There are many different theories as to the causes of domestic violence. These include psychological theories that consider personality traits and mental characteristics of the perpetrator, as well as social theories which consider external factors in the perpetrator's environment, such as family structure, stress, social learning. As with many phenomena regarding human experience, no single approach appears to cover all cases.
In general, about 80% of both court-referred and self-referred men in these domestic violence studies exhibited diagnosable psychopathology, typically personality disorders. The estimate of personality disorders in the general population would be more in the 15-20% range. As violence becomes more severe and chronic in the relationship, the likelihood of psychopathology in these men approaches 100%. Psychological theories focus on personality traits and mental characteristics of the offender. Personality traits include sudden bursts of anger, poor impulse control, and poor self-esteem. Various theories suggest that psychopathology and other personality disorders are factors, and that abuse experienced as a child leads some people to be more violent as adults. Studies have found high incidence of psychopathy among abusers.
Behavioral theories draw on the work of behavior analysts. Applied behavior analysis uses the basic principles of learning theory to change behavior. Behavioral theories of domestic violence focus on the use of functional assessment with the goal of reducing episodes of violence to zero rates. This program leads to behavior therapy. Often by identifying the antecedents and consequences of violent action, the abusers can be taught self control. Recently more focus has been placed on prevention and a behavioral prevention theory.
Looks at external factors in the offender's environment, such as family structure, stress, social learning, and includes rational choice theories.
Women who are most dependent on the spouse for economic well being (e.g. homemakers/housewives, women with handicaps, the unemployed), and are the primary caregiver to their children, fear the increased financial burden if they leave their marriage. Dependency means that they have fewer options and few resources to help them cope with or change their spouse's behavior.
Couples that share power equally experience lower incidence of conflict, and when conflict does arise, are less likely to resort to violence. If one spouse desires control and power in the relationship, the spouse may resort to abuse. This may include coercion and threats, intimidation, emotional abuse, economic abuse, isolation, making light of the situation and blaming the spouse, using children (threatening to take them away), and behaving as "master of the castle".
Stress may be increased when a person is living in a family situation, with increased pressures. Social stresses, due to inadequate finances or other such problems in a family may further increase tensions. Violence is not always caused by stress, but may be one way that some people respond to stress. Families and couples in poverty may be more likely to experience domestic violence, due to increased stress and conflicts about finances and other aspects. Some speculate that poverty may hinder a man's ability to live up to his idea of "successful manhood", thus he fears losing honor and respect. Theory suggests that when he is unable to economically support his wife, and maintain control, he may turn to misogyny, substance abuse, and crime as ways to express masculinity.
Social learning theory
Social learning theory suggests that people learn from observing and modeling after others' behavior. With positive reinforcement, the behavior continues. If one observes violent behavior, one is more likely to imitate it. If there are no negative consequences (e. g. victim accepts the violence, with submission), then the behavior will likely continue. Often, violence is transmitted from generation to generation in a cyclical manner.
Power and control
In some relationships, violence is posited to arise out of a perceived need for power and control, a form of bullying and social learning of abuse.
Abusers' efforts to dominate their partners have been attributed to low self-esteem or feelings of inadequacy, unresolved childhood conflicts, the stress of poverty, hostility and resentment toward women (misogyny), hostility and resentment toward men (misandry), personality disorders, genetic tendencies and sociocultural influences, among other possible causative factors. Most authorities seem to agree that abusive personalities result from a combination of several factors, to varying degrees.
A causalist view of domestic violence is that it is a strategy to gain or maintain power and control over the victim. This view is in alignment with Bancroft's "cost-benefit" theory that abuse rewards the perpetrator in ways other than, or in addition to, simply exercising power over his or her target(s). He cites evidence in support of his argument that, in most cases, abusers are quite capable of exercising control over themselves, but choose not to do so for various reasons.
An alternative view is that abuse arises from powerlessness and externalizing/projecting this and attempting to exercise control of the victim. It is an attempt to 'gain or maintain power and control over the victim' but even in achieving this it cannot resolve the powerlessness driving it. Such behaviors have addictive aspects leading to a cycle of abuse or violence. Mutual cycles develop when each party attempts to resolve their own powerlessness in attempting to assert control.
Psychiatric disorders are sometimes associated with domestic violence, like Borderline personality disorder, Antisocial personality disorder, Bipolar disorder, Schizophrenia, Drug abuse and Alcoholism. In past medical knowledge, untreated Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder and Conduct disorders in childhood was associated with domestic violence in adulthood.
Gender aspects of abuse
Women are subjected to domestic violence more often and more severely than are men. According to a report by the United States Department of Justice, a survey of 16,000 Americans showed 22.1 percent of women and 7.4 percent of men reported being physically assaulted by a current or former spouse, cohabiting partner, boyfriend or girlfriend, or date in their lifetime.
The relationship between gender and domestic violence is, however, a controversial topic and there continues to be debate about the rates at which each gender is subjected to domestic violence and whether abused men should be provided the same resources and shelters that exist for women victims. In particular, some studies suggest that men are less likely to report being victims of domestic violence due to social stigmas. Other sources, however, argue that the rate of domestic violence against men is often inflated due to the practice of including self-defense as a form of domestic violence.
