Why Domestic Abuse Happens

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Whether alcohol and drug use is a factor or not, domestic violence and abuse is a very serious problem—for the victims and the abusers. Although studies seem to indicate some link between alcohol/drug misuse and domestic violence, others believe that they are two separate issues.

Domestic abuse is not so much about a "loss of control" as it is about total control. Ironically, many batterers do not see themselves as perpetrators, but as victims. This reasoning is common among batterers and many have elaborate denial systems designed to justify or excuse their actions.

All About Control

There are varying theories about what makes batterers abuse those closest to them. One view is that batterers are hardened criminals who commit their crimes in a conscious, calculated manner to achieve the dominance they believe they are entitled to. Others believe abuse is the product of deep psychological and developmental scars.

Experts have reached a consensus on several common characteristics among batterers. Domestic abusers:

  • Are controlling
  • Are manipulative
  • Believe that men have a pre-ordained right to be in charge of all aspects of a relationship
  • Often see themselves as victims

Mate Retention Behaviors

For some abusers, violence is a tool to keep their intimate partner from leaving the relationship or keeping them from being unfaithful, even if it means physically forcing them to stay.

One study found that in many cases, acts of domestic violence are mate retention behaviors—that is, actions taken by one partner to try to preserve and maintain their relationship with the other partner.

As one batterer explained after going through treatment, the abuse was all about control: "I could make her do whatever I wanted. I was trying to intimidate her. I wanted to control her for the simple reason that I knew I could do it. It made me feel powerful," he suggested.

The Abuse Cycle

The issues of power and control are essential to an understanding of domestic violence. One way this is accomplished is by becoming familiar with the cycle of violence. Here is an overview of the phases:

  • Build-Up Phase: The tension builds
  • Stand-Over Phase: Verbal attacks increase
  • Explosion Phase: A violent outburst occurs
  • Remorse Phase: The abuser excuses their behavior ("You shouldn't have pushed me, it was your fault.")
  • Pursuit Phase: Promises are made ("It will never happen again, I promise.")
  • Honeymoon Phase: A brief respite before the cycle begins again ("See, we don't have any problems!")

Other Forms of Abuse

This cycle concerns actual physical abuse. It does not take into account other forms of domestic abuse that are used to control, such as:

Help for Batterers

There are very few resources available for batterers, but generally speaking, many only seek help when ordered by the courts to do so, and most states spend no tax dollars on treatment for batterers, usually offering only incarceration in jail or prison as a solution.

Putting the abuser in jail will stop the violence, but usually only temporarily since no treatment is available. The problem is, the involvement of the police and incarceration can actually trigger greater violence in some cases.

Help for Victims of Abuse

The threat of physical harm plus the economic and physical isolation they usually find themselves in makes getting help even more difficult for the victims of domestic abuse. Simply leaving can provoke more and greater violence.

If you or a loved one are a victim of domestic violence, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 for confidential assistance from trained advocates.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

4 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. MedlinePlus. Alcohol.

  2. Elmquist J, Hamel J, Shorey RC, Labrecque L, Ninnemann A, Stuart GL. Motivations for intimate partner violence in men and women arrested for domestic violence and court referred to batterer intervention programs. Partner Abuse. 2014;5(4):359-374. doi:10.1891/1946-6560.5.4.359

  3. National Center on Domestic and Sexual Violence. Understanding men who batter.

  4. Buss DM, Shackelford TK. From vigilance to violence: Mate retention tactics in married couples. J Pers Soc Psychol. 1997;72(2):346-361. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.72.2.346

By Buddy T
Buddy T is an anonymous writer and founding member of the Online Al-Anon Outreach Committee with decades of experience writing about alcoholism.