Why Do Partners Abuse Each Other?

Woman is reflected in mirror while sitting on her bed thinkingRecent estimates put the annual number of intimate partner violence (IPV) incidents in the United States at around 8 million. That is, 8 million men and women in the U.S. experience partner violence each year. Over the course of a lifetime, about 30% of all U.S. women and 20% of all U.S. men will experience physical, sexual, or psychological abuse by an intimate partner, and those are just the reported cases. But of course, adults are not the only ones affected; during the course of a year, there are an estimated 3.3 to 10 million children exposed to violence between their parents or caregivers. Partner abuse costs the U.S. nearly $6 billion annually. Most of that is for medical and mental health treatment, but more than $700 million is for lost productivity in the workplace.

Who are these people who wreak so much havoc on their partners, their children, their workplaces, and their communities? There is a stereotype of what an abuser looks and acts like. He is male, usually blue collar, possibly unemployed, who drinks a lot and wears a particular fashion of undershirt. He is hyper-masculine and beefy, a forbidding presence. He demands that his wife have dinner on the table by six, that she keep up the house and children to his satisfaction and that she never question his authority.

The reality is that partner abuse occurs in all social and economic classes, races, ethnic groups, educational levels, religions, and without regard to physical and mental abilities. Women as well as men use it. It occurs between married and unmarried heterosexuals, gay men, and lesbians. A person who abuses their partner physically, psychologically, or emotionally is just as likely to be a corporate attorney as a forklift operator; a hair stylist as a software engineer; a schoolteacher as a deacon in the church. You can’t pick one out of a line-up. Central casting got it wrong.

So to answer the question why do partners abuse? Is not as simple as some would believe. There is an entire school of thought that states that IPV perpetrators are almost exclusively male and their motive for the abuse is to assert male dominance and maintain power and control over their female partners. This school of thought has gained a great deal of traction in courtrooms and legislative bodies all across the U.S., and while the proponents of this view have shed much welcome light on a horrible problem for many American families, it does not tell the whole story nor address the entire problem.

The Nature of Partner Abuse

Though emphasis of the criminal justice system has historically been focused toward male-on-female “battering” as a microcosmic representation of the broader patriarchal society, more recent literature on IPV reveals that there are different and distinct violent or abusive dynamics that occur between intimate partners. In each of these distinct dynamics, researchers identify different “types” of IPV. And in the most common type, it is next to impossible to differentiate a “perpetrator” from a “victim”.

The most frequently occurring type of partner violence is what has come to be known as “Situational Couple Violence”. Different researchers estimate that anywhere from forty to seventy percent of relationships include this type of IPV. With situational couple violence, there is not usually an ongoing pattern of violent behavior, but rather the violence erupts from a specific conflictual encounter in which both partners act out with verbal and/or physical aggression. In these relationships, verbal and emotional abuse may be common. Women and men are equally likely to initiate this type of partner abuse.

Another type of IPV is identified as “violent resistance,” which may or may not be an act of self-defense against a physical assault. For example, one of the partners may resort to a physical act of aggression in response to the other partner’s emotional or verbal abuse, or in response to repeated jealous accusations. This type of partner violence is often in response to a partner who practices the next identified type of IPV.

“Intimate terrorism” is IPV in which there is a clear perpetrator and victim. Researchers estimate that anywhere from four to eleven percent of partner abuse involves this type of IPV. In intimate terrorism, the violence is part of a process by which one person establishes and maintains control and domination over his or her partner over the long term, rather than one independent act. The abuse may begin in subtle ways and escalate over time, beginning with criticism, verbal abuse and possessiveness, moving on to emotional and economic abuse, and, eventually, physical attacks that may become more frequent and severe. This type of IPV is what most of us think of when we hear the term “domestic violence.” According to crime statistics, men more often commit it, though women can be implicated in this type of pattern as well.

The final type of IPV is the least common. In “Mutual Violent Control,” both partners are entrenched in a pattern resembling two intimate terrorists battling each other for power and control. The violent acts may be a way to exert control, to relieve built-up tension, to take revenge or to avoid intimacy.

In each of these different types, occurrences of physical violence may be chronic, sporadic, or may be an isolated incident. Physical assaults may actually be only the “tip of the iceberg” in an abusive relationship. There is often an undercurrent of ongoing verbal, emotional or other types of abuse that has been present – perhaps for years – before a physical eruption occurs. Interestingly, many partners who have been subjected to verbal and emotional abuse, in addition to physical, say they feel the verbal and emotional abuse do the most damage.

