Mutual Abuse – Myth? Research says, “Think again.”

Man looking over his shoulder in black and white photo

Table of Contents

A controversial topic currently being promoted by anti-intimate partner violence (IPV) advocates may be contributing to the stigma of surrounding male reporting on their experiences with intimate partner violence.

Man looking over his shoulder in black and white photo
Adobe Stock images.

Key Takeaways:

∎Data from a meta-analysis of 50 leading studies on intimate partner violence indicate mutual abuse is a factor in intimate partner violence (IPV). ∎There is a new call for research regarding the Male experience with IPV. ∎Current models are ineffective at promoting men’s well-being when dealing with IPV.

There is no shortage of information regarding intimate partner violence directed explicitly toward the welfare and the help-seeking of women. Most recently, there has been a growing call amongst researchers to do a double take on the research surrounding men’s experiences regarding intimate partner violence. More notably, a rather controversial stance has been taking hold amongst many women’s anti-violence support groups surrounding “The myth of mutual abuse.” The position is that there is simply no “mutual abuse” among partners. Currently, articles in the National Domestic Violence Hotline have advocacy articles explaining why mutual abuse cannot exist in intimate relationships. Many of these articles are written by incredibly well-meaning hotline advocates with what we can only assume is a great deal of experience in working with women impacted by domestic abuse. However, the research doesn’t support this position. Overwhelmingly, the research supports quite the opposite.

A comprehensive literature review conducted in 2012 in the Journal of Partner Abuse brought together 50 studies. It examined the bi-directional (mutual abuse) versus uni-directional (abuser vs. victim) role in intimate partner violence amongst various people. The findings:

  • The average weight of reported intimate partner violence was about 16.3% of cases.
  • Among the population sampled – 57.9% of reported cases were mutual abuse.
  • Amongst a population of school and college students, 51.9% was mutual abuse.
  • Amongst a clinical/treatment-seeking sample which showed the reporting rates at 70.6% of cases – 72.3% of these cases were mutual abuse.
  • The only exception was reports of violence amongst military professionals – which reported a rate of 99.9%. Out of those cases, 39.3% were mutual abuse.

What’s clear – with a phenomenon of roughly 57.9% of all populations across genders, races, ethnicities, workplaces, and clinical settings, we have to begin to analyze Intimate Partner Violence outside of the lens it has traditionally been viewed through. The belief is that men are overwhelmingly the perpetrators of domestic violence issues. This position has long been stigmatized as a men’s issue. Women have the problem with domestic violence, men are the problem. Mental health professionals would be wise to start looking at intimate partner violence through the lens of patients playing the perpetrator and victim. Mutual abuse is, by the data, a documented phenomenon.

Intimate partner violence – the state of the union:

Intimate partner violence toward women is a common occurrence. It’s important to note that this article is not designed or intended to take away from women’s issues regarding female violence. An extensive collection of 366 studies published between 2000 and 2018 with over 2 million respondents noted that 27% of all IPV cases are perpetrated against women and girls 15 years or older. There is a large body of evidence linking the effects of intimate partner violence against women and its correlational relationship with its influence on mental health, substance abuse rates, physical well-being, and issues regarding pregnancy and birth. Further, there has been extensive research on IPV amongst immigrant populations. The list of available articles is in the thousands.

Unfortunately, men have not received the same exposure regarding intimate partner violence. The earliest articles regarding intimate male partner violence were research models demonstrating a strictly gendered nature asserting that all intimate partner violence is committed as an attempt to dominate women. Unfortunately, this model of gendered belief has been criticized as a leading cause behind the stigma and shame associated with preventing men from reporting incidents of intimate partner violence they have personally experienced.

One article from the American Psychological Associations Journal of Men and Masculinities presents that many men may fear a sort of “second-wave abuse” if they identify as victims of intimate partner violence. Second-wave abuse is abuse experienced due to the potential for systemic biases favoring outcomes towards females within systems such as law enforcement and the legal system, as well as the family legal system where fathers who report experiencing domestic abuse within the home often will fail to navigate the family legal system successfully. Second-wave abuse; comes in the form of a police officer not taking the man who is reporting as seriously as he would if it were a woman – a well-documented phenomenon.

Currently, widely used resources such as the National Domestic Violence Hotline for the whole of the United States utilize a widely known as the “Duluth Model” or the “Power and Control wheel.”

The Duluth model wheel of power and control

While the Duluth model is widely used for educating people on what Intimate partner violence may look like regarding coercion and threats, intimidation, emotional abuse, isolation, male privilege, and economic abuse – there is something remarkable about the wheel that is often overlooked.

The model itself is currently gendered. The wheel features phrases such as “making her feel guilty about the children,” or “making her feel bad about herself,” or “treating her like a servant.” Unfortunately, a resource has yet to be developed for men regarding the behaviors they’ve experienced with intimate partner violence. Effectively, we are yet to be made aware of some of men’s unique IPV experiences. While these resources will continue to prove helpful for the female experience of intimate partner violence, there is a dire need for resources regarding destigmatizing violence experienced by men from women.

Time to reconsider our approach:

It’s time to reconsider our approach to intimate partner violence. There are a few things to be considered; first and foremost, clinicians can begin by practicing unconditional positive regard with their clients and operate under the assumption that both parties are abusing one another in IPV situations. Especially amongst clinical cases where IPV is reported, in particular, where research has indicated that it is likely both parties sitting inside of the therapy chair have played the role of perpetrator and victim. Further, we can begin to acknowledge as a society that men share unique experiences regarding IPV and societal pressures outside of their control (people not believing them, police not taking the claim seriously, family court systems punishing them systematically for reporting), that often prevent men from reporting incidents of IPV. This failure to report often gives us a less-than-accurate picture of the state of IPV among men. Finally, we can begin creating resources for men explicitly dedicated to their gendered experiences with IPV based on what they report. A call to action regarding changing our narratives toward making IPV a human problem and less of a male-perpetrating violence on a female problem.


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