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About Domestic Violence

What is domestic violence/domestic abuse?

Domestic violence is a pattern of coercive, abusive, and threatening behaviors aimed at gaining power and control over an intimate partner.  These behaviors include cutting the victim off from family and friends, manipulation, sexual assaults, and using children as pawns. While physical assault may occur infrequently, other forms of abuse may occur daily.  Domestic violence forces victim/survivors to make choices based on how their partner may harm them.

Domestic violence crosses all class, race, lifestyle and religious lines. The only clear distinction is gender. Though same sex battering occurs about as often as in other couples, 95% of the victims of domestic violence in heterosexual couples are women battered by male partners.

Is domestic violence caused by substance abuse

Alcohol and other drugs do not cause non-violent persons to become violent. Many people use or abuse those drugs without ever battering their partners, though substances are often given as an excuse for the battering. Though it doesn’t cause the abuse, the use of, or addiction to, substances may increase the lethality of domestic violence and can create additional barriers for victims trying to achieve safety. Chemical dependency treatment does not cure battering behavior.  

Is domestic violence caused by stress?

There are many different sources of stress in our lives and people respond to stress in a wide variety of ways. Stress does not "cause" people to act in certain ways. They react to the stresses of their lives in ways they have observed as working in the past or anticipate will work in the present. Moreover, many episodes of domestic violence occur when the perpetrator is not emotionally charged or stressed. It is important to hold people responsible for the choices they make. Just as we would not excuse a robbery or a mugging by a stranger simply because the perpetrator was stressed, we cannot excuse batterers because of stress. 

Is domestic violence caused by anger?

We all get angry, but very few of us batter. Some battering episodes occur when the perpetrator is not angry, and some occur when the perpetrator is very emotionally aroused. Often the tactics of control are used calmly, while displays of anger may be deliberately used to intimidate the victim. Anger-management programs have failed as a treatment for batterers. Rather than saying someone batters because they are angry, the reality is that batterers are often angry because they have unrealistic expectations of their partners. They get angry when their partner (or police or the courts) is unable or unwilling to comply with what they want. The underlying problem is an unrealistic sense of entitlement.

Doesn't it take two to tango?

What perpetrators report as abusive behavior by the victim are often acts of resistance. Victims engage in strategies for survival that may include yelling, pushing, or hitting their attacker. Perpetrators respond with escalating tactics of control and violence. Some argue there is "mutual battering" when both individuals are using physical force. In cases where two people are using force, a determination can be made about who may is the primary physical aggressor and who is the victim. This assessment is based on descriptions of the event in question but also on the history of prior violence and threats in the relationship. Careful assessment reveals that one person is the aggressor while the victim's violence is in self-defense (e.g. she stabbed him as he was choking her), or occurred when the perpetrator's violence was more severe (e.g. his punching/choking versus her scratching). Sometimes the issue of who is the perpetrator and who is the victim can be clarified by asking which partner is terrified by the other's behavior.

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About People causing Harm

Is domestic violence caused by the victim's behavior or relationship problems?

Focusing on the victim’s personality or behavior takes the focus off the perpetrator's responsibility for abuse. People can be in distressed relationships with difficult people without responding with violence. While some victims may have problems (e.g., substance abuse, poor communication skills, parenting difficulties), violence is not a reasonable, or a legal, response. Batterers rarely resort to violence with their employers regardless of how hard their relationship with their boss may be: they don’t feel they have the right to hurt or control their boss. Batterers go on to repeat their pattern of control in their next relationship, and the next, regardless of who their partner is.

Aren't victims of domestic violence poor and/or uneducated or belong to certain religious, ethic, or personality groups?

Victims of domestic violence are not a specific age, race, religion, economic status, educational level, or personality type.  They may or may not have had low self-esteem before they were battered. They may or may not have witnessed domestic abuse when they were a child. They may or may not be survivors of childhood abuse or abuse in a previous relationship. There is no causal link between victim characteristics and the violence.  Domestic violence is the result of the abuser's behaviors. Consequently, just as with victims of other trauma (e.g., car accidents, floods, muggings), there is no particular type of person who is battered.

Victims don't ever accept help, so what's the point of bringing it up?

Some of the victim's behaviors, e.g., her lack of confidence in her own abilities, her fear of the perpetrator, can be understood in light of the control the perpetrator has managed to enforce through isolating the victim. The perpetrator may interrogate the victim about every detail of interactions with other people and repeatedly make negative remarks about these interactions. Fear of retaliation, depression, exhaustion, fear for the safety of their helpers, and a lack of real resources such as affordable housing, childcare, transportation, and health care, easily trap victims in the abusive relationship even if they would like to separate from their partner.

