Those Who Choose to Abuse

Justin S. Holcomb
Since we've spent some time defining the reality of domestic abuse and the devastating effects this abuse has on its victims, now let's turn to the abuser. 

Who is the abuser?

As we mentioned in the last article, statistics point to the fact that the overwhelming majority of domestic violence victims are women. Conversely, the majority of documented perpetrators of domestic abuse are men. A number of studies have shown that anywhere from 22-33% of American women will be abused by an intimate partner in their lifetime.[1] This means that abusers are not only men, but men that are known by the victims. 

What do abusers do?

In the last article, we briefly discussed the abuse suffered by victims. And while it is painful to revisit some of that material, we think it helpful to review some of it from the perspective of the abuser. First, let's revisit the definition of domestic violence we provided in our first article:

Domestic violence is a pattern of coercive, controlling, or abusive behavior that is used by one individual to gain or maintain power and control over another individual in the context of an intimate relationship. This includes any behaviors that frighten, intimidate, terrorize, exploit, manipulate, hurt, humiliate, blame, injure, or wound an intimate partner.

Anne Ganley, a therapist in Seattle who writes on healing from abuse, uses the distinction between "hands-on" and "hands-off " abuse.[2] Hands-on abuse includes physical and sexual abuse. Physical abuse includes actions such as hitting, punching, kicking, slapping, and any other form of aggression that causes bodily harm.

Abusers may begin with these forms of violence to help establish the control. Once established, physical and sexual abuse may no longer be used to maintain the emotional control. A look or tone from the abuser may serve to control the victim once abuse has been established in the relationship.[3] 

In distinction from the hands-on form of abuse, there is what Ganley calls hands-off abuse. Hands-off abuse includes bullying, repeated putdowns, lies, threats (such as suicide, removing the children, hurting the children, deportation), forcing the victim to perform degrading acts (eating dinner out of the dog bowl, eating cigarettes left in an ashtray, licking the kitchen or bathroom floor), controlling the victim's activities (such as sleeping and eating habits, relationships, access to money), attacking the victim's self-esteem, denying the validity of her feelings and ideas, or intentionally frightening the victim. 

It is important to underscore that hands-off abuse is abuse. It involves psychological, verbal, and emotional violence. Frequently, victims are reluctant to call hands-off abuse what it is; and the last things abusers want is for their victims to identify their experienced hands-off abuse as "domestic violence." So a clear description of this form of abuse is needed both for victims and for those who love them.

The abuser's methods

It is common for those on the outside of the experience of domestic abuse to ask, "How in the world does this abuse begin?" If what we have described above are the actions of abuse, we need to examine how the abuser is able to accomplish this. Domestic violence is about exerting power and control. As Ann Jones and Susan Schecter explain, "What matters to the controller is not what he does but what he gains by doing it."[4] 

Abusers are exceptionally good at deceptively wielding control. They possess a well-stocked arsenal of ways to exert power over their victim. They may employ domination, humiliation, isolation, threats, intimidation, and denial. 

The abuser recasts reality to make the victim think they did something to spur him on, that the victim was too passive or too demanding, or that they are somehow, in some way, to blame for the abuse they are experiencing. As a result of such crafty manipulation, some abuse victims may be so confused by the dynamics of their relationship--and understandably so--that they need to hear stories and common experiences from others in order to make sense of their own. Some find it helpful to identify domestic abuse by understanding the common profiles of abusers and recognizing their partner among them.

Victims often need help in "breaking the spell" of the repeated and perpetual manipulation imposed on them by their abusers. Here is a question that helps in clarifying things: Does your partner do something deliberately and repeatedly that puts you down or thwarts your plans? If the person who is supposed to be providing love, support, and guidance is keeping you in a situation where you are constantly made to feel inferior, you aren't in a healthy relationship.

The abuser's damage

The effects of abuse are widespread and catastrophic--including physical, social, emotional, psychological, and spiritual damage. While some effects are, to a degree, predictable (such as sexually transmitted diseases, gynecological or pregnancy complications, depression, chronic pain, anxiety, and low self-esteem), many are not. Women who have experienced violence by an intimate partner are more likely than women who have not to experience all of the following: asthma, diabetes, irritable bowel syndrome, gastrointestinal disorders, substance abuse, suicide attempts, frequent headaches, difficulty with sleeping, activity limitations, poor physical health, and poor mental health. These consequences can lead to hospitalization, disability, and in some cases, death.[5]

Domestic violence hurts the whole person. Abusers shred their victim's sense of self-worth, crush their wills, and violate their bodies. If left untended, these effects will be ongoing, no matter how long ago the abuse happened. This is why it is important to immediately deal with those effects.


