Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Social Bonding and the Cessation of Partner Violence across Generations

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Social Bonding and the Cessation of Partner Violence across Generations

Article excerpt

Violence between adult partners has often been explained by a process of intergenerational transmission, with this explanation dominant for nearly 2 decades (see, e.g., Widom, 1989c, for a review). The argument explicates a social learning process whereby violence is passed from one generation to the next (see, e.g., O'Leary, 1988, for a presentation of the argument as a social learning theory). However, critics have questioned the "law-like" stature of this argument, particularly given the empirical evidence bearing on it (e.g., Pagelow, 1984; Widom, 1989c).

Research findings tend to show that many people witnessing or victimized by violence in their family of origin subsequently use violence themselves. Yet findings also show that most people from violent families do not perpetrate intimate violence later in life (e.g., Fagan, Stewart, & Hansen, 1983; Kalmus, 1984; Pagelow, 1981; Rivera & Widom, 1990; Straus, Gelles, & Steinmetz, 1980; Widom, 1989a, 1989b; see also Hotaling & Sugarman, 1986; Sedlak, 1988, for reviews). Family violence during childhood or adolescence, therefore, does not necessarily destine people to violent relationships in adulthood.

Given these findings, some consider the intergenerational transmission thesis a myth (e.g., Gelles & Cornell, 1985), while others claim it simply poses major questions for research (e.g., Finkelhor, Hotaling, & Yllo, 1988). For example, one major question bears on the issue of persistence: Why does "violence beget violence"? Yet another major question addresses the issue of cessation: How do people sharing a violent past overcome this legacy and move on to nonviolent relationships? The term cessation in this context refers to the blocking of violence from one generation to the next, not the desistance of violence by previously violent individuals.

Investigators have begun to explore such questions (e.g., Caesar, 1988; Kruttschnitt, Ward, & Sheble, 1987). The present study extends this research by determining whether Hirschi's (1969) theory of the social bond accounts for the cessation of violence among those from violent families. Stated as an empirical question, will successful bonding experiences in adulthood differentiate persons with a violent family history who are nonviolent from those who perpetuate violence against their partners? This question is addressed by analyzing data from a national probability sample of men from violent families involved in marital or marriage-like relationships.


According to Hirschi's (1969, p. 10) theory of the social bond, the mystery to be unraveled is not "deviance" but "conformity." Hirschi (1969) assumed that people are deviant by nature. The likelihood of deviance is reduced by strengthening the bond to conventional society. In short, Hirschi's (1969) theory assumes that motivation for deviance varies little across individuals. They differ in the strength of their social bond, so motivation is nonproblematic in explaining such behavior. An explanation depends on an assessment of individuals' bond to society: The weaker the bond, the greater the likelihood that people will act on their tendencies to deviate, given the opportunity to do so.

Dimensions of the Social Bond

Hirschi (1969) identified four variable dimensions of the social bond: attachment, commitment, involvement, and moral beliefs. Some degree of covariation across dimensions was assumed by Hirschi (see, e.g., p. 27), but an increase on any one dimension presumably strengthens an individual's ties to "conventional society," thus reducing the likelihood of deviance.

Attachment. This dimension bears on affective ties to significant others, such as friends or relatives. Individuals with stronger attachments will be less likely to engage in deviant behavior that incites disapproval from those persons. Valued attachments increase the sensitivity of individuals to the opinions of others, which lowers the likelihood that attached individuals will engage in behavior contrary to the "wishes and expectations of other people" (Hirschi, 1969, p. …

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