Why don't victims of domestic violence just leave?

Many victims do leave, but it is not always that simple. The primary reason given by victims for staying with their abusers is fear of violence and the lack of real options to be safe with their children. This fear of violence is realistic. Research shows that domestic violence tends to escalate when victims leave their relationship. Some perpetrators repeatedly threaten to kill or seriously injure their victims should they attempt to leave the relationship. The victim may have already attempted to leave in the past, only to be tracked down by the perpetrator and seriously injured. Most perpetrators do not let victims simply leave relationships. Lack of legal assistance necessary to obtain a divorce, custody order, or a protection order; being immobilized by trauma; believing in cultural/family/religious values that encourage the maintenance of the family unit at all costs; continuing to hope and believe the perpetrator's promises to change; and being told by the perpetrator, counselors, the courts, police, ministers, family members, and friends that the violence is the victim's fault are all reasons why victims have trouble leaving.

Are victims of domestic violence passive and unwilling to help themselves?

What at first may appear to be "crazy" or inappropriate behavior on the part of the victim (e.g., repeatedly missing appointments, being afraid to use legal remedies or seek battered women's advocacy services, or wanting to return to the perpetrator in spite of severe violence) may in fact be normal reactions to a "crazy" and very frightening situation. A victim uses many different strategies to cope with and resist abuse. Such strategies include: agreeing with the perpetrator's denial and minimization of the violence in public, accepting the perpetrator's promises that it will never happen again, saying that she "still loves him," being unwilling to terminate the relationship, and doing what is asked. These strategies may appear to be the result of passivity or submission, when in reality the victim has learned that these are sometimes successful temporary means of stopping the violence. Sometimes the victim will begin to terminate the relationship by seeking assistance from the court system or social-service agencies, only to see that those systems are not effective in stopping the violence. For example, a protective order may not deter the perpetrator in communities where the police refuse to enforce the order. Where outside protection fails, the victim is forced to rely on strategies that have worked in the past.

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What age/ethnicity/religion/economic level of people who cause harm?

There is no simple profile of a person causing harm. Perpetrators of domestic violence can be found in all age, racial, socioeconomic, educational, occupational and religious groups. Perpetrators' primary commonality is their use of threats, coercion, and violence. 

Why do people cause harm?

Domestic violence is purposeful behavior. The perpetrator's pattern of abusive acts is directed at achieving compliance from or control over the victim. It is directed at limiting the independent thought and actions of the victims so that they will be devoted to fulfilling the needs and requirements of the perpetrator. 

How does someone become a person who causes harm?

Domestic violence is learned through observation and reinforcement. Violent behaviors, as well as the rules of when, where, against whom, and by whom they are to be used, are learned through observation (e.g. a child witnessing abuse of his mother by his father or seeing images of violence against women in the media) or through experiences (e.g. perpetrators not held responsible, arrested, prosecuted, or sentenced appropriately for abusiveness due to a culturally sanctioned belief that men are supposed to control their partners).

Domestic violence is reinforced by our society's major institutions: familial, social, legal, religious, educational, mental health, medical, media. There are customs that legitimize abuse as a means of controlling family members (e.g. religious institutions stating that a woman should submit to the will of her husband, laws that do not consider violence against intimates a crime, health systems that blame victims for "provoking" the violence). These practices reinforce the use of violence to control intimates by failing to hold the perpetrator responsible and by failing to protect the victim(s).  

Are people causing harm "out of control?"

Some people hit only in private while others will strike the victim in public; some will break only the victim's possessions and not their own; and others will not engage in any property destruction. Most cease the violence the second they risk being observed by law enforcement. The patterns vary from abuser to abuser. Perpetrators are making choices about what they will or will not do to the victim, where they do it, and how they do it, even when they are claiming that they "lost it" or were "out of control." Such decision-making indicates they are actually in control of their abusive behaviors.

Are people who cause harm mentally ill?

About 10-15% of people who cause harm can be diagnosed with mental illnesses, the same as the general population. People with diseases such as Alzheimer's, Huntington's chorea, or psychosis may strike out at an intimate partner. It is relatively easy to distinguish illness-based violence from domestic violence. With illness-based violence, there is usually no selection of a particular victim (whoever is present when the short circuit occurs will get attacked: e.g., health care provider, family member, friend, stranger).  The violence is not part of a pattern of coercive control. Batterers target violence to maintain control over a specific victim. 

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About Victims