Academia Human Rights Justice

Bargaining Theory and Domestic Violence

By Barbara F. Walter

A portrait of an abused woman. By San Francisco Camerawork.

A portrait of an abused woman. By San Francisco Camerawork.

Domestic violence produces significantly higher costs to society than murders and civil wars, at least in low and middle income countries. That’s the powerful finding revealed by James Fearon and Anke Hoeffler’s new study. The reason? There’s much more violence directed at women and children behind closed doors than any other form of violence.

This depressing fact got me thinking. Can bargaining theory tell us anything about why this type of violence continues and why the incidence is so high? Perhaps. Bargaining theory tells us that there should be a compromise settlement between two parties that would leave them both better off than fighting. This is especially true when the costs and risks of violence are high. If this is true, why aren’t more agreements reached between partners in violent relationships?

A settlement between such partners would likely include some trade-off between peace on the one hand, and control over household decisions (i.e., power) on the other. One partner (usually the woman) would trade control for peace.

According to the theory, bargaining can fail for at least two reasons: (1) one or both sides has private information about their strength or resolve and incentives to withhold or misrepresent this information, or (2) the two sides cannot enforce any agreement over time.

Information problems could help explain why violence breaks out in the first place. Let’s assume that a couple disagrees over the distribution of power and control in the household. One side wants significant control over all decisions in the household and the other is unwilling to give it. If both sides knew exactly what the other side was willing to do to gain his or her desired share of control, violence could be avoided. The side willing to fight hardest for household control would gain a share commensurate with that effort.

The problem, at least in the early stages of conflict, is that neither side knows just how hard the other is willing to fight for control. One side (usually the man) has private information about whether he will actually use violence (i.e., whether he is a “brutal” or “non-brutal” type). The other side (usually the woman) has private information about whether she will tolerate abuse, and how much she is willing to tolerate before she leaves the home (i.e., is she “proactive” or “not”). Revealing this information in the absence of violence is difficult. Those seeking control have incentives to claim that they will “turn violent” – even if they know they will not – in order to gain a greater share of power. Similarly, those seeking peace have an incentive to claim that they will “immediately leave” should abuse occur, even if they know they will stay.

Domestic violence, therefore, could be a way for “brutal” men to provide hard evidence that they will inflict pain and therefore deserve more control as a result. It is also a way for them to determine if they are facing a “proactive” partner – one who will leave at the first sign of abuse, or a “passive” one who is willing to stay.

This information problem, however, should disappear as soon as the private information about type has been revealed. Once it is clear that one side is “abusive” and the other “passive,” a deal should be made that allows both parties to avoid additional violence. Why isn’t a control-for-peace agreement reached at this point?

The answer could have something to do with commitment/enforcement problems.

One of the main problems with domestic violence is that it is difficult for the victim to enforce the peace over time. Even if she relinquishes all power and control in the household, there is little she can do to prevent additional violence. There are likely three reasons for this. First, unless she physically strong and equally willing to use violence, she cannot credibly threaten to punish her abuser should he revert back to violence. Second, threatening to leave the relationship is unlikely to deter future violence because the victim has already revealed that she is unwilling to depart. Finally, no credible third party exists to help enforce the peace for the weaker side, especially in low and middle income countries. The police and judicial system could serve this role by arresting and punishing the abuser, but arrest and prosecution often does not occur, making this punishment less than effective as well. The result? Abusers are likely to figure out that continued abuse will go unpunished even if they already gained compliance from their partner. There is little need to change their behavior as long as they face little risk and cost for aggression.

So what might bargaining theory tell us about domestic violence? It tells us that domestic violence may be so prevalent due to enforcement issues. As long as a huge asymmetry of physical and economic power continues to exist between men and women in most of the world, and as long as police forces are unwilling or unable to intervene, domestic violence will continue.

Bargaining theory, however, also offers insights about how to reduce domestic violence. First, make it financially easy for women to leave these conflict situations. Domestic violence would significantly decline if women walked away from these relationships at the first sign of abuse. A safe haven plus job training and other assistance would offer women an alternative to staying in a position of weakness. Second, invest in effective policing. For women who are unwilling or unable to remove themselves from violence, active police intervention would help. Domestic violence occurs for lots of different reasons, some of which have deep psychological roots. But it continues because the perpetrator knows the risks and costs are low. If countries could make it easier for the victim to leave and promise to arrest and prosecute perpetrators, the costs and risks of domestic violence would increase, and its incidence would decline.


  • The bargaining failure model provides a powerful ontological framework for considering conflict, but I think its application to domestic violence (and potentially other interpersonal crime) is problematic on both normative and empirical grounds. While I understand that this post is meant to apply to medium and low income countries, the prevalence of domestic abuse in the developed world suggests that the causes are about more than formal institutions for enforcement.

