Intimate Partner Violence: Explanations, Cycle of Violence & Learning Theories

Instructor: Deborah Calpin

Deborah has over twenty years of experience working with criminal justice agencies and a master's of science in criminal justice-forensic psychology.

This lesson will explore the repeated cyclic nature of intimate or domestic partner violence and how the social learning theory may play a role in the development of this abusive behavior. Updated: 04/13/2020

What is Intimate Partner Violence?

One of the most dangerous calls for service by a law enforcement officer is a domestic violence call. On the other end of the phone is a hysterical woman, Sheila, begging for help. In the background the dispatcher can hear an angry male voice, Sam, threatening physical harm to Sheila. One in 5 women (and 1 in 7 men) report extreme physical violence from an intimate partner.

Intimate partner or domestic violence are two key terms that are used in the criminal justice system interchangeably. Intimate or domestic violence is the physical and or psychological abuse of a partner (female or male) in a current or past intimate relationship.

  • Physical abuse can involve the abuser's use of their own limbs to kick, slap, punch, or the use any type of tools at hand (knives, hammers, or bats) or weapons (guns or rifles).
  • Psychological abuse is more subversive and meant to isolate, humiliate, constantly criticize or demean.

Both forms of violence are meant to control the victim and to have superiority over them. These tactics are to keep the victim in the relationship through fear of greater harm if leave or police involvement.

Three Phases of Violence

The common paradigm that is used to describe the three phases of the cycle of violence: explosive, honeymoon, and tension building.

Explosive Phase

During the explosive phase, the abuser strikes with violent, physical harm or psychological control such as belittling or constant criticizing.

Honeymoon Phase

The honeymoon phase follows the explosive phase and is when the abuser apologizes, brings gifts, or tells the victim he or she will never do it again. For example, Sam might tell Sheila that if she would only stop talking back, the violence wouldn't happen again. Unfortunately for Sheila, this honeymoon phase is short-lived and far from reality.

Tension Building Phase

The tension building phase starts days or weeks after the honeymoon where Sam becomes withdrawn and views Sheila as provoking or continuously engaging in behavior to irritate him, which causes him to repeat the explosive phase. Sheila's perspective on the tension phase is that she must placate Sam by catering to his every demand so the violence will stop. This attempt on Sheila's part will not work.

Social Learning Theory

There are many psychological theories that attempt to explain abusive behavior.

The social learning theory is based upon the abuser's childhood experiences of violence. The social learning premise can be traced to psychologist B.F. Skinner's ideas on operant conditioning, which involves reinforcement of behavior through the association of negative or positive rewards. The idea is that the rewards and punishments experienced throughout childhood carry into adult life. These factors then influence a person's behavior.

For example, say young James is the child of Sheila and Sam who is witnessing the domestic violence between his parents in the household. He sees the relationship between his parents as confusing. One minute James sees physical violence or verbal abuse by his father towards his mother, but later sees his father apologizing or explaining the violence by blaming Sheila or Sam's use of alcohol.

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