Spousal Abuse Assessment and Reporting

The Broken Mirror: A Self Psychological Treatment Perspective for Relationship Violence

David B. Wexler, Ph.D.


Clinicians face formidable challenges in working with male perpetrators of domestic violence. Many treatment programs use a confrontational approach that emphasizes male entitlement and patriarchal societal attitudes, without honoring the genuine psychological pain of the abusive male. Although some men with strong psychopathic tendencies are almost impossible to treat, the majority of spouse-abusing males respond best to an empathic, client-centered, self psychological approach that also includes education about sociocultural issues and specific skill building. Understanding the deprivations in mirroring selfobject functions from which these men typically suffer facilitates clinical treatment response. While insisting that men take full responsibility for their abusive behavior, treatment approaches can still be most effective by addressing inherent psychological issues. Group leaders who can offer respect for perpetrators' history, their experience of powerlessness, and their emotional injuries in primary relationships are more likely to make an impact.(The Journal of Psychotherapy Practice and Research 1999; 8:129–141)


The first four to six months we were together, I thought I was just walking on water. Everything I did was wonderful. Everything about me was cool. I felt great. It was almost like I looked at her and I would always feel great about myself. And then it all came crashing down. She doesn't look at me the same way anymore. The kids demand a lot of attention. It's like she doesn't think I'm that great anymore. So now I don't even talk to her about a lot of things because they might upset her and mess up her picture of me even more—even when I know that she'll get even madder at me later for lying to her. And then I get mad at her, like it's her fault that I don't feel like I walk on water any more! One time my son, when he was nine, was trying to do this bike stunt where he would have to make his bike jump in the air and then come down over some boards. He couldn't do it. He was scared. I really got on him: "You're a baby, you're chicken, you're weak. I'm going to take your bike away from you!" I kept thinking he was letting me down! It was like he was disrespecting me.

When a man comes home to his wife and children, he expects that something will take place in the20transaction between them that will offer him a state of emotional well-being, or what is referred to in self psychology as a state of self-cohesion. The need for self-cohesion is primary. Its origins lie in the original needs between the infant or young child and the most central attachment figure, usually the mother. The child has a compelling need to look into the face of his mother and see, reflected back to him, eyes that say "You are wonderful" and a smile that says "You make me happy."

This is his magic mirror, and the figure in the mirror is known in self psychology theory as the mirroring selfobject. The self psychology theory of normal child development1 states that all children, at some point in their development, need validation and acknowledgment from parental figures. Over time, these lead to the child's capacity to feel pride and take pleasure in his or her accomplishments—to feel a sense of competence and efficacy.

Children who are deprived of these essential responses, or who instead are subjected to criticism and ridicule for the efforts to achieve, become arrested in their development of an internal sense of confidence and competence. As adults, they are always looking to some outside source of approval or recognition (mirroring). But no mother, no father, no teacher, no coach, and no therapist ever provide the perfect mirror. Some of these mirroring figures, as we all know rather too well, are often quite fragmented themselves and have little capacity to offer the loving and self-enhancing reflection that the child desperately requires. Or, in some cases, a mismatch between child and mirror-figure takes place such that the child eternally feels a lack of understanding, a dearth of genuine appreciation, and a fundamental gap in attunement. Even in the best of situations, the response can be experienced as incomplete. The child thus develops gaps in his sense of self: he mistrusts and disrespects his own internal signals and states; he doubts his own self-worth and competence. He desperately turns elsewhere for validation and, even more than most of us, he becomes excessively sensitized to signals that might suggest that he is unappreciated, unneeded, or unsuccessful.

Thus, the adult man who has been deprived of these essential mirroring functions turns, unconsciously, to his closest adult relationships and activities to help him acquire what was never soundly established long ago. He enters a love relationship with defenses erected against too much intimacy, for fear of being hurt and missing attunement once again. The needs resurface, inevitably, as the emotional connection develops. He hopes, he prays, that the good feelings he has about himself as he intertwines his life with his partner and family will buoy him for the rest of his life against the emptiness and deprivation that he has already experienced.

Some of this psychology can best be understood by first considering the power to generate a state of self-cohesion and well-being that men in our culture frequently attribute to women. Pleck2 outlines two very important dimensions of male reliance on female validation.

The first is that men perceive women as having expressive power—that is, the power to express emotions. Many men have learned to depend on women to help them express emotions; in fact, the woman's richer emotional life and capacity for emotional expression provides an essential life spark for many men. Whether they can identify this or not, many men feel lost without the fundamental connection to this spark.

The second form of reliance is masculinity-validating power. Men depend on women to remind them, and reassure them, of their fundamental masculinity and masculine self-worth. When a woman refuses to offer this validation, or when a man's unrealistic expectations and subsequent distortions convince him that she is withholding it, many men feel lost. They desperately demand the restoration of their virility, masculinity, self-worth, and, ultimately, self-cohesion, by the powerful confirming source.

Thus, the reflection offered by these female mirrors is extremely powerful. And the man who craves mirroring finds, as the relationship moves on, that his wife, his children, the job he has, and the life they have together have not sufficiently made up for what he has never received. When his wife seems more interested in talking to her sister than to him, and when their sex life wanes, and when his children do not show the respect to their parents that he envisioned, he becomes fragmented. When these responses are not forthcoming, these men are unable to maintain their sense of self-worth, self-esteem, or validity. Various types of behaviors reflecting this fragmentation may ensue (gambling, substance abuse, reckless sexual behavior, aggression).

White and Weiner3 offer a valuable description from the self psychological perspective of the experience of the abusive parent, which is quite parallel to the experience of the frustrated, abusive husband. They identify the narcissistic rage over the inability to make the child react as if he or she were part of the parent's self and really know what was wanted. Here, the mirroring selfobject function is extremely important, and quite fragile. So long as a child (or partner) provides the appreciation needed, self-esteem is maintained. When the applause fails, the narcissistic rage erupts along with an inner experience of a fragmenting self. The narcissistically impaired adult needs to be respected and obeyed and made to feel worthwhile; when he does not see that positive reflection in the interpersonal mirror, he is left feeling vulnerable, helpless, and outraged.

I've been married 10 years. The first 6 years were picture perfect. We had little spats, but that was all. But then this thing called parenthood came along. She was more critical of me, plus the heat from my career got way turned up. And she just got more and more of an attitude. And I'm thinking, "You're not the only one entitled to have an attitude." I became the sole breadwinner, and instead of making her an equal partner in our lives, my "father" came out of me. I just became my dad! Instead of looking at the fact that she was stressed out, I just blew up. Everything that I had said I would never do, I did anyway! I can drink myself into oblivion just to escape from my feelings. Of course, I can be just as mean sober. I have developed this incredibly painful jaw and neck. It can ruin my night. It has everything to do with all this stress and anger and attitude.

Some disappointment like this is inevitable in the course of human relationships and the recognition of limits. The problem with the man who becomes abusive with his partner or children is that he has mistaken the flood of good feelings that comes from a close relationship with a promise that the good mirror will always shine. So, in his eyes, the mirror breaks, his sense of self shatters, and he blames the mirror. Because she promised.

Stosny4 describes these men as "attachment abusers." When they see reflected back to them an image that makes them feel unlovable or inadequate, they feel ashamed. They blame the mirror for the reflection.

Some of these men become psychologically, sexually, emotionally, and/or physically abusive with their partners because these psychological vulnerabilities, in combination with other social and environmental factors, set the stage for abusive acts in relationships. Dutton and Golant's5 research on the origins of male battering identifies the ways in which socialization combines with psychological influences to create an abusive personality. Contributing factors include a sense of powerlessness in early childhood and the experience of having been shamed and battered, coupled with insecure avoidant-ambivalent bonding styles. Men who scored the highest for "fearful attachment" also scored highest for jealousy. "Jealousy," the authors note, "is the terror of abandonment" (p. 139). They go on to demonstrate that these fears are at the center of many abusive acts.

The treatment implications of these factors are profound. The clinician who can genuinely understand the perpetrator's unmet needs for mirroring and affirmation—and who can suspend preoccupation with moralistically rejecting the immature and unacceptable forms through which these were expressed—is potentially of tremendous value. The selfobject needs of the perpetrator are valid. Recognizing how the behaviors that he chooses are intended to regain self-cohesion and some sense of power and control over his crumbling sense of self (not necessarily over another person) leads to a new, more accessible, and deeply respectful therapeutic encounter.

If we understand the driving force behind many of these behaviors, we can recognize that most of these men (with some notable exceptions, as will be explained below) are not that different from most other men or women. Their actions may violate moral or legal codes and may not be in the behavioral repertoire of many other adults, but the fundamental emotions, needs, and struggles are certainly not unique or foreign. The task of clinicians and educators, in offering treatment, is to understand this pattern and to offer these men a new narrative of themselves and a new set of tools for coping with these very human experiences. The self psychology perspective,1,3 which emphasizes the breakdowns in the experience of self-cohesion leading to desperate acts, offers us a map.


Before proceeding further with this portrait of the dynamics of the abusive man, it is essential to clarify some of the different typologies that current research has outlined. Johnson6 categorized spousal abuse into two main groups: "patriarchal terrorism" and "common couple violence." The origins, motivations, and patterns are quite different, even if they do have the one central feature of physical aggression or intimidation in an intimate relationship to link them. Johnson is convinced that different researchers in the field have identified quite different descriptions of spousal abuse because they have studied quite different populations: battered women's shelter populations versus overall population samples. Research from women's shelter populations suggests "patriarchal terrorism" is generally the more dangerous of the two types. The violence occurs with greater severity and frequency. It is only male-to-female. Men in this category who commit acts of spousal abuse are characterized by a need to be in charge of the relationship and to control the woman by any means necessary. The males in these relationships are determined to maintain a structure of power and control, utilizing the various abusive strategies of physical violence, threats and intimidation, sexual abuse, emotional/verbal/psychological abuse, economic control, and social isolation. They invoke the rights of male privilege and male entitlement.

"Common couple violence," in contrast, is an intermittent response to the occasional conflicts of everyday life, motivated by a need to control a specific situation. The complexities of family life produce conflicts that occasionally get out of hand. The violence is no more likely to be enacted by men than by women. This type of violence, concludes Johnson, is usually not a part of a pattern in which one partner is trying to exert general control over his or her partner. This form of spouse abuse is relatively nongendered.

The heart of the difference between these two types of family violence lies in the motivation. While patriarchal terrorism assumes that the violent behaviors represent the larger context of male power and control, male entitlement, and male dominance, common couple violence stems from a less specific purpose. The intent with this type of violence is not specifically to control the partner, but more to express frustration. Similarly, Prince and Arias7 identified two sets of men: one that seemed to use violence consistent with their personal preferences and convictions and the other for whom violence seemed to be a result of frustration—an expressive, misguided cathartic response. These distinctions have otherwise been described as "chronic batterers versus sporadic batterers" or, simply, "battering versus physical violence." Battering is physical aggression with a purpose: to control, intimidate, or subjugate another person. It is always accompanied by psychological abuse. Many other acts of physical and/or psychological abuse may be designed to gain power and control in that specific situation, but they do not always represent a systematic pattern for that purpose.

As in most other clinical populations, researchers cannot exactly agree on the typologies of men who commit acts of domestic violence. However, several different leading researchers have developed basic categories that generally overlap. In a review of the literature, Holtzworth-Munroe and Stuart8 found that the research pointed to three main categories, which they called Type I, Type II, and Type III.

Type I batterers are generally antisocial and more likely to engage in instrumental violence. Aggression "works" more successfully for them. They are limited in their capacity for empathy and attachment, and they hold the most rigid and conservative attitudes about women. They tend to be violent across situations and across different victims. They are more generally belligerent, more likely to abuse substances, and more likely to have a criminal history. They show little remorse. Surprisingly, they report low to moderate levels of anger.

There is a certain population of battering or otherwise abusive men for whom the model of the broken mirror does not particularly apply, and for whom practically any treatment intervention appears quite unlikely to be successful. These are men whom Jacobson and Gottman9 have described as "vagal reactors" or "cobras" and whom others have called psychopaths.10 Psychophysiologically based studies by Gottman and colleagues9,11 identified an unusual pattern among a subgroup of the most severe batterers: an actual reduction in measures of arousal during aggressive interactions with their partners—completely contrary to expectations and typical patterns during angry interactions. These researchers have identified these men as "vagal reactors" whose nervous system arousal is strangely disconnected from their behavior. These batterers are deliberately, manipulatively controlling what goes on in the marital interaction. Men who operate in this cold and calculating manner probably cannot be reached through treatment, at least treatment as we now know it.8 Jacobson and Gottman9 called these men "cobras" because of their ability to become still and focused before striking their victim, in contrast to the more typical "pit bulls" who do a slow burn in frustration and resentment before finally exploding. They display many of the characteristics of classic psychopathic behavior—not necessarily typical of all Type I abusers.

Type II batterers are described by several researchers as "family only." They are dependent and jealous. They tend to suppress emotions and withdraw, later erupting into violence after long periods of unexpressed but seething rage. They tend to commit acts of abuse only within the family. Their acts of abuse are generally less severe, and they are less aggressive in general. They are generally remorseful about their actions.

I suddenly realized that I had been through five years of not communicating anything to her! Then it all exploded over the fish tank. My fish tank was really important to me. This was not just a little goldfish bowl—it was my 50-gallon aquarium that I had put a lot of work into. And I was ready to find a place for it in our house. So—trying to be polite about it—I said to her, "Well, where do you think it should go?" and she just explodes with that nasty tone, "I don't care where the fucking fish tank goes!" And I lost it. I pretended to grab a razor blade and wave it around. To show her how shitty I felt. She threw a hanger at me. I grabbed her, pushed her onto the ground. I didn't even know what I was doing. I started choking her and the next thing I knew she was gasping for breath and I eased up. I couldn't remember anything at first, and then it all came back to me. My self-talk? It's not fair. . . . She's disrespecting me. . . . She doesn't care about me. . . . I've been holding this in for so long, now it's finally her turn to hear about it! And I kind of woke up and looked around: "What the hell have I done?"

Type III batterers are usually identified as "dysphoric/ borderline" or "emotionally volatile." They tend to be violent only within their family, but they are more socially isolated and socially incompetent than other batterers. They exhibit the highest levels of anger, depression, and jealousy. They find ways of misinterpreting their partners and blaming their partners for their own mood states. Depression and feelings of inadequacy are prominent. They are more likely to have schizoid or borderline personalities.

I had broken up with Danielle months ago. And I was screwing around with a couple of different girls at this point. But I still couldn't get her out of my head. A friend of mine told me that he had heard Danielle was dancing again in strip clubs because she was so broke. I went nuts. I stormed over to her place and I started fucking screaming at her: "I am gonna disfigure your whole body if I ever find out you are dancing again!" I'm not really gonna do it, but I felt like it. When I picture her dancing or having sex with another guy who doesn't have the utmost dignity and respect for her, I just want to kill her! That girl gave me more than anybody in my life. She would do anything for me. She would fly to fucking Australia to bring me a sweater if I was cold. She was like my mother. I just get in so much pain—where I need to find her. Last night I got hit with this wave of missing her and I went all over looking for her. I know it's not right. But I feel like if I could just see her, if she'd be with me, the bad feelings would go away, and everything would be OK. I wouldn't have to worry any more.

So it appears that a small percentage of the most severe batterers are beyond the reach of clinical and/or psychoeducational interventions, suited only for external consequences as possible controls on behavior. In fact, many of these more severely dangerous men (the "cobras," the psychopathic men, the severely antisocial) do not ever make it into the treatment system: some may be in jail for other crimes, others slickly escape detection altogether, while still others somehow manage to avoid fulfilling court-ordered treatment requirements. But the encouraging findings are that so many other men in this population are not beyond our reach. They share a kinship with men and women who are not spouse abusers, and our understanding of fundamental psychological principles combined with the influence of cultural models of violence bring them within the realm of clinical connection.


Dutton and Golant's model5 for understanding the multiple factors that set the stage for domestic violence is particularly illuminating about the male psychological experience, and it especially allows us to develop a more empathic understanding of these men. Dutton and Golant outlined several key background factors that set the stage for a boy growing up to become a man who batters. Although this paradigm was developed based on studies of only one category (emotionally volatile/Type III), the principles significantly overlap into the other categories as well. Dutton explains how the seeds come from three distinct sources: 1) being shamed (especially by one's father), 2) an insecure attachment to one's mother, and 3) the direct observation of abusiveness in the home.

According to Dutton and Golant, shaming comes from public exposure of one's vulnerability. The whole self feels "bad." Abused children often shut off all emotion, to defend against rage and hurt at the perpetrator. A father who shames has a need to punish. When he attacks his son, he is desperately attempting to regain some lost sense of self, to bolster or reassure his own shaky sense of self. For the boy who needs to feel loved by this main source of his male identity, it is a series of crushing blows.

