Why Do People Abuse?

Why do people abuse their partners?

People abuse their partners—through violence and other forms of abuse—to establish power and control.

The difference between domestic violence and a family dispute or argument is that batterers use acts of violence and a series of behaviors to establish ongoing control and fear in the relationship through violence and other forms of abuse.

At the very heart of domestic violence is the belief by perpetrators that they are entitled to control their victim/partner.

Domestic violence can take different forms, but its goal is always the same: batterers want to control their domestic partners through fear. They do this by regularly abusing them physically, sexually, psychologically, and economically.1

Acts of domestic violence are on a continuum; on one end you have homicide, while on the other end you have name-calling, put-downs, and threats of violence. The abuse takes many forms. It can happen once in a while or all the time. But however often it happens, it is usually as a hidden and constantly terrorizing act.

Abusers don't batter because they are out of control. Control is what it is all about. Abusers choose to respond to a situation violently. They are making a conscious decision to behave in a violent manner. They know what they are doing and what they want from their victims.

Men at Emerge, a batterers intervention program in Massachusetts, are taught that their violence is a deliberate strategy to control women rather than an impulsive act.

In the words of a batterer from Emerge:

If I get in an argument with someone at work, I don't grab them by the throat, I don't pull their hair, I don't slap them. Why do I exhibit all this control at work, but when I'm at home with her, I would slap, hit, or pull hair? It shows I was very target-specific.

Abuse is a learned behavior. It is not a natural reaction to an outside event. It is learned from seeing abuse used as a successful tactic of control—often in the home in which the abuser grew up, but also in schools, peer groups, and the media.

It is reinforced when abusers are not arrested, prosecuted, or otherwise held responsible for their acts. People who batter do so because they can and it works. Abusers have received the message that violence against women is acceptable behavior. This message may come from a variety of sources, including the childhood family and society.2

1It Shouldn't Hurt to Go Home, Handbook from the Idaho Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 1998.

2When Violence Begins at Home, K.J. Wilson, Hunter House Inc. Publishers, 1997.

Who are the Victims?

Every 15 seconds in the United States, a woman is battered by someone who tells her he loves her. Research indicates that half of all women in this country will experience some form of violence from their partners during their relationship and that more than one-third are battered repeatedly every year. In 95% of these assaults, the crimes are committed by men against women.1

Domestic violence is truly an equal opportunity crime. Its victims cross all socioeconomic, ethnic, racial, educational, age, and religious lines. Women who are battered are rich, poor, or middle-class; white, black, Hispanic, Native American, and Asian; doctors, lawyers, teachers, mothers—there is no one characteristic that sets a battered woman apart from the rest of the population. Battering can happen to anyone. Studies have shown no characteristic link between personality type and being a victim.

Women are not the only victims of domestic violence. All people— young and old, heterosexual and LGBTQ, male and female—can be targets of abuse. Teenagers, the elderly, and pregnant women, as well as people with disabilities, are especially at risk of violence. Teenagers, vulnerable to relationship violence, may not seek help because they distrust adults. Elders may be battered by their adult children or caretakers and may be physically unable to defend themselves or escape from the abuse.

Domestic violence also occurs in gay and lesbian households. Nearly 1 in 10 domestic cases in Rhode Island last year involved same-sex partners.2 Victims may not seek help because they fear that no one will believe that violence occurs in gay and lesbian relationships.

Children of battered women are also victims, regardless of whether or not they are the direct recipients of violent acts. It is estimated that approximately 3.3 million children in the United States between three and seventeen years of age are at risk of exposure to family violence.3

Family pets can also be caught in the violence perpetrated within the household. Of women seeking shelter for domestic violence, 71% reported that their partner had threatened to harm, or actually harmed or killed at least one of, their pets.4


1,3When Violence Begins at Home, K.J. Wilson, Hunter House Inc. Publishers, 1997.

2"Stopping Domestic Violence: Police Response to Victims is Inconsistent," Marion Davis, Providence Journal, October 31, 1999.

