In this series on why abusers abuse, we discussed the lust for power and how it turns into an addiction. One other idea to explore is the part an abuser’s background plays in his current behaviour.


“In a family where violence is observed by the children, but not addressed in a healthy way, little boys and girls learn perverted views of how men and women are to relate to each other.”1

“85% of men who batter their wives and 30% of their victims grew up in violent homes.”2

As has been mentioned before, we refer to the abuser as “he” because “85% of domestic violence victims are women.”3

“Abusers are made, not born.”4

“Witnessing violence between one’s parents or caretakers is the strongest risk factor of transmitting violent behaviour from one generation to the next.”5

“Boys who witness domestic violence are twice as likely to abuse their own partners and children when they become adults.”6

“Seventy five percent of boys present when their mothers are being abused develop behavioural problems and are at an increased risk of becoming abusers themselves.”7

Hurt people often hurt people

Leslie Vernick is an excellent Christian counsellor specialising in destructive marriages. She answers a different write-in question every week and this one is helpful for our topic.8

Question: The counsellor … told me that when my husband acts one way in public and different at home, it’s because he feels safe with me. My husband was physically, emotionally, and sexually abused as a child. I had no idea to what extent, but neither did I know that those experiences would hurt our marriage.

Answer: …Having empathy and compassion for the pain your husband experienced as a child is not a valid reason to continue to allow yourself to be abused or mistreated even if your counsellor says he feels “safe” with you. It’s true—hurt people often hurt people. When a child is consistently subjected to traumatic abuse throughout childhood, the basic developmental growth processes that make that child capable of healthy adult relationships become arrested. For example, we know that when a child’s primary caregiver is incapable, unwilling, or unable to regulate or absorb her infant’s distress, the child suffers extreme anxiety and as an adult he or she is unable to regulate his or her own affect (calm themselves down, name and process their feelings with compassion, modulate their anger appropriately).

Donald Dutton, who has written a book called The Batterer: A Psychological Profile, says this:

I… decided to pursue my own research into the origins of their personalities… I stumbled upon a feature I had not expected. And this clue indicated not a physiological, genetic, societal, or socially learned theory but rather a psychological basis for abuse that originated in early development… to experience some early form of trauma that has numerous effects beyond just modelling abusive actions. These effects manifest themselves globally in their sense of self, their inability to trust, their delusional jealousy, their mood cycles, their view of the world. They form what I have come to call the abusive personality… the psychological seeds of abusiveness are sown very early in life—even during infancy. The development of the abusive personality is a gradual process that builds over years… The seeds come from three distinct sources: being shamed, especially by one’s father, an insecure attachment to one’s mother and the direct experience of abusiveness of the home. No one factor is sufficient to create the abusive personality; these elements must exist simultaneously for the abusive personality to develop. They create a potential for abusiveness that is shaped and refined by later experiences, but that potential develops early in life.

John Gottman, PhD, who researched violent couples, wrote a book with Neil Jacobson, PhD, called When Men Batter Women: New Insights into Ending Abusive Relationships. He says with regard to treatment plans,

It’s not that we lack sympathy for the perpetrators of domestic violence, because their lives have often been plagued by difficulties unfathomable to most of us… However, their own traumatic histories do not render them any less responsible for the battering. Whereas these histories may help explain the battering, they do not justify it.”

In my own counselling practice I have worked with men who have been horrifically abused and have not become abusive, and I have worked with abusers who have not been traumatically abused as children… certainly trauma and early childhood development play a role in one’s future abilities to maintain healthy relationships.

What does that mean for you? You didn’t specify how your husband was abusive but I hope… your husband will get the help he needs to heal, grow, and change. However, it’s also important for you not to feel like it’s acceptable for him to continue to abuse because he’s been hurt. Abuse is abuse, whether you are the victim or the perpetrator and it’s always wrong.

Stay compassionate towards your husband’s wounds and hurt, but stay strong. It’s important that he know, “This behaviour is not acceptable and I can’t live together with you when you behave this way.” That is your best chance of helping you and helping him. [emphasis added]

Cobras and pitbulls?

Though I haven’t read the book, Amazon’s summary of the book When Men Batter Women (mentioned above) is intriguing.

After their decade of research with more than 200 couples, the authors conclude that… batterers tend to fall into one of two categories, which they call “Pit Bulls” and “Cobras.”

Pit Bulls, men whose emotions quickly boil over, are driven by deep insecurity and an unhealthy dependence on the mates whom they abuse. Pit Bulls also tend to become stalkers, unable to let go of relationships that have ended.

