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What Do Professionals Need to Know?

Understanding Domestic Abusers

“Research has demonstrated that intimate partner violence [IPV] is not a unitary phenomenon.”1  Patterns of IPV discussed in this section include abuse (coercive controlling violence), responsive violence, and fights (situational couple violence). These differ in their dynamics, context, effects, the gender of the actors, and the forms of intervention required.2

In this comprehensive discussion, we cover:

  • Aspects of domestic abuse, including: 
    • dynamics,
    • abusers ’ motivations,
    • excuses for domestic abuse,
    • what the research shows about the gender of abusers, and
    • persistently criminal abusers.
  • How responsive violence and situational couple violence differ from abuse .
  • The intersection of gender and domestic abuse .
  • Implications for intervention, both by the criminal justice system and by others.

Language notes

  • The phrase, domestic violence, has multiple meanings. In research and popular writing, it is often used to refer, not just to domestic abuse, but also to fights, self-defense, and other patterns of violence between intimate partners. To avoid confusion, we will specify what kind of Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) we are discussing. When we need a general term, we use IPV.
  • We also use the words, abuser and victim only in the context of coercive controlling violence.
    • A abuser is someone who engages in a pattern of coercive control, not simply someone who physically assaults a partner.
    • A victim is someone who is the target of domestic abuse, not simply the recipient of responsive or situational violence.
  • We generally use he/she most of the time to refer to abusers, and she/he to refer to victims, to acknowledge both that anyone can be an abuser and the reality that most domestic abuse  is committed by men against women. When we report research results, pronouns reflect the gender of the individuals studied.


Next: Domestic Abuse- Coercive Controlling Violence

  1. Kelly, J.B. & Johnson, M.P. (2008) Differentiation among types of intimate partner violence: Research update & implications for interventions, Family Court Review, 46 (3), July 2008 476 –499.
  2. Separation-Instigated Violence, a fourth type identified by Kelly & Johnson, is not discussed here.