My father used to put me down. He slapped me around, called me "shit for brains," told me he should have never had me. Now I get it. When my wife says something that sounds even a little bit critical, I hear the same damn thing in my head: "shit for brains, shit for brains. . . . " If I stacked something wrong in the store, he'd slap me upside the head in front of other people. He would call me stupid. I was always nervous about the type of job I was doing. He would slap me if I screwed up until I got it right. I was a good enough athlete to play college ball in three sports, but he would always criticize me. I once got a whipping for not winning a race—he thought I hadn't put out full effort. The way my father brought me up caused me more problems. I'm not satisfied with who I am and I never will be.

People who have been exposed to shame will do anything to avoid it in the future. They develop a hypersensitive radar to the possibility of humiliation, and they are almost phobic in their overreactivity. They tend to project blame and perceive the worst in others. These men are, tragically, usually the ones most desperate for affection and approval, but they cannot ask for it. Sometimes the smallest signs of withdrawal of affection will activate the old narcissistic wounds, and they lash out at the perceived source of this new wound. They can describe none of these feelings; they don't even know where the feelings have come from.

Furthermore, if the mother of this young child is only intermittently capable of offering emotional connection and support, he spends too much time trying to bring her closer; this drains him of the attention, energy, and confidence needed for moving forward developmentally. Conversely, if she is too anxious and needs too much attention or validation from him, she intrudes upon him and he cannot separate. He never fully develops an inner sense of a lovable, stable, valuable core self. This boy develops an ambivalent attitude toward her and later toward women in general: they are the providers of essential emotional life-support, but they are only intermittently trustworthy and available.

As attachment is necessary for survival, the male learns early that his mother (and, by association, any intimate woman) has monumental power over him. True emotional safety and security are initially associated with the physical presence of a woman but are only inconsistently available. As adults, these men try to diminish their anxiety about being abandoned by exaggerated control of their female partner.

With my wife—she gets on me about moving the furniture, that I'm not doing it right: "You always do this, you never do that, you never think about anyone else, you're only thinking about yourself. . . . " The leg of the sofa breaks, now I'm the dummy who did it. She runs me down about money. But I excel at lots of things, and I seem to get criticized anyway. The minute she gives me any sort of criticism, I get mad enough to fight.

As Dutton and Golant5 describe it, "A boy with an absent or punitive father and a demanding but unavailable mother learns that men don't give emotional comfort, and that women appear to be supportive but are ultimately demanding and can't be trusted" (p.114). This is the cry of the little boy within the grown man: "Why can't she make me feel better?"

When these psychological variables are combined with the observation of abusive behavior in the home, we have a prescription for future male relationship violence. Research studies have indicated that males who witnessed parents attacking each other were three to four times more likely to eventually assault their wives.12 Although being on the receiving end of physical and emotional abuse is a prominent variable in the population of spouse abusers, witnessing male-to-female adult abuse is even more significant.13,14


Advocates of the "power and control"–based interventions, the approaches Johnson refers to as based on theories of patriarchal terrorism, describe their treatment as educational—in fact, not as "treatment" at all, if treatment implies something "therapeutic."15 The Duluth model is the most prominent model advocating this approach, and the dominance of this model is most clearly evident in the fact that many state legislatures, including California's, have dictated that only programs based on this model can be used by court-approved treatment providers. Even programs that have developed a more integrated cognitive-behavioral approach have included major philosophical components of the Duluth model. The goal of this model is the reeducation of men in their use of power, male privilege, and male entitlement in their relationships with women. On the basis of the sociocultural, feminist perspective of male patriarchy and relationship violence, battering is identified as a natural outcome of a society that reinforces male power and dominance. The social norms and attitudes are identified as the central culprit in spousal abuse.

The dominance of programs based on this model grew out of the sociocultural analyses of the 1970s and 1980s. The interventions, always in groups, were in direct response to the previous dominant clinical intervention style: identify the problem as a relationship dysfunction, work with the couple, identify ways in which both partners contributed to the conflicts, examine the pressures on the perpetrator, focus on how the victim's psychological disturbances would cause her to stay in such a relationship. In contrast, socioculturally based programs that held men directly accountable for their actions, that removed the stigma from women as having "caused" the violence, and that insisted that "men helping men" was the most potent forum in which to examine the fundamental attitudes governing spousal abuse were a very welcome and valuable addition to the field. In these programs, men were confronted consistently on their denial of abuse, their minimization of the severity of its effects, their rationalizations about how they were provoked, and their blame of external factors, such as alcohol or stress, for their behavior.

As the socioculturally based programs have proliferated in the 1980s and 1990s, however, several problems in effectiveness have emerged, and it is this author's belief that many of these criticisms are justified. These programs have been criticized for relying too much on a confrontational style, for acknowledging only male violence and discounting the frequency and significance of female or "bidirectional" violence, and for treating all men who have committed acts of spouse abuse as being motivated by "patriarchal terrorism." As Stosny4 puts it, "Most treatment programs focus on how men's domination causes domestic violence. We say that the real gender variable is that culture doesn't teach men to regulate their negative emotions, or sustain trust, compassion, and love. . . . But you can't [treat domestic violence] with a gender war. . . . By demonizing the batterer, it makes him more isolated." (p. 82). They have also been criticized for not fully emphasizing skill building and for completely forbidding any couples treatment for any cases.

For the purposes of this article, the differences between the "patriarchal terrorism" and the "common couple violence" treatment approaches are highlighted; in actual practice, the interventions originating from these two camps are often integrated. However, some fundamental philosophical differences emerge that cannot be overlooked.

Confrontational Approaches

In these approaches advocated for much of the past decade in treating domestic violence offenders, the focus is always on gender and power issues. All attempts to "psychologize" the problem are confronted as a form of denial or abdication of male responsibility. In this view, the perpetrator should consistently be confronted on rationalization, denial, and victim-blaming. Group members are pushed to admit, from day one, that they have committed violent and abusive acts and to describe these acts in detail without minimization, rationalization, or denial. The analysis of aggression is based primarily on its instrumental value in maintaining power and control in male-female relationships. These approaches are, in many ways, "shame-based" in that men are confronted with their misconduct prior to any establishment of rapport or recognition of the male experience.

In studies of individual psychotherapy, however, Henry et al.17,18 recognized that clients with a deeply damaged sense of self-esteem and issues of personal shame (typical of many domestic violence perpetrators) were highly sensitized to negative messages from therapists. They emphasized how introjects—the ways in which people learn to treat themselves as they have been treated by others—help form a relatively stable structure for how an individual treats his or her "self." They found that therapists who consistently offered positive support and positive reframing of client behaviors and who accepted and encouraged client autonomy (who were "affiliative") produced responses from clients that were characterized by increased self-expression and better self-esteem. They concluded that, in a process resembling the control-mastery theory of Weiss and Sampson,19 therapists must find a way to pass the unconscious "tests" of these clients by offering them a different perspective: an experience of acceptance rather than rejection, of respect rather than shame, and of autonomy rather than control.

Murphy and Baxter20 reviewed confrontational approaches in treatment settings. They concluded that therapist criticism and aggressive confrontation of client defenses are often counterproductive. Highly empathic therapists are more effective than highly confrontational ones.

In reviewing research on rape education programs, Fischer21 concluded that confrontational socioculturally based programs that emphasized the portrayal of men as brutes and women as helpless victims actually decreased the likelihood of success—even leading to undesirable backlash effects.

Although the more confrontational approaches appear logical in terms of challenging the distorted cognitions and attitudes, there is many a slip from the cup to the lip between good intentions and good outcome. The crucial clinical variable of offering and modeling respect is often missing in these approaches. As Murphy and Baxter20 point out, "Such practices and attitudes engage the batterer in an old, familiar game of power and control, victim and victimizer, with a temporary turn of the tables" (p. 609). When it comes to the values of respectful relationships, not only do treatment providers need to preach them, they have to show them. There is a danger of establishing a power hierarchy in the treatment setting that subtly reinforces power tactics and that alienates the very population we want to reach.

As Dutton22 points out, abusive men must not be confronted too strongly or too quickly because of their hypersensitivity to the experience of shame. The more they experience the treatment setting as a forum for increased shame, the more likely they are to defend against this experience by defensive digging in of the heels: intensified anger, rationalization of violence, and projection of blame.

Even if the sociocultural analysis of domestic violence applied to all cases referred for treatment—which it does not—insisting that men recognize, right from the beginning of treatment, that they are representing a male patriarchal culture, that they are engaged in power and control tactics with their partners, and that their partner's violence toward them was strictly an act of self-defense will alienate many of them. Hardening defenses will not serve the men we treat, nor their partners whom we are ultimately trying to protect.

Client-Centered Approaches

Although this article is most centrally focused on the self psychology perspective, there are a number of kindred approaches that emphasize similar principles and values. Although these approaches may differ in terms of length of treatment, emphasis on psychoeducational content, or use of skill-building techniques, they share the fundamental respect for the male abuser's personal experience. None of these approaches denies the severity of domestic violence, nor do they encourage men to shirk their responsibility. These approaches simply propose a way of making contact with these men so that they are more accessible to change.

It is also important to point out that these orientations can be quite compatible with treatment strategies that also integrate power and control issues and cognitive-behavioral skills training.

Pacing and Leading

One clinical approach that transcends the specific theories and programs is based on the clinical strategy of "pacing and leading." This approach, originating from the work of Milton Erickson and further developed by neo-Ericksonian practitioners,23,24 carefully mirrors the experience of the other person and then follows this mirroring with a "leading" suggestion for a new way to think or act. Based on Erickson's original work with indirect, naturalistic hypnotherapy, "pacing" means first developing empathy and rapport for the other person's experience by careful delineation—before making any correction or suggestion, before fostering a new perspective, before guiding a new behavior.

In domestic violence groups, pacing means carefully reflecting back an understanding of the men's experience:

When Karen was talking to this other guy at the party, you must have felt really threatened, like something very important was being taken away from you. And you must have felt betrayed, like "How can she do this to me?" Plus it was in front of other people, and your pride was at stake. And you felt powerless, probably thinking that "I have to do something about this right now." You probably felt it all through your body, and it felt awful, and you didn't know what to do. It makes sense that you would feel this way, and that you would feel this urge to try to do something to feel powerful again.

Then, and only then, comes the "lead":

And at that point, probably the most powerful thing to do would be to remember that you get insecure in these situations, and that it doesn't always mean that Karen is doing something to you. And to remember that you have ways to talk to her about it afterwards. You can let her know what you need from her.

This sequence, of communicating empathic understanding and respect for the man's experience, followed by a new perspective or idea, has a profound impact on preparing the men for new ways of thinking and acting. Saunders25 points out that clinicians can be informed by the basic axiom of "accept the client but reject the behavior"; he also points out that, in most cases, one does not have to look very far to find a redeeming feature in each man. Showing an understanding of the man's fear, hurt, sense of helplessness, and anger not only fosters treatment progress, but also defuses the potential for any outbreaks of violence toward the therapist.

Similarly, the "freeze-frame" approach26 can increase accessibility to these men. This approach employs a self psychological perspective in helping men recognize the fundamental (and very "respectable") emotional needs that they were experiencing at the time that they made the behavioral decision that turned out to have destructive or self-destructive consequences. The primary attention to their genuine experience and legitimate emotional needs (for attention, self-esteem, appreciation, security, self-efficacy) radically dilutes the potential defensiveness. Our experience has been that the training and corrections that inevitably follow in domestic violence programs are better received.

Self Psychology Approaches
Several concepts from self psychology are especially valuable in making sense of the spouse abuser's experience and in guiding treatment interventions. First and foremost is the concept of the mirroring selfobject.1,3,27,28 When a child looks into the eyes of his parent and sees reflected back to him a loving and approving look, his basic sense of himself is deeply validated. He feels alive and worthy. When an adult male in a relationship looks into the eyes of his partner and sees reflected back to him a look of love and delight and profound respect, he likewise feels alive and worthy. However, since this perfect mirroring inevitably—even in the best of relationships—wears off, at least to some degree, this man is doomed to a cracking of the mirror and a cracking of the self. It is this experience that must be identified and owned for many men who turn on their partners. They need to understand the origin of their deep unrest and their deep resentment so they can position themselves to possibly take some responsibility for it. As with most other psychological experiences, the identified and known experience has a profound organizing effect and allows the individual to respond more maturely and appropriately to the genuine problem.

The twinship selfobject is a much more adaptive experience at this point in the relationship. This would allow a husband to say to his wife,

Y' know, I feel really lost sometimes without all the special times we had together. It just seems like having kids and getting used to each other and money problems have really taken their toll. I guess you must feel the same way.

Here the man has shifted his primary need from the mirroring function of his partner to one in which they are profoundly alike. She is no longer the enemy, but rather a comrade along the difficult road of life—a comrade who is inevitably flawed, but no more fundamentally flawed than he.

Also from the self psychology perspective, it is important to recognize the fundamental narcissistic injury or selfobject breakdown that usually precedes an outbreak of abusive behavior. In fact, we can usually observe the effects of an injury to the vulnerable self in the clinical relationship, since there is inevitably an empathic failure in all treatment experiences. The research of Holtzworth-Munroe and Hutchinson29 is particularly illuminating here. They examined the "misattributions" of men who abuse their wives compared with a nonabusive male population. They found that violent husbands were much more likely to attribute the most negative intentions to their wives' behavior: when presented vignettes of situations like a wife talking to another man at a party or a wife who is not interested in sex on a particular night, these men were much more likely to be convinced that she was trying to make the man angry, hurt his feelings, put him down, get something for herself, or pick a fight. The researchers also found that when these men perceived a situation of abandonment or rejection, they were particularly likely to generate incompetent behavioral responses. These are narcissistic injuries to these men; and, as with all narcissistic injuries, they are strictly governed by the cognitive interpretation of the event. A nonviolent husband might interpret the same situation in a different, more benign way. If his wife were spending a lot of time talking to another man at a party, he might be irritated at her, or he might make nothing of it, or he might actually feel pleased that she was attractive and popular and having a good time. This recognition of the vulnerability to narcissistic injury—and the ability to communicate this understanding in the clinical setting—allow both us and these men in treatment to develop a greater respect for how their hurt feelings and eventual desperate reactions developed.

The clinical goal here is to create an "experience-near" intervention; with this population, that must elicit the man's experience of being powerless, no matter how much the political analysis as observed from outside indicates that he is powerful. Harway and Evans30 critique one of the foundation pieces of the domestic violence models: Walker's "Cycle of Violence."31 As originally formulated, the Cycle of Violence identifies the stages that some spousal battering patterns go through, from escalation to explosion to honeymoon period. Both man and woman tend to deny the problems of the other stages because of the sweetness and satisfaction of the honeymoon period—but then the escalation period inevitably reemerges, culminating in explosion once more. According to Walker, this cycle tends to become shorter and shorter, with more frequent and more disturbing periods of escalation and explosion.

More recent research suggests, however, that many couples do not experience this pattern of more rapid cycling and more dangerous intensity.6 Many couples have occasional incidents of abuse that do not inevitably lead to more danger. And, certainly, many men do not experience this cycle in the way that is described. The fact that they do not experience it this way does not invalidate it, but it certainly does not lend itself to a valuable intervention. To confront men in treatment with the Cycle of Violence model as the quintessential pattern of abuse—with its emphasis on male domination and inevitable escalation—causes us to lose much of our audience. Many of these men do not feel that this accurately describes them and they become defensive or, even worse, disengaged.

Instead, Harway and Evans30 use the "Cycle of Feeling Avoidance." This model reflects the more typical—and often surprising—experience of powerlessness that men have in difficult interpersonal relationships. Many men—and certainly many men who become abusive—have very low tolerance for difficult or aversive feelings.32 When they experience some personal injury or discomfort, they feel overwhelmed. A mistake may lead to shame, frustration to helplessness, emotional distance to loneliness. In this model, men do whatever it takes to defend against these extremely dysphoric states. They may behave with passivity, such as placating or excessive apologizing just to keep the peace. Or they may take a more active approach, as men in our culture are oriented to do: lashing out at the person who seems to be causing this pain, engaging in controlling behavior to eliminate the sources of discomfort, abusing substances as an escape from the feelings, acting out recklessly (for example, through sexual escapades or dangerous driving) to provide some relief.

So here I am, in this kind of frenzy, I guess, pretending to wave this razor blade around. It wasn't even in my hand, but she thought it was. And I can hear this screaming in my head: "You don't care about me!" "I want to have control over something in my life!" And later I thought about how I had been adopted, and how I didn't even get to "choose" my real parents; they made that decision for me.

