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Understanding Domestic Abusers

Common Excuses for Domestic Abuse

All abusers look for something to blame their behavior on. Common excuses that abusers give for their behavior include:

Things to remember about these excuses
  • These problems usually do not lead directly to physical violence, but even when they do, they don’t cause anyone to engage in coercive control.
  • Any of these concerns may need attention in their own right, but they do not excuse coercion and cruelty.
  • If an individual’s physical violence really results from one of these issues, not from underlying entitlement attitudes, it is likely that:
  • There will be other signs of the problem besides physical violence.
  • The individual does not feel entitled to be violent, and would stop if he/she could.
  • The pattern of behavior is very different from the pattern of coercive control. Because of this, it is misleading to label violent or aggressive behavior related to these factors “domestic violence.”
  • Family members are not specifically targeted, though they may be assaulted more often than other people simply because of their proximity to the individual.  They may need safety plans, but they rarely need to hide from the individual for their safety.
Why do these excuses work so well for abusers?
  • People who abuse their partners are skilled manipulators. Family, friends, police officers, judges and service providers get taken in and miss what is truly going on.
  • Their partners are often looking for something – anything – that will help make sense of the abusive behavior. 
  • We don’t distinguish very well between domestic abuse and responsive or situational violence.
  • We mistake correlation (two things frequently happening together) for causation (one thing causing the other). For instance, because domestic abuse and substance use often occur together, many people mistakenly assume that the substance use causes the domestic abuse  – and that attending to the substance use will stop the domestic abuse .
  • We look only at physical violence, and ignore…
    • Abusers’ non-domestic criminal histories.
    • Abusers’ attitudes of entitlement – which easily co-exist with other problems that an individual may have.
    • How abusers behave when they are not experiencing the problem (e.g.,  when they are not intoxicated or angry).
    • How abusers use their other problems – and their engagement in treatment for them – as weapons of control.
    • The social context (peer support for attributing violence to intoxication, social attitudes about male/female relationships, etc.).
Implications for Intervention

Victims may remain in a relationship with an abusive partner longer than they otherwise would, if they think their partner is “getting help.”  This can put the victim in further danger, and allow the abuser to avoid one logical result of abusive behavior – losing the relationship.

Some interventions miss the point, or frame the problem of domestic abuse  in a way that hands the abuser an additional excusefor abusive communication with their partners is often skillfully manipulative and destructive; like most people, they become skilled at doing what they value doing.  They also are good at convincing other people – including judges and therapists – to see things their way. 

  • He/she fears abandonment. When abuser’s partner tries to leave, the abuser’s behavior represents a reaction to loss of control, not just to loss of love. And he/she is likely to either quickly go on to abuse another partner, or try to get the previous partner back under control.
  • It’s a dysfunctional relationship. This phrase implies that the cause of the problem lies with both people, and unfairly requires victims to make behavior changes in order to not be abused.  But victims try all the time to do what their partners want so that they will treat them better, and abusers seldom change their behavior in return. Victims choose to leave or stay with an abusive partner, get or drop an order of protection, or cooperate with prosecution or not, but none of these can be relied on to persuade the abuser to stop his/her behavior.21,22

The bottom line is that any intervention can potentially increase the abuser’s control and further endanger the victim (e.g., couple counseling,

These excuses are not the only ones

Abusers can use any aspect of their life, or any vulnerability or difficulty their partner experiences, as plausible-sounding excuses for abusiveness.  For instance:

  • Jenny is often tired from taking care of three children and Jose’s elderly father.  Jose blames his abusive behavior on Jenny’s not paying enough attention to him.
  • Gene, a transgender man, blames his abusiveness on hormonally induced irritability and mood swings. (While hormones can affect someone in transition quite heavily until they've integrated some of their physical changes, they are not an excuse for using moodiness or angry outbursts to intimidate or control one’s partner.)
  • Ralph blames his abusiveness on the demands of taking care of his partner, Ed, who has disability.  He uses Ed’s disability to isolate him and put him down. 

Next: Excuse#1: Anger

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  1. Klein, A., Wilson, D., Crowe, A., & DeMichele, M. (2005). Evaluation of the Rhode Island Probation Specialized Domestic Violence Supervision Unit, National Institute of Justice.
  2. Buzawa, E., Hotaling, G., Klein, A. & Byrnes, J. (1999). Response to domestic violence in a pro-active court setting, Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, National Institute of Justice.