Domestic Violence – Understanding is Getting More Nuanced

A few years ago I brain blogged about domestic violence (DV), focusing on how ideology, politics, and stereotypes were interfering with an effective social response. It got a big response, almost entirely supportive. At that time, the tide was turning because of lawsuits and a preponderance of research that were beginning to overwhelm the dominance of old-school DV responses.

For example, it was becoming clear that roughly half of DV comes from women, there is a wide range of perpetrators, the majority of DV is mutual fighting, and current “treatment” (the Duluth model) is not effective, unless more modern intervention is sneaked into the mix. (Or maybe patriarchal conspirators are sneaking into lesbian households, starting a fight, and then sneaking back out before the police arrive.) Various dynamics were beginning to humanize violent people, including a huge spike in arrests of women for domestic violence. It was easier to demonize perps when the archetype was all hetero male.

Let’s look at the latest insights that have been building beyond the key points that men’s advocates have been pressing. This post is about antisocial personality and genetics in intimate partner violence.

Antisocial personalities (sociopaths) are the people that best match the stereotype of the DV perpetrator: violent and controlling. They have become the perp poster child because they elicit the most sympathy (and funding) for women, they create the strongest need for abused women to seek shelter, and they constitute the most dangerous and invasive profile. However, there are some inconvenient differences between the antisocial men and the patriarchal stereotype. They are not an expression of the patriarchy that feminists have blamed DV on, even though they may blurt out some patriarchal ideas as they grasp for some way to justify their behavior. Sociopaths have a limitless capacity to rationalize and blame; and they don’t suffer from the burden of being consistent or rational.

Other than the convenience of taking Marxist theory and substituting patriarchy for capitalism, there isn’t a lot of support for the idea of pervasive patriarchy in western societies. These antisocial types are not only violent with their partners; they tend to have a history of violence and criminal behavior outside of their domicile. Alcohol and other drugs often contribute to the violence, crime, and other chaos. But then, boozy households are more likely to have violence, including mutual violence, regardless of whether there’s a sociopath in the house.

Much has been made of research connecting childhood exposure to violence with later violent behavior in adulthood. The connection is there, but not as strong as people think. Old school feminist ideologues are highly motivated to ignore genetics and stress learning, childhood abuse, and patriarchy (while stressing that childhood abuse is no excuse), but genetics researchers point to a very strong genetic basis for antisocial personality. A meta-analysis published last year concluded that 56% of variance in antisocial personality was accounted for by genetic influences. We also know that childhood events trigger genetic change in individuals (epigenetic change) that can dramatically alter the course of their mental health over the lifespan.

So when we say that violence in childhood causes violent adults, we should also point out that violence in childhood (from biological parents) is an indication that the child may have violent genetics. At this point, it appears that the genetics takes the lion’s share of the credit. However, genetics as triggered by childhood stressors (epigenetics) may turn out to be the more powerful blend, because we are realizing that we have to think in terms of vulnerability profiles, rather than think species wide in assessing the effects of stress.

Perhaps we will be able to get a genetic test one day that will tell us what stresses are most important for each of us to avoid. We also know that it’s getting more complicated, in that genetic vulnerabilities appear to come in combinations. In other words, there are numerous illnesses (including psychiatric problems) that appear in heightened quantities in vulnerable families. Only certain problems are the result of passing on a single genetic vulnerability. Science is tasked with nailing down the difference (or spectrum) between these two types of problems: The specific disorder that is passed down (such as sickle cell anemia), versus the vulnerability to a variety of problems.

According to Ferguson, geneticists’ desire not to be contaminated by controversial and hard-to-substantiate theories of evolutionary psychology has slowed the integration of genetic and evolutionary theory regarding human behavior. At the same time, evolutionary psychologists have not used genetics to its potential because of a desire to focus on natural selection rather than more proximal effects on behavior, as well as to focus on more general (species-wide) traits at the expense of looking at genetic differences. And then, there is a general allergy to anything that might be conflated with racism or eugenics. Be as objective as you want, but touch certain topics and suddenly your a woman-hating KKK Nazi. After all, people tend to think in stereotypes, and stereotypes are easily triggered.


Ferguson, C. (2010). Genetic Contributions to Antisocial Personality and Behavior: A Meta-Analytic Review From an Evolutionary Perspective The Journal of Social Psychology, 150 (2), 160-180 DOI: 10.1080/00224540903366503

  • At some point this post stopped being about domestic violence and started being a disagreement with feminists, and while I’m not an adherent of the feminist take on DV, I lost interest at that point. It speaks to a loss of perspective on your part. Also: “your a woman-hating KKK Nazi” – really?

