Why Would Anyone Abuse Their Partner?
- Being able to do as they please.
- Getting their partner to comply with their demands, cater to them, and let them have their way.
- Gaining unlimited access to partner’s money, time, attention, caretaking, labor and sexuality.
- Stopping their partner from:
- Hurting, betraying, or cheating on them.
- Arguing with them; trying to have a voice in decisions, or expecting them to compromise.
- Making demands on them (e.g., to do household chores).
- Disclosing their abuse to others.
- Keeping their partner’s life centered around them.
- Having a safe outlet for anger and other feelings.
People often speak of domestic abuse as “a choice” but, in reality, abusers make many choices over a long period of time – choices that stem from the belief that abusive behavior is a legitimate way to create and maintain their “rightful” position of power and privilege within their family19 - i.e., that they are entitled to act as they do. (Domestic abusers who have non-domestic criminal histories also often think using violence is legitimate in other contexts.) At its root, domestic abuse is motivated by the desire to gain and keep control,20 and the individual makes hundreds of small choices about how to continue controlling his/her partner. (One reason more men than women abuse their partners may be that men more often have power over a partner that they see as worth defending, but the feeling of entitlement is also influenced by other attitudes, values, perceptions and feelings, and by what the individual learned while growing up.)
Implications for intervention
Because domestic abuse is largely driven by attitudes and social inequality, therapeutic efforts to stop it are largely unsuccessful. Mental health and substance abuse treatment cannot effectively address either abusers’ belief that they have the right to use violence to get what they want or the social inequality that supports those beliefs. Yet abusers, especially those who also have mental health problems, are often sent to some sort of mental health treatment, either individually or in a batterer program.
In addition, the subjects that mental health treatment is likely to address often have little or no relationship to domestic abuse:
- Factors the abuser can’t control that “cause” the abusive behavior.
- The individual’s feelings and needs.
- Conflict in the relationship.
- The victim's partner’s faults, problems or provocative behavior.
- Incidents of physical violence – rather than the pattern of control.
- Coping skills and communication.
Many of the social underpinnings of domestic abuse, such as male dominance, can’t be “treated” at all, as they are not the sort of individual problems that clinicians work on. For instance, you can’t “treat:”
- A man’s belief that he owns his partner and is entitled to run her life.
- The fact that someone sees their partner as an object.
- A man’s belief that his partner is “less than” he is.
Entitlement attitudes are very hard to change – especially ones that are longstanding and culturally supported, and that benefit the individual who holds them. Treatment providers can, and should, challenge these beliefs, but they are not just matters of individual motivation or pathology.
- At a social level, privilege works in similar ways to maintain the power of men, wealthy people, able-bodied people, heterosexuals, white people, etc.
- Bancroft, L. (2002). Why Does He Do That? Inside the minds of angry and controlling men. NY: Putnams.
- Jacobson, N.S. & Gottman, J.M. (1998) When Men Batter Women. New York: Simon & Schuster.
- Pence E. & Paymar, M. (1993). Education Groups for Men Who Batter: The Duluth Model, p 7.
- Dasgupta, S.D., (2001). Towards an understanding of women's use of non-lethal violence in intimate heterosexual relationships.