Violence towards women and their decisions to take action: A complex systems approach

David Katerndahl, Sandra K Burge, Maria del Pilar Montanez Villacampa, Johanna Becho, Jasmine Rodriguez

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Scopus citations


Intimate partner violence (IPV) is a blight on society. Our traditional understanding suggests that interventions should be straightforward, leading to predictable positive results. However, these assumptions do not reflect the reality of IPV, which continues to frustrate physicians. While IPV research has thoroughly described the developmental risks and impacts of IPV, the violent incident itself remains largely unstudied and poorly understood. Although this lack of research may partially explain physician frustration and the limitations of our interventions, the greater problem may be our reliance upon the wrong paradigm in guiding our understanding. Complexity science says that systems are globally understandable, but not completely knowable. Our hypothesis is that IPV needs to be viewed as a complex adaptive system if we are to understand the phenomenon, identify expectations and appropriately intervene. When viewed through the lens of complexity science, IPV becomes less knowable and predictable, suggesting that interventionists should expect variable response. Research has indeed demonstrated that partner violence is a complex phenomenon with multiple, interdependent factors and a nonlinear trajectory. This nonlinearity/unpredictability can impact outcomes in IPV, often more so than the frequency or severity of the violence. Similarly, women's decision-making concerning the violence is also a nonlinear process dependent upon multiple factors and catastrophic influences. Once recognized, complexity science offers a novel approach to explain IPV's obfuscation and resistance to predictable change. Using the tempered expectations of a systems lens, the violent interdependencies can be clarified, the obscure causes of events can be visualized, and the temporal irregularities can be mapped. Not only can the disruptive tipping points, system feedforward propagations, powerful attractors and discontinuities compromise reasoned intervention, but these same factors, if understood, can be harnessed to foster and magnify circumstances that enable positive change.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number110589
JournalMedical Hypotheses
StatePublished - Jun 2021


  • Battered women
  • Domestic violence
  • Mathematical modeling
  • Nonlinear dynamics
  • System science

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Medicine(all)


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