The Myth of Mutual Combat
Mutual combat is a law-enforcement and public safety term used to describe violence when it appears superficially that both parties had equal ability and options to act, and were mutually consenting to coercive tactics. It is believed in those cases that sometimes the best option is to not do anything. Any harm that comes about is the result of "mutual misadventure."
In the past, this thinking was also misapplied to domestic violence. Police work concentrated on limiting the disturbance for third parties, which actually colluded with the goals of the primary aggressor. In fact, in domestic disputes, closer scrutiny almost always shows that one partner is attempting to limit the other partner’s options (primary aggressor), and that the other is attempting to preserve or regain options for themselves (survivors). Most law enforcement and courts have abandoned the idea of mutual combat in domestic disputes, and instead try to identify a primary aggressor.
Care must be taken not to jump from the truism that both partners are distressed and distressing to the erroneous conclusion that partners have an identical role in domestic abuse and escalation. The problem of domestic abuse is asymmetrical and the solution is asymmetrical. Understanding survivor violence is critical to understand justice in this area!
However, most individuals identified as primary aggressors believe that their partner was equally as abusive (which may be sincere or insincere). They resist opportunities to be accountable by an insistence that the partner undergo some treatment etc.. This can come about because of their own misunderstanding about survivor violence, the 'con', or the distorted perception of an assertive female that is part of angry attachment.
In an argument of ideas, it cannot be denied that survivors may have acted cruelly or attempted controlling behaviors. However, an intervention for primary aggression is not a philosophical discussion. It is a public safety and public health initiative. In drug treatment, abstinence is required because any use inflames the addictive process. When a primary aggressor uses the theory of mutual combat to try to insist what the survivor must do, it inflames and redoubles the power and control process.
In the study of domestic violence, the myth of mutual combat has been given some unfortunate steam by an academic product, the conflict tactics scale of Murry Straus.
Conflict Tactics Scale
The conflict tactics scale is a paper and pencil instrument that tallies up acts of violence without any consideration of context or purpose. It is totally blind to the concept of survivor violence. It also classifies violence very crudely in the categories none, minor, and severe. Therefore the attempt to strangle someone to death and the attempt by the person being strangled to gouge the eye of the strangler in order to escape are equated! One act each of severe violence! There is also no consideration of the impact of the act on the recipient. There is no way to report something such as the survivor knowing the primary aggressor 'is capable' of killing her in certain circumstances. Still further, the asymmetry of control in abusive relations can be diluted by the data from the much larger group of non-controlling relationships. Overall, this method, if used to assess for domestic violence (as it unfortunately has been) is like comparing Dickens and Shakespeare by tallying up the frequency at which different letters of the alphabet are used.
The Concept of 'Situational Couple Violence'
Researchers that study family violence not from a public safety or public health point of view but from a more systematic framework, with random (not distressed) samples, have always encountered a confusing gender symmetry in superficially assaultive behavior that, if not understood well, seemed to undermine the clinical concept of primary aggression. Fortunately the academic work of Michael P. Johnson has looked more closely and identified four types of violence: 1) Coercive-Controlling Violence (CCV), which matches the 'primary aggression' described in this website, 2) Violent Resistance, which matches 'survivor-violence, 3) Separation-Initiated Violence, (which is rare and sounds like either coercive-controlling violence with an over-controlled primary aggressor, or situational couple violence incited by a separation) and, 4) Situational Couple Violence, discussed below.
Situational Couple Violence is qualitatively different from primary aggression (domestic violence or intimate partner violence) The two have mutually exclusive features and cannot both occur in the same relationship (of course the majority of relationships have neither.) Situational Couples Violence is marked by unpredictable episodes of symmetrical physical violence which is not coercive in intensity by either side. This violence is meant to be expressive (however inappropriately so) and not controlling. The violence is defined as abuse only by the legal definition, because it does not meet he social or behavioral definition. However, situational couples violence only comes to attention because of systematic assessment of random samples by researchers. These couples do not usually become involved in the public safety or public health arena.
Comparisons of Two Types of Violence
|Situational Couples Violence||Primary Aggression|
|Neither partner afraid of the other||One partner deeply afraid|
|Initiated by both partners||Initiated by a primary aggressor|
|Low injury because actions are technically an assault but not full force||Higher injury level because force is intended to afflict injury|
|Stops if partners separated||Increases if partners separated|
|Brief and self-limiting||Limited only by exhaustion|
|Both partners honest about facts||Primary aggressor shows strong denial|
|Does not escalate||Escalates over time|
|No effort to hide||Strong efforts to hide|
Misconstruing the Data
Quite commonly, primary aggressors attempt to use simplistic statistics to avoid accountability and responsibility. This is how it happens: first, using misunderstood data, survivor violence and primary aggression is merged, and second, abusive relationships are merged with non-abusive ones. Overall, the number of 'hitting' incidents is somewhat greater for women, who perhaps are 'freer' to hit as an expression without it being injurious or coercive.
Primary aggression is based on the goal of the actions, not the gender of the actor. There are some female primary aggressors, but very far fewer. No moral conclusions should be drawn from this,it is simply a biological result. Since the large majority of persons identified as primary aggressors are men, some of those primary aggressors use the misunderstood statistic (or as we say now, "meme") that "women hit more," to insist the process that has identified them is flawed, and that they are not accountable to it. Of course, well informed people know that domestic violence is about far more than 'hitting,' but the power of the legal system to intervene does revolve around the concept of criminal assault.
Hence the myth of mutual combat is hard to dispel. Efforts to combat domestic violence have historically been plagued with confusion between primary aggression and 'couples that just fight a lot.' The difference is easily discernable if armed with a little knowledge, (in this area, clinical moreso than academic.)