4"Battered Women's Reports of Their Partners' and Their Childrens' Cruelty to Animals," F. Ascione, Journal of Emotional Abuse, 1998.

Who are Abusers?

Like victims, abusers come from all professions, educational backgrounds, ethnic backgrounds, class backgrounds, and religious affiliations.

However, abusers do have some characteristics in common, including a belief in the use of violence, the use of defense mechanisms to justify abusive behaviors, extreme jealousy, and conflicting personalities.1

As Wilson states:1

Typically, the batterer will not accept responsibility for his actions and develops a number of defense mechanisms to explain why he batters ... Batterers not only deny responsibility for their actions, but they also often deny that any type of abusive behavior has taken place. ...

The abusive partner is jealous of any relationships the woman has, including those with other men, women, children, and even pets. Anything that takes time away from him is seen as a threat. One of the greatest fears a batterer has is the fear that his partner will abandon him. This manifests itself in extreme jealousy and possessiveness. He believes that if he can completely control her, she won't leave. Batterers rely so heavily on their partners that they are willing to do anything to keep them from leaving—even maiming or killing them. ...

Batterers typically present a different personality outside the home than they do inside, which complicates a woman's ability to describe her experiences to people outside the relationship. It also helps to keep her tied to the relationship. The batterer does not always batter: many have periods when they can be very generous with their affection. The woman has seen this and knows that her partner is capable of being loving to her ... Thus, much of her time is spent trying to be the "perfect" wife and mother so that the batterer will continually exhibit his loving side. Unfortunately, this is a setup for her; the batterer will choose or choose not to batter her, regardless of her actions.

1When Violence Begins at Home, K.J. Wilson, Hunter House Inc. Publishers, 1997.

Why Do Victims Stay?

According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, women who leave their abusive partners are at a 75% greater risk of being killed than those who stay. In 1996, 1,800 women in this country were murdered by their current or former husband or boyfriend. Many women stay for the simple reason that they fear they, or their children, will be killed or seriously injured if they do attempt to leave. Since a batterer is dependent on the woman he batters for his sense of power and control, he is willing to do anything to keep her from leaving—even killing her. Murder is the ultimate expression of the batterer's need to control his partner.

As Jann Jackson describes:1

There is an abundance of evidence that a woman stays with an abusive partner because she is unable to gain access to the safe housing, jobs, child care, finances, and legal protection needed to be safe and self-sufficient. Unlike victims of other crimes, battered women are legally bound, economically dependent, and emotionally involved with their assailant. It is difficult to escape when there is no safe place to go and there are insufficient financial resources to live independently.

Many judges are reluctant to sentence an abuser to jail or deny a father the right to visit his children. Thus, a woman who does escape often finds herself in continuing contact with the abuser during court-ordered visitation arrangements or because the abuser has simply tracked her to her new location.

Women often remain in abusive relationships because of simple economics. A woman with children who leaves an abusive partner is likely to face severe economic hardship. Battered women know this when they are making choices about their lives. Statistics show that in the first year after divorce, a woman's standard of living drops by 73%, while a man's improves by an average of 42%.

Women also stay because they love the person and believe he will change. One component in a cycle of violence is the remorseful phase where, typically after a violent incident, the batterer shows remorse, makes promises to change, and is charming and loving.

Other reasons women stay are: out of guilt ("I don't want to break up the family"); for the children ("the children need a father"); she made a vow ("marriage commitment is for better or worse"); religious beliefs ("divorce is against my religion"); embarrassment ("what will people think of me if they knew I married an abuser?"); or shame ("I couldn't make the marriage work"). A woman may also feel that she has no place to go or can't make it alone.

As stated above, there are numerous reasons women stay. The problem is really with the question. The question implies that the violence is the problem of the woman who is the victim of the violence, and that it is up to her to solve it.

