What Causes Domestic Violence Perpetrators To Behave The Way They Do?

IJMEditor’s Note: This post is a part of #ViolenceNoMore, a campaign by International Justice Mission and Youth Ki Awaaz to fight against daily violence faced by marginalised communities. Speak out against systemic violence by publishing a story here.

Are domestic violence perpetrators ‘mentally ill’?

How many women and children have lost their homes, their lives, or their sense of security because they were hurt, beaten, or broken by the very people who were meant to protect, care for or love them? How many men have wielded the power of abuse to control, dominate, weaken and break the very people they were supposed to protect?

Domestic violence; this is a very loaded term and one that can mean different things to different people. For some, it is the image of a beaten woman in the corner of a room, for others, it is the thought of a crying child hiding under a table, holding his hands over his ears. What about a strong woman silenced into submission by vicious cycles of emotional torture and manipulation or kind men who smile at strangers but who use force, intimidation and terror to control their loved ones?

Many women in our country and around the world view abuse as something to be ashamed of. They would allow themselves to suffer through endless tortures to protect their social image or the ‘sanctity’ of their marriage rather than speak out against their abusers and hold them accountable. Are they weak or are the people abusing them too strong? Where does this strength come from? The truth is that most men don’t even realise that their behaviour constitutes abuse. In India, 70% of women have suffered domestic violence and 38% of men have admitted to abusing their wives.

Many women in our country and around the world view abuse as something to be ashamed of.

When we talk about domestic violence or abuse in any form, our first instinct in most cases is to assess the emotional and mental capacity of the person upon whom these atrocities are being inflicted. This is usually because of a deep-rooted concern and drive to help people overcome the struggles they face during the course of an abusive relationship.

However, what we often forget to assess is the mental and emotional condition of the person perpetrating the violence. Why is this important, you may ask. What is the point on dwelling on the inner workings of a person who has left pain, havoc and tragedy in their wake? The answer lies in the fact that in order to truly confront any social problem we have to identify its root cause.

In India, domestic violence was properly defined only in 2005 under the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, which provides for what can be considered a vague definition that includes physical, sexual, emotional, verbal and economic abuse. For some people, this definition seems to be in contradiction with the fact that marital rape is legal in India. If our constitution allows for sexual violence against a woman within the confines of a marriage, how can it protect a woman from sexual abuse under the purview of the domestic violence act?

These and several other questions are some of the issues that come up when we try to examine domestic violence more closely. What drives another human being to hurt those he/she loves or those he/she is meant to protect or care for?

Is Domestic Violence Linked To Mental Illness?

Are physically and verbally abusive people (always) afflicted by mental illness?

And very importantly, where do we draw the line between what is a pervasive pattern of manipulative, selfish and destructive behaviour (which can probably not be altered even through appropriate intervention) and what constitutes a series of symptoms associated with a larger mental health condition (which could potentially be addressed via psychological or psychiatric intervention)?

According to data from the National Family Health Survey, every third woman since the age of 15 has faced different forms of domestic violence in our country. But, we don’t really have to look at national statistics to seek out cases of domestic violence in India. Many of us just need to talk to people in our lives to hear stories of pain and suffering.

From our family, friends and neighbours to our colleagues or maids, we have all seen or heard about instances of domestic violence and witnessed the often tragic consequences of mindless rage. The one thing that baffles me every time is, why does the abuser lose all control? Is he/she a bad person? Is he/she emotionally unstable?

I realise that by asking the question are domestic violence perpetrators mentally ill, I am trying to come to a rational conclusion about an extremely irrational form of behaviour. However, I do believe that taking a closer look at the inner workings of the mind of a perpetrator can unleash useful information about why people abuse and most importantly, how they can change.

Every time I think I’ve stumbled upon the answer, and I begin to make assumptions about the mental stability of a perpetrator or the financial standing of a person who has reached a point of frustration and anger that drives him/her to lash out at family members, I confront a new type of person who appears to be kind, good-natured, emotionally and financially stable, but yet unable to control his/her expressions of anger; ultimately hurting, manipulating or abusing those closest to him/her. I’ve been on this merry-go-round for decades now, still questioning, still wondering, why do some people become abusive?