Why Do They Do It?

Given these different types of IPV, it is apparent that partner abuse can occur in completely different contexts and with different motivations. To say that all partner abuse is about men having power and control over women is grossly misleading. Literature on partner abuse suggests that there are many contributing factors — neurological, psychological, interpersonal, situational, and cultural that lead an individual to engage in this type of behavior within their intimate relationships. For example, many incidents of IPV occur while the abuser is under the influence of alcohol, but most people are able to consume alcohol without assaulting their partners.

Some mental disorders are linked to incidents of IPV, and statistically, personality disorders, anxiety, addictions, bipolar disorder, or PTSD may complicate an individual’s ability to deal with interpersonal discord, but to identify mental illness as a cause of IPV is to do a great disservice to the many people struggling with these conditions who do not commit violent acts.

IPV is, in many cases, learned or witnessed in the family of origin. One study estimates that children who witness IPV between their parents are three times more likely to become adult abusers than children who are not exposed to it. Researcher Donald Dutton and others have produced a number of studies showing that the more severe cases of IPV seem to be a result of years of early developmental influences from the family of origin, including witnessing violence, shaming, abandonment, and exposure to trauma (e.g., witnessing partner violence is a type of trauma especially damaging to children). Both genders are susceptible to these influences. The common thread in developmental theories of IPV would seem to be a close link to issues of attachment.

Family of origin IPV is a fairly consistent predictor, but clearly not everyone whose parent was an abuser grows up to be one. Oftentimes, partner abuse is a “choice of last resort” for persons who experience anger or frustration in their relationship, yet lack the skills to express or manage these feelings in a constructive way. Few of us grew up with a model of what a healthy relationship looks like; most of us struggle with stresses and hardships and just do the best we can figuring it out as we go. When relationship conflict arises, we do what our parents did: ignore it, avoid it, deny it, use “the silent treatment,” raise our voices, cry, use put-downs, swear, call names, accuse, blame, walk out, slam doors, throw things, drink, get high, punch a wall, point a finger, raise a fist, hit, slap, punch, kick – you get the idea. Most times, we do exactly as our parents did. It is not uncommon for someone in treatment for abusing their partner to lament, “I’ve done what I promised I would never do – I’ve become just like my father or mother.”

The argument can be made that every relationship has problems and conflict but most people don’t resort to violence. That is very true, and research bears this out.

Abuse of any kind is always a choice. It is not caused by a poor intimate relationship, job frustration, financial crisis, sexual problems, troublesome in-laws, or child-rearing difficulties, although these factors may be present and contribute stress. It doesn’t happen because a person is provoked, drunk, has “rage issues,” bipolar disorder or “impulse control” problems. Substance abuse or psychopathology does not diminish responsibility for IPV. There is no behavior on the part of the victim that causes or excuses abuse. The person who uses violence, coercion or control must bear the responsibility for his or her choice of action.

IPV is a learned behavior; it is learned in the family and broader society (peers, community, mass media). Because it is learned, it can be “unlearned” and replaced with healthy ways of interacting.

© Copyright 2010 by Leslie Larson, LPC-S. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • prince

    March 2nd, 2010 at 7:12 PM

    I just think such people need to get it back from thwe society, not physically, but in another way. If you know a physical abuser in your neighbourhood or someone who shouts a lot unreasonably, let him/her know that you are not fine with it…if it is a stranger on the street, lots of people staring at the person will definitely help.

  • seema1962

    March 3rd, 2010 at 4:29 AM

    nice article

  • Leslie Larson

    March 3rd, 2010 at 7:01 AM

    Yes, I agree that we all have a part to play in ending violence and abuse.

  • joyce b

    March 3rd, 2010 at 11:53 AM

    In many cases that I have witnessed partner abuse is an endless and harmful cycle of action that keeps going generation after generation. If that is what you witness growing up as a child then you think that this is the normal way to treat your own spouse when you are an adult. The cycle has to be broken somewhere but there is never an easy answer to start that process in motion. It is a shame that there are so many children who grow up in the shadow of this kind of violence at home and it really saddens me to think that unfortunately these are going to be future perpetrators themselves because they have never been privy to being a part of a loving family, but only one that abuses and make others feel terrible.

  • JD

    March 19th, 2010 at 5:18 AM

    Any type of abuse inflicted by individual is not acceptable nor excusable. I am a 45 year old male and I just came out of a two year relationship with a woman who was verbally, emotionally and on a few occasions physically abusive.

