The factors that cause or contribute to domestic violence are complex. It’s important to remember that the only behavior you’re responsible for is your own. Likewise, a person who commits an act of violence or ongoing pattern of abuse is solely responsible for their decisions.
Why do some people become domestic abusers? The answer is complicated.
If you’ve experienced domestic abuse, you might wonder why your abuser acted the way they did. You may hope that learning about the risk factors for abuse can help you make sense of your abuser’s behavior.
Perpetrators may target their partners (called intimate partner violence), children, siblings, parents, or anyone else in their household. Approximately
While certain factors can increase the likelihood that someone will become abusive, this doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be held accountable for their behavior.
Their actions are their responsibility — and none of the blame lies with the person who is being abused or violated.
In other words, people learn to be violent from the household, community, and society that surrounds them. When people witness violence, they may model the same behavior.
With that said, it’s possible to unlearn violent behavior and break the cycle of abuse. While people may learn to be abusive from their upbringing and surroundings, the onus is still on them to treat people with respect.
Although certain factors can contribute to the likelihood that someone will become abusive, these factors aren’t excuses for abuse. Abusive behavior is a choice — the abuser’s choice.
- anger management issues
- believing they have the right to control their partner
- feelings of inferiority
- low self-esteem
While characteristics like low self-esteem may aggravate an abuser’s need for control, not all people with low self-esteem become abusive. It also doesn’t mean that they’re off the hook for their own actions.
Many abusers may blame external factors for their behavior. They may claim that their victim caused them to become abusive. Some may blame their mental health, substance use, or childhood experiences for their behavior.
But mental health conditions don’t cause violent or abusive behavior.
As the American Psychological Association (APA) notes, very few people with serious mental health conditions ultimately perpetrate violence — and when they do, it can be because the same factors that lead to mental illness (such as child abuse) also increase their propensity toward violence.
Mental illness, while challenging, is not an excuse for harming others.
Likewise, substance use disorder — which is also a mental health condition — doesn’t cause violence. But people with co-occurring substance use may have an increased risk of becoming violent, says the APA.
While some people may become more violent when they’re intoxicated, their behavior is still a choice.
According to the available
Many perpetrators of domestic violence were abused as children, or they grew up in households where abuse occurred. They may grow up believing that violence is a reasonable way to address conflict.
This can cause what’s called an intergenerational cycle of abuse: some abused people become abusers.
But, many people who are abused as children don’t become abusive. Although being abused as a child may contribute to an abuser’s worldview, it’s important to emphasize that childhood abuse is not an excuse for domestic violence.
Some research suggests that systemic inequality may contribute to domestic violence.
The CDC also notes that people are more likely to become abusive if they:
- have a low income level
- have a low education level
- experience economic stress (such as being unemployed)
Domestic abuse is more widespread in communities with:
- high rates of poverty
- low levels of educational opportunities
- high unemployment rates
- high rates of violence and crime
- low levels of community involvement
- easy access to drugs and alcohol
- weak community efforts against abuse (for example, when neighbors are unwilling to intervene when they witness violence)
With this said, it’s important to note that abusive people can come from all socio-economic brackets, neighborhoods, and cultures.
You’ll notice that the language used to share stats and other data points is pretty binary, fluctuating between the use of “male” and “female” or “men” and “women.”
Although we typically avoid language like this, specificity is key when reporting on research participants and clinical findings.
Unfortunately, the studies and surveys referenced in this article didn’t report data on, or include, participants who were transgender, nonbinary, gender nonconforming, genderqueer, agender, or genderless.
A well-studied risk factor for domestic violence and intimate partner violence is a belief in “traditional” gender roles.
Many cultures and societies believe that women should be submissive to men and that men have the right to control women.
But why is there a link between sexism and domestic abuse?
- the acceptance of violence against women
- the belief that men should be dominant in relationships
- male sexual entitlement
Gender-based economic inequality may also play a role.
A 2020 study concluded that there seems to be a link between traditional gender norms based on the male breadwinner model and intimate partner violence. This could be because women who are economically dependent on their partners may find it difficult to act against or leave abusive partners.
If you’re being abused, know that it’s not your job to “fix” your abuser or figure out why they are abusive. Their behavior is their responsibility, not yours.
Learn more from the following articles:
- Is Your Relationship Toxic? What to Look For
- Emotionally Abusive Relationships Can Be Hard to Recognize. Here’s Why
- 12 Signs You’ve Experienced Narcissistic Abuse (Plus How to Get Help)
- How to Recognize Coercive Control
- 11 Common Post-Separation Abuse Tactics
Although you may feel alone and isolated, help is available. Draw on local resources, support groups, and domestic violence shelters in order to build a support network. This can help you cope with your situation, leave your abuser, and heal in the aftermath.
You can find support here:
- The National Domestic Violence Hotline can be contacted at 800-799-7233 (SAFE). They also offer a range of helpful resources on their website.
- DomesticShelters.org can connect you with local resources and domestic violence shelters.
- Love Is Respect offers an opportunity for you to get support and learn more about abuse.
- The CDC has a list of
intimate partner violence resourceson its website.
Sian Ferguson is a freelance health and cannabis writer based in Cape Town, South Africa. She’s passionate about empowering readers to take care of their mental and physical health through science-based, empathetically delivered information.