Tina Turner, the “Queen of Rock,” rose to fame in the 1960s as half of the Ike & Tina Turner Revue. The singer, whom Rolling Stone once called one of the greatest of all time, was also, unfortunately, well known as a victim of domestic violence. Ike Turner was not only her musical partner but also her husband, and she suffered frequent and severe abuse at his hands. In 1976, while he slept, she crept out of their hotel room carrying only 36 cents and a gas card, fearfully shuttling from one friend's house to another's to escape him. After filing for divorce, she was so eager to be free of his terrorizing reign that she let him keep virtually all of their shared assets.

The brand of brutality that Turner endured, which sociologist Michael P. Johnson of Pennsylvania State University calls intimate terrorism, stems from a desire to establish power and control in a relationship. The resulting violence is frequently one-sided—predominantly perpetrated by men—and prone to escalate over time. Less widely recognized, however, is a form of domestic wrath known as situational couple violence, which is mutual and emerges from relationship conflict that gets out of hand. For example, the late singer Amy Winehouse and Blake Fielder-Civil reportedly shared an intense love, and their passion intermittently boiled over into mutual violence. In 2007 guests at the hotel where the couple was staying reported hearing crashing furniture and screaming coming from their suite, and both partners emerged from the fight bruised and bloodied. Yet the next day the pair strolled arm in arm, publicly displaying affection. When they finally parted ways two years later, Winehouse said, “I won't let him divorce me … he's the male version of me, and we're perfect for each other.”

Over the past decade researchers in our social psychology laboratory at Northwestern University have investigated intimate partner aggression, focusing on situational couple violence, which is far more common than intimate terrorism. Ten to 20 percent of married couples experience situational violence annually, and rates are even higher among dating and cohabiting couples, according to an integrative review by sociologist Murray A. Straus of the University of New Hampshire.

In contrast to prevailing perspectives on the topic, which suggest that societal influences push couples toward violence, we believe that most domestic violence grows out of the inherent tension present in intimate relationships, tension that couples would actually prefer to defuse in more peaceful ways. We have found that, in any given instance, a person's ability to control a violent urge likely hinges on the amount of self-control he or she has. That level may in turn depend on personality, recent events, sobriety or stress level. Regardless of which factors are at play, understanding more about how people inhibit or override violent urges is important for reducing the frequency and severity of disruptive behavior in intimate relationships. Moreover, by helping couples amicably work through conflicts, what we learn can limit the frequency with which individuals lash out verbally at or otherwise emotionally abuse their boyfriend, girlfriend or spouse.

Bitter Divide
Scholars began collecting compelling data about domestic violence in the 1970s. Yet as Johnson noted in an article in 1995, researchers from two distinct camps were studying fundamentally different forms of violence without fully recognizing that fact. Members of one camp typically collected data from battered-women's shelters, hospitals and police departments. These data indicated that men perpetrate most domestic violence and do so to establish power and control. These scholars of intimate terrorism suggested that patriarchy, a social system in which men aim to maintain a near monopoly on power and resources, plays a central role in relationship brutality. That is, men use aggression to exert control over “their” women. Sociologists Rebecca Emerson Dobash and Russell P. Dobash of the University of Manchester in England argued in their 1979 book that “men who assault their wives are actually living up to cultural prescriptions that are cherished in Western society—aggressiveness, male dominance and female subordination—and they are using physical force as a means to enforce that dominance.”

Other researchers, meanwhile, tended to conduct nationally representative surveys of domestic violence or studied relationship aggression in individuals in and around college campuses. In these populations, men and women acted violently toward their partner at nearly equal rates. Further, rather than trying to establish power and control, perpetrators were acting out as a result of partner conflicts. Investigators explained these cases with the idea that society conveys subtle approval of violence in romantic relationships, especially given that conflict is a virtually inevitable feature of them. Family violence scholars Straus of New Hampshire and Richard J. Gelles of the University of Pennsylvania argued in a 1988 book chapter that “one of the most important differences between the family and other groups that helps explain the much higher rate of violence in families is the fact that there are cultural norms that permit or require violence … the marriage license is also a hitting license.”