In this state, under these circumstances, the other people in this man's life are perceived only as potential selfobject figures. His wife's behavior, feelings, and "independent center of initiative" are peripheral to the fundamental drive for self-cohesion: he will do anything it takes to avoid the dysphoria and regain some measure of well-being. Often, this means gaining control over someone else. And, often, this means emotional, verbal, or physical abuse.

In the treatment setting, clinicians can offer these men a new, stable, mirroring selfobject, so that they can feel a deeper sense of self-respect and can maintain a more grounded sense of self as they deal with the emotional minefield inherent in many love relationships. And they can offer them a new, mature twinship experience, so that they can recognize that we are similar passengers on this journey through sensitive episodes and difficult moments in relationships. Even though many of us would not turn to physically abusive or emotionally intimidating behavior, we at least share the experience of feeling hurt and threatened and occasionally resorting to behaviors in response to these states that we deeply regret. In this way, clinicians and clients can experience twinship.

Client-Centered Group Formats

Some specific group formats have adopted a psychological, client-centered treatment plan that does not include the educational components found in other programs. These programs share a fundamental belief in the individual's ability to heal from childhood wounds, to build on strengths, or both.

Process/Psychodynamic Treatment:

Saunders and colleagues33,34 developed a model of domestic violence treatment based on a "process/psychodynamic" approach. This domestic violence intervention is informed by a clinical approach that emphasizes the understanding of the perpetrator's experience—again, without absolving men from responsibility for their actions—rather than the confrontation of gender politics and the men's perpetuation of such. This model assumes that men need to grieve their childhood pains and losses in a safe environment. Saunders based the design of this approach on several theories and studies that emphasized the threats and injuries to the sense of self that men experience. Pleck2 suggested that men perceive women as being superior in their ability to express themselves; thus, men become dependent on women and turn to them for nurturant and emotional needs. They rely on women to support their sense of masculinity, and therefore experience themselves as being powerless compared with their female partner. When women do not meet their perceived needs, they experience a selfobject breakdown and may react with anxiety and anger.

In his study comparing these groups with more traditional cognitive-behavioral approaches, Saunders found that abusive men diagnosed with more dependent personalities—as opposed to more antisocial personalities—were more successful with the process/psychodynamic approach. He found that the men were more engaged in this process and that many respond better to the more "compassionate" approach.

The Compassion Workshop:

Stosny4 has designed a treatment program called the Compassion Workshop, which is based on the idea that most batterers cannot sustain attachment. Much like the approach advocated by Harway and Evans30 with the Cycle of Feeling Avoidance, this approach emphasizes the deficits in men's abilities to tolerate and regulate dysphoric affect. As Gottman32 has discovered, men easily become flooded and insist on either shutting down emotionally or lashing out at the perceived source of the pain when they experience narcissistic injuries. The Compassion Workshop employs a series of intense exercises, videos, and homework assignments to help the men generate increased compassion for the self: in other words, to repair deficits in the self-cohesion. The HEALS technique (the centerpiece of this program) teaches the men five steps towards awareness and reframing of dysphoric emotional states: Healing, Explain to Yourself, Apply Self-Compassion, Love Yourself, Solve. By practicing this technique frequently on a daily basis, the men are taught that compassion for the self and for others represents true power and has the ability to heal. Initial studies of the Compassion Workshop tentatively suggest lower dropout rates and lower post-treatment recidivism than with many other programs that have been similarly evaluated.

Solution-Focused Approaches:

Solution-focused therapy35 emphasizes the strengths and potential of the individual rather than the problems and dysfunctions. It is a collaborative model that is influenced by a humanistic perspective, systems theory, and social constructivism. Proponents believe that lasting, positive changes can occur through a focus on current client strengths, competencies, and solution-building abilities rather than deficiencies. Language is viewed as the medium through which personal meanings are constructed. The language is one of "solution and strengths" rather than "deficits and blame." Clinicians assist clients with a series of questions that relentlessly reframe the person and the problem:

  • (Exceptions) What is different about the times when you don't blow up?
  • (Outcome) Suppose that one night, while you were asleep, there was a miracle and this problem was solved. How would you know? What would be different?
  • (Coping) How exactly do you manage to cope with the stresses in your marriage and family?
  • (Scaling) I know you are still losing your temper sometimes, but have you noticed how much lower in frequency (intensity, duration) these episodes are?

Lee et al.36 designed a solution-focused brief group treatment for domestic violence offenders based on these principles. Without denying the aggressive or violent nature of the behaviors, group leaders were trained to avoid confronting clients and provoking defensiveness, to avoid getting into debates, and to take a "one-down" position and see the client as an "expert" on his situation. Group members engage in multiple homework assignments that emphasize identification of already existing personal strengths and resources. The men in the programs are viewed as willing and able to control their violence by investigating their own past successes at avoiding abusive behavior. Rather than focusing on times of violence, this treatment emphasizes the exceptions to violence.


In developing an empathic connection with men who have committed very disturbing and destructive acts, it is sometimes easy to fall prey to an overidentification with the perpetrator and to forget that the reason he is in treatment is because someone else has been seriously hurt emotionally and/or physically. It can be difficult for clinicians to navigate the dual role of providing an empathic alliance and needing to report any signs of treatment failure or increased risk, and clinicians who cannot come to terms with this dual role probably should not treat this population. Unlike most other clinical treatment, in this therapy the number one concern is the welfare of someone other than the client.

Nothing in this article should be construed as a suggestion that this goal of protecting the spouse should be reduced or placed in the background; the arguments here have to do not with purpose, but with execution. When the clinician can maintain the empathic stance, he or she can relate to the batterer not as some disturbed social freak but rather as one more wounded man who has suffered narcissistic injuries and disappointments in his love relationship and at times finds this state unbearable—which leads to acting out at the perceived source of that frustration. Who among us does not know this experience?


From the philosophical and clinical perspective presented here, the treatment model that holds the most promise with the majority of this population is one that emphasizes the self psychological principles of client-centered respect while not forsaking the psychoeducational information that these men need. This model is political, educational, and psychological. Some current treatment programs, such as Domestic Violence 200037 and Foundations for Violence-Free Living,38 integrate the psychoeducational format (teaching about the politics of abuse and cognitive-behavioral skills training) with these self psychological principles. While insisting that men take full responsibility for their abusive behavior, treatment approaches can still be most effective by addressing the psychological issues inherent in these destructive behaviors. Group leaders who can offer perpetrators a profound sense of respect for their experience—including their history, their experience of powerlessness, and their emotional injuries in their primary relationships—are more likely to make an impact. We can best lead men into new views of gender equality and new skills in self-management and communication by first pacing their experience. By offering our respect, we model the ability for them to more fully respect themselves and others. By a compassionate understanding of their broken mirrors, we can help them develop new ways of finding twinship experiences with other men and even with their own female partners. end


Popular emphasis has tended to be on women as the victims of domestic violence although with the rise of the men's movement, and particularly men's rights, there is now some advocacy for men as victims, although the statistics concerning the number of male victims given by them are strongly contested by many groups active in research on or working in the field of domestic violence and "violence against men". Estimates are that only about a third of cases of domestic violence are actually reported in the US.

Domestic violence occurs in all cultures; people of all races, ethnicity, religions, and classes can be perpetrators of domestic violence. Domestic violence is perpetrated by, and on, both men and women, and occurs in same-sex and opposite-sex relationships.

Awareness and documentation of domestic violence differs from country to country. According to the Centers for Disease Control, domestic violence is a serious, preventable public health problem affecting more than 32 million Americans, or more than 10% of the U.S. population.

Domestic violence has many forms, including physical violence, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, intimidation, economic deprivation or threats of violence. There are a number of dimensions:

mode - physical, psychological, sexual and/or social
frequency - on/off, occasional, chronic
severity – in terms of both psychological or physical harm and the need for treatment – transitory or permanent injury – mild, moderate, severe up to homicide.

The means used to measure domestic violence strongly influence the results found. For example, studies of reported domestic violence and extrapolations of those studies show women preponderantly as victims and men to be more violent, whereas the survey based Conflict Tactics Scale, tends to show men and women equally violent.

Since the majority of studies investigate male-on-female domestic violence, information on female-on-male and same-sex violence tends to be less available.

Types of Spousal/Partner Abuse

Intimate terror (or "patriarchal terror") where one partner uses violence along with emotional and psychological abuse to maintain control over the other. In heterosexual relationships, the perpetrator is most often the male partner. It is more likely than other types to be frequent and to escalate in seriousness. Intimate terror is much less common than situational couple violence, but probably dominates samples collected from agencies (police, courts, hospitals).

Violent resistance is violence used in resistance to an intimate terror. Sometimes it is self-defensive, sometimes more like payback, sometimes the act of an entrapped victim who sees no other way to escape a violently abusive relationship.

Situational couple violence arises out of conflicts that escalate to arguments and then to violence. It is not connected to a general pattern of control. Although it occurs less frequently in relationships and is less serious than intimate terror, in some cases it can be frequent and/or quite serious, even life-threatening. This is probably the most common type of intimate partner violence and dominates general surveys, student samples, and even marriage counseling samples.

The fourth type identified by Johnson is infrequent and some scholars question its existence:

Mutual violent control is when both partners are violent and controlling and they possibly battle for control in the relationship. As with intimate terrorism, violence is one form of control used by each abuser.

Physical violence

Physical violence is the intentional use of physical force with the potential for causing injury, harm, disability, or death, for example, hitting, shoving, biting, restraint, kicking, or use of a weapon.

Sexual violence and incest

Sexual violence and incest are divided into three categories:

Use of physical force to compel a person to engage in a sexual act against their will, whether or not the act is completed; attempted or completed sex act involving a person who is unable to understand the nature or condition of the act, unable to decline participation, or unable to communicate unwillingness to engage in the sexual act, e.g., because of illness, disability, or the influence of alcohol or other drugs, or because of intimidation or pressure; and

Abusive sexual contact.

Psychological violence

Threats of physical, psychological or sexual, or social violence that use words, gestures, or weapons to communicate the intent to cause death, disability, injury, physical, or psychological harm.

Psychological/emotional violence involves violence to the victim caused by acts, threats of acts, or coercive tactics. Psychological/emotional abuse can include, but is not limited to, humiliating the victim, controlling what the victim can and cannot do, withholding information from the victim, deliberately doing something to make the victim feel diminished or embarrassed, isolating the victim from friends and family, and denying the victim access to money or other basic resources. It is considered psychological/emotional violence when there has been prior physical or sexual violence or prior threat of physical or sexual violence. Perpetrators of this form of domestic aggression can be both users and abusers... both female and male. "The abuser recruits friends, colleagues, mates, family members, the authorities, institutions, neighbors, the media, teachers in short, third parties to do his bidding. He uses them to cajole, coerce, threaten, stalk, offer, retreat, tempt, convince, harass, communicate and otherwise manipulate his target."

Relational aggression is a form of psychological/social aggression that uses various forms of falsehood, secrecy and gossip to commit covert violence. It is often a spectacularly successful tactic because so few people know how to detect it. It is often used because it is covert, leaves no visible scars and can be done with a smile. It destroys or damages the target's reputation and ruins the target's relationships. "It is the outcome of fear. Fear of violence, fear of the unknown, fear of the unpredictable, the capricious, and the arbitrary. It is perpetrated by dropping subtle hints, by disorienting, by constant and unnecessary lying, by persistent doubting and demeaning, and by inspiring an air of unmitigated gloom and doom."

Parental alienation is another form of covert violence where children are used as a weapon of war by one parent to alienate the other parent. This covert form of domestic violence is used in high-conflict marriages. It is often devastating to the alienated spouse/parent and to the alienating/alienated children caught in the middle. Misdiagnoses of Parental Alienation can also be devastating -- this time to the parent accurately describing abuse and to the child that is placed with the abusive parent. In effect, it uses innocent, unwitting children to commit relational aggression by one parent against the other. "The abuser often recruits his children to do his bidding. He uses them to tempt, convince, communicate, threaten, and otherwise manipulate his target, the children's other parent or a devoted relative (e.g., grandparents). He controls his - often gullible and unsuspecting - offspring exactly as he plans to control his ultimate prey. He employs the same mechanisms and devices. And he dumps his props unceremoniously when the job is done - which causes tremendous (and, typically, irreversible) emotional hurt."

Economic abuse

Economic abuse is when the abuser has complete control over the victim's money and other economic resources. Usually, this involves putting the victim on a strict 'allowance', withholding money at will and forcing the victim to beg for the money until the abuser gives them some money. It is common for the victim to receive less money as the abuse continues.

This also includes (but is not limited to) preventing the victim from finishing education or obtaining employment.

Spiritual Abuse

Spiritual abuse includes:

using the spouse’s or intimate partner’s religious or spiritual beliefs to manipulate them preventing the partner from practicing their religious or spiritual beliefs ridiculing the other person’s religious or spiritual beliefs

Violence against men

Violence against men is the term known for violence that is committed against men by the man's intimate partner.

Very little is known about the actual number of men who are in a domestic relationship in which they are abused or treated violently by their male or female partners. Few incidents are reported to police, and data is limited. Dr. Richard J. Gelles contends that while "men's rights groups and some scholars" believe that "battered men are indeed a social problem worthy of attention" and that "there are as many male victims of violence as female", he states that such beliefs are "a significant distortion of well-grounded research data." In addition, researchers Tjaden and Thoennes found that "men living with male intimate partners experience more intimate partner violence than do men who live with female intimate partners.

Approximately 23 percent of the men who had lived with a man as a couple reported being raped, physically assaulted, and/or stalked by a male cohabitant, while 7.4 percent of the men who had married or lived with a woman as a couple reported such violence by a wife or female cohabitant."

The available data indicate that:

3.2 million men experience "minor" abuse (such as "pushing, grabbing, shoving, slapping, and hitting") per year.

In the United States, approximately 800,000 men per year (3.2%) are raped or physically assaulted by their partner.

At least 371,000 men are stalked annually.

3% of nonfatal violence against men stems from domestic violence.

In 2002, men comprised 24% of domestic violence homicide victims.

Over 20 years, the instances of homicide from domestic violence against men decreased by approximately 67%.

Approximately 22% of men have experienced physical, sexual, or psychological intimate partner violence during their life.

There are many reasons why there isn't more information about domestic abuse and violence against men. A major reason is the reluctance of men to report incidents to the police, unless there are substantial injuries. Data indicate that although mutual violent behavior is quite common in intimate relationships, men are rarely seriously harmed.

Allegations of domestic violence

Many Men and Father's Rights advocates observe the use of false accusations of domestic violence in the context of divorce and child custody proceedings as re-inventing the type of hostile litigations and accusations that were intended to be eliminated by no fault divorce legislation. Thomas Kasper writes in the Illinois Bar Journal that domestic violence measures funded by VAWA readily “become part of the gamesmanship of divorce.” Phyllis Schlafly notes in her September 2006 column "Laughing at Restraining Orders" that the domestic violence injunction issued on David Letterman for sending subliminal messages to a woman 2000 miles away that he had never met, demonstrates the claim by Men's Rights advocates that many domestic violence injunctions do not even involve any actual physical violence, but are instead absurd exaggerations or fabrications.

On the other hand, not taking allegations seriously can lead to further violence, and can also be judicial misconduct. In Maryland, a judge was under investigation for his conduct in a domestic violence case. He retired and thus avoided punishment. Following his dismissal of a protective order, a woman's husband arrived at her place of work, doused her with gasoline, and set her on fire, causing serious burns.

Allegations of domestic violence are frequent in post-divorce/separation situations. Such allegations may often be third-party abuse, using third-parties such as courts to carry out untraceable abuse against a falsely-accused 'perpetrator'. The consequences of such allegations can be serious for the alleged perpetrator since occupation of the home and custody of the children may be at stake. In Australia, mandated allocation of family resources in court-supervised separation shifts automatically from 50:50 to 80:20 in favor of the alleged victim if there is any allegation of abuse; anecdotal reports and other evidence indicate that such allegations are accepted only from women, and that the allegation itself is required to be taken as its own proof, without any checks or balances. It is sometimes claimed that "less than 2% of reported domestic violence allegations are proved false", but anecdotal and other evidence suggests that this claim, as with many supposed statistics in domestic-violence 'research', is based more on wishful thinking and circular reasoning than on fact.


There are many different theories as to the causes of domestic violence. As with many phenomena regarding human experience, no single approach appears to cover all cases.

Identified and proposed causes include a need for power and control, a form of bullying and social learning of abuse. Abusers' efforts to dominate their partners have been attributed to low self-esteem or feelings of inadequacy, unresolved childhood conflicts, the stress of poverty, hostility and resentment toward women (misogyny), hostility and resentment toward men (misandry), personality disorders, genetic tendencies and sociocultural influences, among other possible causative factors. Most authorities seem to agree that abusive personalities result from a combination of several factors, to varying degrees.

