Why we need to investigate experiences of Bidirectional Intimate Partner Violence

By Liz Harper and Dr Liz Bates

The Crown Prosecution Service (2021) defines domestic violence and abuse, which includes intimate partner violence (IPV), as “Any behaviour deployed by an offender to obtain control or power over another, and we recognise that emotional abuse can be just as harmful as physical violence”. This definition reflects the plethora of academic research that has helped us understand the prevalence of IPV as well as how it impacts families. Where earlier research placed a considerable focus on working with women as victims and men as perpetrators, we now see various research highlighting women’s violence, men’s victimisation, and the prevalence of IPV within the LGBTQ+ community.

Within the body of literature around IPV, a significant finding that has emerged has been around the prevalence of bidirectional, or mutual violence; evidence that both partners can perpetrate and be victim to violence in a given relationship, although, this may not always be within each violent episode. There is now significant evidence to suggest that this type of abuse is common within intimate relationships and can be found across various relationships types. In a systematic review of previous literature, the average prevalence of reported IPV that was bidirectional in nature was 57.5% (ranging from a low of 49.2% among the female-oriented, nonmilitary treatment-seeking samples to a high of 69.7% among the male-oriented, military legal/justice samples; Langhinrichsen-Rohling et al., 2012). This has prompted researchers to re-evaluate the roles people can take in relationship violence including the impact this may have on risk assessment and intervention.

Bidirectional or mutual violence can be prevalent and unrelenting in matters both big and small. It suggests that both partners can display aggressive behaviours during a conflict. Although, this may not be with each episode of conflict and may not be symmetrical. Examples of bidirectional or mutual violence could include:

  • Where both of you are verbally and physically aggressive during an argument.
  • Where both of you have acted aggressively during an argument but this may not be with every argument.
  • Where you may both use coercive controlling or more psychologically abusive behaviours (e.g., checking each other’s phones, checking where each other are, calling each other names, humiliating and denigrating each other, gaslighting).
  • Where you may have both utilised abusive tactics to influence your partner’s daily life (e.g., relationships with friends/ family/ children, jobs, finances).

The gendered model of IPV is still largely influential within society; positioning IPV as unidirectional from predominantly male perpetrators towards female victims. The model has informed gendered stereotypes around IPV and these societal perceptions can be noted within assessments of bidirectional scenarios. Hine et al. (2020) found participants were significantly less likely to label men as ‘victims’ and women as ‘perpetrators’ and were less likely to recommend that a man should ‘call the police’ in bidirectional abuse scenarios. This further highlights how the focus on unidirectional research has largely influenced how society perceives IPV scenarios.

Previous research on the subject has explored the issue of bidirectional abuse through the analysis of existing literature or through the quantitative analysis of IPV in relationships. Furthermore, there has been numerous studies and articles investigating men’s and women’s victimisation of unidirectional violence through qualitative and experiential means. Bidirectional IPV appears to be understudied in this way and this has been acknowledged by other scholars who suggest that future research should “seek to utilize examples of IPV that are as representative of experiential accounts as possible” (Hine et al., 2020, p. 17).

To try and fill this gap in the literature, I have launched my dissertation study with the support of my supervisor (Dr Liz Bates) as well other staff from the University of Cumbria. The aim of the research is to investigate experiences of bidirectional IPV to develop a better understanding and greater evidence base to support all victim/perpetrator groups. The study includes an anonymous online qualitative questionnaire to bring context and to fully investigate participant experience in all aspects. With the sensitivity of the subject, including the potential of this being a participant’s first disclosure of their experiences, the use of an anonymous open-ended survey will allow participants to feel less restricted when talking about their experiences. The questionnaire should take between 30- 45 minutes to complete.

For more information about the study or to take part in the survey, please click here: Survey Link.

Why we need to understand the experiences of older men

Dr Elizabeth Bates (University of Cumbria) and Dr Nikki Carthy (Teesside University)

Since the feminist movement of the 1970s there has been a developing body of literature that has helped us understand intimate partner violence (IPV) in terms of its prevalence and its impact on families. Through this 50 year period, we have also seen the development of different strands of research that have encompassed the complexity of the issue; for example, where the original focus had been primarily on working with women as victims and men as perpetrators, we now see a wealth of research highlighting women’s violence, men’s victimisation, and the prevalence within LGBTQ+ groups.

A further “strand” has included exploring the experiences of older people, but this has primarily focused on working with older women and has neglected to highlight and understand how IPV may change or continue for older men.

Where research and crime statistics have indicated that physical IPV decreases over the lifespan, other research has found that this is not necessarily always the case, and indeed when it is, there is a further possibility that there are increased rates of other non-physical forms of abuse. Some studies reveal that as the physical aspect lessens, there were increases in psychological and emotional abuse, thought to reflect the advanced social and verbal skills of these groups.

We further know from this research that there are many barriers for older people in help-seeking and reporting that include greater financial dependency, the normalisation of abuse, and perhaps less confidence in speaking out related to the lack of campaigns targeted at this group.

Whilst these experiences and barriers are likely to share some similarity with older male groups, it is also possible that there are gender and age specific differences. For example, within the wider male victim literature (which has typically worked with younger men), we see gender-specific experiences such as greater use of legal and administrative aggression and false allegations by women. This extends to the barriers to help-seeking too where we see reference to the masculine gender role, gendered policy and practice, and fear of losing children to a system that favours mothers.

In a small-scale pilot study conducted we analysed the experiences of eight older men within a wider data set that qualitatively explored men’s experiences of IPV. This analysis revealed that men experienced significant physical violence and coercive controlling behaviour. They further reported age-specific experiences related to financial abuse and longevity of the relationship (and abuse). One man described the way in which his partner had tried to convince him he had dementia to take control of his life and finances.  The findings from this study are important, but there is a need to explore this issue on a greater scale to capture a wider range of older men’s experiences.

To try and address this gap, we’ve recently launched a new study working with other colleagues at the University of Cumbria; we hope to expand our understanding of IPV victim experiences by working with men over 60 who have experienced aggression and/or control from a female partner. Our anonymous online survey includes questions about experiences of aggression and control, as well as specific age-related questions to explore if these experiences changed or continued as men got older.  Figures by the ManKind Initiative suggest that anonymity when men are first disclosing is critical, specifically their data found 70% of the men who had called the helpline had only done so because it was anonymous and 53% had never told anyone else about their abuse. We hope that by using this method, we can broaden the sample captured and give older men an opportunity to have their stories heard confidentially.  We also recognise that some men, perhaps particularly in this older group, may also not wish to engage with this online and so we are also offering semi-structured interviews in Carlisle, or via phone/Skype for any men who would prefer to communicate that way.

For more information about the study or to take part in the survey, please click here: survey link; alternatively if you would like to take part but would rather do a phone or Skype interview, then please get in touch with Elizabeth.Bates@cumbria.ac.uk

For a more in depth discussion about the need to work inclusively within this area, please see Carthy, Bates and Policek (2019).