    What we know about the behavior of victims and abusers violates at least two of the bargaining model’s most core assumptions: that the outcome space is divisible and that violence is costly to both parties. With respect to the first, victims of domestic violence report that the bargain, or rather beg and plead and promise to do more and better, frequently. In some cases, this appears only to deepen the depravity of their treatment. According to literature in sociology, criminology, public health and social work, perpetrators of domestic abusers rarely want some parceled out bit of “control” or performance; they want to reinforce their feeling of dominance in the domain of the relationship over and over and over because they often feel powerless in other contexts. Abusers feel robbed of this benefit when their victims bargain.

    Some bargaining models consider “war types” who chose to fight regardless of the direct cost because they realize outside benefits. If abusers are simply “war types,” there is no bargaining puzzle to solve.To the extent that abusers abuse to feel powerful in the act of hitting, there is simply no bargain to make. The outcomes of domestic violence are not distributional in the way that the outcomes of civil conflict are.

    In the civil conflict bargaining literature, we also assume that costs accrue even to the prevailing party That assumption seems justified in the case of civil conflict; treasure and blood are spilled even by the victor. If they could obtain the same result more cheaply, we might expect (and hope) that they do so. But the analogy in domestic violence is not so clear. What would bring the abuser to the negotiating table? If the commission of violence is the benefit, the only cost to abuser is the risk of arrest. We know that most abusers see this as a distant concern. This is because abusive relationships often start with psychological abuse, gas-lighting and small acts of violence that victims often don’t recognize as abusive. It escalates in ways that erode the victim’s self-confidence and likelihood of seeking enforcement. If victims have been manipulated into capitulation, violence is costless to the abuser and no negotiation will be compelling. Victims, too, lack the requisite type of rationality that would make bargaining theory fruitful.

    This same observation suggests that credible commitment framings are also unlikely to generate probative value. Most psychologists and social workers use the psychology of abuse to explain why so many victims stay with so many abusers. If victims don’t bargain because they cannot trust their partners’ commitments, what explains the persistence of abusive relationships in contexts where the state is strong and neutral? Again, other disciplines suggest that the psychology of victimization often results in such low feelings of self worth that victims doubt whether they deserve to escape violence. In other words, the victims may not be interested in an abuser’s commitment. The discussion of credible commitments in the post illustrates this. According to the post, the abuser bears the commitment issue; the abuser cannot credibly commit to ceasing violence once control is freely given. But this begs the question of why the abuser would have an incentive to be violent if domestic abuse is about control in the relationship in the first place. In the standard commitment model, the party making the commitment is tempted to use their new power for additional leverage, but in the context of domestic violence as characterized above, the ends the abuser seeks have been fully realized.

    Finally, it bears mention rational frameworks couch interpersonal crime in ways that are morally problematic and may encourage more violence. In the civil conflict space, we implicitly accept that realizing unfair but inevitable distributional structures without violence is better than realizing them after a war. To port this logic over to interpersonal crime would require that we view every criminal “transaction” as isolated. But scholars of law and punishment often argue that the discussions we have about crime affect the way those crimes are perceived. While this post obviously does not condone the idea that women should feel obligated negotiate away control in a relationship to achieve the non-violence they deserve in any event, positing victims as empowered negotiators suggests that victims should offer up rewards to criminals who force participation in odious bargains. Positing abusive domestic relationships as negotiations risks legitimating them. This consequence of using the bargaining model in the space of interpersonal crime should strike us a morally repugnant. Since alternative frameworks for examining domestic abuse have led to similar solutions as those offered in this post, it is unclear to me why we should untether our discussion of this issue from its normative moorings quite so completely.

  • Unless I misunderstand the post, I agree with John Porten. Micro level violence should be analysed differently than that at the macro level. Domestic violence is about regulating the relationship.
    It is not strategic, but is seen by the abuser as a legitimate, moral obligation. (obviously, this is not to condone)

  • Instead of coming at this from a war persepctive, try coming at it from models of the family.

    Sen offers good example of how micro and macro interact here. He has a paper “100 Million Women are Missing” that charts demographic data re: high mortality and morbidity rates among women and girls. The upshot is that there are many who simply do not survive; hence the deficit relative to what might be expected given birth ratios between boys and girls. He also has a paper “Gender and Cooperative Conflicts” which offers an informal bargaining perspective on family interactions. (Hence an alternative to the Becker model of one big utility function for the head of household.) He argues that gender norms constrain the outside options of women and girls re: access to labor markets and education, ability to own or inherit property etc. They thereby impact the bargaining power of women. Sen finds standard bargaining models wanting because they rely on utility as a metric for well-being and hence miss much of what he captures in his capabilities approach. But the underlying thrust of his argument is a bargaining model.

    In short, his second paper provides plausible micro-foundations for the macro-patterns noted in the first.

    More generally, there are standard models of bargaining in families by feminist economists like Julie Nelson and more ‘mainstream’ economists like Robert Pollack at WashU.

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