What Causes Relationship Abuse

Relationship abuse is a choice and it is a learned behavior. For these reasons, it is difficult to say that relationship abuse is caused by any one single factor. However, the following beliefs and attitudes are common for abusers:

  • Sense of entitlement
  • A belief they should have power and control over their partner
  • Belief that they can get away with it
  • Learned experience that being abusive gets them what they want
  • Belief that their lives should take priority

Social forces also play a pivotal role in shaping an abuser’s values and attitudes, as well as creating an environment where abusive behavior is rewarded and unpunished. The following social forces may contribute to perpetrators’ (those that choose to harm) decision to abuse:

  • Gender-role identity – Limited definitions of “appropriate masculine behavior” that glorify aggression, violence, and dominance.
  • Family – Messages that men should have the power and make decisions in a household and/or intimate relationship (e.g. “a man’s home is his castle”)
  • Media – Portrayals of women as objects; glorification of violence and violent, coerced, and non-consensual sex; limited male and female roles.
  • Peer group – Social pressure to conform to a limited definition of masculinity, which centers on devaluing women.
  • Sports – Competition, aggression, and dominance are praised. Teammates that demonstrate sexist and/or abusive behavior are not held accountable.
  • Impunity – Many perpetrators do not face any negative repercussions for their sexist attitudes and abusive behaviors. If they are challenged, their excuses are accepted (e.g. blaming the behavior on alcohol use, stress, or being provoked by the victim)

Please see Rape Culture for more examples.

Relationship Abuse is NOT Caused By…

Research has shown that relationship abuse is NOT caused by the following factors:

Many people experience these factors and do not abuse. These are excuses perpetrators will use to justify their behavior. If the perpetrator is trying to blame their behavior on something else other than their own choice, they are not holding themselves accountable. See Frequently Asked Questions for more info on this.

Theories of Violence

Throughout history, societies around the world have systematically devalued and oppressed women. In the United States, steps to make intimate partner abuse illegal began only in the twentieth century. Many continue to see men’s violence against women as a historical problem, but the reality is that 1 in 3 women worldwide and in the United States continue to be abused and raped by a partner. It wasn’t until 1993 that marital rape was considered a crime in all 50 states. Having a common understanding of the causes of domestic violence can help communities develop more effective responses to victims and perpetrators. Such an understanding helps us to avoid offering conflicting responses that could undermine efforts to protect victims and hold batterers accountable.

Feminist Theory

  • Feminist theory sees men’s violence against women as a result of a patriarchal structure.  “Patriarchal means of control are often subtle and deeply entrenched, with the most violent forms not emerging until patriarchal control is threatened–as when individual women leave or threaten to leave relationships or groups of women assert their rights.”
    Gelles (1997) Intimate Violence in Families
  • The feminist gender politics model theory about domestic violence holds that male control over women is present in many areas, ranging from intimate relationships to economic life. Most men do not abuse women, but any man can be a perpetrator. Additionally, any woman can become a victim: there has been no specific personality trait found that makes a person more likely to experience abuse–the primary shared trait of victims is being “female.” Victims of relationship abuse are often forced to stay in those relationships because of fear, lack of support, and victim-blaming by friends and larger communities.
  • Exchange or “choice” theory builds on the feminist model, suggesting that men choose to behave abusively toward their female partners because they can get away with it and because doing so gets them what they want in the form of power and control. Ultimately, men abuse women because they can.
  • Survivor theory understands women’s behavior in abusive relationships as the development of coping strategies. Her lack of options and resources make leaving difficult, and when she seeks help, she often finds it to be inadequate. Failed attempts to leave or get help end in her returning to the abuser, and abuse may escalate.

Historical Theories of Violence

The following theories were historically offered to explain and understand gender violence. These are no longer considered accurate in the field.

  • Codependency theory suggested that victims of abuse became dependent on their abusers. This perspective on gender violence fails to recognize the power differential between men and women and wrongly pathologizes victims of violence.
  • Social learning theory stated that men became abusive because they had learned violence in their families, while women “sought out” abusive men because they saw their mothers being abused. However, many children of abusive men and brothers of violent men do NOT abuse, and women who witnessed abuse in childhood are no more likely to be abused than women who did not. Because of how common abuse is, it is possible for one woman to experience abuse from more than one source during her lifetime, but this does not mean that she is “seeking out” abuse. Ultimately, the abusive partner is the one who chooses to act violently.
  • Learned helplessness theory suggested that victims of abuse stay in abusive relationships because prolonged abuse strips them of their will to leave. In reality, abused women continually take action to protect themselves, and often women are forced to decide that staying at any given moment is often her safest option, based on the high retaliation rate.
  • Cycle of violence theory, states that abusive relationships generally consist of three phases: a tension building phase, where the abusive partner becomes irritable, controlling, and potentially verbally abusive while the woman walks on eggshells; a explosive phase, where violence is present; and a honeymoon phase, in which the abusive partner wins back the woman with flowers and apologies. This is outdated because it is not consistent with women’s experiences. Many women report that there was no gradual build-up of tension, but rather sporadic, unpredictable episodes of violence.  Additionally, others never experience a “honeymoon phase.” When they do, this is more accurately described as the “manipulation phase,” because it is a control tactic on the part of the abuser.
  • Systems theory sees abuse as simply a result of dysfunction within the relationship. This model suggests that both partners contribute to the escalation of anger.  Bograd (1984) argues that the systems theory approach is often dangerous because it ignores the power imbalance in relationship abuse and it implies that the survivor is in some way responsible for the abuse.  It is common for couples to get angry or frustrated with each other, but becoming verbally or physically abusive is always a choice.  Systems theory may be applied for common problems in a relationship, but should not be utilized in cases of relationship abuse. For more information, click here.