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

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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