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Domestic Violence: Nature vs. Nurture and the Social Work Intervention

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Domestic Violence: Nature vs. Nurture and the Social Work Intervention


                Domestic violence is also known as domestic abuse, spousal abuse or intimate partner violence (IPV). It is defined as a pattern of abusive actions between one or both partners who are in intimate relations, which include marriage, dating, friends or even cohabitation (Shipway, 2004). The UK Ministry of Justice defined domestic violence as “any incident of threatening behavior, violence or abuse between adults who are have been intimate partners or family members, regardless of gender or sexuality.”

According to the Women’s Aid (2008) someone is in an abusive relationship if he/she is experiencing pressure tactics (brooding, taking away resources, committing suicide, taking children away, etc.); disrespect (criticizing and mocking in public, interrupting voice calls, taking money and other valuable things without prior notice, etc.); breaking trust (lying, excessive jealousy, having affairs, etc.); isolation (obsessive behaviors); harassment (not respecting one’s privacy, embarrassing in public); threat (using physical and words to intimate, threatening those people who are important, i.e. children); sexual abuse (using force, intimidating, degrading behaviors or comments about sexual orientation); physical violence (strangling, shoving, pulling hair out, punching, kicking, and other physical violence); denial (denying that the abuse is happening, promising that it will never happen again).

Generally, the victims of domestic violence are women. It is estimated that around the globe, at 1 in every 3 women has been physically, sexually, or/and mentally abused in her lifetime by her own family (FindCounseling, 2009). In the USA, it was estimated that up to 25% of women and 22% men delivered to ER are victim of domestic violence (FindCounseling, 2009). On the other hand, according to Stanko (2000), the Police is receiving 1 domestic violence case per minute in the UK – that is 1,300 calls per day or more than 570,000 per year: 89% of which are women being abused by men. The survey of British Crime found out that there were more or less 12.9 million cases of domestic violence acts (include non-sexual threats) against women, while 2.5 million against men in England and Wales in 2003 (Walby and Allen, 2004).

There are several studies which show the reasons behind the domestic violence, which include psychological or mental problems, such as personality disorder, depression, etc. (Babcock, et al., 2000; Caspi et al., 2002; Corvo, 2006); drug and alcohol abuse (Corvo, Halpren and Ferraro, 2006, Moeller and Dougherty, 2001); and childhood experience of domestic violence (Fulero and Wrightsman, 2008).

In particular, different fields of study, including social works, public health as well as crime are focusing on the influence of experience of childhood violence towards the prevalence of domestic violence in adulthood. Thus, it this case, the issue and debate about nature and nurture will arise. The issue of nature focuses on those theories which show that the gene, brain structure and overall temperament of men are different from that of women. However,  this notion will no longer be applicable in the issue of domestic violence, because, its victims are not just women, gay or lesbian, but also those men, which is considered as greater sex in the past and in some culture in the contemporary world.

Domestic Violence Abuser

                There many literatures which focus on the risk markers for domestic violence. According to these literatures, those men or women who batter their spouse have often experienced and witnessed violence in their families during their childhoods. It is said that the impact of witnessing the violence has more negative influence upon the upbringing of an individual, than those who suffer. Thus, those who experienced and witnessed violence are even more likely to exert violence towards their spouse (Fulero and Wrightsman, 2008).

Socio-Cultural Theory

            According to Corvo and Johnson (2003) the socio-cultural or feminist theory of domestic violence affirms that in a patriarchal society, aggression or violence towards women is considered as a result of socially accepted and endorsed domination, power and control of men towards women. Thus, violence is considered as a manner of overpowering and controlling as a problem by men alone. However, there are no strong evidence which support the said notion (Yick, 2000), for instance, the study of Straus and Ramirez (2007) showed that women are more apt to use cruel and harsh treatment against those non-violent men, than the reverse case. In addition, the study of Archers (2000) of 60,000 sampling population showed that more women are more domestically violent than men, particularly those younger women.

                Thus, the result of these studies already set that the behavior of the domestic violence abusers are nature.