The level of vitriol between these camps became extreme in the 1980s, based in part on the perception of those in the first camp that those backing the mutual aggression concept were (in effect, at least) covering up the persecution of women by men. In one instance, a researcher in the mutual violence camp reported receiving a bomb threat from someone in the rival group. The acrimony has receded in recent years, and in 2005, when we began our studies, we realized that both perspectives rested on a shared assumption: that couples tend to be violent because they have been socialized to believe that doing so is appropriate.

We found this assumption hard to swallow. Is it really true that society condones violence against a romantic partner? Our gut feeling was that aggression is instead something that people generally want to avoid, especially with those they love the most. Thus, it seemed to us that violence in relationships is more akin to a mistake, such as having unprotected sex, breaking your diet or drunk-dialing your ex—that is, an impulse you wish you had suppressed rather than something you believe is okay. Given this intuition, we sought an understanding of situational couple violence that is founded on a basic desire for peace rather than an acceptance of its opposite.

We suggested, for example, that people generally prefer to be nonviolent with their partners but that conflict—and the anger arising from it—is hard to avoid in intimate relationships. In addition, we knew from the scholarly literature that a central function of anger is to trigger an urge to lash out. Whether a person acts on that urge, we hypothesized, depends largely on self-control—that is, the general ability to work toward goals (for instance, adhering to personal standards of civility or maintaining a good relationship) when those goals conflict with a desire to do something else (such as throw a punch).

Over the past decade we have conducted a range of studies to test aspects of this model. First, we wanted to find out if people in intimate relationships frequently experience aggressive urges toward their partner that do not result in aggression. If so, that fact would suggest that people are trying to minimize relationship violence rather than acting on violent impulses because of implicit societal approval. In a study published in 2009 we asked undergraduates to describe the most significant fight they had with a romantic partner and to report whether they had been violent toward their partner during the fight. Did they slap, kick, bite or slam the person against a wall? The students also reported whether they had been tempted to enact such behaviors. We found that half of the respondents had been tempted to act violently but that only 21 percent had succumbed to the impulse.

In a study not yet published we extended our findings to married couples, asking individuals to report any violent behavior or urges they had experienced during the previous year. We found that the married individuals, like the college students, were much more likely to have been tempted to be violent (25 percent) than to have actually been so (9 percent), underscoring the notion that couples are trying to hold back their fists. The results also indicated that both the men and the women were tempted to be violent about three times as often as they actually were physically aggressive. These parallel statistics argue against the explanation that people generally try to stop themselves from fighting physically out of fear of retaliation, given that this concern ought to be greater for women. Instead we believe that people override inclinations to use force so as to better align their behavior with their goals.

Loss of Control
To determine whether such purposeful restraint plays an instrumental role in minimizing violence, we assessed self-control along with violent behavior toward a romantic partner in 850 16-year-olds who were participating in an adolescent dating-violence prevention program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. We asked the teenagers how many times they hit, bit, punched or otherwise behaved aggressively toward a boyfriend or girlfriend over the previous year. Those who scored low in self-control perpetrated 7.5 times as many violent acts toward the teen they were dating as those who scored high, suggesting that a person's level of self-control strongly influences how often that person will be aggressive toward a romantic partner.

Although such correlations point to self-control as the lever people use to override their violent urges, we sought to draw a causal connection. In a third study in 2009 we led both members of 33 dating couples to believe that their partner had given them either supportive or negative feedback on a drawing they completed using colored pencils. (The negative feedback was designed to trigger anger and an urge to lash out.) To manipulate self-control, we had participants complete a task in which they were allowed to pay attention to—or asked to ignore—flashing words superimposed on a silent video clip. The need to direct attention—in this case, to focus on the video while disregarding the words—tends to deplete self-control, leaving less of it available for tasks performed immediately afterward.

