5.3 Intersectionalist approach

Couples as a small system

Couples are the smallest ‘system’ of a society. The system ‘couple’ is in reciprocity with other social systems up to the biggest one, society: A couple is shaped by inter-personal dynamics as well as by societal norms and values. Couples are organized via various forms of interaction (reciprocity of individuals). Hence, interaction is defined as interpersonal dynamic; its main components are verbal and non-verbal communicative acts. This means, that ‘not communicating’ is also a form of communication. Communication carries individual expectations as well as societal ones like norms about feminity and masculinity. Thus, it is indispensable to analyse individual behaviour against the background of societal norms and values – and closely examine its reciprocity. In the interactionist/systemic model approaches vary from focussing on the family of origin as a system (e.g. family therapy) to the conflation of individual and gender biased approaches.

Conflict is an aspect of communication. But while in a conflict, participants aim at keeping up the system, violence aims at its destruction. Domestic violence occurs in an interpersonal relationship where both parties participate. Therefore, it is important to analyse interpersonal dynamics which establish a certain structure in partnerships and finally lead to the exertion of violence. This includes individual expectations, hopes, desires, disappointments, individual life history as well as attitudes toward gender and social order.

Having a closer look at the interaction of a couple, different types of violent dynamics become visible: In a perpetrator-victim relationship it is possible to differentiate between perpetrator and victim, whereas the victim either a) supports the dynamic in e.g. in forgiving the perpetrator, not leaving him/her, keeping up dependency, or b) not supporting the violent dynamic in e.g. trying to separate. All victims show fear, which is not restricted to a certain situation but determines their daily life. They try to modify their behaviours to avoid further violence, use strategies of pacifying the partner etc. Contrary to that, in the second type of violent dynamic, the bi-directional ‘participant-model’, none of the partners show fear which determines their daily life. There are at least two sub-types, a) care/power collusion and b) repetition of traumatic experiences by both partners. It can be assumed that in same-sex partnerships more violent dynamics of the participant type will be found than in heterosexual couples, while in heterosexual partnerships more of the perpetrator-victim dynamic will be found (Ohms 2008).

A sociologist’s view on the system ‘couple’ differs from those of systemic psychotherapists. Although there might be overlaps, attitudes toward couples and especially couple counselling or couple therapy may vary. Further, various definitions of interaction can be found. Interaction here means verbal as well as non-verbal communication embedded in a social context. Communication implies individual and cultural attitudes and its expressions. Thus, the way a partnership is shaped by both partners and culture can be described as a form of interaction.


Research shows that in violent dynamics differences in the sense of inequalities which are connected with feelings of superiority and inferiority are essential. Some of those inequalities are provided by society’s hierarchal order, like gender, race or social background. If those are not “available” for the couple, the partners in violent dynamics tend to create their own – internal – hierarchies, like better coping strategies with experience of sexual abuse in childhood. The idea of hierarchies modulating violent dynamics lead to an intersectionalist approach which takes into account various factors causing domestic violence. The primacy of gender as the dominant factor explaining domestic violence thus needs to be questioned.

Additionally to hierarchies risk factors for domestic violence in lesbian partnerships are multi-factoral: individual life history, hierarchal structure of society, norms and values of lesbian subcultures etc.

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European Commission and the German Federal Ministry of Family, Seniors, Women and Youth.

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