10 Lessons from 10 Years on the Frontline: 5, The complexity of domestic abuse

By Richard Devine (04.09.2020), Social Worker for Bath and North East Somerset Council.

Originally I had intended to write a blog with 10 pithy lessons from my experience of being a social worker since I qualified in 2010. What I have done instead is write 10 lengthy (ish) lessons, each amounting to the equivalent of a blog. Therefore, given the length of each one, I am going to share one every working day for the next two weeks (hoping that I can finish the final two before next week!). I cover a range of topics from relationship-based practice to decision making and removing children and time management. Each of these topics reflects my current understanding after a decade of working as a child protection social worker. If I were to imagine myself writing this 10 years ago, or even 5 years ago, I suspect I would be embarrassed at how little I understood. Therefore, I can only assume I will think the same about what I have written in these 10 lessons in a few years’ time. Some of you will be further along with your understanding than I am, and if this is the case I would appreciate feedback and critique. None of what I write about is static – they represent my best understanding of issues in a moment in time.  

Lesson 5. The complexity of domestic abuse


I completed my dissertation of domestic abuse and the impact on mothering when I was studying Social Work (2007-2010) and came to understand it as primarily a male perpetrator – female victim construct. I learnt about the insidious, pervasive, and devastating effect of men’s abusive behavior on women’s sense of self, and the direct and indirect impact of this on children. The research found that some women would implement strategies in the context of their abusive relationship that functioned to protect their children, and compensate from the harmful effects of domestic abuse, referred to as ‘adaptive maternal compensatory behavior’ (Holden et al 1998: 327). This highlighted the need to explore with mothers the attempts they have made to protect themselves and their children and recognize protective acts that they implemented in extremely difficult circumstances, and sometimes with an increased risk to themselves. A sad irony is that, despite their attempts to protect themselves and their children, mothers in coercing and controlling relationships can be judged as ‘failing to protect’ and experience child protection services as ‘blaming and punitive’ (Featherstone et al 2018: 129).

Complexity and Typologies of Domestic Abuse:

However, over the years it became increasingly apparent that domestic abuse was more complex that I initially understood. It wasn’t until I read Michael Johnson’s (2008) book on ‘A Typology of Domestic Violence’ several years post qualifying that I read a text that sought to delineate the different forms of domestic abuse which I had observed in practice. 

The first typology is Intimate Partner Terrorism. This is where ‘the individual is violent and controlling’ and ‘the partner is not’ (Johnson, 2008: 6). This pattern of domestic abuse can be understood using The Duluth Power and Control Wheel whereby the use of economic abuse, male privilege, children, emotional abuse, minimizing, denying and blaming, intimidation, coercion and threats, is underpinned by physical and/or sexual violence. In attempting to understand the psychological roots of such men he identifies two sub patterns, dependent intimate terrorists and antisocial intimate terrorists. According to Johnson (2008: 32) ’…dependent intimate terrorists, rank high on measures of emotional dependency and jealousy. These men are obsessed with their partners, desperate to hold them, and therefore jealous and controlling. They are not particularly violent outside the family home’ (Johnson, 2008: 32) whereas ‘….antisocial intimate terrorists, show quite a different pattern, not being particularly dependent or jealous, but ranking high on antisocial personality measures and generally violent outside as well as inside the family. These men who control their partners not because they are emotionally obsessed, but simply because they will have their own way, by any means necessary, at home and elsewhere’ (Johnson, 2008: 32). Of note, there is no explanation, or even an attempt by Johnson (2008) to describe the underlying psychological functioning of women who are controlling and violent. I think this is a significant limitation in our current approach to domestic abuse – the lack of acknowledgement of female perpetrated domestic abuse as well as a lack of understanding regarding the underlying causes and available treatment.

The second typology he identified is Violent Resistance. In this pattern the partner responds violently to a controlling and violent partner (Johnson, 2008). 

The third typology, Situational Couple Violence, involves one or both individuals being violent, but not controlling (Johnson 2008). In this pattern ‘the violence is situationally provoked, as the tensions or emotions of a particular encounter lead to someone to react with violence…The violence may be minor and singular…or it could be a chronic problem, with one or both partners frequently resorting to violence, minor or severe’ (Johnson 2008: 11). The causes of situational couple violence according to Johnson (2008) are deprivation/poverty, disagreements on how to manage the children, alcohol and drug use, and verbal skills deficits. This has been echoed more recently by Featherstone et al (2018) who found there to ‘be a host of evidence showing vulnerability to domestic abuse to be associated with low income, economic strain and benefit receipt’. It is worth noting that whilst this form of violence is distributed relatively even between the genders, the impact tends to be more harmful for female partners as they ‘are far more likely to be physically injured, to fear for their safety, and to experience negative psychological consequences of the violence’ (Johnson 2008: 60). 