We randomly assigned individuals to one of four conditions. Some participants were provoked by negative feedback, but others were not. We further subdivided the groups so that some of them tackled the challenging video task, depleting their self-control, whereas others performed the easier video task. Then we assigned each person to the role of “director” in a task involving his or her partner. Each director could determine the length of time that the partner had to maintain a series of painful, but not harmful, body poses. (In reality, the partner never actually had to assume the assigned poses.)

We predicted that participants would experience an urge to be aggressive in response to negative feedback from their partner but that having intact self-control would allow them to suppress that urge. Indeed, we found that the provoked participants whose self-control had been depleted required that their partner hold the painful body poses for 50 percent longer than did those whose self-control had not been sapped. In contrast, the participants who received positive feedback on their artwork made their partner hold the poses only briefly regardless of whether we had manipulated their self-control. These results suggest that self-control is important for reducing intimate partner violence at times when belligerent thoughts are simmering, but having that resource is not critical when nothing inflammatory is afoot.

Having established that self-control can put a strong brake on situational partner violence, we wanted to test whether we could bolster it and thereby reduce aggressive responses to interpersonal conflict. In a fourth study in 2009 we asked 40 participants in dating relationships how likely they would be to respond violently to a series of 20 upsetting scenarios involving their partner, such as “My partner ridicules or makes fun of me” and “I walk in and catch my partner having sex with someone.” Then we had some participants spend two weeks practicing one of two types of exercises that had been previously shown to strengthen self-control; others had no intervention. In one of the regimens, which focused on physical regulation, participants used their nondominant hand to perform everyday tasks, such as eating and brushing their teeth. In the other, which honed verbal regulation, they had to alter habitual speech patterns, such as avoiding sentences that began with “I” and saying “yes” instead of “yeah.” Just as weight lifting builds muscles, both these two-week regimens were designed to build self-control by exercising it.

Taming the Monster
Indeed, we found that those who engaged in the self-control exercises expressed significantly reduced violent tendencies when they completed our questionnaire again. In contrast, participants who did not engage in a self-control training regimen during the same two-week period indicated that they would act just as violently as they had before.

More recently, we developed a strategy to help people navigate conflict more effectively. In a study published this year we asked 120 married couples from the Chicago area, who had been married for an average of 11 years, to write about the most significant marital conflict they had experienced in the previous four months. Along with this exercise, which they did three times in one year, they also reported on the quality of their marriage, including their satisfaction with it, their trust in their partner, and the passion they felt for him or her.

In the second year of the experiment, we added a “conflict reappraisal” intervention for half of the couples: every four months these participants also spent seven minutes describing the same disagreement they had written about from the perspective of a neutral third party who wants the best for all involved. The aim was to give participants the psychological distance they needed to help get beyond any immediate anger and frustration.

Although marital quality declined during the first year for all participants (sadly, this is a robust finding in the literature on marriage trajectories), it continued to decline in the second year only among participants who did not do the additional writing task. For those who received the writing intervention, their relationship satisfaction stayed stable throughout the year—apparently because the exercise reduced their anger and distress. Combining this intervention with a regimen for strengthening self-control holds particular promise for diminishing the frequency and severity of situational couple violence. It might also help people whose relationships are tinged with strong emotions and who are motivated to throw verbal darts at their partner or deliver other forms of emotional punishment, even if the insults are hardly ever physical.

Such a strategy could benefit Rihanna, the Grammy Award–winning singer, and American vocalist Chris Brown. In February 2009 the couple got into an argument that left Rihanna with a bruised face and Brown with a restraining order. Earlier this year, though, Rihanna told Rolling Stone that she and Brown were again romantically involved. According to Rihanna, “He's not the monster everybody thinks. He's a good person. He has a fantastic heart. He's giving and loving. And he's fun to be around. That's what I love about him—he always makes me laugh.”

Many couples experience a single bout of violence that does not recur, and perhaps Rihanna and Brown will be one of those pairs. Their chances of living happily ever after, however, will be better if they complement their love with good conflict-management skills and a concerted effort to bolster their self-control.