We frequently get asked about Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) and how often violence really happens between partners. The research is complicated, but the issue is far too important to dismiss. For easier reading we have broken this discussion into three sections, "Types of IPV", "Getting Physical", and "General Information on Outcome Research".
Definitions might be the best place to start. IPV is a catch-all category, referring to all incidents of physical, sexual or psychological aggression in intimate relationships. Experts (both advocates and researchers), though, tend to disagree with how to characterize IPV. Those working within domestic violence community services most often use the term domestic violence, and often deal with some of the most dangerous situations--situations where there is significant fear and risk of injury or death. Some (by no means all) in the domestic violence advocacy community have argued that all violence, regardless of circumstances, is fueled by a single theoretical model of male power and control. Other experts, often researchers studying IPV in basic science, are much more likely to use the term IPV to study a broader range of behaviors under that label. Such researchers report evidence of a more nuanced view, adopting either a model differentiating IPV by types or by intensity. There is merit in the different viewpoints, and their history, and differences in viewpoint are largely driven by differences in experience or types of data.
At PREP Inc., we believe typology models have been particularly useful for fostering discussions about implications for the relationship education field. At the simplest level, we see IPV in two broad categories (based on the work of Michael Johnson and colleagues). One type is intimate terrorism, describing a relationship marked by control and subjugation between perpetrator and victim. The other is situational couple violence (or, what PREP refers to as "arguments-that-get-physical"), which is a pattern marked by poor conflict management and difficulties regulating negative emotions, with these dynamics spilling over into physical aggression.
Rate of Occurrence
One of the factors in support of there being different types in patterns of aggression is that some type of IPV is extra-ordinarily common. In one study, Dr. Galena Rhoades and Dr. Scott Stanley reported that, among couples recently marrying, 53% reported at least one instance of IPV in their history, with IPV defined as one or more of the following forms of aggression: grabbing, slapping, throwing something that could hurt, pushing or shoving, twisting the partner’s hair or arm, sustaining an injury, or feeling physical pain the next day due to a fight with their partner (taken from the Rhoades et al., 2010).
Various findings of this sort are surprising to many because the numbers reported are so high. However, such findings align with other, older studies: For example, of 272 newlywed couples surveyed within one month of their wedding about their recent experience with physical aggression, 31% of males and 44% of the females report at least one incident of aggression within that past year in their relationship (O’Leary, et al., 1989). That’s a sample of mostly happy couples about to get married.
How does that compute?
Researchers get such large numbers for IPV because of the high prevalence of couples who have trouble with emotional control and conflict management, who engage in arguments-that-get-physical. Clearly, this type of IPV is common especially among younger couples (Capaldi et al., 2007), even after committing to marriage.
What to take from this…
All physical aggression is dangerous, and none of it is acceptable. However, we do not believe that it all stems from the same mechanisms. There are different reasons why couples experience aggression in their relationships. There is some evidence that IPV risks can be lowered by at least some types of relationship education (most likely those types offering people skills to manage conflict in healthier and safer ways). Addressing patterns like intimate terrorism is a much more complex subject than we address here.
Unfortunately, people hitting people in romantic relationships is common and is dangerous, especially for women and children, no matter the type. The research tells us that the people you work with have a high probability of experiencing IPV, especially arguments-that-get-physical. (More on this in Section Two).
The good news is that relationship education can support people with better awareness of aggression and skills to to better manage emotional regulation and conflict management. However, it is also important to be aware of further resources in your community that can help people experiencing various patterns of unsafety in their relationships. That’s one of the most important things a well-run program can provide: information and connection to other resources that may be needed by those who walk through your door.
If you want to read more about some of the issues in understanding and intervening around IPV, Making Distinctions Among Different Types of Intimate Partner Violence: A Preliminary Guide is a terrific resource. It was prepared by a group of authors that includes researchers, advocates, and policy experts.
For PREP Inc.’s quick guide for educators on our approach to IPV, see: Domestic violence statement from PREP 2018. And for a recent article that gets into the implications for relationship education programs, see this article.
Lastly, if you or someone you know is in a dangerous relationship or has fear of being harmed, the National Domestic Violence Hotline number is: 800-799-7233.