Why do some people become abusive?

In my journey of uncovering answers, I have attempted to look at various sources of information, from Google searches and credible journals to UN reports, conversations with experts and introspection of personal experiences: I see a sort of trend emerging. Domestic violence perpetrators are not classified as having one single disorder but rather an array of pervasive behaviour or emotional patterns that drive their personality and make them abusive.

According to Sarah Khan, a Psychologist who is currently pursuing her PhD at KEM hospital, Pune, the onset of domestic violence, like a lot of disorders, is insidious. Having been at the receiving end of an abusive partner, she believes that rather than classifying this behaviour into a single disorder, such people have some very strong needs like the need for dominance or to be in control. And these may be at the trait level, thus indicating a possible link to one’s personality more than a mental health condition. Also, she suggests, another reason for not classifying these behaviours into a single disorder is because these individuals must be suffering from some underlying disorder—depression or anxiety. She adds that for such individuals, communication is more often than not one way and they have a constant need to prove themselves right. In her opinion, such needs, combined with underlying mental health issues (which may or may not exist) may help us to understand the concept better.

From a sociological standpoint, domestic violence has always been looked upon as a social evil and been dealt with accordingly. In this regard, researchers, sociologists, and policymakers have identified several social constructs that have played a pivotal role in the perpetuation of domestic violence—gender inequality supported by archaic traditions and religious dogma, patriarchal families and social systems, and polarised financial control are some of the social constructs that have identified as contributing factors to domestic violence in India.

Additionally, some of the people I have spoken to about this assume that domestic violence is more common among families with lower economic status, and the abuse results from financial difficulties or cultural systems that support the rights of men over women. However, we must consider that domestic violence occurs across all classes and sections of society; it does not discriminate on the basis of class, religion, social background or profession.

In spite of the multitude of social investigations and social views into the matter, we still don’t have a plausible explanation for why certain individuals are more prone to violence or abuse and why others who are subjected to the same social conditions do not use emotional or physical abuse as a means of control or expression. Simply put, why do some men/women resort to violence when others are able to control or thwart violent instincts?

What Psychological Research Tells Us About Violence

Interestingly enough, (or rather disappointingly), there is limited research that explains whether there is a link between domestic abuse perpetrators and mental health. It could be that many experts feel assigning a mental illness to someone with aggressive tendencies might excuse their behaviour by adding it under the umbrella of diagnosable mental or emotional conditions.

If we fail to investigate why a person chooses to abuse can we ever really curb domestic violence?

According to Dr. Rajesh Dhume, Senior Psychiatrist, Govt. of Goa, District Hospital Mapusa, assigning a mental health illness to domestic violence perpetrators may legitimise their abnormal actions and human right violations of others as a mere expression of mental illness. While there is a lot of truth to this, the question that still begs an answer is – if we fail to investigate why a person chooses to abuse can we ever really curb domestic violence?

Since domestic violence perpetrators often use aggression in their outward expression – it is fair to assume that research on aggression might provide some answers. It is important to keep in mind that not all domestic violence perpetrators are necessarily outwardly aggressive, and therefore these theories largely apply to physical aggression or aggression that manifests in a distinct outward expression.

Psychological Theories about Aggression

Is aggression an instinct? Sigmund Freud, history’s most famous Psychoanalyst proposed the Instinct Theory of Aggression decades ago, and according to him, human beings are driven by two instincts – the drive for aggression or the death instinct (Thanatos) and the drive for pleasure (Eros) or the life instinct. Thanatos is considered the force of death or destruction and it directs energy towards the destruction of life, towards hatred, anger and violence and towards different forms of aggressive feelings and behaviours.

His theory postulates that all human behaviour, including aggression, is a result of the complex interaction between these two instincts and the constant rivalry between them.

But, why does the death instinct cause people to harm or dominate others? Freud explained that all humans have an instinctive desire towards death and when this energy is directed outwards towards other people, it is expressed as violence. He believed that people reenact traumatic experiences in their lives as a ‘repetition’ of what they have gone through in the past; often not realising their behaviour stems from past incidents of violence or trauma.

