplines, work done by communication scholars does not make any distinctions among types of violence, nor does it consider the possibility that for some couples the verbal aggression is not a causal factor in violence, but one among a variety of tactics that one partner is using to control the other (as in intimate terrorism). The samples on which the research is based often draw their violent respondents from shelters or programs for batterers and therefore almost certainly include not only situational couple violence but also intimate terrorism. There is a hint of that possibility in Ridley and Feldman’s results, in which they find a greater likelihood of a male demand/female withdrawal pattern among their violent couples (Feldman & Ridley, 2000; Ridley & Feldman, 2003). This is the opposite of the typical pattern for distressed heterosexual couples, in which it is more likely that women make demands and men withdraw. The male demand/female withdrawal pattern could be showing up in these data as a function of a few couples in which a pattern of intimate terrorism has led the women to defensively withdraw when their partner makes demands on them. This possibility raises the question of whether the skill deficiency model applies to all violent relationships.

Most work in this area simply compares violent couples with nonviolent couples, lumping together violent couples who might be quite different from each other and creating an “average” communication pattern for comparison with nonviolent couples. Olson’s (2002) work demonstrates the importance of abandoning this approach and differentiating among types of violence.

She conducted in-depth interviews with individuals involved in aggressive and violent relationships. She identified three different communication patterns, one that suggests conditions under which verbal aggression will not escalate to violence, one that I would argue represents situational couple violence, and one that probably represents intimate terrorism.

Twelve of Olson’s (2002) 31 couples were involved in what she called an aggressive relationship. Although they did reciprocate verbal aggression, generally they were not violent, and “their relationships were more democratic, and, overall, their communication was healthier” (p. 120). For example, many of them had conversations with their partners about what they would not tolerate during a conflict. Although there is risk that these relationships might escalate to situational couple violence, the couples’ low tolerance for aggression and their communication about the nature of their conflict reduces the likelihood they will escalate to physical violence.

The second couple type identified in this study, violent relationships, does involve an escalation into situational couple violence and seems to embody the process described above as negative reciprocity. Olson (2002) describes these relationships as having “a dyadic pattern of control … [in which] the shared control fluctuated back and forth between partners. … As a result, these relationships were fraught with power struggles, resulting in reciprocated aggression and violence” (p. 118). She also points out that these couples described a typical wife demand/husband withdraw pattern, often involving the wife’s use of aggression to get her withdrawing partner’s attention.

Olson’s (2002) discussion of these first two groups supports a model in which verbal aggression functions as a catalyst to provoke violence from the target of that aggression—if the target already has a hostile predisposition and is prone to violence, especially when the couple is likely to engage in negative reciprocity of communication. However, she identifies a third group that does not fit that model at all, a group that clearly embodies what I have called intimate terrorism.

Communication Patterns in Intimate Terrorism

Olson’s third group, abusive relationships, is “characterized by power imbalances in which the control, maintained by one partner, permeated the entire relationship” (Olson, 2002, p. 117). She reports that these relationships exhibited domineering-submissive communication patterns, and she quotes one respondent clearly indicating a husband demand/wife withdraw pattern such as those found in other studies of violent couples (Babcock, Waltz, Jacobson, & Gottman, 1993; Feldman & Ridley, 2000; Ridley & Feldman, 2003). This pattern has also been described as having a “chilling effect” by Roloff and his colleague (Cloven & Roloff, 1993; Roloff & Cloven, 1990), in which the recipients of violence become more and more reluctant to speak their mind in the relationship.

The dangers of aggregating all violent couples and comparing their averages to those of nonviolent couples are clear from the results of Olson’s (2002) nuanced analysis. If one were to combine her two violent types into one, the pattern one would see would closely resemble the work on verbal aggression cited above, with relatively high verbal aggression, less constructive communication patterns, a relatively normal wife demand/husband withdraw pattern, and a high husband demand/wife withdraw pattern. The reality is quite different, however, consisting of two groups of violent couples showing quite distinct communication patterns, one of which corresponds to situational couple violence, the other to intimate terrorism.

