Anatomy of a Violent Relationship

Some batterers are like pit bulls, other like cobras.

By Neil S. Jacobson, published March 1, 1998 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

We know surprisingly little about why so many men erupt into violence, and why they feel such a need to control their women with brutal behavior

Here, two leading marriage researchers plunge into the red hot core of domestic abuse--observing violent couples in the heat of conflict--and surface with some startling answers.

Don was having a miserable day. There were rumors of layoffs at work, and his supervisor had been on his case for coming in late. Not only was he sick of not getting credit for doing his work well, he was sure he was about to get caught in some kind of vise he could not control. Now Don was test-driving the car he had asked his wife, Martha, to pick up from the garage. As he listened to his car's motor, he knew instantly that she had been hoodwinked. That damn rattle was still there when he drove up hills! By the time he pulled into their driveway, he was so mad that he almost hit Martha's car.

"What is it with you?" Don railed as he walked into the house. "Couldn't you tell that the damn car still wasn't running right?"

Martha, who was cooking dinner, responded calmly. "Is something wrong with the car? It sounded fine to me."

"Couldn't you tell you'd been had by the garage mechanics? Are you really that stupid?" he continued.

Martha started defending herself. "Wait a minute. I may know nothing about cars, but I resent being called 'stupid.'"

Don continued railing against the mechanics and against Martha for not standing up to them. He was beginning to see red, and he warned her to shut up.

But Martha didn't shut up. "If you're such a big man, why didn't you stand up to the mechanics the last time they gypped you?"

Don punched Martha in the face--hard. It was not the first punch of their marriage. But she deserved it, he told himself as he continued to hit her and yell at her. All he had wanted, he said, was a little empathy about his problems--and here she was siding with the enemy. Only a small part of him, a dim whisper in his brain, wanted to beg her forgiveness, and by the next day he would manage to squelch even that dim light of remorse.

How does a marital argument like this, one that seems to start out in near-ordinary frustration, escalate so quickly into violence? This question had come up time and again in our work as creators of couples-therapy techniques and in our two decades as social scientists studying marriage. We knew that the existing studies of the dynamics of battering didn't provide adequate answers, because they relied on after-the-fact reports by batterers and their victims, reports which are often biased and easily distorted. Particularly with battering, abundant psychological research shows that people are simply not reliable observers of their own or their intimate partner's behavior. So we decided to do something that no one had ever done before--directly observe the arguments of violent couples ourselves.

Using a simple public service announcement asking for couples experiencing marital conflict, we were able to obtain a sample of 63 battering couples, as well as a control group of couples who were equally dissatisfied with their marriages but had no history of violence. All these volunteers agreed to come into the laboratory, have electrodes hooked up to their bodies to record heart rate and other vital signs, and be videotaped in the midst of arguments. (We also provided important safeguards, including exit interviews to ensure the woman's safety, and referrals to battered women's shelters.)

As you'll see, in the eight years of this study we made a number of myth-shattering discoveries:

o Batterers share a common profile: they are unpredictable, unable to be influenced by their wives, and impossible to prevent from battering once an argument has begun.

o Battered women are neither passive nor submissive; sometimes they are as angry as the batterers. But women almost never batter men.

o Batterers can be classified into two distinct types, men whose temper slowly simmers until it suddenly erupts into violence, and those who strike out immediately. This difference has important implications for women leaving abusive relationships.

o Emotional abuse plays a vital role in battering, undermining a woman's confidence.

o Domestic violence can decrease on its own--but it almost never stops.

o Battered women do leave at high rates, despite the increased danger they face when leaving the relationship.

Battering's Beginnings

Battering is physical aggression with a purpose: to control, intimidate, and subjugate another human being. It is always accompanied by emotional abuse, often involves injury, and virtually always causes fear in the battered woman. In our study, battering couples had at least two episodes of kicking or hitting with a fist, or at least one incident of potentially lethal violence, such as strangling.

Can women ever be batterers? In our study, we found that some battered women defend themselves, and hit or push as often as their husbands do. Some people claim that there is a huge underground movement of battered husbands. However, statistics on violent women do not take into account the impact and function of the violence. According to research conducted by Dina Vivian, Ph.D., at the State University of New York at Stonybrook, women are much more likely to be injured and in need of medical care than men, and much more likely to be killed by their husbands than the reverse. Women are the ones who are beaten up. These injuries help to sustain the fear, which is the force that provides battering with its power.

What about couples who periodically have arguments that escalate into pushing and shoving, but not beyond? We discovered large numbers of these couples, and we found that the husbands almost never become batterers. While it is important to know about this low-level violence, we were concerned with the dynamics of severely violent couples.

Arguments Under The Microscope

Through our research, we were able to reconstruct hundreds of violent arguments. Although we knew we would not directly observe violence between our subjects, we could observe their nonviolent arguments in the laboratory, ask them about these encounters, then judge their accounts of violent arguments by the accuracy of these reports.