This theory has been largely invalidated by contemporary psychologists working in the area of frustration and aggression; they believe that aggression is not instinctive, but rather it is a reaction to the frustration of basic urges experienced during early childhood period or that aggression is a learned social behaviour.

Can Frustration Cause Extreme Aggression?

The frustration-aggression hypothesis put forward by psychologists Miller and Dollard in their book “Frustration and Aggression” suggests that frustration occurs when a person’s goals are thwarted when their self-esteem is threatened, or when important motives are denied and subsequently, this can lead to aggressive behaviours in some people.

This theory offers an interesting point of view because it suggests that aggression is not necessarily the obvious reaction to frustration. For example, the psychologists make the claim that women experience more frustration in societies throughout the world, but they are relatively less aggressive than men—possibly due to their biological makeup or social learning.

Furthermore, these psychologists have pointed out that frustration has produced several other reactions like submission, regression, repression, projection, displacement, withdrawal reaction and other defence mechanisms to deal with experiences that cause unease or unrest.

This throws light on an important question about domestic violence – why certain individuals are more prone to violence or abuse and why others who are subjected to the same social conditions do not use emotional or physical abuse as a means of control or expression. Simply put, why do some men/women resort to violence when others are able to control or thwart violent instincts or behaviours?

Imitation as a tool for learning aggressive behaviour: Social psychologist, Albert Bandura, believes that aggression is learned or more precisely, imitated. He conducted a study called the Bobo Doll Study, in which children were exposed to aggressive behaviours in different settings. The findings of this experiment led to the emergence of the Social Learning Theory which suggests that observational learning plays an important role in how children learn behaviours, including aggression.

Could this mean that individuals who have witnessed violence in their own lives are more likely to become violent? Does Violence breed violence? Research suggests the answer is Yes!

But, in spite of these illuminating theories, the question still remains, does mental illness spark violent traits in people? More specifically, is domestic violence a result of a deeper mental health condition?

What is concerning is that aggression by itself has not been classified as a deviation from normal patterns of behaviour and has not been listed categorically in any psychiatric diagnostic manuals.

Does this mean that perpetrators of domestic violence are just evil people with no sense of empathy? Is it a personality dynamic that is deeply entrenched in a human being who is incapable of controlling his emotions leading him to hurt, manipulate and abuse those around him?

Googling The Problem

If you do a Google search and refer to some of the top ranking mental health websites, many of them will point to an array of factors that cause aggressive behaviours—these range from conditions such as autism spectrum disorder conditions, bipolar disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) to intermittent explosive disorder, schizophrenia or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The sad truth is that when violence is associated with any of these conditions it creates more stigma and discrimination than actual meaningful solutions to the problem. People view the mentally ill as threatening and dangerous which perpetuates the idea that they need to be treated with less respect or dignity.

It is important to remember that even when violence is associated with these mental health conditions, it does not necessarily manifest in the form of domestic violence and with proper treatment and intervention aggressive tendencies are kept in check.

So, attributing domestic violence to any of these mental health conditions does not do justice to the issue at hand and neither does it help the narrative surrounding the mentally ill.

Ultimately, the question what causes domestic violence perpetrators to behave the way they do seems to be largely unanswered by research. Some theories and experts do suggest that early childhood trauma or abuse can lead to personality developments that make a person more inclined towards manipulative behaviours and unhealthy emotional outbursts.

According to Dr. Rajesh Dhume, “Some of them (domestic violence perpetrators) have mental illness and some of them have themselves been victims of abuse. Here, abuse could be an abnormal psychological payback or even assume an abnormal personality disorder.”

Psychologist, Sarah Khan, says “To say that abuse is more than a single disorder is also because it seems very difficult to quantify it. And unlike other disorders, two parties are directly involved. So here, to make it a disorder, we have to quantify the perpetrators, as well as the victims, hurt/guilt/sadness/anxiety etc. In other disorders, family members do get affected, but not because they are the victim. And so, the equation changes completely.”

How Can We Tackle Domestic Violence In India?

Most programmes that are designed to tackle domestic violence focus solely on rehabilitating the afflicted person – while this is an absolute necessity- very little is being done in India or globally to address the perpetrators. Should the government invest in programmes that investigate not only the causes but also the possible interventions to deal with domestic violence perpetrators?