Roloff’s useful discussion of the conditions under which verbal aggression (what he calls coercive communication) will lead to violence elaborates on the patterns likely to be found in situational couple violence, but it also includes a section on desire to control that is clearly relevant to intimate terrorism (Roloff, 1996, pp. 27-30). In this type of aggressive interaction, resistance is critical. The partner’s refusal to comply with a coercive communication challenges the aggressor’s sense of control, leading him or her to escalate to the use of violence. Roloff makes the connection to Infante’s skill deficiency model, arguing that coercive partners will be more likely to use violence if they do not have the communication skills that allow them to gain compliance. It is important to note, however, that the causal chain in this case is quite different from that hypothesized in the typical argumentative skill deficiency model, in which the incompetent communicator turns to verbal aggression which in turn sets off the partner’s violence. Roloff’s (1996) discussion, in contrast, suggests that the incompetent communicator first uses verbal aggression to attempt to gain compliance, then turns to physical violence when verbal attacks are ineffective. The model here is intimate terrorism, in which a variety of control tactics are used to take general control over the relationship.

More concrete, less abstract analyses of the nature of the communication involved in intimate terrorism focus on two major areas. First, there is a huge literature on the nature of the psychological abuse often involved in intimate terrorism (Arias & Pape, 1999; Chang, 1996; Marshall, 1996; O’Leary & Maiuro, 2001; Tolman, 1992). One of the major control tactics used by intimate terrorists involves breaking down the self-esteem of their partner, in part to convince her that acceding to the control of her partner is in her best interests, in part to convince her that she is so worthless that her current relationship is the only option available to her.

Second, there is a literature that focuses on the rhetoric that intimate terrorists use to seduce and entrap their partners (Rosen, 1996). In related work, Lloyd and her colleagues have done very useful analyses of the ways in which the rhetoric of romance sometimes justifies violence (Lloyd & Emery, 2000a, 2000b). It is also useful to situate this work in the context of longstanding feminist analyses of romance as a “cover” for the domination of women (Firestone, 1970, pp. 146-155; Jackman, 1994; Millett, 1970; Rose, 1985). Finally, the language of patriarchy legitimizes men’s control over “their” women (Adams, Towns, & Gavey, 1995; Dobash & Dobash, 1979; Major, 1987).

In sum, the evidence regarding the communication patterns in intimate terrorism suggests two general scenarios—one in which the controlling partner (usually the husband) needs to use both verbal aggression and violence to take control over his partner, and a second in which the husband’s control is well-enough established that what we see is husband’s demands and wife’s withdrawal or submission. In addition, the content of the communication will often involve psychologically demeaning messages about the victim of the violence and a rhetoric of romance and patriarchy that justifies the control exercised by the intimate terrorist.

Gender and Communication in Different Types of Intimate Partner Violence

It is clear from the work of Olson (2002, 2004a) that communication scholars must make distinctions among types of intimate partner violence if they are to understand the nature of communication processes associated with each type. However, in most cases communication researchers do not make these distinctions, choosing instead to simply compare violent with nonviolent relationships. Thus, the distinctions discussed above are not well established in the communication literature.

The ambiguities created by aggregation of different types of violence are serious indeed. Average differences found between the communication patterns of violent and nonviolent couples could be produced by differences in only a subset of violent couples, and various specific differences could be produced by different subsets. Within one study, patterns that correspond to the “argumentative skill deficiencies produce verbal aggression that provokes violence” model might be produced by a subset of the violent couples involved in situational couple violence, while an increase in husband demand/wife withdraw patterns is produced by a different subset that is involved in intimate terrorism.

We need research that routinely investigates the possibility that samples of violent relationships include different types of violence with quite different communication patterns. There are three major tactics by which typologies could be applied in such research. First, operationalizations of theory-based typologies could be developed. Second, cluster analysis or related quantitative data-analytic techniques could be used to develop empirically derived typologies. Third, qualitative analysis could be used to develop empirically based typologies. My colleagues and I have used the first two approaches (Johnson, 2001; Johnson & Leone, 2005; Leone et al., 2004). Olson has used the third (Olson, 2002) and has also developed a theory-based typology that could be operationalized (Olson, 2004a).

