New research on violence and relationships does not support the stereotypical pattern of strong men in powerful positions who abuse their weaker, female partner.
“Whenever power is unevenly allocated in a relationship the chance of physical and psychological abuse increases. And the abused partner is the one with the highest status,” says sociologist Heidi Fischer Bjelland.
According to the sociologist this applies both to men and women.
Bjelland is a PhD student at The Norwegian Police University College and she has previously carried out research on intimate partner violence in Norway. In her article En voldsom maktbalanse? En studie av relativ makt og forekomst av partnervold (“A fierce power balance? A study of relative power and intimate partner violence”), Bjelland presents her analysis of a survey carried out by Statistics Norway in 2003/2004.
Bjelland has examined survey replies from 1640 men and 1791 women who live with their partners. The participants have answered questions relating to whether they have experienced physical partner violence such as strangling and flat hand slapping, and psychological abuse such as threats of physical violence, jealous behaviour and freedom restriction.
Women more exposed
Both men and women with a higher status than their partner have an increased risk of experiencing psychological abuse or controlling partners, but women with a higher income than their partner also have an increased risk of experiencing physical abuse:
“Their risk of experiencing both physical and psychological violence increases with the difference in income,” says Bjelland.
The figures from the study shows that women earning more than 67 per cent of the total household income have an almost seven times bigger risk of experiencing psychological and physical abuse – so-called double violence – from their partner compared to women who earn less than 33 per cent of the total household income. Moreover, women with considerably higher education than their partner have an increased risk of experiencing both physical and psychological abuse.
The study challenges previous research which has concluded that a high socio-economic status decreases the risk of experiencing intimate partner violence.
“My study shows that high income or education works as protection against acts of violence only as far as the income and education does not exceed that of the partner,” says Bjelland.
“There seem to be two mechanisms at play here: one relating to the individual and another to the relationship as such.”
Men also affected
The study shows that men with a higher income or education than their partner have an increased risk of experiencing psychological abuse and control. However, men do not face the same risk of experiencing physical abuse.
“Previous studies have looked primarily at physical abuse. They have also included some types of psychological violence such as control and threats of physical violence, but they have not distinguished these psychological acts of violence as a category in itself. When I distinguish between psychological and physical acts of violence, the psychological factor is becoming much clearer and the results become more nuanced,” says the researcher.
One of the finds particularly surprised Bjelland:
“The fact that men with a higher socio-economic status than their partner have an increased risk of experiencing abuse in their relationships was very surprising, since it conflicts with international studies within the same field.”
She emphasises the Norwegian gender equality as a possible explanation.
“Perhaps this indicates that, in today’s Norway, women won’t accept being without power as a result of having a lower socio-economic status than their partner.”
“On the other hand, few studies have examined men’s risk of abuse earlier, which may be an explanation as to why these finds are so new and surprising.”
According to Bjelland, previous studies of intimate partner violence have often excluded men from the data material.
“There has been a strikingly unbalanced focus on women and what consequences their experiences of intimate partner violence might have for them.”
Power and contrapower
Bjelland’s study shows the abuse primarily affects the person in the relationship with the most power defining resources such as income and education. This applies to both men and women.
“This implies that intimate partner violence may be all about trying to change the power balance,” claims the sociologist.
She believes that much of the intimate partner violence is a type of contrapower strategy towards a stronger partner.
“Violence or control is used as a compensation for the partner’s weak position in the relationship, and may thus be regarded as an attempt to balance what is perceived as an uneven division of power.”
Such power strategies are often referred to in sociology as conscious tactics. Bjelland is not convinced that these strategies are as premeditated as the theory implies.
“Perhaps the abuse in some cases has to do with an unconscious fear of losing a partner which is more attractive “on the market” due to his or her socio-economic status.”
Jealousy or traditional gender roles?
The most frequent type of psychological abuse or partner violence in the survey had to do with the partner wanting to know where the other part is, who they’re with and when they’re due back home. The second most common type was jealous behavior and attempts to restrict the other part’s social interaction with friends and family.
“It is not uncommon to want to know where one’s partner is and when he or she might be home; when does this become psychological violence?”
“There is no clear answer to that. But this does not have to do with everyday random questions about where someone has been. When the interviewees describe their partners as being inquisitive regarding these things, it is reasonable to assume that it is a type of violation and an attempt to restrict the partner’s freedom. This is a common way of identifying psychological violence in studies on intimate partner violence,” says Bjelland.
Different mechanisms generate different types of violence. Bjelland regards jealousy, the fear of losing one’s partner and contrapower strategies as possible explanations to much of the psychological power abuse and control in relationships.
According to Bjelland, another explanation may be stress and frustration related to society’s views on masculinity and femininity, and the feeling of not being able to live up to expectations related to traditional gender roles.
This has been described in previous research on violence, and Bjelland points to this as one possible explanation to the double violence which women are more exposed to if they have higher status than their partner.
“Men with lower status than their partner may feel that they are not living up to the traditional gender role. This may cause stress and frustration which again may lead to escalating conflicts which end in physical violence towards their partner”, says Bjelland.
Not a conscious strategy
Bjelland believes that the physical violence in many of these cases revolves around situational conflicts and outbursts caused by anger and frustration rather than conscious power strategies.
“In these situations I presume that men relate to traditional gender role norms, but I wish to emphasise that this analysis does not necessarily apply to all men on an individual basis.”
“The connection between power, gender and violence is very complex, and there are several mechanisms at play. Contrapower strategies, for instance, do not apply so much to relationships practicing traditional gender roles.”
One of the finds in the study is that women with the same status as their partner more often experience intimate partner violence than women with lower status. Bjelland believes this may indicate that also having the same status may be perceived by some as conflicting with traditional gender roles in relationships.
“This find should, on the other hand, be analysed with special care, since the data material is scarce,” Bjelland underlines.
Research couples, not individuals
According to Bjelland the Norwegiann research on violence has focused on finding explanations to violence on an individual basis, and it has particularly focused on the woman. Although this research has been necessary, Bjelland wishes to focus more on the relational aspects of intimate partner violence in the future.
“I believe that one have to look at relational factors in order to understand partner violence. The violence occurs in the relation between the two partners. One has to look at the couple as a unity, not just at the individual.”
Since the relationship is a part of a society, the sociologist is also of the opinion that one has to examine the violence in light of society’s gender and power structures.
“It is important to always keep this context in mind,” emphasises Bjelland.
Translated by Cathinka Dahl Hambro