Among the persons killed by an intimate partner, about three quarters are female, and about a quarter are male: in 1999, in the US, 1,218 women and 424 men were killed by an intimate partner, regardless of which partner started the violence and of the gender of the partner. In the US, in 2005, 1181 females and 329 males were killed by their intimate partners. Women are also much more likely than men to enlist help if they wish to kill their spouse; but such multiple-offender homicides are not counted toward domestic-violence statistics.
Both men and women have been arrested and convicted of assaulting their partners in both heterosexual and homosexual relationships. The bulk of these arrests have been men being arrested for assaulting women. However, in the case of reciprocal violence, frequently only the male perpetrator is arrested. Determining how many instances of domestic violence actually involve male victims is difficult. Male domestic violence victims may be reluctant to get help for a number of reasons. Another study has demonstrated a high degree of acceptance by women of aggression against men.
Murders of female intimate partners by men have dropped, but not nearly as dramatically. Men kill their female intimate partners at about four times the rate that women kill their male intimate partners. At least two thirds of women killed by their intimate partners were battered by those men prior to the murder. Also when males are killed by female intimates, the women in those relationships had been abused by their male partner about 75% of the time.
Some researchers have found a relationship between the availability of domestic violence services, improved laws and enforcement regarding domestic violence and increased access to divorce, and higher earnings for women with declines in intimate partner homicide.
Gender of assailant
Women are much more likely than men to be murdered by an intimate partner. Of those killed by an intimate partner about three quarters are female and about a quarter are male. In 1999 in the United States 1,218 women and 424 men were killed by an intimate partner, and 1181 females and 329 males were killed by their intimate partners in 2005. Women are far more likely to use weapons in their domestic violence, whether throwing a plate or firing a gun. Women are more likely than men to enlist help if they wish to kill their spouse but such multiple-offender homicides are not counted toward domestic-violence statistics.
The National Institute of Justice states that the studies that find that women abuse men equally or even more than men abuse women are based on data compiled through the Conflict Tactics Scale, a survey tool developed in the 1970s and which may not be appropriate for intimate partner violence research because it does not measure control, coercion, or the motives for conflict tactics; it also leaves out sexual assault and violence by ex-spouses or partners and does not determine who initiated the violence. Furthermore, the NIJ contends that national surveys supported by NIJ, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Bureau of Justice Statistics that examine more serious assaults do not support the conclusion of similar rates of male and female spousal assaults. These surveys are conducted within a safety or crime context and clearly find more partner abuse by men against women.
The simple tally of violent acts is typically found to be similar in those studies that examine both directions, but some studies show that men's violence may be more serious. Men's violence may do more damage than women's; women are much more likely to be injured and/or hospitalized, wives are much more likely to be killed by their husbands than the reverse (59%-41% Dept of Justice study), and women in general are more likely to be killed by their spouse than by all other types of assailants combined.
Domestic violence also occurs in same-sex relationships. In an effort to be more inclusive, many organizations have made an effort to use gender-neutral terms when referring to perpetrator ship and victimhood.
Historically domestic violence has been seen as a family issue and little interest has been directed at violence in same-sex relationships. It has not been until recently, as the gay rights movement has brought the issues of gay and lesbian people into public attention, when research has been conducted on same-sex relationships. A 1999 analysis of nineteen studies of partner abuse concluded that "research suggests that lesbians and gay men are just as likely to abuse their partners as heterosexual men," although the study also noted the uncertain nature of much of the contemporary research in the area. Gays and lesbians, however, face special obstacles in dealing with the issues that some researchers have labeled "the double closet".
Marital conflict disorder
The American Psychiatric Association planning and research committees for the forthcoming DSM-5 (2012) have canvassed a series of new Relational disorders which include Marital Conflict Disorder Without Violence or Marital Abuse Disorder (Marital Conflict Disorder With Violence). Couples with marital disorders sometimes come to clinical attention because the couple recognize long-standing dissatisfaction with their marriage and come to the clinician on their own initiative or are referred by an astute health care professional. Secondly, there is serious violence in the marriage which is -"usually the husband battering the wife".
In these cases the emergency room or a legal authority often is the first to notify the clinician. Most importantly, marital violence "is a major risk factor for serious injury and even death and women in violent marriages are at much greater risk of being seriously injured or killed (National Advisory Council on Violence Against Women 2000)." The authors of this study add that "There is current considerable controversy over whether male-to-female marital violence is best regarded as a reflection of male psychopathology and control or whether there is an empirical base and clinical utility for conceptualizing these patterns as relational."
Recommendations for clinicians making a diagnosis of Marital Relational Disorder should include the assessment of actual or "potential" male violence as regularly as they assess the potential for suicide in depressed patients. Further, "clinicians should not relax their vigilance after a battered wife leaves her husband, because some data suggest that the period immediately following a marital separation is the period of greatest risk for the women. Many men will stalk and batter their wives in an effort to get them to return or punish them for leaving. Initial assessments of the potential for violence in a marriage can be supplemented by standardized interviews and questionnaires, which have been reliable and valid aids in exploring marital violence more systematically."
They conclude on the course of violent marriages which suggests that "over time a husband's battering may abate somewhat, but perhaps because he has successfully intimidated his wife. The risk of violence remains strong in a marriage in which it has been a feature in the past. Thus, treatment is essential here; the clinician cannot just wait and watch." The most urgent clinical priority is the protection of the wife because she is the one most frequently at risk, and clinicians must be aware that supporting assertiveness by a battered wife may lead to more beatings or even death.