We believe leaving is a critical step for a woman in an abusive relationship, but as critical as it is, it is also dangerous. It's vital to note that the abuse may not end immediately with separation from the abuser. Over 75% of separated women suffer post-separation abuse.[6]  Not only that, but even if the separation seems at first successful, there is an on-going risk to a person once they leave an abusive relationship.

The abuser may begin to stalk and harass the woman once she has left. And then there is the emotional impact that surfaces when someone is finally out from under the abuse. However, this is also the time when the emotional support from family and friends often stops. This is why it is important to remind supporters to stick around. Approximately 75% of all domestic homicides occur while the victim is trying to leave their abuser or has just left the relationship.[7]  

How do abusers view their victims?

Lundy Bancroft, a consultant who has studied extensively the minds of abusive men writes, "Abuse grows from attitudes and values, not feelings. The roots are ownership, the trunk is entitlement, and the branches are control."[8] The issue of abuse is not only about having control of and power over someone else. The abuser uses power and control as tools to support his belief that he owns his wife or partner and that he is entitled to certain treatment.

This is why violence against women increases in cultures and countries where women are actually owned (through practices of dowry) and where issues of male entitlement run higher (e.g., machismo culture). It also explains why most abusers are male, and most victims, female: because male ownership and entitlement runs through the root of almost all societies.

Why do abusers abuse?

This brings us to the central question: Why do abusers abuse? Victims often wonder if things might improve if only they were a bit more compliant, if they had a stronger backbone, or maybe if they simply stayed out of their partner's way. But research tells another story, and it is one you need to know.

Research on domestic violence reveals that a woman's behavior actually has no bearing on the abuse. In fact, all of the factors that lead to increased or decreased violence are characteristics of the abuser, not the victim. Psychologists Neil Jacobson and John Gottman say it plainly: "There was nothing battered women could do to stop the abuse except get out of the relationship."[9] Ultimately, abusive men do not abuse because of what their partners do or do not do; they abuse because of complex internal pathologies beyond the victim's control or responsibility.[10]

While characteristics vary from person to person, all abusers share one thing in common: they choose to abuse deliberately. They may blame their behavior on their partner, an abusive childhood, stress, alcoholism, their cultural background, financial problems, or any number of other people or circumstances for their personalities. Some mistakenly believe that violence and abuse only happen because the abuser isn't able to control his behavior. Others still believe abusers do what they do because they were abused as a child, or that their behavior is dictated by mental illness. Certainly childhood issues, alcohol, drugs, mental, and other health problems may be factors of domestic abuse, but they are not the cause.

The truth is, there is only one cause for an abuser's abuse: Abusers abuse because they choose to abuse. Contrary to what some believe, abusers are able to control their behavior--they do it all the time. Here's why we believe he's in control of what he's doing. Have you ever seen him suddenly change his behavior in the middle of an abusive episode? More than that, an abuser often makes strategic decisions about the type and amount of abuse. Perpetrators have rules about how far they will go. They are selective about where they will inflict injury on a victim's body--for example, where the bruises will not be seen in public. Many abusers are also excellent at concealing their violent tendencies, putting on a charming face in public and waiting to unleash their anger and abuse only in the privacy of their own home. All of this shows abusers are quite purposeful about how and where they choose to abuse. The flip side of this is, if abusers can indeed control their actions, then perpetrators can also choose to behave respectfully toward others. The bottom line is, whether he chooses to abuse or to respect, the responsibility for his choice is his alone.

