How Can Understanding Human Evolutionary Psychology Help Prevent Domestic Violence?

Conflict between the sexes is a pervasive problem in many social relationships. It becomes especially acute in mating relationships. Humans, unlike most species, have evolved long-term mating strategies marked by high levels of investment, commitment, and love. Long-term mating could not have evolved without adaptations to guard or protect these investments. At the most general level, there are two broad tactics that men and women use to retain valuable mates. One tactic is to bestow benefits such as attention, emotional support, protection, resources, and love. Unfortunately, the other broad tactic involves inflicting costs, such as verbal abuse, threats of violence, sexual coercion, and physical aggression. These tactics are aimed at keeping their mate tied to the relationship and deterring sexual, emotional, or financial infidelity.

An evolutionary perspective provides a guide to the circumstances in which the cost-inflicting abusive tactics are most likely to be used (See here for a fuller discussion). Men are especially prone to domestic violence when they suspect or discover that their partner is sexually unfaithful, when they suspect or know that their partner is pregnant with another man’s child, and when they lack the resources to use benefit-bestowing mate retention tactics. Another situation that increases the odds of domestic violence is what I call a “mate value discrepancy,” particularly when the woman in the relationship is seen as more attractive or desirable than the man. Common expressions such as “He’s not good enough for you” and “You deserve better” convey the essence of mate value discrepancy. Women who are more desirable than their partner indeed are statistically more likely to be sexually unfaithful and more likely to want to leave the relationship for someone better. This provides a recipe for potential danger—when the woman attempts to end the relationship and the man refuses to let her go. Men have evolved psychological circuits that lead them to be jealous and possessive. It’s not uncommon for men in these circumstances to think “If I can’t have you, no one can.” Male sexual jealousy is the leading cause of stalking, violence, and even spousal homicide (see my book The Dangerous Passion for further information).

It’s an unfortunate fact that men have evolved a psychology of jealousy and violence, and sometimes use it in an effort to keep their partners faithful, to prevent them from leaving, and even to lower a partner’s self-esteem so that she doesn’t have the confidence to leave. We know some of the danger signs that statistically increase the odds of domestic violence: When the man attempts to cut off his wife’s relationship with her friends or kin, when he insists on knowing where she is at all times, and when he is verbally abusive in an effort to lower her sense of self-worth. One strategy known to have some beneficial effects is for the women and those who love her to be alert to these danger signs and to keep family and friends, “bodyguards,” close at hand.

Knowledge of men’s evolved psychology of jealousy and cost-inflicting mate retention tactics will not end all instances of domestic violence. But it can guide us to the predictable circumstances in which aggressive tactics are likely to be inflicted on women who are most vulnerable. In this way, evolutionary psychology can provide one set of tools for reducing the occurrence of intimate partner violence.

David Buss is a professor of psychology at The University of Texas at Austin.

Category: Q&A

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2 Responses

  1. Dean Wilber says:

    I think the same logic appplies to peer to peer and parent-child attachment relationships. When one doesn’t have the emotional resources to be supportive to maintain the relationship one resorts to violence. What is necessary is to give people the emotional resources they need to maintain relationships.

  2. Dean Wilber says:

    I think Aron et al (2004) says negative feedback is more salient and activates your brain more than positive feedback. This could account for why people stay in abusive relationships. I further think developing emotional resources would involve prayer and or meditation involving a higher power.

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