Domestic Violence and the Social Learning Theory

There are many theories that try to explain why men and women become violent in relationships.  Albert Bandura was a firm believer that behavior is caused by something deep in the brain and others believe that it is a controlled choice.  (University of South Alabama online, 2003) The theory that best explains domestic violence is the social learning theory.  The social learning theory suggests that violence is a learned behavior and can be triggered by stress, alcohol abuse, and money.  We learn behavior starting at an early age in life from our parents.  In fact our parents and guardians have the greatest impact on our behavior, attitude, and relationships.  The learned behavior carries with us into our adulthood.  “One hypothesized mode of intergenerational transmission is modeling. There is evidence that witnessing and/or experiencing violence are related to different patterns of abusive behavior.” (Murrell, Christoff, & Henning, 2007 pg. 523-532)

“Sociologists state that men batter because they learned violence in their families as children and that women seek out abusive men because they see their mothers being abused.” (McCue 2008)  I interviewed Sharon Mullen, who was abused in her home as a child.  She describes a home with lots of fighting.  Mullen states that her father was never violent, but his words were very demeaning and hurtful.   “I remember my father would call me stupid and would get very angry with me for spilling something or burning dinner.  My father verbally abused me and I learned that it was okay for men to speak to women in that manner.  As an adult I unknowingly sought out relationships in which my partner spoke down to me and with each relationship the abuse got more intense.  Overtime, I went from dating a man that verbally abused me to a more physically abusive relationship.” (Mullen, 2014)  Studies show this to be a pattern in women that witnessed some form of abuse as a child between her parents or was victimized as a child.  Children are very observant and even when you think they are not paying attention they are absorbing everything in.  Little eyes and little ears don’t miss much, soaking in sights and sounds. Children that witness violence and abuse are overwhelmed by intense feelings and replay consciously the turn of events.  (Cunningham and Baker online, 2007)  Children that see repeated behavior become numb to the violence and abuse and see it is as normal and accepted behavior.  When a man is abusive to a child’s mother, it’s more than bad role modeling. It’s bad parenting.   Let’s face it, as parents we act as role models.  We teach our children by word and action.

Children can be confused and not sure of what is right and what is wrong and will start to repeat the behavior they see.  Children that live in homes with repeat violence will act out by hitting, biting, and pushing friends, siblings, and classmates.  “Social learning theory suggests that a child learns not only how to commit violence but also learns positive attitudes about violence when he (or she) sees it rewarded (Dutton and Holtzworth-Munroe 1997; Kalmuss 1984).This suggests that children who have witnessed violence, or have been abused, learn destructive conflict resolution and communication patterns. Sternberg et al. (1997) suggest that Bandura’s social learning theory would predict that both observers and victims can be affected, with children from more violent environments being more likely to acquire aggressive modes of behavior.” (Murrell, Christoff, and Henning, 2007) The violent behavior will then escalate into personal relationships as they get older.  Think about the concept of the social learning theory; humans learn from observation from the people and environment around them.  When children witness violent behavior in the home they are learning more than it’s acceptable.  Violent relationships in the home teach children the following ideas:

  • violence and threats get you what you want; a person has two choices – to be the aggressor or be the victim;
  • victims are to blame for violence;
  • when people hurt others, they do not get in trouble;
  • women are weak, helpless, incompetent, stupid, or violent; anger causes violence or drinking causes violence;
  • people who love you can also hurt you;
  • unhealthy, unequal relationships are normal or to be expected;
  • men are in charge and get to control women’s lives; women don’t have the right to be treated with respect (Cunnigham and Baker, 2007)

By the time children reach adolescences they have this warped idea of how a relationship should be.   They have trouble with problem solving and are not able to reach a healthy solution to normal, every day challenges.  Media also plays a negative role by desensitizing our youth with violent video games and movies that reflect domestic abuse and men overpowering females.  Socially our youth struggle with emotions and become  very confused, especially if they do not have a positive, healthy, and stable home environment.  In fact teenage girls may have difficulty establishing healthy relationships; may fear being abused or being abusive in intimate relationships, especially when conflict arises; may avoid intimacy or prematurely seek intimacy and child bearing to escape and create own support system.  (Cunnigham and Baker online, 2007)

Through extensive research it has been discovered that men that have witness’s accounts of abuse and battering as a child are nine times more likely to play the role of the abuser in intimate relationships.  In cases of verbal violence, men who report observing domestic violence were also more likely to verbally abuse and threaten their partners. Further, the more physical the abuse, the more likely these men were to report committing verbal and physical violence to their intimate partners.  (Wareham, Boots, and Chavez, 2009)

It is evident that we learn by observing.  When we witness attacks of domestic violence become an every day event; we become numb to the real issue.  The violence becomes a normal event and a way of dealing with personal issues.  The social learning theory is undoubtedly the best way to explain the transfer of violent behavior generation to generation.   “A child who lives with violence is

forever changed, but not forever “damaged.” There’s a lot we can do to make tomorrow better.”  (Cunningham and Baker online, 2007)

References:

McCue, M. (2008). Domestic violence: A reference handbook (Revised/Expanded ed.). Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO.

Murrell, A., Christoff, K., & Henning, K. (2007). Characteristics Of Domestic Violence Offenders: Associations With Childhood Exposure To Violence. Journal of Family Violence, 523-532.

Wareham, J., Boots, D., & Chavez, J. (2009, May 13). Social Learning Theory and Intimate Violence Among Men Participating in a Family Violence Intervention Program. Retrieved August 19, 2014, from https://www.ncjrs.gov/App/Publications/abstract.aspx?ID=249555

University, P. (2013, February 11).  – The Future of Children -. Retrieved August 19, 2014, from http://www.princeton.edu/futureofchildren/publications/journals/article/index.xml?journalid=47&articleid=228§ionid=1495

Structure: Mullen, Sharon   (2014, August 12). Personal interview.

Barrett, E. (2003, January 1). Social Learning Theory. Retrieved August 18, 2014, from http://www.southalabama.edu/oll/mobile/theory_workbook/social_learning_theory.htm

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