Intergenerational Transmission

                The intergenerational transmission theory believes that children and those young people who are exposed and aware of domestic violence are most likely of perpetrating relationship violence in their adult lives (Boyd, 2001). This theory is considered as the most continuing and frequent used in the domestic violence during the adulthood. This theory is based on the social learning theory which holds that observation of violence inside home can establish attitudes, behaviors, and notions and ideas regarding how, when and towards whom violent reaction is appropriate. This theory had been widely studied in past literatures (Straus et al., 1980; Rosenbaum and O’Leary, 1981). The study of Witfield et al. (2003) found out that those children who are exposed or who have witnessed violence at home, use bullying and aggression in higher manner, compare to those who are not exposed.

Psychological Theories

            Psychological theories of domestic violence focus on the individual psychological, psychiatric, behavioral and neurological risk factors. According to Dutton (2006), the psychological factors are: “personality disorders, neurobiological factors, neuroanatomical factors, disordered or insecure attachment, developmental psychopathology, cognitive distortions and post-traumatic symptoms.” It is important to take note that those domestically violent people different from those non-violent, not just on psychological factor, thus, many studies focus on studying the sub-types in order to measure the “personality styles, disorders, psychopathology, hostility, attachment styles, drug and alcohol use as well as the type of severity of violence” (Lohr et al., 2005). Lots of literatures are focusing on the connection of psychological factors and aggression and violence. For instance, the study of Filley et al. (2001) showed that there are connections between “neuroscience of violence, genetic, neuroanatomical, neurchemical, development, neuropsychological and psychiatric factors.” In addition, the study of Turkstra, Jones and Toler (2003) showed a great connection between traumatic brain injuries (TBI) with the domestic violence abusers. The result of the study showed that those abusers have more severe TBI have more problems in managing anger, than those who do not have TBI.

                Furthermore, the study of George, et al. (2006) found out that those domestic violence abusers have a different, or shows abnormalities in their central serotonin and testosterone metabolism. At the same time, they also showed impaired neurological connections between their cortex and theamygdala.

                Dutton (2002) also focus on the issue of early trauma, attachment disruption and borderline personality traits – which are connected to the intimate violence. The study of Dutton (2002) and his colleagues about the personality profiles of those domestic violence abusers shows that the borderline personality of the abusers are connected to the reports of the wives about the user of violence of their partners, together with other strong emotions, such as anger, jealousy and trauma symptoms of adult. The study of Babcock (2000) showed that the insecure attachment styles are connected to being abusive. This is because early life separation and loss of love one are connected towards the level of severity of the domestic violence behaviors of the adult. It is even found out by the study that those who experienced loss are more violent than those who experienced or witnessed violence during childhood (Corvo, 2006).

                All of these factors are connected with the issue of alcohol and drug abuse. Domestic violence abusers are commonly alcoholic and drug addict, thus, they tend to become violent, because they lost their control.

Intervention Treatment for Domestic Violence in Hong Kong


                The Hong Kong Police reported that in 2006, the domestic violence cases had increased to double in the first 3 months to 1,780 cases, wherein 1/3 were criminal cases. According to the report of Harmony House, a charity which helps families who are victims of domestic, the said increase is because of the increasing migrant from mainland, China, particularly those who married Hong Kongers, which made them hard to adapt to the lifestyle of Hong Kong. Another important reason is the problem of unbalanced unequal responsibilities and roles of man and woman inside the family. As have mentioned in the socio-cultural theory, the Chinese view women as weaker sex. Other important issues are gambling, unemployment, alcohol and drug abuse which cause family arguments (Cheng, 2007).

                In Hong Kong, because of strong tradition in family, even in a violent relationship, when the marriage is at the brink of destruction, the domestic violence abuser can still or may still want to keep the marriage intact. Thus, under this situation, the abuser will have to engage in counseling, he or she will not be isolated. Upon entering the program or counseling, the following services will be offered: support, advice, treatment for abusive beliefs. In addition, different issues will be considered which include taking responsibility of the abusive act, learning anger management, parenting skills or child care service (Cheung, 1997).  

                In Hong Kong, group treatment is being implemented or therapeutic group treatment. The treatment is being implemented by gender, meaning the domestic violence abusers are grouped based on their sex and then will undergo counseling and treatment. This is very advantageous because it can help to take away the labeling effect, thus the abusers, particularly the male – which is based on the culture of Chinese, the most prominent sex. In addition, the treatment is also cost effective, because the cost to be spent in a given session will be spent to that group and not in individual manner (Lehmann and Simmons, 2009).