Factors associated with domestic violence also include substance abuse, mental illness, classism, various political and legal characteristics such as authoritarianism and dehumanization.

"Dukes argues that all [domestic] abuse relates to men’s capacity for, and their need to, devalue women. If we can stop a man devaluing his partner, he will stop abusing her. Devaluation is defined as seeing someone in negative ways - as not being attractive, as being vicious, dangerous, threatening, ugly, boring, useless, bad. This analysis brings male violence against women back within the general domain of male violence itself. The extent to which the process of dehumanization. - the reduction of the other person to a thing that is nothing, to a valueless nothing, a contemptible nothing, a disposable nothing - has been analysed and explored by a legion of respected students of violence." Women's Aid Federation Northern Ireland


Many experts, including Lundy Bancroft and Dr. Susan Weitzman, psychotherapist and author of "Not to People Like Us: Hidden Abuse in Upscale Marriages," contend that abuse in poor families is more likely to be reported to ER staff, police and social services by victims and bystanders. Also, low-income perpetrators are more likely to be arrested and serve time in jail than are their wealthier counterparts, who have the social and financial wherewithal to evade public exposure.

The degree to which abuse correlates with poverty and the extent to which poverty causes abuse or abuse causes poverty are ambiguous. To date, more data on abuse has been collected from low-income than middle and upper income families. This does not necessarily confirm that domestic violence is more prevalent among poor families than wealthier ones, only that the population most readily available for study is predominantly low-income.

It seems premature to conclude that poverty is an important causative factor in domestic violence or that domestic violence causes poverty. Poverty increases the chances that low-income populations will be identified and studied, but this has resulted in a skewed, self-selected sample that does not reflect the incidence and demographics of abuse in the population as a whole.

Power and control

Power in a relationship is often a matter of perception. A person may perceive themselves to be put-upon when a less involved observer would disagree.

A causalist view of domestic violence is that it is a strategy to gain or maintain power and control over the victim. This view is in alignment with Bancroft's "cost-benefit" theory that abuse rewards the perpetrator in ways other than, or in addition to, simply exercising power over his or her target(s). He cites evidence in support of his argument that, in most cases, abusers are quite capable of exercising control over themselves, but choose not to do so for various reasons.

An alternative view is that abuse arises from powerlessness and externalizing/projecting this and attempting to exercise control of the victim. It is an attempt to 'gain or maintain power and control over the victim' but even in achieving this it cannot resolve the powerlessness driving it. Such behaviors. have addictive aspects leading to a cycle of abuse or violence. Mutual cycles develop when each party attempts to resolve their own powerlessness in attempting to assert control.

Questions of power and control are integral to the widely accepted Duluth Domestic Abuse Intervention Project. They developed "Power and Control Wheel" to illustrate this: it has power and control at the center, surrounded by spokes (techniques used), the titles of which include:The model attempts to address abuse by one-sidedly challenging the misuse of power by the 'perpetrator'.

Critics of this model suggest that the one-sided focus is problematic as resolution can only be achieved when all participants acknowledge their responsibilities, and identify and respect mutual purpose.

The power wheel model is not intended to assign personal responsibility, enhance respect for mutual purpose or assist victims and perpetrators in resolving their differences. It is an informational tool designed to help individuals understand the dynamics of power operating in abusive situations and identify various methods of abuse.

Sex and gender

Modes of abuse are thought by some to be gendered, females tending to use more psychological and men more physical forms. The visibility of these differs markedly. However, experts who work with victims of domestic violence have noted that physical abuse is almost invariably preceded by psychological abuse. Police and hospital admission records indicate that a higher percentage of females than males seek treatment and report such crimes.

Unless or until more men identify themselves and go on record as having been abused by female partners, and in a manner whereby the nature and extent of their injuries can be clinically assessed, men will continue to be identified as the most frequent perpetrators of physical and emotional violence.

The cycle of violence

Cycle of violence and cycle of abuse

Frequently, domestic violence is used to describe specific violent and overtly abusive incidents, and legal definitions will tend to take this perspective. However, when violent and abusive behaviors. happen within a relationship, the effects of those behaviors. continue after these overt incidents are over. Advocates and counselors will refer to domestic violence as a pattern of behaviors., including those listed above.

Lenore Walker presented the model of a Cycle of Violence which consists of three basic phases:

Honeymoon Phase
Characterized by affection, apology, and apparent end of violence.
Tension Building Phase
Characterized by poor communication, tension, fear of causing outbursts,
Acting-out Phase
Characterized by outbursts of violent, abusive incidents.

Although it is easy to see the outbursts of the Acting-out Phase as abuse, even the more pleasant behaviors. of the Honeymoon Phase serve to perpetuate the abuse.


Domestic violence is a significant problem. Measures of the incidence of violence in intimate relationships can differ markedly in their findings depending on the measures used. Survey approaches tend to show parity in the use of violence by both men and women against partners, whereas research using data from reports of domestic violence tend to show women experiencing violence from male partners as the majority of cases (over 80%). Further discussion of this occurs in the next section on gender differences.


In the U.S., between 3 and 5 billion dollars are spent annually on medical expenses related to domestic violence. Also, approximately 100 million dollars is lost by businesses annually though lost productivity, sick leave and absenteeism due to domestic violence.

Gender differences

The discussion of domestic violence needs to include a discussion of the role of gender.

Erin Pizzey, the founder of an early women's shelter in Chiswick, London, has expressed her dismay at how she believes the issue has become a gender-political football, and expressed an unpopular view in her book Prone to Violence that some women in the refuge system had a predisposition to seek abusive relationships. She also expressed the view that domestic violence can occur against any vulnerable intimates, regardless of their sex. In the same book, Erin Pizzey stated that, of the first 100 women to enter the refuge, 62 were as violent, or more violent, than the men they were, allegedly, running away from.

There are women and men who seek to put forward the idea that abusive men are sexy. This can be shown in the media with the genre of bad boy romance novels.

In the United States, the bulk of the decrease in rates of intimate partner homicides is accounted for the dramatic decrease in women's murders of their male intimate partners. Murders of female intimate partners by men have dropped, but not nearly as dramatically. Men kill their female intimate partners at about four times the rate that women kill their male intimate partners. Research by Jacquelyn Campbell, PhD has found that at least two thirds of women killed by their intimate partners were battered by those men prior to the murder. She also found that when males are killed by female intimates, the women in those relationships had been abused by their male partner about 75% of the time.

Some researchers have found a relationship between the availability of domestic violence services, improved laws and enforcement regarding domestic violence and increased access to divorce, and higher earnings for women with declines in intimate partner homicide.

Gender roles and expectations can and do play a role in abusive situations, and exploring these roles and expectations can be helpful in addressing abusive situations, as do factors like race, class, religion, sexuality and philosophy. None of these factors cause one to abuse or another to be abused.

Domestic violence in same-sex relationships

Domestic violence also occurs in same-sex relationships. In an effort to be more inclusive, many organizations have made an effort to use gender-neutral terms when referring to perpetratorship and victimhood.

Historically domestic violence has been seen as a family issue and little interest has been directed at violence in same-sex relationships. It has not been until recently, as the gay rights movement has brought the issues of gay and lesbian people into public attention, when research has been started to conduct on same-sex relationships. Several studies have indicated that partner abuse among same-sex couples (both female and male) is relatively similar in both prevalence and dynamics to that among opposite-sex couples. Gays and lesbians, however, face special obstacles in dealing with the issues that some researchers have labeled "the double closet": not only do gay and lesbian people often feel that they are discriminated against and dismissed by police and social services, they are also often met with lack of support from their peers who would rather keep quiet about the problem in order not to attract negative attention toward the gay community. Also, the supportive services are mostly designed for the needs of heterosexual women and do not always meet the needs of other groups.

Response to domestic violence

The response to domestic violence is typically a combined effort between law enforcement agencies, the courts, social service agencies and corrections/probation agencies. The role of each has evolved as domestic violence has been brought more into public view. Historically, law enforcement agencies, the courts and corrections agencies treated domestic violence as a personal matter. For example, police officers were often reluctant to intervene by making an arrest, and often chose instead to simply counsel the couple and/or ask one of the parties to leave the residence for a period of time. The courts were reluctant to impose any significant sanctions on those convicted of domestic violence, largely because it was viewed as a misdemeanor offense. This mind set of treating family violence as a personal problem of minor consequence permeated the system's response, and potentially allowed the perpetrator to continue acting violently. Another response, while infrequent and ill regarded, is the homicide of the abuser by the abused, where the abused is usually a woman. The mind set of treating domestic violence as a family issue is brought into this aspect of domestic violence as well, ensuring that the women who kill their husbands/boyfriends/abusers are marginalizes in society and usually thrown in prison for homicide or manslaughter.

Activism, initiated by victim advocacy groups and feminist groups, has led to a better understanding of the scope and effect of domestic violence on victims and families, and has brought about changes in the criminal justice system's response.

Trainer and municipal court judge Richard Russell quoted in New Jersey Law Journal. April 24, 1995: "when you say to me, am I doing something wrong telling these judges they have to ignore the constitutional protections most people have, I don't think so. The Legislature described the problem and how to address it and I am doing my job properly by teaching other judges to follow the legislative mandate.....Your job is not to become concerned about all the constitutional rights of the man that you're violating as you grant a restraining order. Throw him out on the street, give him the clothes on his back and tell him, 'See ya' around.' " Moreover, Russell says there is nothing wrong with the teaching approach. Abuse victims, he says, may apply and relinquish TROs repeatedly before they finally do something about breaking away. Once they do so, he says, the Legislature's prevention goal has been met.

Several projects have aided in filling the voids in the justice system as it pertains to the protection of victims. One such initiative, The Hope Card Project, makes an attempt to remedy several problems through the issuance of an ID card to victims of abuse. The card is used to identify both parties in a domestic violence protection order and provides additional resources to the victim through a voucher program for services. "There is no photograph on a protection order, so a photograph is a bonus, not a necessity. There are several methods used to obtain the photograph. Some jurisdictions have a photograph taken of the offender during the first hearing while both parties are present. Another method is for officers to take a photograph in the field or retrieve a booking photograph from their local jail. In a lot of cases the victim brings a photograph and it is scanned. Lastly, the new online site has some state motor vehicle department photograph databases connected for that purpose. This is the ideal method."

The Duluth Domestic Abuse Intervention Project

In 1981, the Domestic Abuse Intervention Project was the first multi-disciplinary program designed to address the issue of domestic violence. This experiment, conducted in Duluth, involved coordinating the actions of a variety of agencies that deal with domestic situations. The policies and activities of diverse elements of the system, from police officers on the street, to shelters for battered women and probation officers supervising offenders, were coordinated with each other. This program has become a model for other jurisdictions seeking to deal more effectively with domestic violence. More and more jurisdictions are mandating that suspects in domestic violence incidents be arrested if there is probable cause to believe that an assault occurred. Victim advocates intervene directly with victims by providing them with counseling about the court process, how to obtain and use restraining orders and how to formulate and implement safety plans. Corrections/probation agencies in many areas supervise domestic violence offenders more closely, and pay attention to the victim's needs and safety issues.

It should be noted, however, that the Duluth framework depends on a strict "patriarchal violence" model and presumes that all violence in the home and elsewhere has a male perpetrator and female victim. It explicitly rejects any concept of mutuality or symmetry in abusive relationships.


The exclusive focus on men as perpetrators and the rejection of system dynamics models has been criticized from perspectives influenced by psychology, education or remedial therapy. The fields of psychology, psychiatry, and social work all provide for application of skill learning, improved social understanding and practiced behavioral mastery to provide for corrected and alternative behaviors. By contrast, the Duluth Model presents only "once an abuser, always an abuser" constructions to this important social problem. However, the inconvenient fact, as reported by FBI crime statistics, is that 65 to 70% of all child (abuse-related) deaths occur at the hands of their mothers or female caretakers. This very broad and clear example of female initiated violence clearly moderates any "anti-patriarch" model of interpersonal violence.

More states are now recording abuse statistics regarding the marital state of both the perpetrator and the victim. In all jurisdictions with reports available, the rate of interpersonal violence for co-habiting couples exceeds that of married couples by a margin of ten to one.

The Duluth program is widely used but clear evidence of success is limited.

Treatment and support

Publicly available resources for dealing with domestic violence have tended to be almost exclusively geared towards supporting women and children who are in relationships with or who are leaving violent men, rather than for survivors of domestic violence per se. This has been due to the purported numeric preponderance of female victims and the perception that domestic violence only affected women. Resources to help men who have been using violence take responsibility for and stop their use of violence, such as Men's Behavior Change Programs or anger management training, are available, though attendees are ordered to pay for their own course in order that they should remain accountable for their actions.

Men's organizations, such as ManKind in the UK, often see this approach as one-sided; as Report 191 by the British Home Office shows that men and women are equally culpable, they believe that there should be anger management courses for women also. They accuse organizations such as Women's Aid of bias in this respect saying that they spend millions of pounds on helping female victims of domestic violence and yet nothing on female perpetrators. These same men's organizations claim that before such help is given to female perpetrators, Women's Aid would have to admit that women are violent in the home. This they seem reluctant to do.

One of the challenges for lay observers, victims, perpetrators and treatment providers is demonstrated by the tendency to describe perpetrator treatment as men's "anger management" groups.

Comprehensive and accountable behavior change programs are seen as far more appropriate and effective interventions in male violence in the home than anger management groups.

Inherent in anger management only approaches is the assumption that the violence is a result of a loss of control over one's anger. While there is little doubt that some domestic violence is about the loss of control, the choice of the target of that violence may be of greater significance. Anger management might be appropriate for the individual who lashes out indiscriminately when angry towards co-workers, supervisors or family. In most cases, however, the domestic violence perpetrator lashes out only at their intimate partner or relatively defenseless child, which suggests an element of choice or selection that, in turn, suggests a different or additional motivation beyond simple anger. Most experienced treatment providers have probably observed that for various reasons, many of which may be cultural, the perpetrator has a sense of entitlement, sometimes conscious, sometimes not, that leads directly to their choice of target.

Men's behavior change programs, although differing throughout the world, tend to focus on the prevention of further violence within the family and the safety of women and children. Often they abide by various standards of practice that includes 'partner contact' where the participants female partner is contacted by the program and informed about the course, checked about her level of safety and support and offered support services for herself if she requires them. Many of these programs have both a male and female facilitator and follow a program designed to highlight the impact of his behavior, examine the attitudes, values and behaviors. that lead to his choice to use violence and aim to support and challenge the man to take responsibility for his use of violence.

Although modern understanding of relational aggression arose from the study of cliques of girls in school, and despite the fact that the term "female bullying" is often used synonymously with "relational aggression", relational aggression is seen at times in women and men of all ages in spousal, familial, sexual, social, community, political, and religious settings.

The Violence Against Women Act of 1994 (VAWA) is a United States federal law. It was passed as Title IV and signed as Public Law by President Bill Clinton on September 13, 1994. It provided $1.6 billion to enhance investigation and prosecution of the violent crime perpetrated against women, increased pre-trial detention of the accused, provided for automatic and mandatory restitution of those convicted, and allowed civil redress in cases prosecutors chose to leave unprosecuted.

The National Organization of Women heralded the bill as "the greatest breakthrough in civil rights for women in nearly two decades." The American Civil Liberties Union derided the Act as "troubling", saying that the increased penalties were rash, the increased pretrial detention was "repugnant" to the US Constitution, the mandatory HIV testing of those only charged but not convicted is an infringement of a citizen’s right to privacy and the edict for automatic payment of full restitution was non-judicious in their paper "Analysis of Major Civil Liberties Abuses in the Crime Bill Conference Report as Passed by the House and the Senate", dated September 29, 1994. However, the ACLU has supported its reauthorization on the condition that the "unconstitutional DNA provision" be removed.

VAWA and the 1994 Crime Bill in general was supported by Congressional Democrats and President Clinton and opposed by then minority Congressional Republicans with a few exceptions.

Ironically, Paula Jones' attorneys Susan Carpenter-McMillan, Gilbert Davis and Joseph Cammarata would use VAWA in winning arguments one year later to allow a civil suit against President Clinton for sexual harassment to proceed. Eventually President Clinton paid an out of court settlement of $850,000 for the harassment of Jones.

In 2000, the Supreme Court of the United States held part of VAWA unconstitutional in United States v. Morrison. Only the civil rights remedy of VAWA was struck down. The provisions providing program funding were unaffected.

VAWA was reauthorized by Congress in 2000, and again in October 2005, when it passed the Senate unanimously. The bill was signed into law by President George W. Bush on January 5, 2006. It is due for further reauthorization in 2010.

