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.

Domestic violence can take many forms, including physical, sexual, emotional, financial, technological, and psychological abuse.

Perpetrators may target their partners (called intimate partner violence), children, siblings, parents, or anyone else in their household. Approximately 10 million people in the United States experience domestic violence every year.

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.

The research on domestic violence suggests it’s a learned behavior.

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.

Research has noted that abusers are often driven by a need to control others.

According to studies, this may be escalated by certain personality characteristics and beliefs, such as:

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 research, people are more likely to become abusive if they’ve witnessed or experienced being abused themselves.

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 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has identified that inequality — specifically gender inequality and income inequality — can contribute to intimate partner 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.

Research shows that sexism is a contributing factor for domestic violence (and, specifically, violence against women).

Many cultures and societies believe that women should be submissive to men and that men have the right to control women.

Studies — such as this 2019 study and this 2020 study — have noted that a belief in male dominance may contribute to the belief of abusive men, especially in intimate partner violence.

But why is there a link between sexism and domestic abuse?

A 2018 study looked at how the link between violence and sexism is studied. It noted research that found links between domestic violence and:

  • 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:

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:

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.