Section Two -- Getting Physical
Next, we will narrow in on the particulars of physical aggression in the relationships of a slice of the population that many facilitators serve: young couples. Regardless of marital status, the late adolescent and early 20-something years are filled with romantic relationship experiences that have a significant impact on their lives. Unfortunately, part of what we know about that experience is that aggression in romantic relationships is prevalent among younger people.
In fact, in one survey of individuals (ages 18-24) in a romantic relationship, 55% reported experience with physical aggression with their partner (Morse, 1995), paralleling the high rates reported by Rhoades and colleagues (2010) with a much more recent sample. Morse found that the rate decreased from 55% to 32% over the next 10 years. Kim et al. (2008) studied a sample of males who were at risk (on various dimensions) from their late teens up to age 31, finding a very large reduction in aggression in romantic relationships over this time period. O’Leary (1999) echoes similar findings, estimating that aggression in romantic relationships increases in prevalence up to age 25 and declines steadily from age 25 to age 35. While the likelihood of IPV in romantic relationships goes down age in general, it goes down the most for those who break up and are in new relationships (Shortt et al., 2012). In fact, IPV is most common in relationships that are distressed. All this suggests that IPV is reduced by age for two reasons: one is that people are less likely to be aggressive as they mature and the other is that many unhealthy relationships that include aggression end.
Mutuality of IPV
What much of the research reflects is that aggression between intimate partners early in adulthood appears to be mutual (Capaldi, Shortt, & Crosby, 2003; Cascardi, Langhinrichsen, & Vivian, 1992; cf. Johnson & Ferraro, 2000). Capaldi et al. (2007) conducted a study to further test this phenomenon. They studied sex differences in the initiation of physical aggression using a sample of at-risk males (and their partners). The findings indicate that the young women were more likely than the men to initiate physical aggression during late adolescence (ages 17-20) but that males and females were similarly likely to initiate aggression by the mid-twenties.
As we have noted, there is a lot of hitting in the relationships of young adults, and a lot of that is initiated by women as well as men. In fact, Straus (2009) reviews decades of research showing that men and women are equally likely to initiate IPV, and largely for the same reasons (e.g., coercion, anger, or punishment—particularly for infidelity). At the same time, experts note that women tend to suffer greater, and longer-lasting, negative consequences of IPV (e.g., Straus, 2009), likely because of the difference in size and strength of the average man and woman. This fact explains why there has been so much more development of policies and services for women as victims of domestic violence than for men. Nevertheless, as Straus notes, many who sustain injuries resulting from IPV are men (1/3rd). One can recognize that both men and women are at risk for harm when it comes to aggression in romantic relationships without diminishing the greater, average, risk to women.
Recognizing the prevalence of aggression in intimate relationships can help facilitators and program managers understand what relationship experiences participants bring to relationship education training. And while we might wish it otherwise, the teens and the early 20s are years where aggression is particularly likely. These data emphasize why relationship education to younger individuals is so critical to the health and well-being of those engaged in romantic relationships. Indeed, scholars such as Dr. Alan Hawkins (2017) have suggested much more attention be paid to relationship education opportunities with teens and young adults.
The sort of mutual aggression Michael Johnson referred to as “commonly occurring couple conflict” is, indeed, common. While there are various motives for aggression as noted earlier, many teens and young adults resort to physical aggression in the absence of knowing better strategies to handle conflict. The type of intervention, according to Capaldi et al. (2007), that makes the most sense for many young adults will include a focus on relationship processes and healthier conflict management skills. More generally, we believe that it is crucial for relationship education efforts to help those in their teens and twenties gain a better understanding of what comprises safe and healthy relationships. That can help people learn to either build such relationships or recognize when some relationships would be better off ending. Such efforts can include relationship education approaches focused on either individuals or couples.
The stakes are high, and studies like those covered here remind us of how great the need for efforts to help young adults to have healthy relationships.
Our final section takes a closer look at the outcome research that helps us understand how PREP’s curricula supports healthy relationships that utilize effective conflict resolution skills.
Section Three -- General Information on Outcome Research
Outcome research is designed to examine if an intervention leads to effects. For PREP, outcome research has played a large role, and researchers have conducted evaluations on various PREP curricula for many years. We discuss some of those outcomes here to help facilitators see that PREP’s approach to relationship education can have a significant impact on relationship satisfaction and reducing rates of Intimate Partner Violence (IPV).