World Health Organization Multi-country Study on Women's Health and Domestic Violence against Women 2005

The World Conference on Human Rights, held in Vienna in 1993, and the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women in the same year, concluded that civil society and governments have acknowledged that violence against women is a public health policy and human rights concern. Work in this area has resulted in the establishment of international standards, but the task of documenting the magnitude of violence against women and producing reliable, comparative data to guide policy and monitor implementation has been exceedingly difficult. The World Health Organization Multi-country Study on Women’s Health and Domestic Violence against Women is a response to this difficulty. Published in 2005 it is a groundbreaking study which analysed data from 10 countries and sheds new light on the prevalence of violence against women. It seeks to look at violence against women from a public health policy perspective. The findings will be used to inform a more effective response from government, including the health, justice and social service sectors, as a step towards fulfilling the state’s obligation to eliminate violence against women under international human rights laws.

In the summary publication of the first World Report on Violence and Health, the authors see their mission clearly: ‘the purpose of the first World report on violence and health is to challenge the secrecy, taboos and feelings of inevitability that surround violent behavior’. It is a thoughtful exposition, recognizing the difficulties of such basic demands as defining and measuring violence. Furthermore, while ambitious in proclaiming the message that violence can be prevented, it is modest in recognizing that ‘[r]aising awareness of the fact that violence can be prevented is, however, only the first step in shaping the response to it’.


The crucial stance of the public health approach is to focus on prevention: that is, preventing disease or illness from occurring, rather than dealing with the health consequences. The further shift is to try to think of violence in these terms. The arguments are seductive and it would be churlish for someone who has advocated more ‘upstream’ thinking (to use a term pervasive in the report) to challenge the basic tenets of the report — that is, that prevention is better than cure. However, mission statements are produced by missionaries, and missionaries rarely point out the underlying problems of their mission. In this respect, in reading the report, I realized that I am an academic, not a missionary and perhaps not even a scientist. A scientist, as Kuhn (1962) has explained, works within a paradigm, and challenges to a paradigm — especially a new one — are often met with stiff resistance. The task of an academic is perhaps rather different. Irritatingly, the academic will tend to identify tensions and problems rather than consensus and solutions. For the missionary and perhaps for the scientist, in contrast, all will be resolved if one accepts their vision of the world.

The public health approach is not new, as McKeown (1976) pointed out when he first stimulated the debate in the 1970s about the effects of medical intervention on human health. In fact, over the past 150 years or so, one can identify three phases of activity. The first phase began in the industrialized cities of northern Europe as a response to the appalling toll of death and disease among the working classes living in abject poverty. The response to this situation was the gradual development of the public health movement, such as the appointment of sanitary inspectors and their staff, supported by legislation such as the National Public Health Acts of 1848 and 1875 in England and Wales. The second phase was a more individualistic approach ushered in by the development of the germ theory of disease and the possibilities offered by immunization and vaccination. The third phase has been identified as the therapeutic era, dating from the 1930s, with the advent of insulin and other drugs. The beginning of this era coincided with the apparent demise of infectious diseases on the one hand and the development of ideas about the welfare state on the other. This all meant a shift of power and resources to hospital-based services and the downgrading of the public health approach. In fact, the individualization of illness — whether orchestrated by the medical profession or by the government — was one of the crucial ingredients of the health policies of the 1980s and early 1990s. Such an approach masks the social causes of ill-health. However, the Acheson Report (Acheson, 1998) laid the foundations for a wider and more inclusive approach emphasizing a variety of solutions to health problems. The World Report on Violence and Health is part of the recent shift of focus towards seeing problems within a wider framework.


At first glance violence would seem to excite less controversy than health. After all, the ‘health police’ encouraging us to stop smoking seem to be on a stickier wicket than anyone trying to prevent violence. More will support the freedom to continue smoking than to continue committing violence. However, psychiatrists have recognized that espousing the prevention model is perhaps not so straightforward as some missionaries would have us believe. Locking up people who are highly likely to commit serious violence but who have not yet done so is a facet of the prevention model. In doing so, however one dresses up the language, there is some compromise to the notion that everyone is innocent until proven guilty. This strikes at the heart of the underlying philosophical assumptions that a prevention model appeals to.

A prevention model is essentially forward-looking, whereas a more reactive model, where symptoms or injuries are presented, is backward-looking. This is familiar territory in discussing philosophies of punishment where normative theories of punishment are typically classified as either ‘consequentialist’ or ‘non-consequentialist’. As Duff & Garland remind us, a consequentialist holds that the rightness or wrongness of any action or practice depends solely on its overall consequences. It is right if its consequences are good (at least, as good as those of any available alternative) and wrong if its consequences are bad (worse than those of some available alternative). This is utilitarianism, in which practices are seen as right or wrong in so far as they promote or destroy ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number’. It is to this philosophy that one might appeal if a potential serial killer were to be incarcerated prior to committing an actual crime. In contrast, a non-consequentialist insists that actions may be right or wrong by virtue of their intrinsic character, independently of their consequences. In this approach it is the guilty, and only the guilty, who deserve to be punished. The potential serial killer must be allowed to become an actual killer, in the absence of overt evidence of any suffering that the person has actually caused.

Forensic psychiatrists know that neither of the alternative stances produces much comfort. The protection of civil liberties, may seem a high price to pay for local carnage. However, at the national and international level the dilemmas and tensions are even more stark. The problem here is that it is the powerful who may be the perpetrators of the most violence, just as it is at the domestic level.


In a groundbreaking study which is as thought-provoking as it is disturbing, Stanley Cohen's book States of Denial: Knowing about Atrocities and Suffering deals with public reactions to information, images and appeals about inhumanities. He explores the various states of denial that exist in modern society. ‘Turning a blind eye’ and ‘burying one's head in the sand’ are two expressions of denial frequently used at an individual and societal level. With worrying regularity, we are saturated with media images of atrocities and suffering from all over the world. These images have become normalized. They are commonplace. So, too, is our apparent indifference.

Moving from the personal to the political, Cohen examines how organized atrocities, such as the Holocaust and other genocides, are denied by both perpetrators and bystanders. Bystander nations are those who do nothing, frequently claiming in the aftermath of an event that they were unaware of what was taking place. As for the perpetrators, one of the strategies they use is what Cohen describes as ‘interpretive denial’, claiming that what is happening is really something else. This is particularly evident in the euphemistic language used by organizations devoted to committing atrocities. The Nazi ‘euthanasia’ program for killing those with mental disabilities and other supposedly unworthy people was renamed the Charitable Foundation for Institutional Care. Such deliberate misrepresentation is not unique.

There is much else that is unpleasant and questionable in the exercise of power beyond genocide alone. Mary Daly, a radical feminist, in a classic study pointed to the male domination of women (patriarchy), which she suggests is everywhere expressed through the systematic destruction or mutilation of women. Different cultures express this — both historically and in the contemporary world — in different ways: suttee (the burning alive of widows) in India; foot-binding in China; female circumcision in Muslim Africa; the burning of witches in Europe; and gynecological therapies such as hysterectomy in modern America (‘genocide’, as Daly terms it). Perhaps more universally there is domestic violence, which is still frequently denied. Should there be international intervention to stop practices that reflect the male domination of women?

Concerns over the threats posed by international terrorist organizations took center stage with the horrific events at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in the USA on 11 September 2001. Terrorists represent a real threat to us all, yet there is a danger that politicians will use this to justify introducing increased powers of surveillance for the state, which may be at the expense of individual civil liberties. Here, we are perhaps less comfortable about intervention that affects our own lives. International terrorism is being fought by global alliances, a reminder that we have newer versions of crimes committed against the physical environment itself: for instance, pollution, the threat of chemical warfare, the aftermath of weapons used in previous engagements such as the Gulf War and Kosovo. Is this violence against humanity? These are complex matters (Soothill et al, 2002).

Although the World Report on Violence and Health provides an invaluable and welcome service in trying to strip away some of the myths about violence and to expose the facts about violence, this is — as the authors recognize — only a beginning. So what is the warning? The warning is that there are massive moral and political issues to confront in shaping our response to violence. Assuming that consensus is easily achieved — or even achievable — may be a way of burying our head in the sand and turning a blind eye to some very real issues.


Stalking is causing pervasive and intense personal suffering and is an area of psychiatry that is currently overlooked. Stalkers are best thought of as a heterogeneous group whose behavior can be motivated by different forms of psychopathology, including psychosis and severe personality disorders.

There is a clear need to arrive at a consensus on a typology of stalkers and associated diagnostic criteria. The effectiveness of psychological and pharmacological treatments have not yet been investigated. Treatment may need to be supplemented with external incentives provided by the legal system.

Stalking gained major media attention by the often-spectacular accounts of celebrity stalking. Well-known cases from the United States include the stalkers of Madonna and Jodie Foster. However, repeated intrusive communication and harassment is by no means limited to fans targeting the rich and famous. Much more common is the scenario in which stalker and ‘stalkee’ had some sort of ‘real’ prior relationship: they were often prior acquaintances or intimates, but professional contacts can also give rise to stalking later (e.g. by clients of psychiatrists or lawyers; or by rejected job applicants).

Forensic psychiatry has given scant attention to the phenomenon of stalking. Few studies have investigated the psychological make-up of stalkers, and to date only one study has reported on the psychological impact of stalking on its victims. There are no reports of the development of any specific treatment programs, either for stalkers or for their victims. This article aims to give an overview of stalking and its clinical ramifications. 
Partly as a result of publications in the media on stalking of celebrities, research into marital violence, and anti-stalking laws in some countries, mental health workers have recently started to study stalkers. It became apparent that a proportion of stalkers suffered from erotomania. Originally, erotomania was a term reserved for women who held the delusional belief that a man, typically of a higher social class or social esteem, was deeply in love with them. However, a delusional disorder of the erotomanic type, as it is currently classified in DSM-IV (American Psychiatric Association, 1994), only accounts for a very limited subset of episodes of stalking; stalking can result from many different motivations and constellations of psychopathological symptoms.

As often found with recently developed behavioral concepts, there is no consensus about the exact definition of stalking. Most of the disagreement seems to center on the degree of emphasis placed on the extent to which the stalking evokes a subjective sense of threat. Generally, the various definitions have the following elements in common: (a) a pattern of intrusive behavior, akin to harassment; (b) an implicit or explicit threat that emanates from the behavioral pattern; and (c) as a result, the target experiences considerable real fear. In this article we use Meloy and Gothard's definition: "Stalking is typically defined as the wilful, malicious, and repeated following or harassing of another person that threatens his or her safety".

Stalking behavior typically consists of intrusive following of a ‘target’: for example, by placing one's self in front of the target's home, or other unexpected and unwelcome appearances in their private domain. Stalkers most often persecute their targets by unwanted communications, which can consist of frequent (often nightly) telephone calls, letters, e-mail, graffiti, notes (e.g. left on the target's car), or packages (e.g. gifts, pictures). Somewhat more extreme forms include ordering goods and services in the victim's name and charging to the victim's account, placing false advertisements or announcements, ordering funeral wreaths, spreading rumors about the victim, starting numerous frivolous law suits, smearing the victim's home or destroying or moving their property, threatening the victim with violence, or actually attacking them. Stalkers sometimes involve third parties, which leads to victimization by association of their family, friends, colleagues, lawyers, psychiatrists or psychologists, etc. Stalking can be of brief duration, but it can also last for many years. Research from the United States shows that in slightly over half the cases, stalking ceases within one year, while in one-quarter of the cases it lasts for 2-5 years.

In some cases, the violence may escalate until the stalker actually murders the victim and/or his/her children. In the United States, it is estimated that between 21% and 25% of forensic stalking cases culminate in significant violence. The incidence of murder or manslaughter in stalking cases in the United States is estimated at 2%. Fritz (1995) showed that 90% of women killed by their ex husband had previously been stalked. These numbers should probably not be extrapolated unreservedly to the European situation: for one reason, because of differences in the availability and possession of firearms.

Obtaining reliable data regarding the prevalence and incidence of stalking is a formidable international problem. Inconsistent definition and demarcation of the concept is partly responsible for this state of affairs. In some European countries stalking by itself is not considered a distinct legal offence which compounds the problem of monitoring and tracking cases for both police and forensic researchers. As a result, estimates of prevalence and incidence are based on very few, predominantly American studies. The US National Violence Against Women Survey contacted 8000 women and 8000 men by telephone, and asked them about stalking experiences: 8% of the women and 2% of the men had been stalked at some point in their life. This research also illustrates that criminal stalking cases merely reflect the tip of the iceberg: only 50% of stalking cases were reported to the police, of which 25% led to an arrest, and only 12% resulted in criminal prosecution.

Some research has focused on the prevalence of stalking within specific groups. Among 178 randomly sampled American university counseling center professionals, one in every 18 therapists reported having been harassed or stalked by a previous or current patient (Romans et al, 1996).

In sum, there is a great international need for systematic monitoring of stalking cases, based on some consensual definition, to arrive at reliable estimates of the magnitude of the problem.

Zona et al (1993) distinguished the following stalkers: (a) the ‘classic’ erotomanic stalker, who is usually a woman with the delusional belief that an older man of higher social class or social esteem is in love with her; (b) the love-obsessional stalker, who is typically a psychotic stalker targeting famous people or total strangers; and, most common, (c) the simple obsessional stalker, who stalks after a ‘real’ relationship has gone sour, leaving him with intense resentment following perceived abuse or rejection. Wright et al (1996) present a slightly different classification. They distinguish the domestic stalker and the nondomestic stalker: the former is comparable to Zona et al's ‘simple obsessional stalker’, whereas the non-domestic stalker comes in two types: the organized stalker and the delusional stalker. The delusional stalker corresponds with Zona et al's ‘erotomanic stalker’ and ‘love obsessional stalker’. The organized stalker targets previously unknown persons through anonymous communication. The victims usually have no knowledge of the identity of the stalker. Finally,

Mullen et al (1999) distinguish five types of stalkers: (a) the rejected stalker, who has had a relationship with the victim and who is often characterized by a mixture of revenge and desire for reconciliation; (b) the stalker seeking intimacy, which includes individuals with erotomanic delusions; (ac) the incompetent stalker — usually intellectually limited and socially incompetent individuals; (d) the resentful stalker, who stalks to frighten and distress the victim; and finally (e) the predatory stalker, who is preparing a sexual attack. In addition to these categories, there are reports on the so-called ‘false victimization syndrome’, during which the ‘victim’ pretends to have been stalked, by pursuing herself, in order to gain attention.

There is a clear need to derive a consensus on a typology of stalkers, with associated diagnostic criteria. At present, there is no evidence that one proposed typology is superior to another. The typology eventually agreed upon should have clear implications for treatment.

Personality of stalkers

To date, no systematic research has investigated the motivations and personality of stalkers. Reconciliation and reunion on the one hand v. revenge and intimidation on the other, are frequently mentioned as motivating stalkers. Tjaden & Thoenness found that stalkers' most common motivation was the desire to maintain control over their victims. Again, it deserves mention that most of these findings are based on stalking cases associated with ‘romantic relations gone sour’. Reflections on the personality and intrapsychic functioning of stalkers are predominantly psychodynamic in nature, and are focused on the simple obsessional subgroup. The central feature in these theories is an intense narcissistic reaction to rejection and loss, in combination with borderline defence mechanisms such as splitting, initial idealization, subsequent devaluation, projection and projective identification. The stalker is thought to defend him/herself against intense feelings of humiliation, shame and sadness by narcissistic rage, during which he/she starts devaluing and torturing the love object to maintain the narcissistic linking fantasy (Meloy, 1996).

A related perspective is to describe the stalker's dynamics from the point of view of pathological mourning: stalkers cannot adequately process the traumatic object loss, and as a result cannot move on to build new connections, and thus they remain ‘stuck’. Several authors have proposed that attachment pathology underlies the disturbed behavior Most notably, Meloy (1998) has formulated a tentative model which assigns to attachment pathology the pivotal role in developing stalking behaviors. Some evidence consistent with this line of theorizing comes from inspection of stalkers' childhood histories and life-events which immediately preceded stalking. For example, Kienlen found that a large proportion of stalkers had experienced significant discontinuity in their childhood (e.g. loss of a carer) and that many incidences of stalking immediately follow object loss.

Despite considerable effort, the current body of evidence is insufficient for the accurate prediction of stalking cases and of subsequent violent behavior (including murder). Some stable risk factors have been identified: a history of (domestic) violence, psychiatric history, antisocial personality disorder and a criminal record. An expert witness testimony predicting violence is not to be recommended, given the current shortage of research data. This statement signals no more than one of the most urgent and difficult problems in forensic psychiatry: how to predict dangerousness.

