Managing Feelings — 03 December 2011
Why do some intimate partners become physically abusive?

It is always disheartening to encounter loving pairs who report intermittent physical altercations with one another. These couples do love each other and have a shared positive view of their relationship. While some deal with the verbal and physical fights with equanimity, others are aware that these behaviors are not compatible with their essence and seek assistance in discontinuing their abusive conduct.

The two most common reasons for intimate partner violence are: alcohol and uncontrollable anger. By far, alcohol use is the major cause of intimate partner abuse. One’s social standing, education or proper upbringing is no protection from improper behavior during intoxication.

The National Crime Victimization Survey reports that “alcohol was present in 63% of intimate partner violence incidents.” These were the cases that came to the attention of law enforcement agents. The percentage is probably higher since many spouses do not seek help from the authorities.

Professor Peter Giancola, studied the “Alcohol Myopia Model,” which postulates that intoxication impairs the capacity of the drinker to process data logically and inhibits the individual’s behavioral controls – thus leading to abusive reactions. The violent behavior of the previous night is often cloudy at best and more commonly may be completely forgotten.

This study in controlled laboratory conditions concluded that “The more alcohol people drink (even those without drinking problems), the more aggressive they become.” Surprisingly, this study also found that “though there is no specific [violence] threshold, there is no evidence that people are less aggressive if they drink only a little.”

Uncontrollable anger reactions are often prompted by the aggressor’s perception of being humiliated by the spouse. The felt hurt is so intolerable that the offended person responds with verbal or even physical aggression. Here again, as in alcohol-induced violence, the perpetrator has lost both the capacity to process information well and the ability to logically monitor his/her reactions.

The importance of maintaining a beloved esteem is paramount to all partners. When a disagreement or conflict of interest occurs and one or both mates feel devalued, their fear may propel anger to escalate. When the battle of words renders no reprieve – physical violence may ensue.

According to research findings by Daniel O’Leary, “Psychological aggression by the partner accounted for approximately 50% of the later physical aggression for both males and females.” Being deeply offended, shamed or disrespected may cause one’s anger to escalate to a level prompting violent retaliation.

To prevent marital violence:

  • Abstain from any controversial discussions with your spouse when either of you has been drinking, even a small amount.
  • Avoid using discounting statements, insults or derogatory words toward your mate, even when you feel poorly treated. Remember it is your beloved!
  • When you feel disrespected, tell your spouse that the treatment you encounter is unbecoming to the fine person he/she is.
  • Leave the room/home if you face psychological aggression that may precede physical abuse.
  • Seek professional help after even one episode of physical altercation.


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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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