Common Justifications for Abusive Behavior

Below are some of the mischaracterizations and myths about what causes abusive people to batter their partners. For more information on the myths surrounding domestic violence, see our Facebook live video with Daughters of Change.

Alcohol and Drugs

Although substance use and battering often co-occur, it is not a causal relationship. Survivors report that stopping the abusive person’s substance abuse has not stopped the abuse, although recovery may change the abuser’s tactics. Both battering and substance abuse need to be addressed separately, as independent problems that happen to overlap in a lot of 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 to further trap their partners; substance use coercion can include getting a partner hooked on drugs, trafficking them to pay for drugs, and telling a survivor who uses that they deserve the abuse, or that no one will believe them if they report it.

Mental Illness

When an individual is abusive, people often blame depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder or other diagnoses. These are overlapping issues that require distinct solutions. While some abusive people also struggle with mental illness, studies indicate that batterers are no more likely than the general population to be mentally ill2. Many people who struggle with their mental health do not abuse their partners, and many people who abuse their partners are deemed psychiatrically normal by medical professionals3. As with alcohol and drugs, abusive people will often use their partner’s mental health against them, preventing them from accessing needed treatment, for example, and/or relying 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, but they do not apply in relationships where one partner uses coercion and fear to take away their partner’s rights. Survivors sometimes react to abuse by merely trying to get their own rights back. 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. We frequently hear that this approach does not work, as the person choosing to abuse is the only one who can stop the violence4.

“The victim must like it on some level, otherwise they would leave.”

Survivors of abuse often make repeated attempts to leave their abusers, but are prevented from doing so by the abuser’s escalating control. Other factors that inhibit someone’s ability to leave include economic dependence, few options for housing or support, 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. Researchers estimate that the danger to a victim increases by 50-75% when they attempt to leave, as the abuser escalates their tactics when they begin to lose control5.

“The abuser had a bad childhood”

Many individuals who grow up witnessing and/or experiencing abuse promise themselves that they will treat their partners with respect, kindness, and equality when they grow up. With adequate supports, countless survivors are resilient enough to follow through on that promise throughout their lives6. Many of these individuals, in fact, end up pursuing helping professions to assist others through challenges like the ones they survived. Our experiences certainly shape our belief systems and therefore our behavior, but abuse is socially constructed and individually chosen. We need to hold people appropriately accountable for their abusive actions, regardless of their past experiences.

“Abusers just need help learning to manage their anger”

Domestic abuse is not a crime of passion. In fact, many people who batter their partners admit to calmly planning violent incidents. They also decide who, when, and where to engage in abusive behavior, as well as the parts of the body to hurt (often ones that are hidden by clothes or hair). Survivors often marvel at how composed their partner can be when in public. This carefully-constructed public persona is yet another tactic of control. Again, domestic abuse is caused by the abusive person believing that they have the right to scare and intimidate their partner7. 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.

Lack of communication or conflict resolution skills, stress, 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, or communication/conflict resolution skills. The difference lies in the abusive partner’s belief systems 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 how to 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 and/or children.

(Adapted from the work of our York County member, Caring Unlimited)

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: https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/225722.pdf
3 Bancroft, L. (2015). “Daily Wisdom for Why Does He Do That?” New York, NY: Berkley Publishing Group.
4 Ibid.
5 Davies, J., Lyon, E. & Monti-Catania, D. (1998). “Safety Planning with Battered Women.” Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publishing Group.
6 “Core Curriculum on Trauma Informed Domestic Violence Services: Module 1.” (2014). National Coalition on Domestic Violence, Trauma, and Mental Health.
7 Bancroft, L. (2002). “Why Does He Do That?” New York, NY: Berkeley Publishing Group.