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Intimate partner violence expert Denise Hines discusses the prevalence of bidirectional violence and other lesser known facts about intimate partner violence (IPV) in wake of a high-profile defamation trial.
With the conclusion of the Johnny Depp-Amber Heard trial in Fairfax, VA, an expert on male victims of domestic violence seeks to further educate the public about intimate partner violence (IPV), especially bidirectional violence. Bidirectional violence is when both partners in a relationship exhibit violent behaviors, though the behaviors may not be equal for both partners.
Denise Hines, associate professor of Social Work at George Mason University, located just down the street from where the trial was held, is one of the world’s leading experts on intimate partner violence and false allegations of abuse in under-recognized survivor groups, particularly male victims.
Though Hines is not directly involved in the case nor does she have direct insight into either party’s allegations or their culpability, Hines seeks to increase public understanding of the prevalence of bidirectional violence and other lesser-known facts about IPV.
What information about IPV are people less likely to know or fully understand?
Hines: First, men can be victims. When men are victims, it is harder for them to seek help and receive it when they do ask. This is not to diminish the perspective of female survivors; I want to educate about male survivors, who are much less likely to come forward or seek help.
(Read Dr. Hines previous tip sheet, “Expert Addresses Common Misconceptions About Men Who Experience Intimate Partner Violence,” for more information about this topic.)
Second, there’s a lot more bidirectional abuse than people acknowledge. Bidirectional abuse is when both people in a relationship engage in violence. When this happens, it can take one of two forms: (1) both partners can be equally aggressive; and (2) one partner can be more aggressive than the other, but the other partner is violent, too, primarily in self-defense or retaliation. We do not know the relative prevalence of these two manifestations of bidirectional abuse.
Why is it important to understand bidirectional violence?
In the majority of violent relationships, the violence is bidirectional. That means both partners are engaging in some level of violence or abuse. Most people want to think black-and-white, victim-vs.-perpetrator, without any gray areas. However, in many cases, the relationship is very complex, with bidirectionality of violence being the norm, rather than the exception.
When both partners are violent, the abuse may or may not be equal. In some relationships, you have both partners being equally abusive, and it is difficult to pinpoint the perpetrator and the victim. Each partner is both.
In other relationships, one partner may be the primary aggressor while the other is using violence in self-defense, resistance, or retaliation. Based on misconceptions about IPV, we aren’t always accustomed to thinking about that. If someone is hitting or trying to control them, victims can find it difficult not to retaliate. Someone who is violent as a response to their victimization might not be violent or abusive in another relationship; the violence might be a product of the circumstances they find themselves in. Yet, it is also often the case that the primary aggressor is being and feeling victimized because they, too, are experiencing abuse, just not as much as they are perpetrating.
How prevalent is bidirectional abuse?
Most studies, including recent national IPV studies (i.e., National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey and National Crime Victimization Survey), ask about only victimization and do not assess perpetration of IPV, so we do not have strong current nationally representative data on bidirectionality. The National Family Violence Surveys in 1975 and 1985 did ask about victimization and perpetration, and they found high rates of both partners using violence. Unfortunately, that national study has not been conducted in more than 30 years.
Nonetheless, studies that assess both victimization and perpetration consistently show that in at least half of violent relationships, the abuse is bidirectional. This includes the National Family Violence Surveys, other similar surveys, and smaller sample surveys, of which there are dozens.
A 2012 review study of about 50 studies published since 1990 found that in 57.9% of violent relationships, both partners behave violently.
Is one gender more likely to be the primary aggressor?
There are no gender differences when it comes to bidirectional violence. Men and women are equally likely to be the primary aggressor, if there is one, in a relationship. What we do see is women, much more than men, report the violence against them and seek help.
Why is it important to recognize the prevalence of bidirectional violence?
The Depp-Heard case shows the issue of why it’s important to recognize bidirectional violence. We can’t know whether either party is innocent, and it's possible both engaged in behavior that was aggressive and possibly violent.
It’s important to recognize when both parties are violent so we can have a honest discussion about what these relationships look like and so that people can receive the proper help and/or recovery resources.
If both are violent and you send one to a perpetrator program and one to a victim program, it will not solve the problem. In this situation, the person who goes to a victim program is also abusive and continues to engage in violent behaviors. Even if the person in the perpetrator program benefits from that program, their partner is still being violent, and the strongest predictor of one partner’s violent behavior is the other partner’s violent behavior. Thus, the couple is likely to fall back into the same pattern again. If you’re going to prevent the problem in the future, you have to look at both people’s behavior, what the underlying causes and issues are, and work to help them have healthier ways of behaving, interacting, and resolving conflicts in their intimate relationships.
Again, this does not diminish victims who do not engage in any violence. The intent is to raise awareness that bidirectional violence occurs in more relationships than people realize. In order to fully support people in any IPV situation, we need to understand the whole situation.
How might a high-profile trial focused on IPV be helpful to survivors?
While an unfortunate case on many levels, I hope that this high-profile trial can help bring awareness to intimate partner violence of all kinds and help people realize that abusive relationships are complicated and there is no single profile of a victim or perpetrator.
Denise Hines, PhD, is an associate professor in the Department of Social Work, College of Health and Human Services, at George Mason University. She is one of the world’s leading experts on male victims of domestic violence and false allegations against them. Hines’ expertise includes the causes, consequences, and prevention of family violence and sexual assault, with a particular focus on under-recognized victims of violence. As the former director of the Massachusetts Family Impact Seminars, she also has a specialization in translating university-based research for policymakers.
Dr. Hines is the author of over 70 peer-reviewed articles and two books on issues of family violence, one of which – Family Violence in the United States – was recently released by Sage in its third edition. She and her colleagues are currently working on an international handbook entitled, Handbook of Men’s Victimisation in Intimate Relationships, currently under contract with Taylor and Francis. She has spoken about her work in front of various audiences, including state coalitions against domestic violence, the Massachusetts State legislature, the White House domestic policy staff, staff of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Canadian Parliament.
About George Mason
George Mason University, Virginia’s largest public research university, enrolls 39,000 students from 130 countries and all 50 states. Located near Washington, D.C., Mason has grown rapidly over the last half-century and is recognized for its innovation and entrepreneurship, remarkable diversity and commitment to accessibility. In 2022, Mason celebrates 50 years as an independent institution. Learn more at www.gmu.edu.
About the College of Health and Human Services
The College of Health and Human Services prepares students to become leaders and to shape the public's health through academic excellence, research of consequence, community outreach, and interprofessional clinical practice. The College enrolls more than 1,900 undergraduate and 1,300 graduate students in its nationally-recognized offerings, including 6 undergraduate degrees, 13 graduate degrees, and 6 certificate programs. The college is transitioning to a college of public health in the near future. For more information, visit chhs.gmu.edu.