Evolution and violence in intimate relationships

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Whilst public conceptions of violent crime often centre on the risk of being victimised by a stranger, the majority of violent crimes take place between people who know each other: members of the same family, friends or intimate partners. Both sexes are the targets if intimate partner violence but women are more likely to be victimised in this way (28% of women v. 18% of men; BCS, 2005). Abuse in domestic settings is very common. 20% of violent crime in the UK is domestic abuse (635,000 reports per year). 50% of cases also involve harm to children. In the UK, on average, two women are killed each week by their intimate partners.

The evolutionary approach suggests that psychological and behavioural traits are passed on genetically. Evolutionary psychologists believe that patterns in Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) are the result of genetic influences. These have evolved because differences in male and female reproductive physiology have created selection pressure for particular ways of acting in men. Both sexes have a vested interest in the survival of any children they produce, since their offspring will pass on their genes to their offspring and so on. They therefore have a motive to invest resources in their offspring, as this increases their viability. However, whilst women can always be sure that the offspring are theirs – and so carry their genes – men cannot. Men are therefore vulnerable to sexual infidelity by their partners. Evolutionary psychologists argue that this creates a selection pressure for behaviours that decrease the likelihood of sexual infidelity by their mates.

Men seem to be more bothered by sexual infidelity than women are (although women appear to be more troubled than men by the thought of emotional infidelity; Buss, 2000). IPV is often precipitated by a man’s fear of sexual infidelity by or losing control of his partner (Morgan, 2009). In abusive relationships violence is often accompanied by ‘checking up’ e.g. dropping in on the partner unexpectedly or phoning constantly. There are often attempts to separate the female partner from other men e.g. by controlling her social or employment activities and/or by filling her time with domestic and childcare activities (Buss, 1988). Domestic violence is worse when the victim is young and attractive (Buss & Shackleford, 1997) and when the victim is pregnant or near ovulation (Gangestad et al, 2002). Some of the most serious ‘danger signals’ for IPV are when a man (1) insists on knowing his partner’s whereabouts at all times; (2) tries to limit her contact with friends; (3) drops in unexpectedly; and (4) saying ‘I’d die if you ever left me’ or similar (Wilson et al, 1995; Shackleton et al, 2005).


Source: Sammons (2010) Violence in intimate relationships. URL: http://www.psychlotron.org.uk

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