God's condemnation of abuse

There are literally hundreds of Scripture passages that condemn abuse and proclaim God's particular judgment on physical abusers.[11]  The psalmist, for example, declares God's hatred of abuse in no uncertain terms: "the wicked, those who love violence, he hates with a passion" (Ps. 11:5). What's more, He promises to judge harshly all unrepentant physical abusers (See Ps. 11:5; Prov. 1:8-19; Joel 3:19; Mic. 3:1-7; Nah. 3:1-7). He despises the plotting of injustice (Psalm 58:2). He will one day punish the violent (Zeph. 1:9). He values breaking "the chains of injustice" even more than displays of piety such as fasting (Isa. 58:4-6). And finally, He calls His people to assertively protect the abused and the vulnerable just as He does (Prov. 24:11-12; Isa. 1:17; Jer. 22:3).

God desires shalom, and His response to violence and abuse culminates in the person and work of Jesus Christ. The restoration of shalom is fully expressed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and its scope runs even deeper than the curse of evil in the world today.

Justin is an Episcopal priest and teaches theology, philosophy, and Christian thought at Gordon-Conwell-Theological Seminary and Reformed Theological Seminary. He and his wife, Lindsey, are authors of: Is It My Fault?: Hope and Healing for Those Suffering Domestic ViolenceRid of My Disgrace: Hope and Healing for Victims of Sexual Assault. Justin has written or edited numerous books: Know the Heretics (2014), Know the Creeds and Councils (2014), On the Grace of GodActs: A 12-Week Study, For the Worldand Christian Theologies of Scripture


 [1]  Helen M. Eigengerg, Women Battering in the United States: Till Death Do Us Part (Prospect Heights, Ill.: Waveland Press, 2001), 62-85. - See more at:

[2]  Anne L. Ganley, Court Mandated Counseling for Men Who Batter: A Three- Day Workshop for Mental Health Professionals (Washington, D.C.: Center for Women Policy Studies, 1981), 9. 

[3] However, the pattern in some cases is reversed--some abusers begin with hands-off abuse and escalate to hands-on abuse when the former approach is no longer effective for them to maintain power and control. Verbal abuse is one of the biggest indicators that physical abuse may follow. Much of the violence perpetrated against women by male partners is part of a systematic pattern of dominance and control, or what some researchers have called "patriarchal terrorism." See M. P. Johnson, "Patriarchal Terrorism and Common Couple Violence: Two Forms of Violence Against Women," Journal of Marriage and the Family 57 (1995): 283-94. 

[4] Ann Jones and Susan Schecter, When Loves Goes Wrong: What to Do When You Can't Do Anything Right. Strategies for Women with Controlling Partners (New York: HarperCollins, 1992), 13. 

[5] M. C. Black, K. C. Basile, M. J. Breiding, S. G. Smith, M. L. Walters, M. T. Merrick, J. Chen, and M. R. Stevens, "The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey: 2010 Summary Report," Atlanta, GA: National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2011.

[6] C. Humphreys and R. Thiara, Routes to Safety: Protection issues facing abused women and children and the role of outreach services (Women's Aid Federation of England: Bristol, 2002). This study of 200 women's experiences of domestic violence commissioned by Women's Aid, found that 60 percent of the women had left because they feared that they or their children would be killed by the perpetrator. 

[7] National Clearinghouse for the Defense of Battered Women (1994). Statistics packet (3rd ed.), Philadelphia.

[8] Lundy Bancroft, Why Does He Do That? Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 2002), 75. 

[9] Neil Jacobson and John Gottman, When Men Batter Women: New Insights into Ending Abusive Relationships (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998), 183.

[10] Steven Tracy writes, "The etiology of domestic violence is quite complex, most likely involving biological (differences in brain structure, brain functioning, and hormones), intrapsychic (personality and attachment disorders), and social construct (childhood experiences of violence) factors in men's violence against women." See "Clergy Responses to Domestic Violence," Priscilla Papers 21:2 (spring 2007): 9-16. Two of the most thorough discussions of the complex factors behind male-perpetrated domestic violence are Michele Harway and 
James M. O'Neil, eds., What Causes Men's Violence Against Women? (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1999) and Karel Kurst-Swanger and Jacqueline L. Petcosky, Violence in the Home: Multidisciplinary Perspectives (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 30-53.

[11] For a survey of some of the biblical data on physical abuse, see Catherine Clark Kroeger and Nancy Nason-Clark, No Place for Abuse: Biblical and Practical Resources to Counteract Domestic Violence (Downers Grove, IL.: InterVarsity, 2001), and Steven Tracy, Mending the Soul: Understanding and Healing Abuse (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005).