According to a UN report, some political leaders (In India) are not fully committed to the process of legal and social change as regards to women’s human rights. This is deeply upsetting considering the rate of domestic violence cases in our country and the far-reaching consequences on the entire family who suffers through such abuses.

Let’s take a look at the numbers:

According to the National Family Health Survey:

  • A majority of domestic violence perpetrators in India are husbands.
  • 31% of married women have experienced physical, emotional, or sexual violence by their husbands.
  • The most common form of violence is physical, (27%), and emotional violence (13%).
  • In unmarried women, violence comes from mothers or step-mothers (56%), fathers or step-fathers (33%), sisters or brothers (27%) and teachers (15%).

Almost none of the reports I read while researching this article talked about the causes of domestic violence in the context of the men or women who perpetuate violence. It seems as if all our efforts are concentrated on creating programmes to provide relief after the crime has occurred, after the die is cast, once the shadow of fear and insecurity follows the victims around for the rest of their lives.

Below, I have listed three ways in which we can begin to change the situation by looking at the other half of this issue – the perpetrators. Let’s not sit around and wait for the next women to be attacked, the next child to be traumatised, the next bone to break. Let’s instead focus some of our energy on preventing pain and suffering, avoiding more violence, and confronting the cause rather than the result of domestic violence.

I won’t go into too much detail of each, however, I will touch upon the logic behind each suggestion and the value it could bring to the table.

1. Education beyond awareness

In recent times, India has been spending a mammoth amount on publicity and awareness of a number of government schemes. Whether the government is passionate about reaching the masses via stupendous amounts of advertising or hell-bent on promoting itself, is not clear, but it has become obvious that the term ‘awareness’ is a favourite amongst not only government bodies, but activists alike.

We can prevent the development of aggressive forms of expression by introducing the concept of healthy emotional expression from a young age.

Unfortunately, real impact is not measured by how many people read or become aware of a scheme – but by how many people actually benefitted or learnt something from it. If we want to plant the seed of change when it comes to domestic violence we must incorporate gender sensitization lessons into educational curriculums. This type of education should not be limited to the school level, but continue throughout college and into workplaces in all sectors.

Just as we have made it a point to include history and civics as subjects to ensure our kids know who Shivaji Maharaj is and what the Indian constitution stands for, similarly, we should be more committed to teaching children about how to treat each other. Perhaps we can prevent the development of aggressive forms of expression by introducing the concept of healthy emotional expression from a young age.

2. Government sanctioned programmes and directives

It took the Indian Government almost 60 years after Independence to formulate a law that deals with domestic violence. It’s about time we developed other initiatives and programmes that work with perpetrators and identify ways to rehabilitate and educate them. Social, political and religious factors contributing to the problem need to be identified and dealt with head-on. How much longer do we want to be a country that supports systems that violate women’s rights?

3. Psychological and Psychiatric Acknowledgement

One of the key ways to affect real change with regard to domestic violence would be to research the issue from the perpetrator’s point of view. According to Psychologist Sarah Khan, it is definitely possible to work with such individuals and break the cycle of abuse. And Dr Rajesh Dhume believes that psychotic abusive behaviour stemming out of mental illness is treatable. However, aggression or abuse perpetrated as a personality attribute may not be.

While research has provided theories and possible explanations for violence or aggression, this has been done in isolation – by investigating these traits individually and not within the larger context of domestic violence. The need of the hour is to investigate violent behaviour and unearth the potential psychological and neurological elements that contribute to this pattern of behaviour.

At the very least, let’s not shy away from talking about domestic violence and what causes people to become abusive, let’s break the taboo surrounding the issue, and let’s not bow our heads in disgrace at incidents of domestic violence. The only really disgraceful thing is pretending the problem is going to disappear by believing it doesn’t exist. According to a Reuter’s survey, India is the most dangerous country in the world to be a woman. Can we ignore this? In India, every 9 minutes a woman is subjected to cruelty by a loved one – what will you do for the next 9 minutes?

What policy reforms do you think would help eliminate instances of daily violence and improve access to justice in India? Send us your suggestions and we’ll take a manifesto to the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment. Let’s spark the change together!

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Find out more about her campaign here.

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