Woman/Domestic Abuse vs Marital Conflict

From Little Eyes, Little Ears: How Violence Against a Woman Shapes Children As They Grow, p. 32

by Alison Cunningham and Linda Baker, Centre for Children and Families in the Justice System

The need for differential response2

Interventions should ensure safety and respect individual needs and differences

In devising an intervention strategy, service deliverers consider the severity and frequency of violence,  look for power and control tactics, and ask about any other adverse experiences affecting the children.

Woman abuse is different than marital conflict

While woman abuse can occur without physical assaults, relatively minor incidents such as slapping and pushing can occur once or twice in relationships not otherwise characterized by coercive control tactics.19

The hallmark of woman abuse is coercive control

Woman abuse involves the ongoing, instrumental use of coercive control tactics against a woman by her partner to meet his needs. Physical violence or the threat of it is often present.

Marital conflict is different than woman abuse

Marital conflict may be part of an abusive relationship.  However, marital conflict characterizes a substantial number of intimate relationships where one will not find woman abuse.

The two are often confused in research

The boundaries between marital conflict and woman abuse can be blurred in general population surveys, minimizing the true impact of woman abuse on adult victims and their children. Also, symmetry between the rates of violence reported by men and women are likely to occur when sporadic violence within the context of marital conflict is lumped together with the patterns of intimidation and threat that characterize woman abuse.

The type of intervention will be different

Couple therapies appropriate for marital conflict are ineffective for relationships characterized by woman abuse and may increase the risk faced by a woman and her children. Likewise, the reverse is true. Interventions designed for male perpetrators of woman abuse are not appropriate to deal with marital conflict.


2. Linda Baker & Alison Cunningham (2005). Learning to Listen, Learning to Help: Understanding Woman Abuse and its Effects on Children. London ON: Centre for Children & Families in the Justice System.

19. Michael P. Johnson (2006). Conflict and Control: Gender Symmetry and Asymmetry in Domestic Violence. Violence Against Women, 12(11): 1003-1018.

Further reading:

Judy Martin, John Langley & Jane Millichamp

(2006). Domestic Violence as Witnessed by

New Zealand Children. New Zealand

Medical Journal, 119: 1-14.

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