The final pattern, Mutual Violent Control involves both the individual and partner engaging in violent and controlling behavior (Johnson 2008: 12). Johnson (2008: 12) states ‘…with mutual violent control, we have the true mutuality of two people fighting for general control over the relationship’.

Johnson’s typology is a helpful framework however is still too categorical, as with in each typology, the violent and/or controlling behaviors will exist on a spectrum. 

The recognition that typologies of domestic abuse have been known for many years however doesn’t seem to be widely understood. In the absence of this understanding, I have observed the typologies being unacknowledged and the male perpetrator – female victim ‘intimate partner terrorism’ explanation and the accompanying solutions being applied irrespective of the circumstances. For example, even in cases of situational couple violence, or mutual violent control, the mother is asked to attend a course for victims (i.e. Freedom Programme) and the father is often criminalized, whilst the issues that cause the conflict (i.e. poverty, substance misuse, unressolved childhood trauma, etc) remain unaddressed.  


Careful judgement must be applied when assessing domestic abuse to ensure that victims are not placed in further risk by our inability to effectively identify the dynamics within the relationship. Failure to address complexity however leads to reductionist explanations and inappropriate interventions/expectations being placed upon families that doesn’t improve their circumstances and, in some cases, compounds the pre-existing difficulties. As pointed out by Featherstone & Trinder (2007: 157) ’domestic violence is not a unitary phenomenon with a single explanatory framework and with a single prescription for practitioners’. A view shared with Goodmark (2018: 5)  who posits ‘domestic violence is a complex problem requiring a multidimensional solution’. In other words, we need to a differentiated response depending on the different type of domestic abuse that may be occuring within a relationship.

Note: Domestic abuse is a complex subject and is a specialist subject in of its own right. There are live debates within the field, including the validity of Johnson’s typology – at times, in my opinion, these debates become ideological and that makes me cautious in publicly exploring the topic and even writing this blog. I have been impressed by the work of Leigh Goodmark and am currently reading her book, Decriminalizing Domestic Abuse (2018). She advocates, amongst others, such as Featherstone et al (2018) for restorative justice and I look forward to learning more about this.

If you have found this interresting/useful, you may wish to consider scrolling down further, and join 130+ others in signing up for free blogs to be sent directly to your inbox (no advertisements/requests/selling). I intend to write every fortnight about matters related to child protection, children and families, attachment and trauma.  Or you can read previous blogs here

By Richard Devine (04.09.2020),


Bancroft, L., & Silverman, J. G. (2002). The batterer as parent: Addressing the impact of domestic violence on family dynamics. London: SAGE.

Featherstone, B., & Trinder, L. (1997). Familiar subjects? Domestic violence and child welfare. Child Family Social Work, 2(3), 147-159

Featherstone, B., & Peckover, S. (2007). Letting them get away with it: Fathers, domestic violence and child welfare. Critical Social Policy, 27(2), 181-202.

Featherstone, B., Gupta, W., Morris, K & White, S. (2018). Protecting children: A social model. Bristol: Policy Press.

Goodman, L (2018). Decriminalizing Domestic Violence: A balanced approach to intimate partner violence. University of California Press. Oakland, California.

Holden, G. W., Stein, J. D., Ritchie, K. L., Harris, S. D., & Jouriles, E. N. (1998). Parenting behaviors and beliefs of battered women. In G. W. Holden, R. Geffner, & E. N. Jouriles (Eds.), APA science Vols. Children exposed to marital violence: Theory, research, and applied issues (p. 289–334). American Psychological Association

Johnson, M. P. (2010). Typology of Domestic Violence Intimate Terrorism, Violent Resistance, and Situational Couple Violence. Hanover: Northeastern University Press.

Published by Richard Devine's Social Work Practice Blog

My name is Richard Devine. I am a Social Worker in Bath and North East Somerset Council. After I qualified in 2010 I worked in long term Child Protection Teams. Since 2017 I have been undertaking community based parenting assessments. I obtained a Masters in Attachment Studies 2018.

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