Numerous movies (e.g. Fatal Attraction, Play Misty for Me), documentaries and books give (often quite dramatic) accounts of the experience of being harassed, followed or stalked. The ‘typical’ victim of stalking is a woman of approximately the same age as the stalker, with whom he previously had a superficial relationship. Another frequent and particularly pernicious scenario is stalking following a history of domestic violence. Research by Wilson & Daly shows that the probability of getting killed by a spouse is 2-4 times as great after a divorce or separation than when continuing to live together.

It is not hard to imagine that months or years of exposure to persecution and threats can lead to serious psychological consequences. In particular, it is the constancy of threat into the private domain that causes the greatest distress to victims of stalking. The protracted and intense sense of intrusion and violation, by definition without an escape haven, is what seems to set stalking distress apart from other more or less traumatic types of stress. However, there is a remarkable lack of solid data on victim psychomorbidity following stalking. In their sample of stalking victims, Pathé & Mullen found predominantly depression, anxiety and traumatic psychomorbidity. On the basis of self-reports, 37% of the respondents qualified for a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This percentage is much the same as the proportion of PTSD cases in victims of domestic violence, which varies from 40% to 60% between different studies. Hall found that victims of stalking perceived personality changes in themselves as a result of the ordeal they had suffered. Increases in caution, suspiciousness, anxiety and aggression were noted most frequently.

Victims of stalking also reacted by making significant changes in their social and professional life. Nearly all victims adjusted their daily routines (routes, habits), and a majority took additional safety precautions such as getting a secret telephone number, house alarm, etc. Four out of ten stalking victims changed their job or moved away in order to escape the stalking terror. About half reported a partial or total loss of productivity (work or study) and decreased social activity. The perceived lack of safety also led many to carry weapons, including firearms.

As was emphasized earlier, stalking describes a behavioral problem, not a psychiatric classification per se. Several authors have reflected on the diagnostic assessment of stalkers, and generally made a distinction between psychotic stalkers (Axis I) and stalkers with severe personality pathology (Axis II). The psychotic stalker can exhibit primary erotomania, but erotomanic delusions can also result from multiple other DSM-IV disorders, including schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and major depression (American Psychiatric Association, 1994). Stalking is predominantly associated with cluster B personality pathology (narcissistic and borderline personality disorders) and to a lesser extent with dependent, schizoid, and paranoid features. There are relatively few reports of stalking by classic psychopaths, and these cases are almost without exception extensions of (long) histories of domestic violence. In addition to these primary disorders, comorbid conditions, such as substance abuse or dependence and affective disorders, are frequently mentioned. It is worth noting that almost all diagnostic hypotheses were based on clinical impressions from uncontrolled studies. Controlled research into personality characteristics and psychopathology (based on, for example, structured interviews and standard personality inventories) is sorely lacking.

Since research into the treatment of stalkers is notably absent, there are no clear guidelines for treatment. The best methods of opposition to, and treatment of, stalking will depend on the stalker's idiosyncratic psychological profile. Erotomanic or otherwise psychotic stalkers will prove to be extraordinarily resistant to treatment. Primary erotomanic delusions are typically unflagging, which leads one to believe that investment in legal means for deterring such stalkers would probably be the most efficient. Involuntary commitment, trespassing orders and street prohibitions are among the options available in several European countries. Unfortunately, such interventions often appear to incense the stalkers and stimulate them to even more malicious and intense persecutory behavior To stop stalking in secondary erotomania, the treatment will have to focus on the underlying disorder, and probably involve neuroleptics. Neither of these types of stalker is likely to benefit from psychotherapy. However, the third and most prevalent group consists of obsessed, rejected stalkers with (usually) severe personality disorder; and this group is likely to be best served with a mix of judicial and psychotherapeutic interventions.

A primary problem in treating stalkers is to motivate them for therapy. By the very nature of the problem, stalkers are unlikely to report themselves for psychiatric or psychological treatment. In sum, there is a clear need for controlled studies into the effectiveness of psychotherapy and drug therapy for stalkers.

Primary prevention should receive more attention in one particular subset of stalking cases. As discussed, a large proportion of stalking cases follows from histories of domestic violence (Kurt, 1995). Earlier intervention in domestic violence and family counseling can promote a more satisfactory end to relationships and thus prevent subsequent resentment spilling over in stalking.

Required Reading: Measuring Intimate Partner Violence Victimization and Perpetration: A Compendium of Assessment Tools

Intimate Partner Violence


Statistics about intimate partner violence (IPV) vary because of differences in how different data sources define IPV and collect data. For example, some definitions include stalking and psychological abuse, and others consider only physical and sexual violence. Data on IPV usually come from police, clinical settings, nongovernmental organizations, and survey research.  

Most IPV incidents are not reported to the police. About 20% of IPV rapes or sexual assaults, 25% of physical assaults, and 50% of stalkings directed toward women are reported. Even fewer IPV incidents against men are reported (Tjaden and Thoennes 2000a). Thus, it is believed that available data greatly underestimate the true magnitude of the problem. While not an exhaustive list, here are some statistics on the occurrence of IPV. In many cases, the severity of the IPV behaviors is unknown.

  • Nearly 5.3 million incidents of IPV occur each year among U.S. women ages 18 and older, and 3.2 million occur among men. Most assaults are relatively minor and consist of pushing, grabbing, shoving, slapping, and hitting
  • In the United States every year, about 1.5 million women and more than 800,000 men are raped or physically assaulted by an intimate partner. This translates into about 47 IPV assaults per 1,000 women and 32 assaults per 1,000 men
  • IPV results in nearly 2 million injuries and 1,300 deaths nationwide every year
  • Estimates indicate more than 1 million women and 371,000 men are stalked by intimate partners each year.
  • IPV accounted for 20% of nonfatal violence against women in 2001 and 3% against men
  • From 1976 to 2002, about 11% of homicide victims were killed by an intimate partner (Fox and Zawitz 2004).
  • In 2002, 76% of IPV homicide victims were female; 24% were male .
  • The number of intimate partner homicides decreased 14% overall for men and women in the span of about 20 years, with a 67% decrease for men (from 1,357 to 388) vs. 25% for women .
  • One study found that 44% of women murdered by their intimate partner had visited an emergency department within 2 years of the homicide. Of these women, 93% had at least one injury visit .
  • Previous literature suggests that women who have separated from their abusive partners often remain at risk of violence.
  • Firearms were the major weapon type used in intimate partner homicides from 1981 to 1998.
  • A national study found that 29% of women and 22% of men had experienced physical, sexual, or psychological IPV during their lifetime.
  • Between 4% and 8% of pregnant women are abused at least once during the pregnancy.


In general, victims of repeated violence over time experience more serious consequences than victims of one-time incidents. The following list describes just some of the consequences of IPV.


At least 42% of women and 20% of men who were physically assaulted since age 18 sustained injuries during their most recent victimization. Most injuries were minor such as scratches, bruises, and welts (Tjaden and Thoennes 2000a).

More severe physical consequences of IPV may occur depending on severity and frequency of abuse; These include:

  • Bruises
  • Knife wounds
  • Pelvic pain
  • Headaches
  • Back pain
  • Broken bones
  • Gynecological disorders
  • Pregnancy difficulties like low birth weight babies and perinatal deaths
  • Sexually transmitted diseases including HIV/AIDS
  • Central nervous system disorders
  • Gastrointestinal disorders
  • Symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder
    • Emotional detachment
    • Sleep disturbances
    • Flashbacks
    • Replaying assault in mind
  • Heart or circulatory conditions
Children may become injured during IPV incidents between their parents. A large overlap exists between IPV and child maltreatment (Appel and Holden 1998). One study found that children of abused mothers were 57 times more likely to have been harmed because of IPV between their parents, compared with children of non-abused mothers.


Physical violence is typically accompanied by emotional or psychological abuse. IPV—whether sexual, physical, or psychological—can lead to various psychological consequences for victims:
  • Depression
  • Antisocial behavior
  • Suicidal behavior in females
  • Anxiety
  • Low self-esteem
  • Inability to trust men
  • Fear of intimacy

Victims of IPV sometimes face the following social consequences:
  • Restricted access to services
  • Strained relationships with health providers and employers
  • Isolation from social networks
Health Behaviors

Women with a history of IPV are more likely to display behaviors that present further health risks (e.g., substance abuse, alcoholism, suicide attempts).

IPV is associated with a variety of negative health behaviors. Studies show that the more severe the violence, the stronger its relationship to negative health behaviors by victims.
  • Engaging in high-risk sexual behavior
    • Unprotected sex
    • Decreased condom use
    • Early sexual initiation
    • Choosing unhealthy sexual partners
    • Having multiple sex partners
    • Trading sex for food, money, or other items
  • Using or abusing harmful substances
    • Smoking cigarettes
    • Drinking alcohol
    • Driving after drinking alcohol
    • Taking drugs
  • Unhealthy diet-related behaviors
    • Fasting
    • Vomiting
    • Abusing diet pills
    • Overeating
  • Overuse of health services
  • Costs of IPV against women in 1995 exceed an estimated $5.8 billion. These costs include nearly $4.1 billion in the direct costs of medical and mental health care and nearly $1.8 billion in the indirect costs of lost productivity.
  • When updated to 2003 dollars, IPV costs exceed $8.3 billion, which includes $460 million for rape, $6.2 billion for physical assault, $461 million for stalking, and $1.2 billion in the value of lost lives.
  • Victims of severe IPV lose nearly 8 million days of paid work—the equivalent of more than 32,000 full-time jobs—and almost 5.6 million days of household productivity each year.
  • Women who experience severe aggression by men (e.g., not being allowed to go to work or school, or having their lives or their children’s lives threatened) are more likely to have been unemployed in the past, have health problems, and be receiving public assistance.

Groups at Risk

Certain groups are at greater risk for IPV victimization or perpetration.


  • The National Crime Victimization Survey found that 85% of IPV victims were women.
  • Prevalence of IPV varies among race. Among the ethnic groups most at risk are American Indian/Alaskan Native women and men, African-American women, and Hispanic women.
  • Young women and those below the poverty line are disproportionately victims of IPV.
  • Studies show that for low levels of physical violence, men and women self-report perpetrating physical IPV at about the same rate. However, a common criticism of these studies is that they are generally lacking information on the context of the violence (e.g., whether self-defense is the reason for the violence).
Risk Factors for Victimization and Perpetration

Risk factors are associated with a greater likelihood of IPV victimization or perpetration. Risk factors are not necessarily direct causes of IPV—these may be contributing factors to IPV. Not everyone who is identified as "at risk" becomes involved in violence.

Some risk factors for IPV victimization and perpetration are the same. In addition, some risk factors for victimization and perpetration are associated with one another; for example, childhood physical or sexual victimization is a risk factor for future IPV perpetration and victimization.

The public health approach aims to moderate and mediate those contributing factors that are preventable, and to identify protective factors which can reduce the risk of victimization and perpetration.

A combination of individual, relational, community, and societal factors contribute to the risk of being a victim or perpetrator of IPV. Understanding these multilevel factors can help identify various points of prevention intervention.

Risk Factors for Victimization

Individual Factors

  • Prior history of IPV
  • Being female
  • Young age
  • Heavy alcohol and drug use
  • High-risk sexual behavior
  • Witnessing or experiencing violence as a child
  • Being less educated
  • Unemployment
  • For men, having a different ethnicity from their partner’s
  • For women, having a greater education level than their partner’s
  • For women, being American Indian/Alaska Native or African American
  • For women, having a verbally abusive, jealous, or possessive partner
Relationship Factors
  • Couples with income, educational, or job status disparities
  • Dominance and control of the relationship by the male
Community Factors
  • Poverty and associated factors (e.g., overcrowding)
  • Low social capital—lack of institutions, relationships, and norms that shape the quality and quantity of a community’s social interactions
  • Weak community sanctions against IPV (e.g., police unwilling to intervene)
Societal Factors
  • Traditional gender norms (e.g., women should stay at home and not enter workforce, should be submissive)
    Risk Factors for Perpetration

    Individual Factors
  • Low self-esteem
  • Low income
  • Low academic achievement
  • Involvement in aggressive or delinquent behavior as a youth
  • Heavy alcohol and drug use
  • Depression
  • Anger and hostility
  • Personality disorders
  • Prior history of being physically abusive
  • Having few friends and being isolated from other people
  • Unemployment
  • Economic stress
  • Emotional dependence and insecurity
  • Belief in strict gender roles (e.g., male dominance and aggression in relationships)
  • Desire for power and control in relationships
  • Being a victim of physical or psychological abuse (consistently one of the strongest predictors of perpetration)
Relationship Factors
  • Marital conflict—fights, tension, and other struggles
  • Marital instability—divorces and separations
  • Dominance and control of the relationship by the male
  • Economic stress
  • Unhealthy family relationships and interactions
Community Factors
  • Poverty and associated factors (e.g., overcrowding)
  • Low social capital—lack of institutions, relationships, and norms that shape the quality and quantity of a community’s social interactions
  • Weak community sanctions against IPV (e.g., unwillingness of neighbors to intervene in situations where they witness violence)
Domestic Violence Tactics

The types of domestic violence actions perpetrated by abusers include physical, sexual, verbal, emotional, and psychological tactics; threats and intimidation; economic coercion; and entitlement behaviors. Examples of each are provided below. Some of the behaviors identified in the following lists do not constitute abuse in and of themselves, but frequently are tactics used in a larger pattern of abusive and controlling behavior.

Physical Tactics

  • Pushing and shoving;

  • Restraining;

  • Pinching or pulling hair;

  • Slapping;

  • Punching;

  • Biting;

  • Kicking;

  • Suffocating;

  • Strangling;

  • Using a weapon;

  • Kidnapping;

  • Physically abusing or threatening to abuse children.

Sexual Tactics

  • Raping or forcing the victim into unwanted sexual practices;

  • Objectifying or treating the victim like a sexual object;

  • Forcing the victim to have an abortion or sabotaging birth control methods;

  • Engaging in a pattern of extramarital or other sexual relationships;

  • Sexually assaulting the children.

Verbal, Emotional, and Psychological Tactics

  • Using degrading language, insults, criticism, or name calling;

  • Screaming;

  • Harassing;

  • Refusing to talk;

  • Engaging in manipulative behaviors to make the victim believe he or she is "crazy" or imagining things;

  • Humiliating the victim privately or in the presence of other people;

  • Blaming the victim for the abusive behavior;

  • Controlling where the victim goes, who he or she talks to, and what he or she does;

  • Accusing the victim of infidelity to justify the perpetrator's controlling and abusive behaviors;

  • Denying the abuse and physical attacks.

Threats and Intimidation

  • Breaking and smashing objects or destroying the victim's personal property;

  • Glaring or staring at the victim to force compliance;

  • Intimidating the victim with certain physical behaviors or gestures;

  • Instilling fear by threatening to kidnap or seek sole custody of the children;

  • Threatening acts of homicide, suicide, or injury;

  • Forcing the victim to engage in illegal activity;

  • Harming pets or animals;

  • Stalking the victim;

  • Displaying or making implied threats with weapons;

  • Making false allegations to law enforcement or CPS.

Economic Coercion

  • Preventing the victim from obtaining employment or an education;

  • Withholding money, prohibiting access to family income, or lying about financial assets and debts;

  • Making the victim ask or beg for money;

  • Forcing the victim to hand over any income;

  • Stealing money;

  • Refusing to contribute to shared or household bills;

  • Neglecting to comply with child support orders;

  • Providing an allowance.

Entitlement Behaviors

  • Treating the victim like a servant;

  • Making all decisions for the victim and the children;

  • Defining gender roles in the home and relationship.

Domestic violence is reinforced by cultural values and beliefs that are repeatedly communicated through the media and other societal institutions that tolerate it. The perpetrator's violence is further supported when peers, family members, or others in the community (e.g., coworkers, social service providers, police, or clergy) minimize or ignore the abuse and fail to provide consequences. As a result, the abuser learns that not only is the behavior justified, but also it is acceptable.

Psychopathology, substance abuse, poverty, cultural factors, anger, stress, and depression often are thought to cause domestic violence. While there is little empirical evidence that these factors are direct causes of domestic violence, research suggests that they can affect its severity, frequency, and the nature of the perpetrator's abusive behavior. Although there is debate among researchers regarding a definitive theory to explain domestic violence, there is little disagreement that it is an insidious problem requiring a complex solution.

