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Why He Hits: The Psychology of an Abuser

Exploring the biological and psychological drive of abusers.

The act is simple. But everything around it is not. Fist meets flesh; force makes contact. Nerve endings fire away in pain; capillaries burst; tissues swell.

The physical mutates the moment. Violence creates as it destroys. As we know from the recent 9/11 anniversary, the axis of someone’s psyche shifts after something traumatic happens. Tomorrow is never the same. In violence’s wake, a savage creation is born. A monstrous mélange of anguish, sorrow, confusion, shame, anger—and to look upon it is to look at oneself in a shattered mirror, a grotesquerie of what you thought was love, family, intimacy.

To have that moment and its afterbirth displayed for all the world to see, the monster that thrives in the shadows and corners of personal respectability and civility, is what has finally happened with the Ray Rice incident. Thanks to the era of cell phone cameras and instant media and YouTube, the personal can no longer remain private. And while there may be something to be said for the victim’s agency in choosing when to reveal private horror to others, Janay Rice has become the unwitting, unwilling poster child for an important conversation.

Aside from the myriad discussions of an abuse victim’s behavior and the crucial #WhyIStayed Twitter feed, here I have decided to focus on the perpetrator. Because as someone who grew up with a father who committed domestic violence, it is a question that has plagued me my entire life. Why does someone you love, someone who should cherish you unconditionally, treat you or your loved one cruelly? What has gone awry in that person to become an instrument of violence, both physical, and inevitably emotional?

On some level, that question has defined my entire identity and my choice of career. Not unlike the obsessions of a driven detective searching for a murderer, or of John Wayne in the classic movie The Searchers looking for years for his kidnapped missing niece, I too have obsessed over that question. I studied literature, looking for the answers in human behavior and motivations, the nature of good and evil. I became a psychiatrist, devoted to helping people who have suffered the mental fallout from trauma, which leaves devastation in many forms, be it nightmares, isolation, depression, anxiety, self-hatred, self-destructive behaviors, and more. But I also wondered about the psyche of the aggressor, the criminal, the sociopath, who would also sometimes come under my purview.

Abusers often suffer from their own mental illnesses; a mood disorder may make them more prone to irritability and anger. Both depression and mania can manifest in heightened snappiness and quickness to attack, especially when associated with insomnia. (And in rarer severe cases, psychotic paranoia can also contribute.) Post-traumatic stress disorder (as sometimes seen in people in high-stress, high-threat careers like the military) can cause people to remain in fight-or-flight mode, leading to a chronic edginess and aggressive will to survive. An impulse control disorder may mean the person has trouble keeping wayward behaviors in check, has repetitive compulsions exacerbating stress. A traumatic brain injury or other organic brain damage (as associated often now with sports like football and boxing) may affect parts of the brain like the frontal lobe, causing disinhibition or mood changes. Addictions to substances like alcohol can also strongly exacerbate these behaviors. Some research has conjectured that testosterone can also sometimes worsen violent, antisocial, and aggressive behaviors, and adversely affect empathy.

Environment and learned behavior also contribute to abuse. Oftentimes abusers have witnessed similar behaviors in their own families, and they inevitably imitate their original role models, male or female. They may harbor severe resentment towards the gender they attack because of unresolved issues with their own parent, who may have been physically or emotionally cruel or unloving. It isn’t uncommon to end up “identifying with the aggressor,” an ego defense mechanism where you internalize the role of the powerful figure in the family, because you see abuse and dominance as power. You see this aggression as the way to behave in your later relationships and jobs, as the best way to survive, else you be the one victimized instead. Kill or be killed is the only relationship language you understand.

There is also the related issue of lack of ego strength; why would someone need to constantly control and belittle someone else to feel better about themselves? Abusers sometimes come from backgrounds where they were often belittled or grew to lack self-esteem. Usually the abuse is directed towards someone who would be considered weaker than them anyway, someone who is vulnerable, like a physically smaller female who is often younger, less educated, or less financially independent, more easily manipulated. The abuser is a secret coward, never assured of their own power, even when they stack the deck heavily in their favor. (And certainly there can be male victims of abuse as well, with even more complex forms of shame and manipulation involved.)

Yet even with these biological and psychological insights as to what renders someone vulnerable to becoming violent, I still wonder what goes awry in that key moment, where someone decides to cross that line that most of us still recognize and appropriately flinch at in revulsion. Where someone lets loose with that fist, that belt, that weapon, decides to finally pull that trigger. Sometimes I still think there is a greater moral question to be asked as well of an abuser. What is causing that blind spot, that says hitting someone is okay?

Perhaps there is a rush, a thrill that goes with the transgression. There is a perverse reward going on to the circuits, that the kill has happened. It’s not that different than other trained instincts of violence we encourage in our society: be it in video games or aggressive sports or hunting or never-ending wars. Perhaps there is still a thirst for blood that is gratifying, enjoyable, and it is a thin line to cross when it comes then to a loved one who is easily and readily accessible, easy to hide.

This line-crossing may differentiate a sociopath from the rest of us. And yes, perhaps, a level of sociopathy or psychopathy is ultimately part of the picture for an abuser; a lack of empathy, even an enjoyment of inflicting cruelty or pain, a disregard for the aftermath. Although Dr. Robert Hare, Ph.D., the psychologist who created the gold standard for diagnosing psychopathy, the Hare Psychopathy Scale, estimates that only 1% of the general population meets criteria for the official diagnosis, he has noted that higher numbers may have psychopathic traits and can be found in corporate businesses and other mainstream walks of life.

And although many may tend to consider domestic abuse as more of a “crime of passion” or less calculated than your stereotypical cold-blooded murder, that isn’t really the case. Oftentimes there is a longstanding pattern of manipulation and control inflicted by the abuser. Their tactics are not fleeting and isolated; they groom and master their victims quite skillfully; the callous bursts of violence are part of a larger campaign to dominate and emotionally cripple their victims so they lose their independence and will-power to leave. In this sense, given the high rates of domestic violence in our society (up to a third of women have been subjected to it according to a recent CDC study), the rates of sociopathic traits might be much higher than we realize.

Sure, all of us carry some capacity for cruelty or violence. Thanatos fights with eros for our souls—the age-old devil and angel chattering on our shoulders for control. Most of us keep our baser instincts in check. Circumstances and biology may make it easier for the line to be crossed, may bring you closer to the precipice. But it’s still your choice to release the monster. And it is a choice we must continue to acknowledge, to prosecute, and to vehemently condemn.

But that condemnation comes at a price we must acknowledge as well. Abusers come in all walks of life, all levels of society, and varying degrees of behavior. (There are definitely female abusers too, but we shouldn’t minimize the statistical reality that more men are prone to committing domestic violence.) They are human too, they can be loved and loving, they can do good as well as evil. It is not always so easy to “just leave” them or hate them. We should also stand back and view both abuser and victim with some compassion and appreciation of human and circumstantial complexity.

We need to continue to examine and address socioeconomic factors that contribute to abuse, such as war, poverty, stress, mental illness, violent entertainment, and other contributors to violence. We need to encourage mutual respect in society and healthy role models for relationships. We need to promote love and forgiveness as well, but part of that involves recognition of a crime, recognition of the brutality of a violent act, not denial. Only when the act is acknowledged can the healing begin.

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