When we put violent arguments under a microscope this way, we discovered a number of familiar themes. One of the most startling was our inability to predict when batterers would cross over into violence. While emotional abuse often preceded physical abuse, it was such a common occurrence in the relationship that it did not serve as an accurate warning sign. Further, there was no way for the battered woman to control when emotional abuse would turn into physical abuse. Martha could have shut up when Don told her to. But would this have stopped Don from hitting her? We have discovered that once an episode starts, there is nothing that the woman can do to affect its course.

Despite this inability, the women in our study did not become passive or submissive. Even when the batterers reacted to everyday requests with emotional abuse, the women typically responded calmly and assertively. We found that they wanted to inject as much normalcy into their lives as possible, and they didn't want to give up on their dream of the family life that they wanted.

However, in all the videotapes we made, never did we hear a batterer say anything like, "That's a good point," or "I never thought of that,"--comments that most married men (and women) say all the time during an argument. Instead, we observed that batterers became more aggressive when their wives asserted themselves. When Martha challenged him, we saw that Don responded violently in an attempt to maintain his dominance, no matter what the costs.

Another way that batterer's arguments diverged from those of nonviolent couples--perhaps the key difference--is that nonviolent couples have what we call "a withdrawal ritual," where at some point the escalation process stops or reverses itself. Some couples take breaks, other couples compromise, still others do both. In battering couples, the women are typically quite willing to stop at a point where they start to sense danger, but once the husbands are "activated," violence follows. Although the violence is unpredictable, we were able to identify certain warning signs. When belligerence and contempt during an argument were combined with attempts to squelch, control, or dominate a wife's behavior, that was a sign that a batterer was close to crossing the line. Don's contemptuous way of asking Martha whether she was "really that stupid," and his attempt to dominate her by telling her to shut up, demonstrate a classic prelude to battering.

Surprisingly, both in the lab and at home, battered women expressed as much belligerence and contempt as their husbands did. Like most people, battered women get angry when they are insulted and degraded. We saw much effort on the part of the women to contain their anger, but it tended to leak out anyway. Nevertheless, their initial responses--like Martha's retort to Don about not standing up to the mechanics--could hardly be considered provocations to violence.

The Slow Burn: "Pit Bulls"

Men like Don metabolize anger in kind of slow burn: it gradually increases but never lets up. We call them "Pit Bulls" because they grow more and more aggressive until they finally attack. These men, we have found, constitute about 80 percent of batterers.

Pit Bulls have unrelenting contempt for women, and yet are extremely dependent on them. This creates a unique dynamic in their behavior. In many unhappy marriages, when one partner (usually the woman) requests change, the other one (usually the man) resists change, and eventually the woman's requests become demands, and the man's avoidance becomes withdrawal. But Pit Bulls often both demand and withdraw. We can see this in the incessant demands that Don made of Martha. Everything she did (including getting the car fixed) was wrong because nothing she did was quite enough for Don. Martha had to watch every move she made, give up her friends and family, account for all of her time, avoid Don's jealousy, and try to satisfy what he called his "simple need for a little empathy." Yet even as she walked on eggshells, she was attacked for being a "stupid bitch." Don blamed Martha for his own neediness, and punished her for it almost every day they were together.

Through this scrutiny and these constant demands, Pit Bulls establish control. Control is important to these men because they genuinely feel that they will be abandoned if they do not maintain constant vigilance over their wives. One particularly sinister form of control they use is known as "gaslighting." This technique--which gets its name from the film Gaslight, in which Charles Boyer convinces Ingrid Bergman she is going insane--involves a systematic denial of the wife's experience of reality. For example, when one of our subjects slapped his wife in front of a neighbor, he denied that he had done it, telling her that this kind of behavior was inconsistent with his personality, and that her accusations of abuse came from her own disturbed mind. Although her face still hurt from the slap, she thought to herself that maybe she had made it all up. The neighbor, a friend of the husband's, went along and said he didn't see anything.

This technique of denying the woman's reality can be so effective that, when used in combination with methods to isolate the woman from other people, it causes battered women to doubt their own sanity. This is the ultimate form of abuse: to gain control of the victim's mind.

Lightning Strikes: "Cobras"

When Don and Martha started arguing, Don's heart rate would go up, he would sweat, and he'd exhibit other signs of emotional arousal. Most people show this response. However, we were astonished to find that as some batterers become more verbally aggressive, there is a decrease in heart rate. Like the cobra who becomes still and focused before striking its victim at over 100 miles an hour, these men calm themselves internally and focus their attention while striking swiftly at their wives with vicious verbal aggression.

When we separated these calm batterers from those who became internally aroused, we found other profound differences between the two groups. These Cobras--who constituted about 20 percent of our sample--were more likely to have used or threatened to use a knife or a gun on their wives, and were more severely violent than the other batterers. Only three percent of Pit Bulls had a history of extramarital violence, while 44 percent of Cobras did. And while about 33 percent of Pit Bulls qualified for a diagnosis of "antisocial personality disorder"--which includes a long history of impulsive criminal behavior, childhood episodes of lying, stealing, fire setting, and cruelty to animals--fully 90 percent of the Cobras met the criteria. Finally, even though both groups abused alcohol at high rates, Cobras were more likely to be dependent on illegal drugs, such as cocaine and heroin, and were much less emotionally attached to their wives.