What can we say at this point about the gendering of communication processes in the different types of violent relationships? I think we can say a good deal—tentatively. Tentatively, I have suggested that the argumentative deficiency/verbal aggression/negative reciprocity model might describe, explain, and predict situational couple violence. The literature on this pattern does not generally distinguish between male and female violence, implying that the patterns are relatively ungendered. The work of Feldman and Ridley (Feldman & Ridley, 2000; Ridley & Feldman, 2003) more directly asserts that much the same model is applicable to both men and women. However, before drawing that conclusion, we need more qualitative research that focuses on differences in communication within the category of situational couple violence. We should not risk repeating the mistake of assuming that something is a unitary phenomenon without first determining that it is. To choose an example that is particularly relevant to issues of gender and communication, the general literature on situational couple violence indicates that men’s violence is much more likely than women’s to produce injuries and that women’s violence is likely to be perceived as less serious (Straus, 1999). Thus, I would expect couple communication about violent incidents to involve quite a different dynamic following male violence than it would following female violence. Ironically, it may be the case that couples are less likely to get involved in metacommunication to prevent another escalation if the violence was the less frightening women’s violence. And this pattern might be relevant to Olson’s (2002, 2004a) distinction between aggressive and violent couples. Although I did not place her aggressive group in the category of situational couple violence because it was not clear that they had ever experienced physical violence, Olson sees aggressive and violent couples as variations of situational couple violence, and she might be right. Some of these couples may have experienced physical violence and dealt with it in a manner that prevented a recurrence.

When it comes to intimate terrorism, I have suggested that a male demand/female withdraw pattern may be typical and that communication that involves the assertion of control will be endemic. Furthermore, the content of the communication will often involve psychological abuse, the assertion of male privilege, and a rhetoric of romance that justifies the violence.

I have essentially said nothing about the patterns of communication involved in violent resistance because as far as I know there is no communication research that focuses on it. We really do not know what types of communication encourage or inhibit violent resistance to intimate terrorism.

Communication about Violent Relationships

In addition to research on communication patterns within violent relationships, communication scholars have addressed various aspects of communication about violent relationships, and analyses of the general themes of romance, patriarchy, masculinity, and femininity discussed previously in the section on communication within violent relationships are also relevant here (Christopher & Lloyd, 2000; Dobash & Dobash, 1979; Lloyd & Emery, 2000b; Wood, 2001, 2004). Thus, the placement of that discussion is somewhat arbitrary, as is the distinction I make below between private and public speech about violent relationships.

Private Speech about Violent Relationships

A number of scholars, including communication scholars, have looked into the nature of the narratives created by both victims and perpetrators of intimate partner violence. Most of this work has been carried out on samples that are likely to be dominated by intimate terrorism and violent resistance. We know much less about the narratives that couples create about their situational couple violence.

Perpetrators. Work on the narratives of men who perpetrate violence has generally been carried out with samples from batterers programs or prison populations (Adams et al., 1995; Dobash & Dobash, 1998; Hearn, 1998; Ptacek, 1988; Stamp & Sabourin, 1995; Wood, 2004), and is thus probably dominated by accounts of intimate terrorism. Similarly, work on violent women has focused to a large extent on those imprisoned for attacks on their abusive partners (Browne, 1987; O’Keefe, 1997; Richie, 1996; Roberts, 1996; Walker, 1989), thus applying primarily to violent resistance. To my knowledge, none of this work on either men or women has made distinctions among types of violence in order to investigate how perpetrators’ narratives might differ across those types. The work on violent men discusses rationalizations, justifications, minimization, and contradictions. Wood’s (2004) recent work ties these rhetorical tactics substantively to contradictory narratives of masculinity. The work on violent women who have attacked abusive partners identifies themes of terror, hopelessness, and entrapment. Clearly, we need more work on the narratives of men and women who are involved in situational couple violence.