    • I’m not exactly married to using the phrase (old school feminist ideologue), but I should mention this in defense of it:

      I was making an important point: There is resistance to a more nuanced understanding, and it comes from (among other places) folks that do not represent the more balanced and modern feminist thinking. (And to avoid confusion, I should have said that outright). So no swipe at feminism in general was intended. Ideology and real thinking are two different things.

      Not very long ago, I wrote a men’s rights fellow about his stereotyping of feminists, trying to point out to him that he was damaging his credibility and was thinking in stereotypes. He writes that they are all “redfems” that want to destroy families and turn baby making into some kind of socialist state-run factory. You should see the high-handed response I got from him. So please, don’t believe for a minute that I don’t have a more nuanced understanding of feminism than that.

      But it is important to recognize why some feminist writing and ginned up statistics are so different from other feminist writing. It is important to recognize the harm that has come from the politics and ideology of early feminism because it continues to take a toll. (And no, I’m not oblivious to the conditions that require an organized response from advocates for women’s rights).

      And the “woman-hating, etc” comment was a clumsy way of saying that people will jump to conclusions when you address certain subjects (like the percentage of DV that is mutual fighting or female-perpetrated) and call you names. I have a friend (female) that still has to deal with abuse from the “old school” ideologues because her DV program takes a more modern approach.

  • Sierra Nevada

    A nuanced understanding. But I’m confused, is it the existence or heritability of sociopathy in DV perps or the proves the non existence of patriarchy? I’m missing the nuance involved in the syllogism maybe.

    And as commenter Reeders notes above, this is a real gem: “Be as objective as you want, but touch certain topics and suddenly your a woman-hating KKK Nazi.”

    It isn’t the putative objectivity of some assertions in which the women-hate inheres. The smell of misogyny usually issues from a different, but no less pungent source.

    • I think the issues are too much in flux and multifactorial to warrant an outright syllogism. I think the lack of support for patriarchy as a pervasive dynamic in DV was well-established before the neuroscience came along to put more nails in its coffin. I think the complexity in how men and women are interfered with by various cultural norms and social institutional dynamics is well recognized now, and this has lead to a much richer exploration of how to help everyone realize their potential and seek justice. I think we can see this in research and practice, as well as in emerging social policy and case law. The times they are a changing.

      • Sierra Nevada

        So neuroscience can disprove the existence of pervasive social dynamics? I guess I am going to call b.s. on that. Cite source please.

        Give me a call when neuroscience proves the existence of a female president of the United States. Last I checked the data, team patriarchy was on an inexplicable 44-0 winning streak, but maybe CT scans of voter’s brains will prove that women who vote against their interests are just like female DV perps. You know, participating in a system in which domination and violence are the coin of the realm. If only there were a name for such a social system…

  • I must agree with Reeders. Your post is about two things: domestic violence, and taking a swipe at feminists. Your prose would be better if you were upfront about your intentions, and weaved your arguments together.

    As for Nevada’s comment — it seems that she has accused you of hating women. (Doesn’t misandry smell just like misogyny.) This type of reaction is predictable. Righteous indignation, disapproval, and guilt trips are social weapons used by a feedback-free discipline. There is no point trying to engage it. After-all, one hears what they want to hear, and disregards the rest, and that is just the human condition.

    As for DV: 2nd/3rd wave feminist theory has probably stunted our understanding, and misdirected our best effects to deal with the problem. This is a tragedy, and somewhat ironic. If /some/ feminists don’t want to hear about genetic and biological factors (which most classroom feminists don’t), then there is nothing to be done. You cannot force someone to listen. Sometime in the future, there will be a scientific revolution in psychology. The foundation of that will be good science today. So focus on that, and forget the social constructionists.

    • Sierra Nevada

      She has done no such thing. He has simply pointed out the irony involved in claims of objectivity attached to sentences so dripping with hate for one’s ideological opponents.

      • Then he has internalized misandry. Feminist literature is full of it, and I find a certain level is acceptable, because chauvinism is simply part of the human condition.

        The frustration with the nature-nurture debate is similar to debating climate deniers. Same psychological mechanisms. Same raised types of raised shouting voices. Just different content — that’s all.

        • Sierra Nevada

          Internalized misandry? Whateva. More evidence-free dribble.

          Again, from the article, for emphasis:

          “Be as objective as you want, but touch certain topics and suddenly your a woman-hating KKK Nazi. After all, people tend to think in stereotypes, and stereotypes are easily triggered.”

