Office for the Prevention of Domestic Violence

Information for Professionals

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Understanding Domestic Abusers

Why Would Anyone Abuse Their Partner?

Coercive control gives abusers many unearned benefits, large and small, at the expense of their partner and children.16,17  Gaining access to those benefits is abusers’ goal.18   Those benefits include:

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:

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:”

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. 

Questions to ask yourself:  Does your partner abuse  you?

Next: Common Excuses For Domestic Abuse

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  1. At a social level, privilege works in similar ways to maintain the power of men, wealthy people, able-bodied people, heterosexuals, white people, etc.
  2. Bancroft, L. (2002). Why Does He Do That? Inside the minds of angry and controlling men. NY: Putnams.
  3. Jacobson, N.S. & Gottman, J.M. (1998) When Men Batter Women.  New York: Simon & Schuster.
  4. Pence E. & Paymar, M. (1993). Education Groups for Men Who Batter: The Duluth Model, p 7. 
  5. Dasgupta, S.D., (2001). Towards an understanding of women's use of non-lethal violence in intimate heterosexual relationships.