Author: Niklas David Shelling

Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) is “physical, sexual, and emotional abuse and controlling behaviours by an intimate partner” (WHO 2012). There is a conventional wisdom that those who have been abused tend to abuse. Is this representation true? The answer: perhaps. There is some evidence to suggest a significant link between experiencing and committing abuse, though it is a link complicated by the subtleties of IPV and possible biases in research.

Abused to Abuser: ‘Cycle of Violence’ Theory

This theory describes the repetitive nature of violence, both within a relationship and across generations. In particular, the second part of the theory hypothesises that experiencing violence as a child leads individuals to act more violently in the future (The Encyclopedia of Juvenile Delinquency and Justice 2017).

There is evidence that supports this theory (Oliver 1993; Ehrensaft 2003; Gomez 2011) For instance, experiencing abuse as a child and IPV in adolescent dating has shown to be highly predictive of experiencing IPV later in life (Gómez 2011). Importantly however, this study links experiences of violence to later experiences of IPV, meaning both victimization and perpetration of IPV.

Three Reasons why the Evidence is Problematic

Firstly, as the latter study shows, the abused do not necessarily become the abuser; they may become abused again. A study of IPV victims in The Netherlands found that they were more likely to perpetrate IPV depending on their degree of post-traumatic stress, but that they were also more likely to be victims of IPV as a result (Kuijpers et. al. 2012). Moreover, the line between abuser and abused is often blurry (Anderson 2004).

Secondly, there are a number of factors that are linked to IPV, for example socioeconomic status, an individual’s say about household income, and a partner’s general behaviour (Reichel 2017). And so it is problematic for observational studies to point to one factor, such as experiences of abuse, as being the cause for IPV.

Lastly, there are biases involved in researching the effect of experiencing abuse on IPV later in life. Studies may be subject to detection bias, where certain characteristics of individuals, such as having recorded incidents of IPV in their household as a child, make it more likely that they will report IPV at a later stage (Widom et. al. 2015).


Anderson, K. L. (2002). “Perpetrator or Victim? Relationships Between Intimate Partner Violence and Well-Being.” Journal of Marriage and Family 64(4): 851–863.

Ehrensaft, M. K., Cohen, P., Brown, J., Smailes, E., Chen, H., & Johnson, J. G. (2003). “Intergenerational transmission of partner violence: A 20-year prospective study.” Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 71(4): 741–753.

Kuijpers, K. F., Knaap, L. M. van der, & Winkel, F. W. (2012). “PTSD symptoms as risk factors for intimate partner violence revictimization and the mediating role of victims’ violent behavior.” Journal of Traumatic Stress 25(2): 179–186.

Manchikanti Gómez, A. (2011). “Testing the Cycle of Violence Hypothesis: Child Abuse and Adolescent Dating Violence as Predictors of Intimate Partner Violence in Young Adulthood.” Youth & Society 43(1): 171–192.

Oliver, J. E. (1993). “Intergenerational transmission of child abuse: Rates, research, and clinical implications.” The American Journal of Psychiatry 150(9): 1315–1324.

Reichel, D. (2017). “Determinants of Intimate Partner Violence in Europe: The Role of Socioeconomic Status, Inequality, and Partner Behavior.” Journal of Interpersonal Violence 32(12): 1853–1873.

Townsend, V. (2019). “Breaking the Abuse Cycle.” The New York Times. At

Tunstall, A. M., & Gover, A. R. (2017). “Cycle of Violence.” In The Encyclopedia of Juvenile Delinquency and Justice (pp. 1–4).

WHO. “Intimate Partner Violence.” World Health Organization (2012). At;jsessionid=3F940E03189A88C9A7E4A91375DA5157?sequence=1.

Widom, C. S., Czaja, S. J., & DuMont, K. A. (2015). “Intergenerational transmission of child abuse and neglect: Real or detection bias?” Science 347(6229): 1480–1485.

Do the Abused Become Abusers?

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