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Spouse Abuse

Theoretical Explanations

Six theoretical models have been developed to explain spouse abuse and neglect: social learning theory, social situational/stress and coping theory, general systems theory, resource theory, exchange/social control theory, and patriarchy.

Social learning theory proposes that individuals who experienced violence are more likely to use violence in the home than those who have experienced little or no violence. Children who either experience violence themselves or who witness violence between their parents are more likely to use violence when they grow up. This finding has been interpreted to support the idea that family violence is learned. The family is the institution and social group where people learn the roles of husband and wife, parent and child. The home is the primary place in which people learn how to deal with various stresses, crises, and frustrations. In many instances, the home is also where a person first experiences violence. Not only do people learn violent behavior, but they learn how to justify being violent. For example, hearing a father say, "This will hurt me more than it will hurt you," or a mother say, "You have been bad, so you deserve to be spanked," contributes to how children learn to justify violent behavior.

Social situation/stress and coping theory explains why violence is used in some situations and not others. The theory proposes that abuse and violence occur because of two main factors. The first is structural stress and the lack of coping resources in a family. For instance, the association between low income and family violence indicates that an important factor in violence is inadequate financial resources. The second factor is the cultural norm concerning the use of force and violence. In contemporary American society, as well as many other societies, violence is normative (Straus, Gelles, and Steinmetz 1980). Thus, individuals learn to use violence both expressively and instrumentally as a way to cope with a pileup of stressor events.

General systems theory, a social system approach, was developed and applied by Murray Straus (1973) and Jean Giles-Sims (1983) to explain family violence. Here, violence is viewed as a system product rather than the result of individual pathology. The family system operations can maintain, escalate, or reduce levels of violence in families. General systems theory describes the processes that characterize the use of violence in family interactions and explains the way in which violence is managed and stabilized. Straus (1973) argues that a general systems theory of family violence must include at least three basic elements: (1) alternative courses of action or causal flow, (2) the feedback mechanisms that enable the system to make adjustments, and (3) system goals.

The resource theory of family violence assumes that all social systems (including the family) rest to some degree on force or the threat of force. The more resources—social, personal, and economic—a person can command, the more force that individual can muster. However, according to William Goode (1971), the more resources a person actually has, the less that person will actually use force in an open manner. Thus, a husband who wants to be the dominant person in the family, but has little education, has a job low in prestige and income, and lacks interpersonal skills may choose to use violence to maintain the dominant position.

Exchange/social control theory was developed by Richard J. Gelles (1983) on the basic propositions of an exchange theory of aggression. The exchange/social control model of family violence proposes that wife abuse is governed by the principle of costs and rewards. Drawing from exchange theory, Gelles (1983) notes that violence and abuse are used when the rewards are higher than the costs. Drawing from social control theories of delinquency, he proposes that the private nature of the family, the reluctance of social institutions and agencies to intervene, and the low risk of other interventions reduce the costs of abuse and violence. The cultural approval of violence as both expressive and instrumental behavior raises the potential rewards for violence.

The patriarchy theory's central thesis is that economic and social processes operate directly and indirectly to support a patriarchal (maledominated) social order and family structure. The central theoretical argument is that patriarchy leads to the subordination and oppression of women and causes the historical pattern of systematic violence directed against wives (Dobash and Dobash 1979; Pagelow 1984; Yllo 1983, 1993). The patriarchy theory finds the source of family violence in society at large and how it is organized, as opposed to within individual families or communities.


Dobash, R. E., and Dobash, R. (1979). Violence Against Wives. New York: Free Press.

Gelles, R. J. (1983). "An Exchange/Social Control Theory." In The Dark Side of Families: Current Family Violence Research, ed. D. Finkelhor, R. Gelles, M. Straus, and
G. Hotaling. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Giles-Sims, J. (1983). Wife-Beating: A Systems Theory Approach. New York: Guilford.

Goode, W. (1971). "Force and Violence in the Family." Journal of Marriage and the Family 33:624–636.

Pagelow, M. (1984). Family Violence. New York: Praeger.

Straus, M. A. (1973). "A General Systems Theory Approach to a Theory of Violence Between Family Members." Social Science Information 12:105–125.

Straus, M. A.; Gelles, R. J.; and Steinmetz, S. K. (1980). Behind Closed Doors: Violence in the American Family. New York: Doubleday/Anchor.

Yllo, K. (1983). "Using a Feminist Approach in Quantitative Research." In The Dark Side of Families: Current Family Violence Research, ed. D. Finkelhor, R. Gelles,
M. Straus, and G. Hotaling. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Yllo, K. (1993). "Through a Feminist Lens: Gender, Power, and Violence." In Current Controversies on Family Violence, ed. R. Gelles and D. Loseke. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.


Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaFamily Social IssuesSpouse Abuse - PREVALENCE, THEORETICAL EXPLANATIONS