          Translation: “Those nasty stereotypical feminists, how dare they create a stereotyped caricature of my position! I hate it when stereotypical people stereotype!”

          And this portion of your comment is a real gem: “The frustration with the nature-nurture debate is similar to debating climate deniers. Same psychological mechanisms. Same raised types of raised shouting voices. Just different content — that’s all.”

          Notice the attempt to connect the stereotype of a held position in a social psychology debate with a held position in the climate debate. No evidence or reasoning brought to bear to make the connection, just an insinuating rhetorical ploy to try to use the power of an existing stereotype to render another’s position as unreasonable and shrill. Interesting “psychological mechanism,” dude.

          • The moderate position in the nature-nurture debacle is instantly portrayed as some type of extremism. Steven Pinker wrote a book on it called “The Blank Slate”. Try reading some of the commentary on it — you will see purely political arguments made against academic. It seems to me that social constructionism (in its current form) is maintained by the mechanisms of group-think. Hence the same psychological mechanisms of climate denial.

            Read /around/ the debate, and enjoy =)

  • In the second last sentence, you made a typo: “and suddenly {your} a woman-hating KKK Nazi.” It should read, “you’re” as it is a contraction of “you” and “are”. If someone with a liberal arts education was already convinced that you were a “a woman-hating KKK Nazi”, any grammatical/spelling errors would tend to support their belief that people who share your beliefs are stupid. Yes?

    Nonetheless, it’s a good article! Nice to see a fellow Conscientious Egalitarian with some science to back him up.

  • What about role of epigenetics in violent behavior……?

    • I think it’s going to be very important. Thus we are better understanding nature and nurture (not nature vs. nurture). The insights into the genetic effects of stress (and the subtypes of stress that are the most harmful) along with the growing insights into subgroups with identifiable vulnerabilities is the beginning of a revolution in mental health that has tremendous social policy and clinical implications.

  • Nuance requires we consider that there are multiple causes of violence and therefore multiple solutions. I’m glad to see you draw attention to aspects of domestic violence that do not fit into the patriarchy model.

    On the other hand, I fear you yourself have sunk into narrow logic when you suggest that abusive male domestic partners are simply blurting out “some patriarchal ideas as they grasp for some way to justify their behavior.”

    Culture does impact behavior. A year or so ago, Afghanistan passed a law that entitled men to withhold food from their spouses if they refused to have sex. ( In many countries that would be considered abusive, but in parts of Afghanistan, starving your wife is apparently a right, rather than a form of abuse.

    It is also true that changing cultural attitudes can reduce the level of violence within those communities. A media campaign in New Zealand found that the campaign motivated both victims and agressors to seek help, as well as changing public levels of acceptance of domestic violence. (see

    Cultural mores also affect the ability of bystanders to intervene. In societies where the husband is believed to have the right to batter their spouse, it is not uncommon for abused women to be told to return to their husbands rather than being given shelter from the abuse.

    Cultural mores also affect the availability of support services for victims. The poor level of services for male domestic abuse victims I think is evidence of the impact of social attitudes on support systems.

    • It is not a question of whether culture affects behaviour or not. No-one is disputing that. The problem is, that one cannot talk about anything /besides/ cultural causes, without an obligatory “you’re forgetting about culture!” Any mention of biological causes is painted as (ironically) some sort of extremism — even if culture is mentioned in the same sentence. Don’t believe me? Try it for yourself, and see what happens.

      The myopia towards the natural component and interaction of behaviour has made social constructionist theories a house of cards, and /thwarted/ our best efforts to understand (and treat) problems such as domestic violence. Self-defeating.

    • I’m always amazed at the things people say I’m saying. Now I’m denying the impact of culture! Holy cow. The fact that awareness campaigns get people to seek help doesn’t mean that the culture has pervasive patriarchy. The fact that you had to talk about patriarchy in Afghanistan supports my point.

  • Michael Jell

    Domestic violence as its name defined it is the struggle in which the intimate partners &couples and family members are being caught up. Others may say it as domestic abuse. Domestic violence is perpetrated by, and on, both men and women. It shouldn’t be a one sided story.

  • Agree with you. Now Social Violence has changed into Domestic. someone have to prevent these vulgar Violence. nice post !!

Robert A. Yourell, MA

Robert A. Yourell, MA, has extensive experience in the mental health and social services dating back to 1975. His training includes Ericksonian communication and hypnosis with John Grinder, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing with Francine Shapiro, PhD, Body Integrative Psychotherapy with Jack Rosenberg, PhD, and solution-focused psychotherapy. He provides free audio experiences on his site that include bilateral sound and Shimmering.

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