Is Domestic Violence Learned? The Contribution of Five Forms of Child Maltreatment to Men's Violence and Adjustment

Research paper by Emma Bevan, Daryl J. Higgins

Indexed on: 01 Sep '02Published on: 01 Sep '02Published in: Journal of Family Violence


On the basis of a learning-theory approach to the intergenerational transmission of violence, researchers have focused almost exclusively on violent men's childhood experiences of physical abuse and witnessing family violence. Little consideration has been given to the coexistence of other forms of child maltreatment or the role of family dysfunction in contributing to violence. This study shows the relationships between the level of child maltreatment (physical abuse, psychological maltreatment, sexual abuse, neglect, and witnessing family violence), childhood family characteristics, current alcohol abuse, trauma symptomatology, and the level of physical and psychological spouse abuse perpetrated by 36 men with a history of perpetrating domestic violence who had attended counseling. As hypothesized, a high degree of overlap between risk factors was found. Child maltreatment, low family cohesion and adaptability, and alcohol abuse was significantly associated with frequency of physical spouse abuse and trauma symptomatology scores, but not psychological spouse abuse. Rather than physical abuse or witnessing family violence, childhood neglect uniquely predicted the level of physical spouse abuse. Witnessing family violence (but not physical abuse) was found to have a unique association with psychological spouse abuse and trauma symptomatology. These results present a challenge to the understanding of domestic violence obtained from learning theory.