Domestic Violence - Characteristics of Abusers and Victims - Part I of II


Partner abuse is a worldwide problem; between 10% and 50% of all women report having been abused by their intimate partners at some point in their lives (World Health Organization, 2001). In the US, intimate partner violence is reported by 1.5 million women and 800,000 men (Gondolf & Jones, 2002). In addition, there are many more cases that are unreported to the police, mental health professionals and even researchers. Victimization is often kept secret due to embarrassment, fear of retaliation by the perpetrator, the wish to avoid legal intrusions into their lives, and the belief that abuse is unavoidable and universal.


Abusers can be divided into three groups based on the form of abuse they commit as well as their motivation to change. These two criteria also determine whether they are amenable to intervention.

Predatory abusers are not emotionally aroused at the time of the offense but are focused and calculating in their attacks and emotionally distant from their victims (Goodrum, Umberson, & Anderson, 2001). Their abusive behavior is frequent and recurs often. They act compulsively and cause very severe physical and emotional trauma. If they express any emotion related to the abuse, it is a sadistic satisfaction derived from the suffering of another human being that follows the abuse (Mills & Kroner, 2003). Not surprisingly, predatory abusers often present with borderline personality disorder and sociopathic tendencies (Edwards, Scott, Yarvis, Paizis, & Panizzon, 2003).

Affectively motivated abusers are qualitatively different from predatory abusers in many respects. They are unlikely to present with personality disorders but often have attachment problems. Their abuse is very impulsive that follows a build-up of fear and hurt at times of high volatility and low self-restraint, usually triggered by something in their environment (Volavka, 1995). They often describe their feelings as intense anger followed by remorse for the effects of their outbursts. They are sensitive to their victim’s distress, which tempers their violence, and differentiates them from predators. The most common behaviors for affectively motivated abusers are slapping, pushing, breaking objects, slamming doors, etc. Their behavior has generally mild physical effects and more intimidation that affects victims’ self-esteem. They also experience high motivation to change as they feel remorse and empathy for their victims.

Instrumental abusers are considered to be the midrange group. They use aggression to achieve some desired outcome. Their attack is neither purely planned, nor the result of only intense emotions. Unlike predators, they are at least somewhat aware of the impact of their actions on the victims. For this group, the achievement of a personal gain is more important than their concerns for others, which results in lower motivation to change.


Abuse by one’s intimate partner is usually experienced as an overwhelming betrayal that causes great emotional pain even when the physical injury is minimal. Most often victims are denigrated by the abuse and suffer a loss of self-worth and self-confidence. They live in fear, worrying about their safety and impending danger. Sometimes they need to leave their homes in order to protect themselves and their loved ones. Even though severing ties with the abuser seems like the best solution, many victims choose to stay with the abuser for a variety of reasons. Sometimes victims do not leave because they want to provide a family for their children, depend on the abuser financially, emotionally or their religion forbids them from breaking up a marriage. Even when victims decide to leave, it takes them 5 attempts on average before they succeed (Stroshine & Robinson, 2003). Furthermore, some of the problems persist even after they leave (i.e. harassment and violence from the abuser).

Mental health professionals usually help victims decide whether to stay or leave the relationship, find shelter if they do decide to leave as well as provide training for skills necessary for independent living. Including the victims in the assessment of the abuser, however, is not a widely accepted practice. Including victims in the assessment of the abuser in some cases is the only way for therapists to gain crucial information that they can use to help victims avoid future abuse. This can be empowering for victims.

Just like abusers, victims also differ in many ways. There are two particularly important characteristics of victims that are relevant when it comes to deciding what interventions would help them best; social skills and motivation.

Social skills are critical when it comes to both leaving abusive relationships and staying with the partner but ending the abuse. Many victims who leave will need to start new independent lives often with limited resources while feeling mentally and emotionally depleted by the effects of the abuse. Self-protective skills are also necessary whether victims leave or stay to be able to prevent further injury (Thompson, Simon, Saltzman, & Mercy, 1999). Some examples of skills are the ability to be sensitive to the nuances in their partners’ behavior and to extricate themselves before a conflict escalates to abuse, and to learn to communicate and negotiate better to manage conflicts more effectively.

Motivation is also essential for a positive outcome independently of the fact whether the victim decides to leave or stay with the abuser. Ideally, victims should learn to view abuse as unacceptable and be willing to end the relationship, but in reality, this is not always the case. If motivated to do so, victims can learn to overcome learned helplessness, which leads to depression, inadequate problem solving and loss of self-esteem (Lysaker, Clements, Wright, Evans, & Marks, 2001). In certain immigrant communities that do not condone intimate partner abuse, victims can become completely isolated and will need help moving on with their lives (Raj & Silverman, 2003). In general, victims need help creating models of abuse-free relationships with or without their partners, and finding social support that can enhance their independence and self-efficacy.


Domestic Violence References

Stuart, R.B. (2005). Treatment for partner abuse: Time for a paradigm shift. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 36, 254-263.

Gondolf, E. W., & Jones, A. S. (2002). The program effect of batterer programs in three cities. Violence and Victims, 16, 693–704. 

Goodrum, S., Umberson, D., & Anderson, K. L. (2001). The batterer’s view of the self and others in domestic violence. Sociological Inquiry, 7, 221–240.

Edwards, D. W., Scott, C. L., Yarvis, R. M., Paizis, C. L., & Panizzon, M. S. (2003) Impulsiveness, impulsive aggression, personality disorder, and spousal violence. Violence and Victims, 18, 3–14.

Volavka, J. (1995). Neurobiology of violence. Washington DC: American Psychiatric Association.

Stroshine, M. S., & Robinson, A. L. (2003). The decision to end abusive relationships: The role of offender characteristics. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 30, 97–117.

Thompson, M. P., Simon, T. R., Saltzman, L. E., & Mercy, J. A. (1999). Epidemiology of injuries among women after physical assaults: The role of self-protective behaviors. American Journal of Epidemiology, 150, 235–244.

Lysaker, P. H., Clements, C. A., Wright, D. E., Evans, J., & Marks, K. (2001). Neurocognitive correlates of helplessness, hopelessness, and well-being in schizophrenia. Journal of Nervous and Mental Diseases, 180, 457–462.

Raj, A., & Silverman, J. G. (2003). Immigrant South Asian women at greater risk from intimate partner violence. American Journal of Public Health, 93, 435–437.