This week, After Trauma will feature a 3 part series on intimate partner violence. Each post will cover one of the three actors in domestic violence: the abuser, the victim/survivor and society. Today’s column focuses on the abuser.
Why do abusers abuse?
Donald Dutton, PhD, author of The Abusive Personality: Violence and Control in Intimate Relationships and author of numerous studies on the batterer personality, has identified a consistent set of identified traits in batterers. He differentiates between “impulsive” abusers, who are more likely to be responding to situational stressors but aren’t facilitating a pattern of control with the partner and “instrumental” abusers, who fit the description that we usually think of, use violence as a method of control and are more likely to have a personality disorder and a history of trauma. He has also found that in his studies of male abusers that they tend to have greater anger, greater insecurity and fear of abandonment, and higher levels of trauma.
He argues that oppression of women is not the driving factor in most abuse cases, at least in Western Countries like Canada and the United States. A number of community samples in the U.S., the U.K. and Canada have found that women, particularly in younger populations, can be physically abusive more often than men, and they self report that it’s not due to self-defense or retaliation. However, before you completely throw out your understanding of domestic violence (or rush to the comments section), read on…
So are most abusers men?
Actually, the disparity between men and women abusers is a lot smaller than lay wisdom would have us believe. According to the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Report (2010), about 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men report being abused by intimate partners, including, physical abuse, stalking and sexual violence. Other studies also report similar levels of occurrence, and again, some report higher rates of domestic violence against women (in self-reporting populations).
The patterns of assault experienced by gender varies, however, and here is where we see women having a harder time by most any measure. When all IPV victims were asked about the type of domestic violence they have experienced, over 92% of men report only experiencing physical violence, whereas while just over half of women report (56.8%) only physical violence, more than 1 in 3 report experiencing physical violence in addition to stalking, rape or both (p. 41). This type of abuse is more characteristic of emotional terrorism as opposed to impulsive outbursts.
Particular acts that men and women perpetrate against their partners also tend to vary by gender. Women are more likely to slap, kick or throw things. Men are more likely to choke, “beat up” their partners and use a weapon.
Also, when men and women who report having been victimized are asked to describe the psychological aggression that they have also experience, a higher prevalence of women have experienced every type of emotional aggression and coercive control than men except one (“kept track of whereabouts”). Further, despite the surprisingly similar levels of experiencing IPV, only 1 in 10 men report an impact from the IPV, which included PTSD symptoms, fearing for one’s safety, needing medical attention and other professional supports and missing work/school.
And then there are the differences in domestic homicide. In 70-80% of intimate partner homicides—including homicide of a male partner by his female partner—the male partner had physically abused the female partner before the murder. Women are 4-5 times more likely to be killed by a partner than men are, which is especially striking when you consider the fact that men are far more likely to be victims of homicide.
Another piece of evidence that weighs against the argument that intimate partner violence is a function of societal oppression of women are the rates of domestic violence in same-sex relationships. After all, if this were a manifestation of men’s need to overpower women, then it should follow that relationships with only men or women would experience far lower rates of violence.
Not so. In fact, individuals with a history of same-sex relationships report higher levels of intimate partner abuse than those with exclusively other-sex history. Transgender individuals are not represented as a group in almost all of the literature, but the little information that is available suggests that they are at the highest levels of risk of partner abuse, which is consistent (or at least not-inconsistent) with the feminist-oppression theory.
So why is this so common?
There are too many theories to recap in this post, but the short version in this conclusion is that intimate partner violence is complicated—the causes and characteristics of it vary.