"It ignores the fact that domestic violence is a crime and instead, insists that the crime victim walk away and forget about it. It transforms an immense social wrong into a personal transaction. At the same time, it pins responsibility for the violence squarely on the woman who is the target."2

We would never say to a victim of house theft, "Why did you leave your house to go to the movies?" or to a victim of purse snatching, "Why did you carry your purse down the street?" No matter whether the woman stays or goes, domestic violence is still a crime. We need to put the blame where it belongs—on the batterer—and replace the question, "Why didn't she leave" with "Why does he abuse?"

1"Understanding Survival Responses of Battered Women," Jann K. Jackson, Maryland Medical Journal, October 1994.

2"Why Doesn't She Leave Him?: It's Time to Put That Question to Rest," Ann Jones, Woman's Day, June 7, 1994.

What is the Impact on Victims?

Domestic violence has long-lasting and detrimental effects on women who are battered. It affects a woman while she is in the relationship and when she leaves the relationship. It affects her physical, mental, and economic well-being.

In Judith Herman's book, Trauma and Recovery, she explains that the methods used to coerce hostages, political prisoners, survivors of concentration camps, and battered women are surprisingly similar. Batterers use a number of tactics beyond physical abuse to hold women in abusive relationships. According to Dr. Herman, the methods of establishing control over another person are grounded on the "systematic, repetitive infliction of psychological trauma." These methods of psychological control are intended to instill fear and a sense of helplessness and lower a woman's sense of self.1

According to Wilson:2

The effects of abuse on battered women include psychological characteristics that greatly resemble those of hostages. The implication here is that these characteristics are the result of being in a life-threatening relationship, not the reason for being in an abusive relationship.

Battering affects all types of women. However, there are some general characteristics that battered women develop in response to the abuse they suffer. Some of these are lowered self-esteem; accepting responsibility for the partner's actions; guilt; feelings of helplessness that affect how the women think, feel, and act; and denial, a survival strategy.

Battered women are often severely injured. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics 1994, 37% of female emergency department patients with violence-related injuries were injured by an intimate partner.

Battered women often become homeless because they have few or no resources to obtain housing and have no place to go. According to the Annual Report of the Rhode Island Emergency Food and Shelter Board (July 1, 1998 – June 30, 1999), domestic violence was the second most important reason mentioned by clients as the reason for seeking emergency shelter.

Research has also shown that 37% percent of women who experienced domestic violence reported that the abuse had an impact on their work in the form of lateness, missed work, job loss, and loss of career promotions.3

Children who see their parent battered or are battered themselves can be deeply traumatized. Children exposed to abuse are more insecure, more aggressive, and more prone to depression. They fear injury to their mother and themselves, they have difficulty in school, and they are exposed to violent role models. Children's ongoing contact with batterers after the parents have separated may continue to affect their development.4

1Trauma and Recovery, Judith Herman, Basic Books, 1992.

2When Violence Begins at Home, K.J. Wilson, HunterHouse Inc. Publishers, 1997.

3The Many Faces of Domestic Violence and Its Impact on the Workplace, EDK Associates for the Body Shop, New York, 1997.

4The Effects of Woman Abuse on Children: Psychological and Legal Authority, National Center on Women & Family Law, 1994.

What Happens to Abusers?

In Rhode Island, the majority of defendants in domestic violence cases—83.3%— are charged only with misdemeanors, even if the victim had broken bones.

Most first-time domestic violence offenders do not go to jail. Rather, they are usually sentenced to one year of probation and ordered to attend a batterers intervention program to deal with their abusive behavior.

A batterers intervention program is a psychoeducational program for domestic violence offenders that specially addresses the issues of abuse, power, and control. An intervention is designed to hold the batterer responsible for the abuse, to interrupt the abusive behavior, and to teach non-abusive behavior.

There are currently several batterers intervention programs in Rhode Island that have received preliminary certification to receive court-ordered referrals. The number of programs has grown dramatically because of the increase in court-ordered interventions for domestic violence offenders.

Note: By law, every domestic violence offender whose case is adjudicated under Rhode Island General Law 12-29-5 must be referred to a certified batterers intervention program. These certified programs have to comply with a set of comprehensive standards, which include a minimum of 40 contact hours over 6 months, trained group facilitators, and psychoeducational group format.