Cobras, on the other hand, are cool and methodical as they inflict pain and humiliation on their spouses. In one chilling discovery, the authors found that during violent arguments and physical beatings the heart rate of Cobras actually declines. Cobras have often been physically or sexually abused themselves, frequently in childhood, and tend to see violence as an unavoidable part of life.

Knowing which type a batterer is can be crucial to gauging whether an abusive relationship is salvageable (Pit Bulls can sometimes be helped through therapy) or whether the situation is beyond repair.

More proof

“Those boys who witness their fathers’ abuse of their mothers are more likely to inflict severe violence as adults. Data suggest that girls who witness maternal abuse may tolerate abuse as adults more than girls who do not. These negative effects may be diminished if the child benefits from intervention by the law and domestic violence programs.

Children grow up learning that it’s okay to hurt other people or let other people hurt them. A third of all children who see their mothers beaten develop emotional problems. Boys who see their fathers beat their mothers are ten times more likely to be abusive in their adult intimate relationships…

Children do not have to be abused themselves in order to be impacted by violence in the home.

The only answer to this problem is to treat domestic violence for what it is—a crime. We must fight the societal values that reinforce the stereotypes that encourage men to act aggressively and use violence to solve problems; that women are weak and submissive and should accept male dominance as the norm. Children must be taught at an early age non-violent conflict resolution.”9

“One in ten calls made to alert police of domestic violence is placed by a child in the home. One of every three abused children becomes an adult abuser or victim.”10


We’re told that Jesus was despised, rejected, sorrowful, acquainted with grief, wounded, and bruised too, but “with his stripes, we are healed” (Isaiah 53:3-5). Through his victory over sin and death on the cross, Jesus rescues us and wants “to heal the broken-hearted, to preach deliverance to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, and to set at liberty them that are bruised” (Luke 4:18).

“I am the Lord that heals you” (Exodus 15:26). It just takes David’s broken-hearted prayer, “Lord, be merciful to me; heal my soul, for I have sinned against You” (Psalm 41:4). Christ’s response is “I have heard your prayer. I have seen your tears. Behold, I will heal you” (Isaiah 53:5).

Though the scars remain, there is never an excuse for a sinful pattern of abuse.

You can access domestic violence resources here.

1 The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse by David Johnson and Jeff VanVonderen
2 Strauss, Gelles, and Steinmetz, Behind Closed Doors: Violence in the American Family (NY: Anchor Books, 1980)
3 Bureau of Justice Statistics Crime Data Brief, Intimate Partner Violence, 1993-2001, February 2003
4 Kay Marshall Strom, In the Name of Submission (Portlans, Oregon: Multnomah Press, 1986)
5 Frieze, I.H., Browne, A. (1989) Violence in Marriage. In L.E. Ohlin & M. H. Tonry, Family Violence. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press. Break the Cycle. (2006)
6 Strauss, Gelles, and Smith, “Physical Violence in American Families: Risk Factors and Adaptations to Violence” in 8,145 Families. Transaction Publishers 1990
8 Christ-Centred Counselling “Is a History of Abuse Doomed to Repeat Itself?”
10Battered Families… Shattered Lives,” Georgia Department of Human Resources Family Violence Manual, January 1992.
* Read one woman’s story of growing up in a dysfunctional home and what happened to her marriage at

this is part 3 of 3 in the series
Why Abusers Abuse

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About Joy Harris

Joy studied elementary education before going on to teach at the primary school level as well as homeschooling for twenty-six years. Joy has touched the lives of thousands through her ministry in state Religious Education, Sunday Schools, and Holiday Bible Clubs as well as through her speaking at various seminars and retreats. Joy is also a gifted musician and has collaborated on multiple recording projects as well as maintaining a private teaching studio for over thirty years. Joy is retired and lives in Cairns, Australia. Joy has seven children, twenty-one grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren. You can contact Joy at


  1. Lou Ann Keiser 14 July, 2014 at 11:04 pm

    Again, very good. From this post, it seems like a good idea for a dating couple to find out about the other’s home life. It may help them to deal with feelings and letting God help them BEFORE they get serious and marry. Some of those statistics were very serious. Thank you! I look forward to the next post on this subject.

    • Joy Harris 24 July, 2014 at 2:15 pm

      Good comment! “Spotting an Abuser Before You Marry One” has a concise list of red flags to look for. Just because someone hates the abusive background they grew up in and vows they will never be like that themselves, the generational cycle can only be broken if they get help to understand the foundational principles behind that destructive behaviour.

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