Victims. With regard to the victims of domestic violence, in some sense much of what we know in general about intimate terrorism is based on the narratives of women who have survived it. Most of the research on intimate terrorism is carried out with agency samples, sometimes based on questionnaire responses, but more often involving in-depth interviewing (Dobash & Dobash, 1979; Kirkwood, 1993; Pence & Paymar, 1993). Although most of this work is presented as data on the nature of domestic violence rather than as analyses of women’s narratives, some research is explicitly couched in narrative terms (Ferraro, 1996; Olson, 2001, 2004b; Riessman, 1992; Winkelmann, 2004; Wood, 2000, 2001).

Help seeking. One important area of private speech about domestic violence has received very little attention. Considerable evidence indicates that victims of intimate terrorism are quite resourceful in seeking help, both formal and informal, from others (Gondolf & Fisher, 1988; Leone et al., 2003). Unfortunately, there is also evidence that their pleas for help often go unheeded. We need research on the nature of the communication between victims and the friends, family, and agency representatives from whom they seek help. Perhaps we could uncover clues about the nature of effective help seeking regarding domestic violence.

Public Speech about Violent Relationships

Public discourses about relationship violence are critical determinants of the resources that victims have available to them, and a number of scholars have analyzed the nature of such public discussions. Some of these analyses are embedded in histories of the battered women’s movement (Dobash & Dobash, 1992; Schechter, 1982). Others provide explicit analyses of the rhetoric that turned relationship violence from a private problem to a public policy matter (Ferraro, 1996; Fineman & Mykitiuk, 1994) and finally into a general human rights issue (Heise, 1996). A few deal with the nature of media rhetoric regarding domestic violence (Meyers, 1997). All these analyses are heavily gendered, addressing the means by which domestic violence has been framed as an issue of violence against women. As I have argued elsewhere, in public discourse the term domestic violence has come to represent intimate terrorism, the most gendered form of intimate partner violence (Johnson, 2005). There is now developing, however, a powerful counterdiscourse that has yet to be analyzed, the discourse of the men’s and fathers’ rights movements that frames domestic violence as a couples problem. Their rhetoric is rooted in the same problem I have identified in the scholarly literature: the assumption that domestic violence is a unitary phenomenon. They cite the same survey research as evidence that women are as violent as men, not realizing, or not caring, that those data tell us little about the nature of true wife abuse or husband abuse.

Conclusion: The Gendering of Communication within and about Violent Relationships

From this literature review, it is clear that (1) communication within and about intimate partner violence is heavily gendered and that (2) the nature of that gendering cannot be understood without making distinctions among types of such violence. Intimate terrorism is largely male perpetrated and involves communication patterns that establish men’s dominance over “their” women. Violent resistance is, as a result, largely enacted by women and involves communication patterns about which we know very little but that presumably involve women’s resistance to subordination and their conclusion that violence is a viable tactic for such resistance. Situational couple violence is to some extent gender symmetric and involves communication patterns that contribute to the escalation of the inevitable conflicts of intimate relationships into verbal aggression and violence. In many cases, incidents of situational couple violence are followed by communication that effectively deescalates the violence. Public and private discourses about domestic violence are also heavily gendered, focused on the differences between men and women and the gendered aspects of society that are implicated in domestic violence.

It is very important, however, to recognize the extent to which the blinders of heterosexism constrain these analyses. I have chosen to contribute to some extent to this narrowness of vision by saying nothing to this point about intimate partner violence in lesbian and gay relationships so that I could end on the following note. We face a deeply problematic confounding of gender and sexual orientation in much of this literature. Although there is a developing literature on the nature of violence in gay and lesbian relationships (Giorgio, 2002; Island & Letellier, 1991; Renzetti, 1992; Renzetti & Miley, 1996), the vast majority of studies are focused on heterosexual relationships, making it impossible for us to untangle the effects of heterosexuality from the effects of gender. For example, are men the primary perpetrators of intimate terrorism because heterosexuality is rooted in male dominance over women, or is it because men (both gay and straight) are more likely than women to feel a need to control their partners (male or female)? We need to expand our research to include violence in gay and lesbian relationships not only to be able to intervene more effectively in same-sex intimate partner violence but also to better understand the nature of intimate partner violence in general (Merrill, 1996).