The 8 Stage Progression to Intimate Partner Homicide

The phrase “the husband did it” is popular for a reason.

Image by Lacie Slezak from Unsplash

Women are killed by intimate partners — husbands, lovers, ex-husbands, or ex-lovers — more often than any other category of killer… Intimate partner homicides make up 40 to 50 percent of all murders of women in the United States (Source: National Institute of Justice, NIJ Journal).

We’ve known for decades that domestic violence is strongly linked to homicide, however, we didn’t identify the concrete steps leading up to intimate partner homicide until 2019. In her study, Intimate Partner Femicide: Using Foucauldian Analysis to Track an Eight Stage Progression to Homicide, Dr. Jane Monckton Smith established the eight step process that most male abusers take before murdering their female partners.

For her study, Dr. Smith took the 372 intimate partner femicide cases from the Counting Dead Women database and used the “media and homicide reviews to establish the broad history and circumstances of the homicide and to identify common and consistent themes.”

She used the themes to focus on 25 specific cases in order to explore every detail closely.

All cases were of women killed by a male intimate partner within the last 15 years, and all cases provided detailed data beyond what could be obtained through a media search (Source: Dr. Smith, Intimate Partner Femicide: Using Foucauldian Analysis to Track an Eight Stage Progression to Homicide).

From there Dr. Smith identified the eight stage sequence perpetrators follow: pre-relationship, early relationship, relationship, trigger/s, escalation, change in thinking/decision making, planning, and finally, homicide.

Thanks to this new analysis, we can now hypothetically identity likely perpetrators, and prevent these homicides from occurring.

The following is a breakdown of the study, an explanation of the stages, and a summary of the conclusions Dr. Smith came to.

Stage 1: Pre-relationship

In the cases where men had relationships prior, there was always a history of controlling patterns, abuse, or stalking present.

Victims had often been aware that the perpetrator had a history of abuse on entering a relationship but did not always believe reports from former partners: “He said his ex-wife accused him of domestic violence but she (the victim) didn’t believe that it was true. She believed him when he said his ex was just vindictive.”

Perpetrators did not always start in Stage 1, though, because they did not all have a history of previous relationships.

Stage 2: Early Relationship

The way the relationships between the couples began always changed once commitment was established. At the beginning of the relationships there were excessive romantic gestures and proclamations of love, despite that many of the couples had only just met. This tactic is sometimes called “love bombing.”

Love bombing is a pattern of behavior wherein the batterer overwhelms their potential victim with grand, “romantic” gestures, proclamations, and promises. The most common of these is professing their love very early on in the relationship. The goal of love bombing is… to overwhelm a potential victim, moving so quickly in the relationship that the victim doesn’t have time to think about or process what is going on. The batterer will literally bombard the victim, or “sweep them off their feet,” with “romance.”

At that point, once the perpetrator secured commitment from his partner, he would not let her go.

It appeared that normal romantic expectations and activities were present, but speeded up… Once commitment is secured, this seems to convey certain gendered rights and responsibilities, and once commitment is given by the female, it cannot be withdrawn.

Stage 3: Relationship

Examples of “coercive control” were found in every case. Coercive control is an act/pattern of acts of assault, threats, humiliation and intimidation, or other abuse that perpetrators use to harm, punish, or frighten their victims. Some experts compare it to being taken hostage.

Constant demonstrations of devotion and loyalty characterized the dynamics of most of the relationships. For example, one victim had a timetable of domestic and social activities that were never altered, and she never broke the pattern. To break the pattern would be a sign that something more fundamental was wrong and that there was a challenge to control, which would have consequences.

Sexual violence was present in many of the cases and it was often accompanied by psychological abuse.

In one case, for example, the perpetrator would sit and expose himself in the living room and say nothing. The victim would not challenge him, and an atmosphere of menace was created…

Many of the victims considered the sexual assaults to be consensual because they acquiesced for a sense of peace.

“[She] used to have sex with him to buy [herself] some peace. [She] knew [she] had three weeks’ peace if [she] let him rape [her].”

The study found that this stage could last anywhere from 3–6 weeks to 50 years in one case.

Where control was maintained, or the man did not want to end the relationship, it could potentially last a lifetime.

This is the most common scenario: an abusive relationship that continues indefinitely and does not end in homicide.

Stage 4: Trigger/s

The difference between an indefinitely abusive relationship and one that ends in murder is essentially the existence of a trigger, or triggers. In other words, a perpetrator feels that he is losing control in someway and is triggered into reacting with extreme violence.

The biggest trigger was the idea or reality of losing control of their partner/victim in some way, for example their threatening divorce or spending the night in a shelter.

The reasons given for men killing their partners overwhelmingly revolved around withdrawal of commitment, or separation. This separation could be real or imagined, or just threatened. Attempts to separate, in all our cases which progressed to this stage, were met with significant resistance.

The justification given for reacting with violence was that by attempting to end a relationship, their partners were failing at their roles as wives or women, and they were insulting a member of the superior gender (men) who deserved unquestioning respect.

The idea that women have less power to end a relationship was again part of justifying violence: “I will decide when this marriage is over, and I will let you know my decision.” [S]tudies reveal [those beliefs] as more than a mere “cultural residue” in those men who kill their partners, they are in fact “beliefs, values and norms deep in their ideological bone marrow.”