Evolving Societal Responses to Domestic Violence

Many believe the historical inequality of women and gender socialization of females and males contribute to the root causes of domestic violence. Until the 1970's, women who were raped or suffered violence in their homes had no formal place to go for help or support. Shelters and services for victims of domestic violence did not exist and there was little, if any, response from criminal or civil courts, law enforcement, hospitals, and social service agencies. Society and its formal institutions viewed domestic violence as a "private matter." As awareness and recognition of this problem grew, groups of women organized an advocacy movement that focused on addressing the safety needs of victims and the systemic barriers and social attitudes that contributed to domestic violence. Volunteers established safe havens and crisis services for victims of domestic violence in their homes and held meetings where they began to define violence against women as a political issue. This grass roots effort, commonly referred to as the "Battered Women's Movement," revolutionized the responses to injustices against women into a social movement that forms the foundation of existing domestic violence advocacy and community-based programs throughout the country.

The need for safe alternatives for victims of domestic violence called for a major social transformation and the Battered Women's Movement was an essential part of that struggle. Feminists, community activists, and survivors of rape and domestic violence responded with three primary goals: (1) securing shelter and support for victims and their children, (2) improving legal and criminal justice responses, and (3) changing the public consciousness about domestic violence.

Through a collective vision, the Battered Women's Movement was guided by a set of inherent principles that continue to direct the current network of community-based domestic violence programs and advocacy efforts. These principles include:

  • Safety for victims and their children;

  • Victims' rights to self-determination, which includes their decision to either remain with or leave their abusive partner;

  • Accountability for perpetrators of domestic violence through societal and criminal sanctions;

  • Systemic change to combat social oppression of victims and to promote victims' rights.

Today, community-based domestic violence programs throughout the country provide an array of services, including:

  • Shelter and safe houses;

  • National, State, and local emergency hotlines;

  • Crisis counseling and intervention;

  • Support groups;

  • Medical and mental health referrals;

  • Legal advocacy;

  • Vocational counseling, job training, and economic support referrals;

  • Housing and relocation services;

  • Transportation;

  • Safety planning;

  • Children's services.

Domestic violence programs also engage in continuous advocacy efforts that include developing public awareness campaigns, collaborating with community service providers, and being active in political lobbying efforts aimed at improving safety for victims and their children. One of the benefits of the increased awareness of the problem garnered by these activities is the greater recognition that many sectors of society—beyond shelters, law enforcement, and the judicial system—have important roles to play in identifying and addressing this problem. These sectors include child welfare, health care, mental heath, substance abuse treatment, business, and faith communities. Along with the recognition that legal sanctions are not always the best response, there is a growing awareness that communities themselves must take responsibility for preventing and aiding victims of domestic violence by establishing programs and services that meet the needs of their citizens. One example is a community-based approach that involves combining the efforts of law enforcement, domestic violence victim advocates, social service providers, faith-based communities, and community members.

Society's recognition that domestic violence is no longer a private matter, but a widespread social problem, is evidenced in the establishment of approximately 2,000 shelters and domestic violence programs, legislation in every State identifying domestic violence as a criminal act, legal rights to civil protection orders, and Federal legislation that provides funding and national recognition regarding its seriousness. Exhibits 3-1 and 3-2 outline Federal legislation that addresses domestic violence and child maltreatment and provides a legal framework and guidance for providing services and intervention.

Exhibit 3-1
Federal Domestic Violence Legislation

Family Violence Prevention and Services Act of 1984 (P.L. 98-457)

The Family Violence Prevention and Services Act of 1984 (FVPSA) was Congress' first attempt to address domestic violence in the country. This legislation was intended to assist States with their efforts to increase public awareness about domestic violence and to provide Federal funding for domestic violence shelters and victim services. States and nonprofit organizations also were awarded grants to develop domestic violence and child maltreatment programs and to provide training and technical assistance for law enforcement officers and community service providers.

Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), Title IV of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act (P.L. 103-322)

In 1994, Congress passed the Violence Against Women Act, which marked a turning point in Federal recognition of the extent and seriousness of domestic violence. This legislation demonstrated the Federal government's commitment to address domestic violence. There are four titles within the Act—the Safe Street Act, Safe Homes for Women, Civil Rights for Women and Equal Justice for Women in the Courts, and Protections for Battered Immigrant Women and Children—and each act addresses domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking, and protection against gender-motivated violence. The provisions of VAWA call for improving law enforcement and criminal justice responses, creating new criminal offenses and tougher penalties, mandating victim restitution, and requiring system reform geared towards protecting victims of domestic violence during prosecution of the perpetrator. VAWA also authorized support for increased prevention and education programs, victim services, domestic violence training of community professionals, and protections from deportation for battered immigrant women.

Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (PRWORA) - Wellstone/Murray Amendment (P.L. 104-193)

The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (PRWORA) replaced the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program with the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program. The Wellstone/Murray Amendment of PRWORA includes a provision entitled the Family Violence Option, which addresses the safety and economic barriers faced by victims of domestic violence. Through this amendment, each State has the option to enact procedures that temporarily exempt identified victims of domestic violence from meeting certain time limit and other work requirements.

Exhibit 3-2
Federal Child Abuse and Neglect Legislation
  • The Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) of 1974 (P.L. 93-247) was established to ensure that victimized children are identified and reported to appropriate authorities. The Act was most recently amended in 1996 (P.L. 104-235) and continues to provide minimum standards for definitions and reports of child maltreatment.

  • Family Preservation and Support Services Program enacted as part of the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1993 (P.L. 103-66) provides funding for prevention and support services for families at risk of maltreatment and family preservation services for families experiencing crises that might lead to out-of-home placement.

  • The Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA) of 1997 (P.L. 105-89) was built on earlier laws and reforms in the field to promote the safety, permanency, and well-being of maltreated children. A component of ASFA is the Promoting Safe and Stable Families (PSSF) Program, which was developed from and expanded upon the Family Preservation and Support Services Program mentioned above. While the legislation reaffirms the importance of making reasonable efforts to preserve and reunify families, it also specifies instances where reunification efforts do not have to be made (e.g., when a child is not safe with his or her family), establishes tighter time frames for termination of parental rights, and promotes adoption initiatives.

  • Promoting Safe and Stable Families Program Reauthorization of 2002 (P.L.107-133) continued to build upon ASFA by extending the PSSF Program for an additional 5 years and increasing discretionary funding. It also created several new programs including a new State grant program that provides education and training vouchers for youth aging out of foster care and a mentoring program for children with incarcerated parents.

Victims of Domestic Violence

This section describes some common characteristics of victims of domestic violence, dynamics of the victimization (e.g., common barriers to leaving an abusive relationship, protective strategies), and the impact that domestic violence has on the individual and on parenting behaviors.

Who Is the Victim?

Victims of domestic violence do not possess a set of universal characteristics or personality traits, but they do share the common experience of being abused by someone close to them. Anyone can become a victim of domestic violence. Victims of domestic violence can be women, men, adolescents, disabled persons, gays, or lesbians. They can be of any age and work in any profession. Normally, victims of domestic violence are not easily recognized because they are not usually covered in marks or bruises. If there are injuries, victims have often learned to conceal them to avoid detection, suspicion, and shame.

Unfortunately, an array of misconceptions about victims of domestic violence has led to harmful stereotypes and myths about who they are and the realities of their abuse. Consequently, victims of domestic violence often feel stigmatized and misunderstood by the people in their lives. These people may be well-intended family members and friends or persons trained to help them, such as social workers, police officers, or doctors. Exhibit 3-3 presents common myths about victims of domestic violence.

Case Example

Myth One: Only poor, uneducated women are victims of domestic violence.

Victims of abuse can be found in all social and economic classes and can be of either sex. They can be wealthy, educated, and prominent as well as undereducated and financially destitute. Victims of domestic violence live in rural towns, urban cities, subsidized housing projects, and in gated communities. The overrepresentation of underprivileged women in domestic violence crime reports may be due to several factors, including the fact that those seeking public assistance or services are subject to data tracking trends that often capture this information. Victims of domestic violence who have higher incomes are more likely to seek help from private therapists or service providers who can protect their identity through confidentiality agreements.

Myth Two: Victims provoke and deserve the violence they experience.

An abusive tactic used by perpetrators is to accuse their partners of "making" them violent. This accusation is even more effective when the perpetrator and other people tell the victim that he or she deserved the abuse. As a result, many victims remain in the abusive relationship because they believe that the violence is their fault. Many victims make repeated attempts to change their behavior in order to avoid the next assault. Unfortunately, no one, including the victim, can change the behavior except for the perpetrator. The perpetrator is accountable for the behavior and responsible for ending the violence.

Myth Three: Victims of domestic violence move from one abusive relationship to another.

Although approximately one-third of victims of domestic violence experience more than one abusive relationship, most victims do not seek or have multiple abusive partners. Victims of domestic violence who have a childhood history of physical or sexual victimization may be at greater risk of being harmed by multiple partners.

Myth Four: Victims of domestic violence suffer from low self-esteem and psychological disorders.

Some people believe that victims of domestic violence are mentally ill or suffer from low self-esteem. Otherwise, it is thought, they would not endure the abuse. In fact, a majority of victims does not have mental disorders, but may suffer from the psychological effects of domestic violence, such as posttraumatic stress disorder or depression. Furthermore, there is little evidence that low self-esteem is a factor for initially becoming involved in an abusive relationship. In reality, some victims of domestic violence experience a decrease in self-esteem because their abusers are constantly degrading, humiliating, and criticizing them, which also makes them more vulnerable to staying in the relationship.

Myth Five: Victims of domestic violence are weak and always want help.

Some victims of domestic violence are passive while others are assertive. Some victims actively seek help, while others may refuse assistance. Again, victims are a diverse group of individuals who possess unique qualities and different life situations. Victims of domestic violence may not always want help and their reasons vary. They may not be prepared to leave the relationship, they may be scared their partners will harm them, or they may not trust people if past efforts to seek help have failed.

Barriers to Leaving an Abusive Relationship

The most commonly asked question about victims of domestic violence is "Why do they stay?" Family, friends, coworkers, and community professionals who try to understand the reasons why a victim of domestic violence has not left the abusive partner often feel perplexed and frustrated. Some victims of domestic violence do leave their violent partners while others may leave and return at different points throughout the abusive relationship. Leaving a violent relationship is a process, not an event, for many victims, who cannot simply "pick up and go" because they have many factors to consider. To understand the complex nature of terminating a violent relationship, it is essential to look at the barriers and risks faced by victims when they consider or attempt to leave. Individual, systemic, and societal barriers faced by victims of domestic violence include:

  • Fear. Perpetrators commonly make threats to find victims, inflict harm, or kill them if they end the relationship. This fear becomes a reality for many victims who are stalked by their partner after leaving. It also is common for abusers to seek or threaten to seek sole custody, make child abuse allegations, or kidnap the children. Historically, there has been a lack of protection and assistance from law enforcement, the judicial system, and social service agencies charged with responding to domestic violence. Inadequacies in the system and the failure of past efforts by victims of domestic violence seeking help have led many to believe that they will not be protected from the abuser and are safer at home. While much remains to be done, there is a growing trend of increased legal protection and community support for these victims.

  • Isolation. One effective tactic abusers use to establish control over victims is to isolate them from any support system other than the primary intimate relationship. As a result, some victims are unaware of services or people that can help. Many believe they are alone in dealing with the abuse. This isolation deepens when society labels them as "masochistic" or "weak" for enduring the abuse. Victims often separate themselves from friends and family because they are ashamed of the abuse or want to protect others from the abuser's violence.

  • Financial dependence. Some victims do not have access to any income and have been prevented from obtaining an education or employment. Victims who lack viable job skills or education, transportation, affordable daycare, safe housing, and health benefits face very limited options. Poverty and marginal economic support services can present enormous challenges to victims who seek safety and stability. Often, victims find themselves choosing between homelessness, living in impoverished and unsafe communities, or returning to their abusive partner.

  • Guilt and shame. Many victims believe the abuse is their fault. The perpetrator, family, friends, and society sometimes deepen this belief by accusing the victim of provoking the violence and casting blame for not preventing it. Victims of violence rarely want their family and friends to know they are abused by their partner and are fearful that people will criticize them for not leaving the relationship. Victims often feel responsible for changing their partner's abusive behavior or changing themselves in order for the abuse to stop. Guilt and shame may be felt especially by those who are not commonly recognized as victims of domestic violence. This may include men, gays, lesbians, and partners of individuals in visible or respected professions, such as the clergy and law enforcement.

  • Emotional and physical impairment. Abusers often use a series of psychological strategies to break down the victim's self-esteem and emotional strength. In order to survive, some victims begin to perceive reality through the abuser's paradigm, become emotionally dependent, and believe they are unable to function without their partner. The psychological and physical effects of domestic violence also can affect a victim's daily functioning and mental stability. This can make the process of leaving and planning for safety challenging for victims who may be depressed, physically injured, or suicidal. Victims who have a physical or developmental disability are extremely vulnerable because the disability can compound their emotional, financial, and physical dependence on their abusive partner.

  • Individual belief system. The personal, familial, religious, and cultural values of victims of domestic violence are frequently interwoven in their decisions to leave or remain in abusive relationships. For example, victims who hold strong convictions regarding the sanctity of marriage may not view divorce or separation as an option. Their religious beliefs may tell them divorce is "wrong." Some victims of domestic violence believe that their children still need to be with the offender and that divorce will be emotionally damaging to them.

  • Hope. Like most people, victims of domestic violence are invested in their intimate relationships and frequently strive to make them healthy and loving. Some victims hope the violence will end if they become the person their partner wants them to be. Others believe and have faith in their partner's promises to change. Perpetrators are not "all bad" and have positive, as well as, negative qualities. The abuser's "good side" can give victims reason to think their partner is capable of being nurturing, kind, and nonviolent.

  • Community services and societal values. For victims who are prepared to leave and want protection, there are a variety of institutional barriers that make escaping abuse difficult and frustrating. Communities that have inadequate resources and limited victim advocacy services and whose response to domestic abuse is fragmented, punitive, or ineffective can not provide realistic or safe solutions for victims and their children.

  • Cultural hurdles. The lack of culturally sensitive and appropriate services for victims of color and those who are non-English speaking pose additional barriers to leaving violent relationships. Minority populations include African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians, and other ethnic groups whose cultural values and customs can influence their beliefs about the role of men and women, interpersonal relationships, and intimate partner violence. For example, the Hispanic cultural value of "machismo" supports some Latino men's belief that they are superior to women and the "head of their household" in determining familial decisions. "Machismo" may cause some Hispanic men to believe that they have the right to use violent or abusive behavior to control their partners or children. In turn, Latina women and other family or community members may excuse violent or controlling behavior because they believe that husbands have ultimate authority over them and their children.

    Examples of culturally competent services include offering written translation of domestic violence materials, providing translators in domestic violence programs, and implementing intervention strategies that incorporate cultural values, norms, and practices to effectively address the needs of victims and abusers. The lack of culturally competent services that fail to incorporate issues of culture and language can present obstacles for victims who want to escape abuse and for effective interventions with domestic violence perpetrators. Well-intended family, friends, and community members also can create additional pressures for the victim to "make things work."

The Impact of Domestic Violence on Victims

As with anyone who has been traumatized, victims demonstrate a wide range of effects from domestic violence. The perpetrator's abusive behavior can cause an array of health problems and physical injuries. Victims may require medical attention for immediate injuries, hospitalization for severe assaults, or chronic care for debilitating health problems resulting from the perpetrator's physical attacks. The direct physical effects of domestic violence can range from minor scratches or bruises to fractured bones or sexually transmitted diseases resulting from forced sexual activity and other practices. The indirect physical effects of domestic violence can range from recurring headaches or stomachaches to severe health problems due to withheld medical attention or medications.

Many victims of abuse make frequent visits to their physicians for health problems and for domestic violence-related injuries. Unfortunately, research shows that many victims will not disclose the abuse unless they are directly asked or screened for domestic violence by the physician. It is imperative, therefore, that health care providers directly inquire about possible domestic violence so victims receive proper treatment for injuries or illnesses and are offered further assistance for addressing the abuse.

The impact of domestic violence on victims can result in acute and chronic mental health problems. Some victims, however, have histories of psychiatric illnesses that may be exacerbated by the abuse; others may develop psychological problems as a direct result of the abuse. Examples of emotional and behavioral effects of domestic violence include many common coping responses to trauma, such as:

  • Emotional withdrawal

  • Denial or minimization of the abuse

  • Impulsivity or aggressiveness

  • Apprehension or fear

  • Helplessness

  • Anger

  • Anxiety or hypervigilance

  • Disturbance of eating or sleeping patterns

  • Substance abuse

  • Depression

  • Suicide

  • Post-traumatic stress disorder.

Some of these effects also serve as coping mechanisms for victims. For example, some victims turn to alcohol to lessen the physical and emotional pain of the abuse. Unfortunately, these coping mechanisms can serve as barriers for victims who want help or want to leave their abusive relationships. Psychiatrists, psychologists, therapists, and counselors who provide screening, comprehensive assessment, and treatment for victims can serve as the catalyst that helps them address or escape the abuse.