George was a typical Cobra. In the year prior to entering our research project, George had threatened to kill Vicky numerous times. One night several weeks before coming to see us, George came home late after he'd been out drinking and found Vicky and their two year-old daughter Christi sharing a pizza. Vicky was angry with him for missing dinner, and ignored him when he arrived. Her silence angered him, and he shouted "You got a problem?" When she remained silent, he slammed his fist into the pizza, knocked her off the chair, dragged her across the room by her hair, held her down, and spat pizza in her face. He then beat her up, yelling, "You've ruined my life!"

The contrast between this incident and the altercation between Don and Martha over the car shows how Cobras are far more emotionally aggressive towards their wives at the start of their arguments than Pit Bulls. While Don became increasingly heated and less controlled over the course of the argument, George escalated the situation extremely rapidly, using both physical and verbal abuse in the service of control, intimidation, and subjugation. He was in Vicky's face twice as fast as she ever expected. This quick response is typical of the way Cobras control their wives--a tactic which they use because it often quiets the partner quickly and with minimal effort.

Another main difference between Cobras and Pit Bulls is that Cobras come from more chaotic family backgrounds. In our study, 78 percent of the Cobras came from violent families, compared to 51 percent of Pit Bulls. (In the population at large, 20 to 25 percent of children grow up in violent homes.) George's childhood was a classic example. He was beaten and neglected by both parents, and sexually abused by his prostitute mother's male customers. Like other Cobras, he came from a background that seriously crushed the implicit trust that every child has in his or her parents. This horrible childhood background, we believe, had somehow led the Cobras to vow to themselves that no one would ever control them again.


An astonishing 54 percent of our male volunteers showed decreases in violence during the second of two follow-up years. In fact, some men no longer met our standards for being included in our violent group. But this decrease in violence may be misleading. Once control is established over a woman through battering, perhaps it can be maintained by continued emotional abuse with intermittent battering used as a terrifying reminder of what is possible in the marriage. Cobras' violence was so severe that it may have been easier for them than for the Pit Bulls to maintain control through emotional abuse alone. Still, only seven percent of batterers in our study stopped their violence altogether in the two-year follow-up period.

We did observe several examples of husbands stopping the violence when it was unsuccessful in controlling their wives. George stopped beating Vicky as soon as she responded to his bullying with anger of her own.


Three years after our two-year follow-up, we recontacted many of the battered women and their husbands. Despite the greater incidence of mental illness, drug addiction, emotional abuse, and severe violence in Cobra relationships, the typical pattern among the Cobra couples was for the wives to be committed to the marriages. While almost half of Pit Bull marriages dissolved within two years, by the five year follow-up point, only 25 percent of women married to Cobras had left them; these women not only recognized the danger of trying to leave them, but often were quite attached to them.

Why would a woman be attached to a man as dangerous as George? Surprisingly, Vicky--like 80 percent of women married to Cobras--tested normal on our personality scales. However, she described her childhood as a "war zone" where her father would one day be absent and disengaged, and then suddenly become physically abusive toward Vicky's mother and all of the kids. She ran away from home to find a better life. And when she became pregnant by George, she tried to build her dream life. With her dashing new husband, she would finally have the home she had always wanted.

But when Vicky realized her dream of a normal, non-abusive relationship would never come to pass with George, she made the decision to leave. With Vicky and other battered women, "giving up the dream" was a pivotal step in shifting from fear to contempt and a determination to leave. Battered women need to be helped to "give up the dream" sooner, and this process should occur in conjunction with a careful safety plan and the support of an experienced helper.

Once Vicky implemented her safety plan, which included restraining orders against George and notifying his employer, the Navy, she found that George lost interest in her and went on to new pursuits. We found that Cobras will not pursue women who leave them unless it is easy and causes them little hassle to do so. But there are exceptions, and this is where help from an expert is essential.

Pit Bulls are the opposite of Cobras: easier to leave in the short run, but harder to leave in the long run. When Martha left Don and called it a trial separation, Don had little problem with it. But when she continued the separation for more than a month, he began to abuse and stalk her.

After three years of this, Martha consistently and forcefully asserted her rights. She divorced him. She hung up on him. She ended a definitive conversation with a "Fuck you!" and refused to talk to him. Don might have killed her at this time. Pit Bulls have a great capacity to minimize, deny, or distort reality, and they can often justify to themselves stalking, continued abuse, and at times even murder. But Martha got lucky Don began to leave her alone when it was clear that she would no longer be responsive to his threats. By that time, she had decided that even death was preferable to being under Don's spell.


We began this study with the goal of learning about the relationship between batterers and battered women, and we learned a great deal. We expected to focus on the men, especially when we came upon the distinction between Pit Bulls and Cobras. But during our exit interviews, we found the women in our study to be resourceful and courageous, and over time we began to realize that our work was also about the heroic struggle of battered women. These women start with a dream and truly descend into hell, and for a period of time seem stuck there. But they do not give up. They continue to struggle. Our main cause for optimism is that many of them emerge from hell and live to love again.

From When Men Batter Women: New Insights into Ending Abusive Relationships. Copyright Copyright 1998 by Neil Jacobson and John Gottman. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster.