Many young people and adolescents do not pay much attention to violence in their relationships, they tend to believe that it is a problem that affects only adults. However, important etiological factors for gender-based violence in adult relationships can occur during dating.

Violence in young couples: why does it happen?

Violence in relationships is a problem that affects all ages, races, social classes and religions. It is a social and health problem which, due to its high incidence, has currently produced significant social alarm both because of the seriousness of the facts and because of the negative consequences.

The concept of violence in adolescent relationships has been defined by various authors. International research uses the term “dating aggression and/or dating violence”. In Spain, the most commonly used term is violence in adolescent relationships or violence in dating relationships .

Defining this type of violence

Ryan Shorey, Gregory Stuart and Tara Cornelius define violence in dating relationships as those behaviors that involve physical, psychological or sexual aggression between members of a dating couple . Other authors emphasize that this is violence that implies any attempt to dominate or control a person physically, psychologically and/or sexually, causing some type of harm.

Required reading: “The 30 Signs of Psychological Abuse in a Relationship”

From psychology, several authors try to explain the causes of this violence in adolescent relationships. Although currently there are few studies that have addressed in a theoretical way the origin and maintenance of violence in these couples, there is a certain tendency to explain it from classical theories on aggressiveness or linked to ideas on gender violence in adult couples.

The following are some of the most relevant theories and theoretical models, although not all, to shed some light on this problem.

Attachment Theory

John Bowlby (1969) proposes that people shape their style of relationship based on the interactions and relationships they established during childhood with the main figures of attachment (mother and father). These interactions influence both the initiation and the development of aggressive behaviour .

According to this theory, adolescents from households in which they observed and/or suffered abuse, showing problems in regulating their emotions, low problem-solving skills and/or lower self-confidence, which may also be due to the above, would be more likely to establish conflicting relationships.

From this perspective, aggressions in adolescence would originate from negative experiences in childhood , such as aggressive behaviour in parents, child abuse, insecure attachment, etc., and at the same time would influence the occurrence of dysfunctional patterns in adulthood. However, we cannot avoid the fact that personal experiences involve a process of individual elaboration that would allow these patterns to be modified.

Deepening: “The Theory of Attachment and the Parent-Child Bond”

Social Learning Theory

Proposed by Albert Bandura in 1973 and centered on the concepts of modeling and social learning, explains how learning in childhood occurs through imitation of what we observe .

Aggressive behaviors in the adolescent partner relationship would be produced by learning them either from personal experience or by witnessing relationships where violence exists. Therefore, people who experience or are exposed to violence will show a greater probability of manifesting violent behaviour compared to those who have not experienced or have been exposed to it.

However, we must consider that each person carries out a process of construction on his or her own experience and does not limit himself or herself exclusively to copying the conflict resolution strategies of the parents. Furthermore, some studies have found that not all adolescents who have perpetrated or been victims of aggressions in their partners, in their childhood experienced or witnessed aggressive behaviour in their homes, among their friends or with previous partners.

Feminist Perspective

Authors such as Lenore Walker (1989 ) explains that violence in couples has its origin in the unequal social distribution based on gender , which produces greater power for men than for women. According to this perspective, women are seen as objects of control and domination by the patriarchal system through the principles of the theory of social learning, the socio-cultural values of patriarchy and gender inequality, transmitted and learned at the individual level. Gender violence is violence whose purpose is to maintain control and/or dominance in an unequal relationship, in which both members have received different socialization.

This theoretical perspective has been adapted to violence in adolescent relationships, considering the multiple evidences of the influence that traditional belief systems have on gender roles, both in the appearance and in the maintenance of violence. This adaptation explains and analyzes why the aggressions that boys comment, show a tendency to be more serious, and analyzes the possible differences between both genders, for example with respect to the consequences.

Social Exchange Theory

Proposed by George C. Homans (1961), indicates that people are motivated by obtaining rewards and reducing or eliminating costs in their relationships . Thus, a person’s behaviour will vary according to the amount and type of reward he or she considers to receive.

Therefore, violence in couple relationships is used as a way to reduce costs , gaining through aggressions more control and power. The search for control on the part of the aggressor would be related to the reduction of another of the possible costs of relationships, uncertainty, not knowing what the other thinks, what he or she does, where he or she is, etc. In this line, the lesser the reciprocity in a given interaction, the greater the probability of emotional behavior based on anger or violence.

In turn, such behaviors will cause the individual to feel disadvantaged and increase the likelihood that the interaction will become more dangerous and violent. Thus the main benefit of violence is the gaining of dominance over another individual and the chances of a violent exchange ending increase when the costs of violent behaviour are greater than the benefits it produces.

Cognitive-Behavioral Approach

It focuses the explanation of violence in relationships on cognitions and cognitive processes, highlighting that people seek consistency between their thoughts and between these and their behaviours . The presence of cognitive distortions or incongruities between these will produce negative emotions that may lead to the appearance of violence.

However, the cognitive-behavioral approach has focused more on explaining the cognitive distortions that occur in aggressors, for example, in the same situation where the partner is not present, the aggressor will be more likely to think that his partner has not waited for him at home in order to annoy him or as a way of disrespecting him, which will produce negative emotions, while a person who is not an aggressor will think that this is because his partner will be busy or having fun and will produce positive emotions and will be happy about it

Ecological Model

It was proposed by Urie Bronfenbrenner (1987) and adapted by White (2009) to explain violence in couple relationships, becoming known as the socio-ecological model . It explains violence in couple relationships through four levels that go from the most general to the most concrete: social, community, interpersonal and individual. In each of the levels there are factors that increase or decrease the risk of perpetration of violence or victimization .

Thus, violent behaviours in a couple’s relationship would be situated in this model at an individual level and would develop due to the previous influence of the other levels. This influence of the different levels, comes from the traditional vision of power division in society in favor of men, as well as in the Feminist Theory.

It states that violent behaviour against the partner is influenced by beliefs at a social level (for example, the distribution of work for men and women, sexual division of power), at a community level (such as the integration of gender-differentiated social relations integrated into schools, the workplace, social institutions, etc.).), at an interpersonal level (such as the beliefs of both partners about what the relationship should be like), and at an individual level (for example, what the individual thinks about what is “right” or wrong in a relationship). Behaviors that do not meet these gendered expectations will increase the likelihood of violent behavior and use these beliefs to justify the use of violence.


Currently, there are various theories or perspectives, there has been some scientific progress in this field and new research has been interested in explaining violence in adolescent relationships, reviewing traditional theories and those theories that focus on any type of interpersonal violence.

However, despite the recent scientific progress in this field, there are still many unknowns that allow us to get to know both individual and relational factors about the origin, causes and maintenance of violence in courtship. This advance would make it possible to help adolescents both to identify whether they suffer violence from their partner and to prevent its appearance, as well as to identify those factors that may cause gender violence in adult couples and to begin its prevention from adolescence.

Bibliographic references:

  • Fernández-Fuertes, A. A. (2011). Prevention of aggressive behavior in young teenage couples. In R. J. Carcedo, & V. Guijo, Violencia en las parejas adolescentes y jóvenes: Cómo entenderla y prevenirla. (pp. 87-99). Salamanca: Amarú Ediciones.
  • Gelles, R. J. (2004). Social factors. In J. Sanmartín, (Eds.), El laberinto de la Violencia. Causes, types and effects. (pp. 47-56.). Barcelona: Ariel.
  • R.C. Shorey, G.L. Stuart, T.L. Cornelius (2011) Dating Violence and Substance Use in College Students: Una revisión de la literatura. Comportamiento Agresivo y Violento, 16 (2011), pp. 541-550
  • Smith, P.H., White, J.W., & Moracco, K.E. (2009). Convertirse en lo que somos: Una explicación teórica de las estructuras sociales de género y las redes sociales que conforman la agresión interpersonal de los adolescentes. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 33(1), 25-29.
  • Walker, L. (1989). Psicología y violencia contra la mujer. American Journal of Psychological Association, 44(4), 695-702.
  • Wekerle, C., & Wolfe, D. A. (1998). The role of child maltreatment and attachment style in adolescent relationship violence. Development and Psychopathology, 10, 571-586.