    I honestly believe she may be suffering from Borderline Personality Disorder. She has virtually all the symptoms. I have learned so much about human behavior by the way of individual therapy and reading. More importantly, I have learned so much about myself.

    If you are being abused, please seek help. It will damage your self-esteem as well as make you physically sick.


  • Nell

    August 29th, 2010 at 9:23 PM

    Thank you for this article. I have found from personal experience, observation, and reading, that many abusive behaviours simply don’t fit the ‘male dominance’ explanation so often offered by not only popular psychology, but many in the counselling profession. The descriptions of partner violence/abuse above bear a closer relationship to my own situation, and ones I have witnessed, than those of ten or twenty years ago.

    But the author has argued for the strength of conditioning forces – history, family of origin, temperament, stressors, and the dynamic within the relationship – in determining abusive behaviours.

    Where, then, does choice come in? In the above article, I didn’t see any reference to evidence for the ‘decision’ to smash plates, slam doors, or hit. What rational person would choose to behave in such a way? It is easy to see how an absurd moment, a nudge, could push someone from verbal to physical abuse, in the heat of the moment, in the thousandth of many similar moments. Particularly under chronic stress, and its physiological consequents.

    While it’s true that not every ‘difficult’ relationship encounters violence, some do. I would appreciate a more empirical consideration of the reasons for this, rather than a moral judgement.

    Lastly – who can assist the unlearning of these complicated beliefs and behaviours? When so many current therapists/counsellors/psychologists have trained under older theories, and the research mentioned above has yet to reach them?

  • diane crespin

    October 31st, 2010 at 9:12 PM

    I am scarred to go back to my husband but yet feel empty without him. He wants to go to therapy to save our marriage we have been apart since may 21st. Now i have to stay in the house another 2 or 3 months and i don’t want to. The house was never put in my name as he promised. I think in CO they don’t have to pay half of the home. It makes me feel boxed in I am disabled since 91 and my injury to my head as a drunk driver ran me off the road has given me memory loss. Lately I feel anxiety and stress to the point that I have many fears. My husband abused me verbally, put me down and even verbally abused the grand children. He put holes in walls by throwing things. Pushing me never wanted to give me money or spend it on things I needed. He would always say I was fat and crazy or psychoanalyzing him if I wanted to discuss the behavior or the problem that day. He called me old and that I could not survive without him. He I believe has come on the property and done damage while i was not here and move the hay cut it open and try to over feed the animals. Now he says he has changed and has learned from the classes he is taking. He admitted to charges and received 18 months of probation. I think he has not had enough time. My children want to not be around him mu daughter flue down on the 23rd and say the bruises and that I could not move my arm I feel so scarred to live alone but yet know once I am out of here maybe I would feel much better. I is so hard to start over at age 57 and with all my health issues and now my mental health is suffering my capacity to think correctly and my children live far they are not here to support or help me. I feel totally alone I can’t stand that I am not functioning correctly as before. He is putting pressure on me to take him back. I am still scarred that he just wants back in for a negative reason. Do you think we should take counseling together for our marriage and do you know anyone in Grand Junction, CO? I am seeing a counselor and I am assuming he takes anger management classes. I read your report the behavior was so bad for 8 years then the 19th year it became physical. Diane

  • Dia R

    July 30th, 2014 at 5:22 AM

    I’m sorry Diane… What a terrible story. Did things change? Are you doing any better now?

  • diane crespin

    October 31st, 2010 at 9:17 PM

    I need help deciding on my divorce I typed my comment above please read and let me know is this the behavior of a abused individual having the indecisive behavior that I described above. I have had to install camera’s and a security alarm system.
    the perpatrator is him I believe or his family they want me out of here and are making things difficult for me. Daine

  • Paula

    April 6th, 2013 at 4:16 AM

    I was in a abusive relationship for 18 years. Mostly emotional and verbal , and I’m still confused and blame myself. I , not him, came from a dysfunctional , very abusive family. Could that also create abuse in another person? That’s not a stupid question: I mean that , I believe he was very ashamed of me but never said so other than through abuse. Is that possible? How do I prevent it from happening again ?
    Thank you.