                The region is also implementing the conjoint treatment for mild-to-moderate violence, in order to maintain the relationship of both parties. By this process, the men and women first attend gender-specific groups then will join in a conjoint treatment in individual or multi-couple group therapy. The process is showed in the figure below.

Source: (Stuart, Moore and Ramsey, 2004)

Children who witnessed Domestic Violence

                Group counseling is being implemented to counsel those children who witnessed domestic violence. Most are time-limited from 6 to 10 weeks and use a given psycho educational curriculum which offer structure for discussion regarding violence inside the family, personal safety as well as the identification of feelings and emotions. This targets those children between 6 to 15 years old (, n.d.).

                According to the world report on violence and health book by Krug and World Health Organization (2002) the result of applying this method in Hong Kong shows different results and contradictory. As a result, it is important for the Hong Kong government to focus on other strategies and techniques which can be used in order to improve the approaches to be applied to those children who witnessed domestic violence, as the childhood of an individual greatly affect his or her behavior during adulthood.


                Domestic violence is indeed one of the major social and criminal problems in the world. It has different impacts on the economic and social condition of people, particularly women and children. Based on the different theories reviewed, it shows that domestic violence behavior of the abuser is nurture or it is the result of the different experiences from childhood to adulthood. These experiences include those physical, social, economic and political beliefs, stands, cultures and notions in the environment or in the society. In particular, family is considered as the smallest unit of community, it is the place where a child gain his or her learning or knowledge, thus the behavior of the parents are important factors which affect their behavior and culture. Witnessing domestic violence during childhood can cause psychological, emotional and physical damage to a child, which can cause him or her to act violently in the future.  


Archer, J. (2000). ‘Sex differences in aggression between heterosexual partners: a meta-analytic review’. Psychological Bulletin. 126(5), 651 – 680. Mental health services for children who witness domestic violence. Retrieved 3rd December, 2010, from

Babcock, J. C., Jacobson, J. M., Gottman, J. M. and Yerington, T. P. (2000). ‘Attachment, emotional regulation, and functional of marital violence: differences between secure, preoccupied and dismissing violent and nonviolent husbands’. Journal of Family Violence. 15(4), 391 – 409.

Boyd, C. (2001). ‘The implications of effects of theories of intergenerational transmission of violence for boys who live with domestic violence’. Australian Domestic & Family Violence Clearinhouse Newsletter. 6, 6 – 8.

Cheng, M. (2007). ‘Domestic violence cases rising in Hong Kong’. VOA News. Retrieved 3rd December, 2010, from 

Cheung, F. (1997). EnGendering Hong Kong society: a gender perspective of women’s status. Chinese University Press.

Caspi, A., McClay, T., Mill, J. and Craig, I. (2002). ‘The role of genotype in the cycle of violence in maltreated children’. Science. 297, 851 – 854. 

Corvo, K. (2006). ‘Violence, separation and loss in the families of origin of domestically violent men’. Journal of Family Violence. 21(2), 117 – 125.

Corvo, J., Halpren, J. and Ferraro, F. R. (2006). ‘Frontal lobe deficits, alcohol abuse and domestic violence’. Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment and Trauma. 13(2), 49 – 63.

Corvo, K. and Johsnon, P. J. (2003). ‘Vilification of the “batterer”: how blame shapes domestic violence policy and interventions’. Aggression and Violent Behavior. 8(3), 259 – 281.  

Dutton, D.G. (2006). Rethinking domestic violence. UBC Press, Vancouver. 

Filley, C., Price, B., Nelly, T., Antoinette, T., Morgan, A. and Bresnahan, J. (2001). ‘Toward an understanding of violence: neurobehavioral aspects of unwarranted physical aggression: Aspen Neurobehavioral Conference consensus statement’. Neuropsychiatry, Neurophsychology and Behavioral Neurology. 14(1), 1 – 14.

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Fulero, S. and Wrightsman, L. (2008). Forensic psychology. Cengage Learning. 

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Turkstra, L., Jones, D. and Toler, H.L. (2003). ‘Brain injury and violent crime’. Brain injury. 17(1), 39 – 47. 

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