Testing the effect of curricula like ours to see how well it works for people is a complex endeavor. There are so many variables to consider when it comes to how relationships function, over time. A host of variables fall under the broad category of relationship quality, including relationship satisfaction and communication. Another variable of great interest is relationship stability— whether the relationship ends (i.e., break-up or divorce) or is sustained. Things get complex quickly, especially when you account for all of the possible group settings and populations that may be the focus of research efforts.
Despite the complexities, researchers work hard to apply rigorous standards to the social science of testing effectiveness in program evaluation. (In fact, one blog we like focuses on describing such research is The Relationship Educator.)
Outcome Research and PREP Curricula
PREP’s family of curricula has been tested more often and for more years than any other curriculum out there, and here we want to zoom in on the results of studies that examine the effects of variations of PREP on Intimate Partner Violence (IPV).
We’ve are talking about IPV on our website because it’s so important. IPV is a complicated matter and, despite various debates, everyone agrees that the rates of violence are far too high. (Note: We want to note up front that this is an area where there are some encouraging findings but not nearly enough research.)
In a report by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in 2017, the CDC noted that relationship education may be one strategy for helping to lower the incidence of IPV.
"Programs that work with couples to build and strengthen relationship skills, including communication and conflict management skills, show evidence for preventing later IPV. One example is the Pre-marital Relationship Enhancement Program* (PREP) …"(p. 17)
* Using the older name for PREP, which now stands for The Prevention and Relationship Education Program.
That report is referring to a finding in one of the early, long-term studies on PREP used as a premarital education program. [i]There are now other, more recent studies that help us see the effect of relationship education on IPV rates.
In one recent study, married couples receiving ePREP (a computerized version of PREP that is now online) showed reductions in IPV and psychological aggression at a one-year follow-up compared to an active, placebo control group. [ii] Another variation of PREP for workshops with couples, has been evaluated several times as part of major federal studies. One large-sample, rigorous trial showed that couples assigned to the intervention (8 sites, 3 of them using a variation of PREP), compared to an untreated control group, showed less physical assault at both 12-month and 30-month follow-ups.[iii] Finally, in another large federal study, there were only modest effects on relationship quality for the treatment group versus controls. However, the intervention groups (across two sites, where one using PREP) were 38% less likely to report severe physical assault at the one-year follow-up.[iv]
The possibility of reducing IPV doesn’t end with relationship education for couples. The studies noted above show promise for a role that relationship education with couples can play in lowering the incidence of IPV. What about relationship education efforts directed at individuals, such as PREP’s Within My Reach (WMR) curriculum? Within My Reach, our flagship curriculum for individuals, focuses on helping people with many aspects of relationship decision-making. The material has a strong focus on aspects of healthy relationships, including emphasis on various types of safety, IPV, and strategies for improving one’s love life and protecting one’s children.
There are, at present, four studies examining WMR that have documented reductions in IPV. These studies are less rigorous than the ones focused on couples mentioned above because relationship education focused on individuals is a far newer field.
In the existing studies, WMR shows evidence of reducing IPV (Antle, 2013; Antle, 2011; Carlson et al., 2018) as well as a decrease in the acceptance of violence (Cottle et al., 2014).[v] These are encouraging findings from early studies in this area of individual, relationship education efforts. Much more work needs to be done; in fact, large-sample, rigorous trials are underway where WMR is being tested against control groups.
As noted above, many people resort to physical aggression in the absence of knowing better strategies to handle conflict. Capaldi et al. (2007), after studying the aggression between partners, asserted that the type of intervention that makes the most sense for most people will include a focus on relationship processes and healthier conflict management skills.
The outcome research described here is consistent with this assertion and, while we still have a long way to go in addressing the issue of IPV in all forms, relationship education may provide one pathway to help reduce the prevalence of violence in intimate relationships.
Capaldi, D.M., & Gorman-Smith, D. (2003) The development of aggression in young male/female couples. In P. Florsheim (Ed.), Adolescent romantic relations and sexual behavior: Theory, research, and practical implications (pp. 243-278), Mahwath, NJ: Erlbaum.