  • Joan Ketchen

    May 7th, 2013 at 10:17 AM

    I don’t agree with this. I watched my father physically abuse my mother for years but only when he was drinking. His father did not abuse his mother. I would see my mother challenge, challenge, and challenge him. I would see my father warn her to stop over and over again. Finally he would slap her. She would sit without reaction and take it. They divorced, my dad married again and NEVER one time slapped his second wife. btw he also quit drinking. However, when my mother remarried she challenged and insulted her second husband the same way. When her second husband died, guess who she started on? Me! I would be determined that she would not make me cry nor explode in anger. But she would not let up. She had a way of provoking like no one I ever met. My mother “wanted” to be abused.

  • JT

    January 20th, 2015 at 1:13 PM

    Its good to see more progressive analytical understanding of D.V. I am looking for help and perhaps you could help me classify my abusive relationship. Me- witnessed my father verbally and physically abuse my mother. I have no psychiatric diagnosis but have never sought one either.
    Her-sexually and physically tortured by both parents. PTSD and anxiety, extreme enough for disability.
    Our dynamic- I tend to be controlling and often feel she is making poor decisions. She does not like criticism and often lashes out at attempts to criticize. I do attempt to control my temper but I am equally mean to her and when I cannot stand anymore yelling I begin warning her that I am about to use force. This never works and almost always leads to force. This force is used cruelly and I realize later that it is never justified. Though it feels that way at the time. While she has initiated abuse and property destruction in the past that is not our norm. What can be done to normalize our lives? I do love her but we act like hated enemies.

  • Leslie Larson

    January 20th, 2015 at 4:50 PM

    JT, I strongly encourage you to seek out counseling as soon as you can. Violence in a relationship does not get better without intervention. You both continue to live your families’ legacies of violence, each of you a perpetrator and a victim. I would recommend individual therapy for each of you. Not until you have made significant progress in your ability to use non-violent means to express your feelings and your needs is it emotionally safe enough to benefit from couple’s therapy.

    It doesn’t matter how you classify it: you are both suffering and the violence needs to stop.

  • ZTA

    August 1st, 2016 at 6:07 PM

    Leslie, Thank you so much for such a wonderful article. I am tired — very tired of people assuming/judging abuse cases simply as, “It’s his fault”. I am in a relationship where both of us exhibit abusive behavior. From my point of view, her more than me. I’ve always blamed it on her Marine Corp Father, who fought in the Pacific during WWII and was, as most who servered, forever hardened. Unfortunately, she too often mimics his behavior patterns she often mimics. That said, I have gotten in my fair share of blows as well. And yes, there has been mutual acts of physical violence. So here’s my question: Should we seek help as a couple, or do we need to go to counselors individually? Any advice you can provide will be greatly appreciated.

  • Wishitwasntme

    November 19th, 2015 at 9:43 PM

    Im currently in an abusive relationship…but both ways. And i think i caused it. Im a 20 year old female, madly in love with my 22 year old fiance. Things started out great, as they always do i guess, so im not sure where it started. He had a temper, hed hit walls and it always made me mad. So i put a hole on the wall every time he did. I was the first to hit him. I slapped him in the face. He didnt do anything the first time i slapped him. But soon he begin to sit on top of me and hold me down, so id fight amd kick or bite and spit and nothing worked. I feel helpless every time we fight i tell him im leaving. He never lets me leave though. But after we fight im glad he doesnt. We both have anger problems. But we love each other. I believe if i can change, work on my temper, work on giving each other some free time things can be better. When we fight im always so scared, and fed up. He always blames everything on me and it hurts so bad. Last night was the scariest. When he gets mad like i said he punches things, including himseMylf. He was having a fit of rage amd punched himself in the throat. He laid down and couldnt breathe.. Hes okay now but i thought i really lost him. And another time he told me he was gonna kill himself, he tricked me. He ran water in the bath tub and brought the toaster in to the bayh room. Them cut the breaker off. I had to break into the room in a panic. He was hiding behind the door amd fine and came to hold me as i cried . it hurt so bad. Im so scared hes hurt from punching himself last night. Any advice?

  • Piao Piao

    January 20th, 2019 at 11:28 PM

    There are no excuses for domestic violence; if you’re a victim of it, please reach out and try to get help. For those who can leave, please do; especially if you have children.
    Abusers who “apologize” and claim they love you are lying and manipulating you.
    If you were an abuser and you are SERIOUS about fixing yourself, remember, YOU are the one who needs to prove to the world that you are a changed person; do not expect the ones you hurt to give you a chance or to forgive you. You screwed up badly. If your partner does forgive you, then ok. If not, just move on and focus on being a person.

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