People often want to know whether or not these programs "work," but the answer is not that simple.

It is important to see batterers intervention programs as a criminal justice intervention, not a solution to the offender's violence. Changing abusive behaviors and attitudes requires a lifelong commitment. Six months of batterers intervention that someone is forced to attend can only begin to plant the seeds for change. Recidivism is very difficult to measure, since arrest rates only capture a small amount of the domestic violence that takes place. What we do know from the research is that batterers intervention programs do decrease an offender's violence while he is in a program. Long-term effects are less likely to occur unless the offender is actively working to change his behavior.

What Triggers Domestic Violence?

People abuse because they choose to do so. Outside circumstances (stress, alcohol, unemployment, the kids, the weather, drugs, etc.) do not trigger their behavior or cause them to be violent. A batterer abuses to maintain control and power over his partner.

Many people believe that substance abuse causes people to be violent; however, research does not support this belief.

Many people who become addicted to alcohol or drugs never become violent or abusive. An abusive person may stop using alcohol or drugs, but they will continue to be abusive without counseling or a long-term commitment to change their behavior.

By the same token, if an abusive person is using alcohol or drugs, becoming sober will be a critical step in addressing their abusive behavior.

It is important to remember that domestic violence is a choice, regardless of whether or not a person uses drugs or alcohol.

One way to think about the relationship between substance abuse and domestic violence is to imagine domestic violence as a fire and substance abuse as a can of gasoline. If you pour gasoline onto a fire, it will get much worse, but if you pour gasoline onto the ground, nothing will happen. If you take away the gasoline, you still have the fire. For substance abuse to make domestic violence worse, there has to be something to ignite it—such as abusive attitudes or a family history of abuse.

Research in the United States shows that abusive men with severe alcohol problems abuse their partners both when they are drunk and when they are sober. These men are also violent more frequently and inflict more serious injuries on their partners than abusive men without alcohol problems.

While treating an underlying alcohol or drug problem can help reduce the incidence and severity of the violence, it does not end the violence. Alcohol and drug abuse merely exacerbate a pre-existing tendency towards violence. The social expectations about drinking behavior in our society teach people that if they want to avoid being held responsible for their violence, they can either drink before they are violent or at least say they were drunk.

Studies of abusive men in the United States indicate that few exhibit diagnosable psychopathology. Conversely, the majority of people with serious mental illness are not violent.

The bottom line is this—batterers abuse because they choose to do so.

What Help is Available?

There is a strong network in place in Rhode Island to support victims of domestic violence.

The six member agencies of the Rhode Island Coalition Against Domestic Violence provide comprehensive emergency and support services to families affected by domestic violence. Services include emergency shelter, 24-hour crisis hotlines, support groups, children's programs, court advocacy, counseling, and prevention through education and awareness.

Rhode Island's 24-hour statewide Helpline (1-800-494-8100) offers support, information, and advocacy for those impacted by crimes of violence.

In addition to this local support, the issue of domestic violence is being addressed on a national level. Since the beginning of the grassroots battered women's movement in the 1970s, much has been accomplished. There is a strong network of emergency shelters stretching from coast to coast, in every state, in every region of the country. Every state has a coalition that coordinates local efforts and works on a state and national level to end this violence.

Domestic violence is now defined as a crime on both a state and national level, and the criminal justice system has been instrumental in addressing the problem of battering. Domestic violence advocates around the country are working with the various systems: legal, legislative, criminal, healthcare, social service, religious, community, and neighborhood to ensure that victims are helped and batterers are held accountable.

National legislation, such as the Violence Against Women Act of 1994, has had far-reaching effects in the struggle to end domestic violence. In addition, federal funding of state and local initiatives ensure that victims are provided the services they need and deserve.

Victims are at the center of the efforts to end domestic violence. Their voices and experiences continue to inform, drive, and lead the work that needs to be done.