Those ideological beliefs on gender roles also worked the opposite way, and men who put pressures on themselves to be wealthy and successful like “a man” were likely to react in violence when they failed.

Rates of unemployment and economic hardship are strongly linked to intimate partner femicide, specifically familicide (the slaughter of a perpetrators entire family).

Stage 5: Escalation

After the perpetrator was triggered, they then often escalated abuse in an attempt to regain control over their victim.

This could involve a variety of behaviors with perpetrators using a number of tactics to reestablish their control, like begging, crying, threats of violence, violence, stalking, or suicide threats. The length of this stage is difficult to estimate and seemed to differ across cases.

Reaching stage 5 was very common, however, if the perpetrator was able to regain control, they did not necessarily move onto stage 6 (at least not right away). Abusive relationships often cycle through the different stages repeatedly until/if the perpetrator loses complete control, and then it is more likely than not that they move onto the next stage and eventually escalate to homicide.

Stage 6: A Change in Thinking/Decision

This stage seems to occur in or at the end of a period of escalation and may be a response to perceived irretrievable loss of control and/or status. The idea that homicide may be a possibility may occur at this time…

When their escalating abusive tactics did not work the way they wanted, perpetrators then moved onto to making permanent, violent decisions.

In many cases, the level of planning found in homicide investigations suggests that there had been a considered decision to kill made at some point.

This change in thinking seems to coincide with a sense of injustice at their situation. A perpetrator's decision to murder his partner was often framed as rational and justified in response to how he thought he was treated by them.

The change in thinking appears to have an association with feelings of injustice, entitlement to act, and a belief there is social or cultural solidarity with the offender’s position... This passive solidarity, underpinned by beliefs that the perpetrator is the real victim, the system is against them, and the ex-partner is in some way to blame and deserving of the abuse, powerfully merge and can facilitate high-risk outcomes.

This is part of the reason domestic violence is a systemic issue: the beliefs of society literally fuel ideas of homicide in angry, hateful men.

Stage 7: Planning

After the homicides, there was usually some indication of planning on the part of the perpetrator. This could include evidence of their searching online for specific methods to kill; attempts to isolate the victim; purchasing guns, knives, and hammers, etc.; plans to conceal the body; looking into life insurance policies or wills; reconnaissance; and stalking to surveil and to gather information.

The planning stage could potentially last anywhere from a couple of hours to one case in which it lasted over 12 months. When stalking continues, the risk [of homicide] remains high.

Attempting to get a partner alone in order to inflict violence or other harm on them is extremely common behavior. Perpetrators will frequently use the children in these relationships to harass their victims through the courts, and to keep track of their whereabouts.

Stage 8: Homicide

The final stage is the homicide itself, and this may involve extreme levels of violence (even in previously nonviolent people) where the level of violence used appears to have no direct relation to the level of violence evidenced in the relationship.

Although evidence of past abuse in general is a risk factor, the severity of past abuse does not necessarily increase the likelihood of homicide. In other words, a man who hit his partner once is just as likely to murder her as the man who strangled and raped his partner every night, if they both had progressed through the eight stages.

The last stage can also include murdering children, other family members, and members of the public. Many mass shootings are preceded by the murder of an intimate partner.

[T]he homicide may involve suicide; it may involve killing children; it may involve attempts to cover up the homicide; it may involve immediate confession; it may be completely hidden as homicide; it may involve killing others who are blocking completion of the homicide; it may involve a victim going missing.

Beware of the man with a history of abuse who claims his missing wife just up and "ran away."

Dr. Smith concluded that these eight stages could be identified in a way that would help us effectively address domestic violence and prevent homicide. However, intervening at any stage comes with its own set of risks.

The risk associated with each stage:

If Stage 2 is established (serious commitment after love bombing), the risk of harm is already increased because any effort to end the relationship with likely be met with violence.

It is important to note that a relationship can be established in the mind of the perpetrator through as little as one date or one sexual coupling, and this is supported in stalking research.

Reaching Stage 3 (the actual relationship based in coercive control) increases the likelihood that an attempt to leave will result in serious, even lethal violence.

Where there is progression through Stage 3, irrespective of the length of that stage, there is much higher likelihood that separation will be very difficult, or even dangerous. Travel through Stages 4 and 5 is clearest indication of the increased potential for homicide.

After Stage 5 is reached (triggers), unless the victim is able to flee and hide immediately, homicide is likely to occur eventually. Triggering panic in a perpetrator will result in attempts to regain control and if the victim is physically around when he fails, he will more likely than not resort to using severe or lethal violence.

Thousands of women are murdered by their intimate partners every year, but now we have a way of predicting and preventing them. It is important for people to learn these signs so they are more likely to address an abusive relationship in the earlier stages where it is safer to do so.

Although the specific details are varied, the partners featured in my series The Husband Did It almost always progress through all eight of these stages. So, when I say “the husband did it,” I mean I came to that conclusion by using the eight stage framework to analyze their situations.

To read the first article in my series The Husband Did It, see below.

advocate for victim/survivors of violence || writing for They Matter & published in An Injustice!, COSY, The Collector, Equality Includes You, CrimeBeat, & more

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