Parenting and the Victim

Emerging research indicates that the harmful effects of domestic violence can negatively influence parenting behaviors. Parents who are suffering from abuse may experience higher stress levels, which in turn, can influence the nature of their relationship with and responses to their children. Victims who are preoccupied with avoiding physical attacks and coping with the violence confront additional challenges in their efforts to provide safety, support, and nurturance to their children. Unfortunately, some victims of domestic violence are emotionally or physically unavailable to their children due to injuries, emotional exhaustion, or depression.

Studies have found that victims of domestic violence are more likely to maltreat their children than those who are not abused by their partners. In some cases, victims who use physical force or inappropriate discipline techniques are trying to protect their children from potentially more severe forms of violence or discipline by the abuser. For example, a victim of domestic violence might slap the child when the abuser threatens harm if the child is not quiet. Seemingly, neglectful behaviors by the victim also may be a direct result of the domestic violence. This is illustrated when the abuser prevents the victim from taking the child to the doctor or to school because the adult victim's injuries would reveal the abusiveness.

The majority of victims of domestic violence are not bad, ineffective, or abusive parents, but researchers note that domestic violence is one of a multitude of stressors that can negatively influence parenting. However, many victims, despite ongoing abuse, are supportive, nurturing parents who mediate the impact of their children's exposure to domestic violence. Given the impact of violence on parenting behaviors, it is beneficial that victims receive services that alleviate their distress so they can support and benefit the children.

Strategies Victims Use to Protect Themselves and Their Children

Protective strategies that frequently are recommended by family, friends, and social services providers include contacting the police, obtaining a restraining order, or seeking refuge at a friend or relative's home or at a domestic violence shelter. It is ordinarily assumed that these suggestions are successful at keeping victims and their children safe from violence. It is crucial to remember, however, that while these strategies can be effective for some victims of domestic violence, they can be unrealistic and even dangerous options for other victims. For example, obtaining a restraining order can be useful in deterring some perpetrators, but it can cause other perpetrators to become increasingly abusive and threatening. Since these recommendations are concrete and observable, they tend to reassure people that the victim of domestic violence is actively taking steps to address the abuse and to be safe, even if they create additional risks. Furthermore, these options only address the physical violence in a victim's life. They do not address the economic or housing challenges the victim must overcome to survive, nor do they provide the emotional and psychological safety the victims need. Therefore, victims often weigh "perpetrator-generated" risks versus "life-generated" risks as they try to make decisions and find safety.

Typically, victims do not passively tolerate the violence in their lives. They often use very creative methods to avoid and deescalate their partner's abusive behavior. Some of these are successful and others are not. Victims develop their own unique set of protective strategies based on their past experience of what is effective at keeping them emotionally and physically protected from their partner's violence. In deciding which survival mechanism to use, victims engage in a methodical problem-solving process that involves analyzing: available and realistic safety options; the level of danger created by the abuser's violence; and the prior effectiveness and consequences of previously used strategies. After careful consideration, victims of domestic violence decide whether to use, adapt, replace, or discard certain approaches given the risks they believe it will pose to them and their children. Examples of additional protective strategies victims use to survive and protect themselves include:

  • Complying, placating, or colluding with the perpetrator;

  • Minimizing, denying, or refusing to talk about the abuse for fear of making it worse;

  • Leaving or staying in the relationship so the violence does not escalate;

  • Fighting back or defying the abuser;

  • Sending the children to a neighbor or family member's home;

  • Engaging in manipulative behaviors, such as lying, as a way to survive;

  • Refusing or not following through with services to avoid angering the abuser;

  • Using or abusing substances as an "escape" or to numb physical pain;

  • Lying about the abuser's criminal activity or abuse of the children to avoid a possible attack;

  • Trying to improve the relationship or finding help for the perpetrator.

Although these protective strategies act as coping and survival mechanisms for victims, they are frequently misinterpreted by laypersons and professionals who view the victim's behavior as uncooperative, ineffective, or neglectful. Because victims are very familiar with their partner's pattern of behavior, they can help the caseworker in developing a safety plan that is effective for both the victim and the children, especially when exploring options not previously considered.

In situations where certain coping strategies have adverse affects, such as using drugs to numb the pain, it is crucial that service providers make available additional support and guidance that offer positive solutions to victims of domestic violence. A thoughtful understanding of the unique approaches used by victims of domestic violence to secure their safety will help community professionals and service providers respond more effectively to their needs.

Perpetrators of Domestic Violence

This section presents common characteristics and behavioral tactics of perpetrators, indicators of dangerousness, and relevant parenting issues.

Who Is a Perpetrator of Domestic Violence?

As is the case with victims of domestic violence, abusers can be anyone and come from every age, sex, socioeconomic, racial, ethnic, occupational, educational, and religious group. They can be teenagers, college professors, farmers, counselors, electricians, police officers, doctors, clergy, judges, and popular celebrities. Perpetrators are not always angry and hostile, but can be charming, agreeable, and kind. Abusers differ in patterns of abuse and levels of dangerousness. While there is not an agreed upon universal psychological profile, perpetrators do share a behavioral profile that is described as "an ongoing pattern of coercive control involving various forms of intimidation, and psychological and physical abuse.

While many people think violent and abusive people are mentally ill, research shows that perpetrators do not share a set of personality characteristics or a psychiatric diagnosis that distinguishes them from people who are not abusive. There are some perpetrators who suffer from psychiatric problems, such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, or psychopathology. Yet, most do not have psychiatric illnesses, and caution is advised in attributing mental illness as a root cause of domestic violence. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychological Association (DSM-IV) does not have a diagnostic category for perpetrators, but mental illness should be viewed as a factor that can influence the severity and nature of the abuse.

Examples of the most prevalent behavioral tactics by perpetrators include:

  • Abusing power and control. The perpetrator's primary goal is to achieve power and control over their intimate partner. In order to do so, perpetrators often plan and utilize a pattern of coercive tactics aimed at instilling fear, shame, and helplessness in the victim. Another part of this strategy is to change randomly the list of "rules" or expectations the victim must meet to avoid abuse. The abuser's incessant degradation, intimidation, and demands on their partner are effective in establishing fear and dependence. It is important to note that perpetrators may also engage in impulsive acts of domestic violence and that not all perpetrators act in such a planned or systematic way.

  • Having different public and private behavior. Usually, people outside the immediate family are not aware of and do not witness the perpetrator's abusive behavior. Abusers who maintain an amiable public image accomplish the important task of deceiving others into thinking they are loving, "normal," and incapable of domestic violence. This allows perpetrators to escape accountability for their violence and reinforces the victims' fears that no one will believe them.

  • Projecting blame. Abusers often engage in an insidious type of manipulation that involves blaming the victim for the violent behavior. Such perpetrators may accuse the victim of "pushing buttons" or "provoking" the abuse. By diverting attention to the victim's actions, the perpetrator avoids taking responsibility for the abusive behavior. In addition to projecting blame on the victim, abusers also may project blame on circumstances, such as making the excuse that alcohol or stress caused the violence.

  • Claiming loss of control or anger problems. There is a common belief that domestic violence is a result of poor impulse control or anger management problems. Abusers routinely claim that they "just lost it," suggesting that the violence was an impulsive and rare event beyond control. Domestic violence is not typically a singular incident nor does it simply involve physical attacks. It is a deliberate set of tactics where physical violence is used to solidify the abuser's power in the relationship. In reality, only an estimated 5 to 10 percent of perpetrators have difficulty with controlling their aggression. Most abusers do not assault others outside the family, such as police officers, coworkers, or neighbors, but direct their abuse toward the victim or children. This distinction challenges claims that they cannot manage their anger.

  • Minimizing and denying the abuse. Perpetrators rarely view themselves or their actions as violent or abusive. As a result, they often deny, justify, and minimize their behavior. For example, an abuser might forcibly push the victim down a flight of stairs, then tell others that the victim tripped. Abusers also rationalize serious physical assaults, such as punching or choking, as "self-defense." Abusers who refuse to admit they are harming their partner present enormous challenges to persons who are trying to intervene. Some perpetrators do acknowledge to the victim that the abusive behavior is wrong, but then plead for forgiveness or make promises of refraining from any future abuse. Even in situations such as this, the perpetrator commonly minimizes the severity or impact of the abuse.

    It is equally important to acknowledge that abusers also possess positive qualities. There are abusers who are remorseful, accept responsibility for their violence, and eventually stop their abusive behavior. Perpetrators are not necessarily "bad" people, but their abusive behavior is unacceptable. Some perpetrators have childhood histories where they were physically or sexually abused, neglected, or exposed to domestic abuse. Some suffer from substance abuse and mental health problems. All of these factors can influence their psychological functioning and contribute to the complexity and severity of the abusive behavior. Perpetrators need support and intervention to end their violent behavior and any additional problems that compound their abusive behavior. Through specialized interventions, community services, and sanctions, some abusers can change and become nonviolent.

Indicators of Dangerousness

Different levels of violence and types of abuse are perpetrated by domestic violence offenders. Some abusers rarely use physical violence, while others assault their partners daily. There are perpetrators who are only abusive towards family members and others who are violent toward a variety of people. There are abusers who are more likely to inflict serious injury or become homicidal. Some frequently degrade the victim, while some rarely, if ever, implement that particular tactic.

It is critical that professionals and community service providers who intervene in domestic violence cases engage in thorough and continuous assessment of the perpetrator's level of dangerousness. Evaluating this dangerousness involves identifying risk indicators that reflect the capacity to continue perpetrating severe violence. Although domestic violence homicides or severe assaults cannot be predicted, there are several risk factors that help determine the likelihood that severe forms of violence may be imminent. The greater the number or the intensity of the following indicators, the more likely a severe or life-threatening attack will occur:

  • Threats or thoughts of homicide and suicide;

  • Possession or access to weapons;

  • Use of weapons in a threatening or intimidating manner;

  • Extreme jealousy or obsession with the victim;

  • Physical attacks, verbal threats, and stalking during a separation or divorce;

  • Kidnapping or hostage taking;

  • Sexual assault or rape;

  • Prior abusive incidents that resulted in serious injury;

  • History of violence with previous partners and children;

  • Psychopathology or substance abuse.

The above factors pose a substantial risk to victims of domestic violence and possibly to their children. It also is important to ask for the victim's assessment of the abuser's dangerousness. Extremely dangerous perpetrators can be safety threats to people who are involved in the victim's life, individuals trying to help, or the children. It is crucial that community professionals who work with violent families incorporate these risk indicators into their assessments and interventions because failure to do so can seriously compromise the lives of everyone involved.

Parenting and the Perpetrator

Can perpetrators be supportive parents when they are abusive towards the other parent? An emerging issue facing victims of domestic violence and child advocacy groups is the role and impact that perpetrators have in their children's lives. There are perpetrators who have positive interactions with their children, provide for their physical and financial needs, and are not abusive towards them. There also are perpetrators who neglect or physically harm their children. Although abusers vary tremendously in parenting styles, there are some behaviors common among perpetrators that can have harmful effects on children:

  • Authoritarianism. Perpetrators can be rigid and demanding with their children. They often have high and unrealistic expectations and expect children to obey without question or resistance. This parenting style is intimidating for children and alters their sense of safety around the abuser. These perpetrators are more likely to use harsher forms of physical discipline, which can make the children increasingly vulnerable to becoming direct targets of violence.

  • Neglect, irresponsibility, and lack of involvement. Some abusers are infrequently involved in the daily parenting activities of their children. They may view their children as hindrances and become easily annoyed with them. Furthermore, the perpetrator's preoccupation with controlling the partner and meeting his or her own emotional needs leaves little time to engage the children. Unfortunately, the perpetrator's physical and emotional unavailability can produce unrequited feelings of anticipation and fondness in the children who eagerly await attention.

  • Undermining the victim. The perpetrator's coercive and violent behavior towards the victim sometimes sends children a message that it is acceptable for them to treat that parent in the same manner. More overt tactics that weaken the victim's influence over the children include the perpetrator disregarding the victim's parenting decisions, telling the children that the victim is an inadequate parent, and belittling the victim in the presence of the children. Being victimized by abuse can lead children to perceive the parent in a weaker, passive role with no real authority over their lives.

  • Self-centeredness. Some perpetrators use their children to meet their own emotional needs. Perpetrators may expect their children to be immediately available only when they are interested and often overwhelm them with their problems. This can result in children feeling burdened and responsible for helping their parent while their own needs are neglected.

  • Manipulation. To gain power in the home, perpetrators may manipulate their children into aligning against the victim. Abusers may make statements or exhibit behaviors that confuse the children regarding who is responsible for the violence and coerce them into believing that they are the preferable parent. Abusers also may directly or indirectly use their children to control and intimidate the victim. Perpetrators sometimes may threaten to abduct, seek sole custody of, or physically harm the children if the victim is not compliant. Sometimes these are threats exclusively and the abuser does not intend or really want to carry out the action, but the threats are typically perceived as being very real.

Children's perception of the perpetrator's violence can play a significant role in the nature of their relationship. Children often feel anxious, scared, and angry when they witness abuse. At the same time, many children also feel affection, loyalty, and love for the abuser. It is common for children to experience ambivalent feelings towards the abuser and this can be difficult for them to resolve.

Domestic violence can influence the children's feelings toward the victim. Many children know the abuse is wrong and may even feel responsible for protecting the battered parent. Yet, they also experience confusion and resentment towards the victim for "putting up" with the abuse and are more likely to express their anger towards the victim rather than directly at the perpetrator.

Children need additional support as they struggle with their conflicting feelings towards the perpetrator. The responsibility of perpetrators as parents primarily focuses on preventing the recurrence of the violence. Some victims want their children to have a safe and positive relationship with the perpetrator, and some children crave that connection. Consequently, community service providers are confronted with the challenge of developing resources and strategies to help perpetrators become supportive and safe parents.

Examples of specific approaches that programs and service providers can use that will assist perpetrators in taking responsibility for the harm they pose to their children include:

  • Educating abusers on the damaging effects of their behavior on their partners and children;

  • Providing intensive parenting skills programs that emphasize the needs of children affected by domestic abuse;

  • Offering safe exchange and supervised visitation programs;

  • Encouraging abusers to support their children attending groups for youths exposed to domestic violence;

  • Recruiting nonviolent fathers to mentor domestic violence perpetrators.

A provocative issue for CPS caseworkers, service providers, and other community groups is determining the role abusers should have as parents or caretakers. Many voice legitimate concerns regarding the safety of the child victims.

There are special considerations and challenges in attempting to engage fathers who are abusive to their children or spouse, in activities that promote healthy involvement with the family. Some groups, such as some of those in the fatherhood movement, address this issue by helping fathers to increase their responsible involvement in their children's lives. Other groups, either through a prevention effort or an intervention treatment, seek to increase compassion, emotional awareness, and self-regulation skills in the belief that these skills remove the motivation for abusive behavior. Although juvenile court and protective order laws are designed to assign responsibility for child support and parental involvement, CPS caseworkers often face challenges in engaging fathers in the safety and care of their children. The difficulty with engaging some fathers in child protection efforts, however, stems from a cultural and gender bias of placing parenting responsibilities primarily on women. This is evidenced in child welfare systems where cases are tracked through the mother's name and subsequent case planning efforts are focused on her to make significant changes. Unfortunately, involving fathers or male caretakers typically does not occur unless they are willing participants or easily accessible in the CPS process. Thus, fathers can become essentially "invisible" in CPS efforts and unaccountable for the well-being of their children. Unquestionably, balancing the protection of adult and child victims with the rights and responsibilities of perpetrators will require continuous dialogue and a movement towards collaboration. If communities are dedicated to ending domestic violence, they must strive to hear the voices of adults and children who suffer from abuse so that a collective agenda of building healthy, safe, and stable families can be accomplished.


Required Reading:

Husband Abuse: An Overview of Research and Perspectives

Family Violence and Substance Abuse

Health Effects of Family Violence


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Child Welfare Information Gateway, Spousal Partner Abuse CEUs

Leslie Tutty; Husband Abuse:An Overview of Research and Perspectives Family Violence Prevention Prevention Unit, Canada, 1999

National Clearinghouse on Family Violence

U.S. Department of Justice

Center for Disease Control and Prevention

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services,

interns, asw, lcsw, lmft, counselors, bbs, 15 units course, online, ceus, ceu, continuing education, ca

JOURNAL OF PSYCHOTHERAPY PRACTICE AND RESEARCH by David B. Wexler. Copyright 1999 by American Psychiatric Press Inc.. Reproduced with permission of American Psychiatric Press Inc. in the format electronic usage via Copyright Clearance Center.


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