Differences in Frequency of Violence and Reported Injury Between Relationships With Reciprocal and Nonreciprocal Intimate Partner Violence

Daniel J. Whitaker, PhD, Tadesse Haileyesus, MS, Monica Swahn, PhD, and Linda S. Saltzman, PhDAuthor informationArticle notesCopyright and License informationDisclaimerSee letter “INTIMATE PARTNER VIOLENCE: A GENDER-BASED ISSUE?” in volume 98 on page 197b.This article has been cited by other articles in PMC.Go to:


Objectives. We sought to examine the prevalence of reciprocal (i.e., perpetrated by both partners) and nonreciprocal intimate partner violence and to determine whether reciprocity is related to violence frequency and injury.

Methods. We analyzed data on young US adults aged 18 to 28 years from the 2001 National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, which contained information about partner violence and injury reported by 11 370 respondents on 18761 heterosexual relationships.

Results. Almost 24% of all relationships had some violence, and half (49.7%) of those were reciprocally violent. In nonreciprocally violent relationships, women were the perpetrators in more than 70% of the cases. Reciprocity was associated with more frequent violence among women (adjusted odds ratio [AOR]=2.3; 95% confidence interval [CI]=1.9, 2.8), but not men (AOR=1.26; 95% CI=0.9, 1.7). Regarding injury, men were more likely to inflict injury than were women (AOR=1.3; 95% CI=1.1, 1.5), and reciprocal intimate partner violence was associated with greater injury than was nonreciprocal intimate partner violence regardless of the gender of the perpetrator (AOR=4.4; 95% CI=3.6, 5.5).

Conclusions. The context of the violence (reciprocal vs nonreciprocal) is a strong predictor of reported injury. Prevention approaches that address the escalation of partner violence may be needed to address reciprocal violence.

Prevention of violence between intimate partners is an important public health goal. National estimates indicate that approximately 25% of women report being victims of a partner’s physical or sexual violence at some point in their life, and approximately 1.5 million women and 835 000 men are physically assaulted or raped by intimate partners in the United States annually.1 Intimate partner violence (IPV) is associated with a number of negative psychological and physical health consequences including posttraumatic stress disorder, depression, physical injury, reproductive health problems, irritable bowel syndrome, and chronic pain.24 IPV costs approximately $5.8 billion per year, which includes only direct medical and mental health costs and work productivity losses to victims.5

The women’s movement brought initial attention to the problem of partner violence directed at women and to the need for funding to address that problem.6 Much of the initial research on IPV was conducted with severely abused women and supported the assumption that IPV is primarily perpetrated by men against women. Data is mounting, however, that suggests that IPV is often perpetrated by both men and women against their partner.7,8,9 It is also becoming recognized that perpetration of IPV by both partners within a relationship is fairly common. This phenomenon has been described with terms such as mutual violencesymmetrical violence, or reciprocal violence. Here we use the terms reciprocal and nonreciprocal to indicate IPV that is perpetrated by both partners (reciprocal) or 1 partner only (nonreciprocal) in a given relationship. Reciprocity of IPV does not necessarily mean that the frequency or the severity of the violence is equal or similar between partners.

Several studies have found that much of partner violence is reciprocal. For example, in their national studies of family violence, Straus et al. found that in about half of the cases, violence was reciprocal.10 Similar results were found in the National Survey of Families and Households.8 Studies reviewed by Gray and Foshee11 found that among violent adolescent relationships, the percentage of relationships in which there was reciprocal partner violence ranged from 45% to 72%. A recent meta-analysis found that a woman’s perpetration of violence was the strongest predictor of her being a victim of partner violence.12

Reciprocal partner violence does not appear to be only comprised of self-defensive acts of violence. Several studies have found that men and women initiate violence against an intimate partner at approximately the same rate. For example, Gray and Foshee11 specifically asked adolescents about their initiation of violence and found that among the violent relationships studied, 66% were characterized by both partners initiating violence at least once. In the National Family Violence Survey, both men and women reported that violence was initiated by each partner at least 40% of the time.10 Additionally, studies of community samples found that a relatively low percentage of women endorsed self-defense as a primary motive for violence.13,14 These data suggest that self-defense cannot fully explain the reciprocal violence phenomenon.

Little is known about reciprocal violence with regard to its context or severity. We sought to examine the prevalence of reciprocal and nonreciprocal IPV in a large, nationally representative sample of young adults. We also sought to examine the seriousness of IPV in relationships with reciprocal versus nonreciprocal IPV using 2 indices: violence frequency and injury occurrence. Family conflict theory,15 which asserts that IPV occurs as a result of escalating conflicts, would predict that reciprocal IPV should be more serious than nonreciprocal IPV because reciprocal IPV would indicate that both partners are engaging in the escalation of conflict. We also examined gender as a predictor of the seriousness of the violence. Gender is at the forefront of feminist theories of partner violence16 and it has been consistently found that male perpetrators are more likely to inflict injury than female perpetrators.7 Thus, we examined the gender main effect on the seriousness of violence and the interaction between reciprocity and gender to understand whether the reciprocity effect differed for men and women.