Common Justifications for Abusive Behavior

Domestic abuse and violence comes from a belief system that tells the abusive person that they have the right to control their partner, and that they are justified in using whatever means necessary to maintain that control. Despite decades of practice and research documenting the impact of abusive people’s belief systems, many still misunderstand how intentional domestic abuse is. Below are some justifications commonly used to explain what leads people to abuse their partners, along with clarifying explanations about the real causes.

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Alcohol & Drugs

Although substance use and domestic abuse often co-occur, it is not a causal relationship. Survivors report that stopping the abusive person’s substance use has not stopped the abuse. Recovery may change the abusive person’s tactics, but over time it usually becomes clear that the core driving factor behind the abuse – the idea that one has the right to control and instill fear in one’s partner – remains unchanged.

Both abusive behavior and substance use need to be addressed separately, as independent problems that overlap in many individuals1. Neither alcohol nor drugs contain anything that would cause a person to believe they have the right to control and scare their partner.

Conversely, people who abuse frequently use substances as a way of trapping their partners further. Substance use coercion can include getting a partner hooked on drugs, trafficking them to pay for drugs, telling a survivor who uses that they deserve the abuse or that no one will believe them if they seek help, or threatening to report the survivor’s drug use to the police if they do not comply.

Mental Illness

Many want to justify abusive people’s behavior by blaming it on depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, or other diagnoses. As with substance use, these are overlapping issues that require separate interventions. While some people who abuse also struggle with their mental health, studies indicate that they are no more likely than the general population to have mental illness2. Many people who struggle with their mental health do not abuse their partners.

As with alcohol and drugs, abusive people often use their partner’s mental health against them, preventing them from accessing needed treatment. They rely on the stigma associated with mental illness to further isolate the partner from their support systems by convincing them they are “crazy” and minimizing the abuse.

Mutual Abuse

We’ve all heard that “it takes two to tango” or “there are two sides to every story.” These sayings make sense in relationships where both partners have equal power. They do not apply in relationships where one partner uses coercion and fear to limit their partner’s rights.

Survivors sometimes react to abuse by defending themselves or by trying to reclaim their basic rights. At first, this may look like the survivor is “just as bad” as their partner, but we must look at the overall power dynamic and intent behind each action. Many survivors make numerous attempts to change their partner’s behavior, hoping to stop the abuse. This approach usually does not work in the long run, because the person choosing to abuse is the only one who can stop the violence3.

“The victim must like it on some level. Otherwise, they’d leave.”

We must not assume that leaving is simple, easy or even possible for a survivor of abuse. Survivors of abuse often make repeated attempts to leave their abusive partners. They are often prevented from doing so by their partner’s escalating control. Researchers estimate that the danger to a victim increases by 50-75% when they attempt to leave, as the abusive partner escalates their tactics when they begin to lose control4.

Other factors that inhibit someone’s ability to leave include economic dependence, limited housing or support options, unhelpful responses from the criminal justice system or other agencies, social isolation, cultural or religious constraints, a commitment to the relationship, and fear of increased violence. For all of these reasons, it is completely reasonable for someone to dislike their partner’s abusive behavior and want it to stop, even while remaining in the relationship. Leaving does not equal safety, and expecting the victim to change their behavior cannot be the solution to the problem, since what their partner is doing is outside of their control.

“The abuser had a bad childhood.”

Many people who grow up witnessing or experiencing abuse promise themselves that they will treat their partners with respect, kindness, and equality when they grow up. With adequate support, countless survivors are resilient enough to follow through on that promise5. Many of these individuals, in fact, end up pursuing helping professions to assist others through challenges like the ones they survived.

Certainly, our experiences shape our belief systems and therefore our behavior. There are many experiences besides our childhoods that also shape our behavior – for example, our peer groups, the media we consume, our jobs, etc.. Using abusive behavior is a choice individuals make. They may get support for that choice from a variety of places, of which their experience growing up is just one. We need to hold people appropriately accountable for their abusive actions, regardless of past experiences. We can acknowledge the impact of childhood trauma and a person’s need to get appropriate support for healing without excusing away their poor choices.

“Abusers just need help learning to manage their anger.”

Domestic abuse is not a crime of passion. In fact, many people who abuse their partners admit to calmly planning violent incidents. They also decide who, when, and where to engage in abusive behavior and the parts of the body to hurt, often those hidden by clothing or hair.

Survivors often marvel at how composed their partner can be in public. This carefully-constructed public persona is another tactic of control. Again, domestic abuse is caused by the abusive person believing that they have the right to scare or intimidate their partner6.

Accordingly, anger management classes won’t appropriately address the causes of their behavior or “get them back under control.” They are already very much in control of their actions. People who abuse should seek support from a Certified Batterer Intervention Program, which are programs designed to address the factors at the core of abusive behavior.

Lack of communication, conflict resolution skills, stress, or poor self-esteem…

People who abuse their partners do not experience more stress than others do. Nor do they differ from the general population in their levels of self-esteem, communication, or conflict resolution skills. The difference lies in the abusive person’s beliefs regarding what they are entitled to in their relationships and who they are entitled to have power over.

The problem is not how they feel about themselves. It is the permission they give themselves to control and hurt other people. Abusive people know how to communicate their needs and be nonviolent with coworkers, friends, and strangers. The problem is not their inability to resolve conflict non-violently, but their unwillingness to do so with their partner or children.

(Adapted from the work of Caring Unlimited, York County’s Domestic Violence Resource Center)

1 Bancroft, L. (2002). “Why Does He Do That?” New York, NY: Berkeley Publishing Group.
2 Klein, A. R. (5 June 2009). “Practical Implications of Current Domestic Violence Research: For Law Enforcement, Prosecutors, and Judges.” National Institute of Justice Online Publications. Retrieved from:
3 Bancroft, L. (2015). “Daily Wisdom for Why Does He Do That?” New York, NY: Berkley Publishing Group.
4 Davies, J., Lyon, E. & Monti-Catania, D. (1998). “Safety Planning with Battered Women.” Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publishing Group.
5.“Core Curriculum on Trauma-Informed Domestic Violence Services: Module 1.” (2014). National Coalition on Domestic Violence, Trauma, and Mental Health..
6 Bancroft, L. (2002). “Why Does He Do That?” New York, NY: Berkeley Publishing Group.