The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

Winter
2011

Peaceful Partners in Peterborough


Bryce J. Christensen and Robert W. Patterson


Scholars have come up with new schema for analyzing domestic violence, yet they keep reaching the same old fundamental finding about where that violence is most likely to occur: among cohabiting couples, not married couples. The latest evidence of the violent character of cohabitation appears in a study completed at the University of Manitoba.

The author of the study, sociologist Douglas A. Brownridge, begins by deploying a new conceptualization, one that distinguishes “situational couple violence (SCV)” from “intimate terrorism (IT).” In this conceptualization, “situational couple violence . . . tends to be gender symmetrical violence used in the context of control over one’s partner.” In contrast, “intimate terrorism” is manifest when “a perpetrator uses violence as one among a host of tactics to control [his or her] partner.” Brownridge then uses this twofold conceptualization to compare domestic violence among cohabiting couples to domestic violence among married couples, apparently in the hope that this new construct will allow him to move beyond the now-old (and embarrassingly unprogressive!) finding that women (and men) are far safer in marriage than in cohabitation. Alas, the data prove remarkably intractable!

In his first and simplest analysis, Brownridge simply lumps both types of domestic violence together, finding that “cohabitors had a significantly higher prevalence of violence than marrieds, regardless of gender or the time frame in which the occurrence of violence was measured.” The scholar calculates that “both female and male cohabitors were about two and one half times as likely to experience violence in the year prior to the survey, and they were about twice as likely to experience violence in the 5 years before the survey compared to marrieds. (p<0.01 for all marital status comparisons).” No surprise here. The surprise—and Brownridge’s apparent disappointment—comes when he repeats the analysis with his two-fold typology of domestic violence.

Using the levels of both types of domestic violence found among married couples as his benchmark, Brownridge finds that “cohabiting was associated with increased odds of experiencing SCV and IT for both females and males. The odds of experiencing SCV (rather than no violence) were 136% greater for cohabiting than married women and the odds of experiencing IT (rather than no violence) were 102% greater for cohabiting than married women. Similarly, the odds of experiencing SCV (rather than no violence) were 133% greater for cohabiting than married men and the odds of experiencing IT (rather than no violence) were 151% greater for cohabiting than married men.”

Brownridge explains that cohabiting women suffer from both types of domestic violence more than do married women because of the “tendency [of female cohabitants] to be young, to have lower levels of education, the propensity to have had a previous marriage or common-law union, the tendency for greater alcohol abuse by partners, and the higher likelihood of having children in the home.” In the same way, Brownridge explains that cohabiting men suffer from both types of domestic violence more than do married men because of “the tendency for cohabiting male victims of SCV and IT to be young, to have had a prior live-in relationship, and to have a partner who abused alcohol.”

What the author of the study does not explain is why academics remain skeptical of the benefits of a social institution that shields women (and men) from violence.

(Robert A. Brownridge, “Does the Situational Couple Violence-Intimate Terrorism Typology Explain Cohabitors’ High Risk of Intimate Partner Violence?” Journal of Interpersonal Violence 25.7 [July 2010]: 1264–83.)

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