Capaldi, D. M., Kim, H. K., & Shortt, J. W. (2007). Observed initiation and reciprocity of physical aggression in young, at-risk couples. Journal of Family Violence, 22, 101 – 111.
Hawkins, A. J. (2017). Shifting the relationship education field to prioritize youth relationship education. Journal of Couple & Relationship Therapy. Advanced online version. doi.org/10.1080/15332691.2017.1341355
Heyman, R. E., Lorber, M. F., Kim, S., Wojda-Burlij, A. K., Stanley, S. M., Ivic, A., Snyder, D. K., Rhoades, G. K., Whisman, M. A., & Beach, S. R. H. (2022). Overlap of relationship distress and intimate partner violence in community samples. Journal of Family Psychology. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/fam0001031
Johnson, M. P. & Ferraro, K. J. (2000). Research on domestic violence in the 1990s: Making distinctions. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 62, 948-963.
Kim, H. K., Laurent, H. K., Capaldi, D. M., & Feingold, A. (2008). Men’s aggression toward women: A 10-year panel study. Journal of Marriage and Family, 70, 1169-1187.
Morse, B. J. (1995). Beyond the Conflict Tactics Scales: Assessing gender differences in partner violence. Violence and Victims, 10, 251–272.
O’Leary, K. D. (1999). Developmental and affective issues in assessing and treating partner aggression. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 6, 400–414.
Rhoades, G. K., Stanley, S. M., Kelmer, G., & Markman, H. J. (2010). Physical aggression in unmarried relationships: The roles of commitment and constraints. Journal of Family Psychology, 24, 678-687.
Shortt, J.W., Capaldi, D.M., Kim, H.K., Kerr, D.C.R., Owen, L.D., & Feingold, A. (2012). Stability of intimate partner violence by men across 12 years in young adulthood: Effects of relationship transitions. Prevention Science, 13, 360 – 369.
Straus, M. A. (2009). Why the overwhelming evidence on partner physical violence by women has not been perceived and is often denied. Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment, & Trauma, 18, 555 – 571
[i] Markman, H. J., Renick, M., Floyd, F. J., Stanley, S. M., & Clements, M. (1993). Preventing marital distress through communication and conflict management training: A 4- and 5-year follow-up. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 61(1), 70-77. doi: https://psycnet.apa.org/record/1993-26603-001
[ii] Braithwaite, S. R., & Fincham, F. D. (2014). Computer-based prevention of intimate partner violence in marriage. Behaviour Research & Therapy, 54, 12-21. doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.brat.2013.12.006
[iii] Rhoades, G. K. (2015). The effectiveness of the Within Our Reach relationship education program for couples: Findings from a federal randomized trial. Family Process, 54, 672-85. https://doi.org/10.1111/famp.12148
[iv] Moore, Q., Avellar, S., Patnaik, A., Covington, R., & Wu, A. (2018). Parents and Children Together: Effects of Two Healthy Marriage Programs for Low-Income Couples. OPRE Report Number 2018-58. Washington, DC: Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
[v] Antle, B., Sar, B., Christensen, D., Ellers, F., Barbee, A., & van Zyl, M. (2013). The impact of the Within My Reach Relationship training on relationship skills and outcomes for low-income individuals. Journal of Marital & Family Therapy, 39(3), 346-357. doi: https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1752-0606.2012.00314.x
Antle, B. F., Karam, E., Christensen, D. N., Barbee, A. P., & Sar, B. K. (2011). An evaluation of healthy relationship education to reduce intimate partner violence. Journal of Family Social Work, 14(5), 387-406. doi: https://doi.org/10.1080/10522158.2011.616482
Carlson, R. G., Wheeler, N. J., Adams, J. J. (2018). The influence of individual-oriented relationship education on equality and conflict-related behaviors. Journal of Counseling & Development, 96, 144-154. doi: https://doi.org/10.1002/jcad.12188
Cottle, N. R., Thompson, A. K., Burr, B. K., & Hubler, D. S. (2014). The effectiveness of relationship education in the college classroom. Journal of Couple and Relationship Therapy, 13(4), 267-283. doi: https://doi.org/10.1080/15332691.2014.956357