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Author: Jennifer Pfister

In this context, a perpetrator or offender refers to an intimate partner who uses psychological, physical or sexual violence against their partner (WHO 2012). In the Netherlands, 83 percent of all perpetrators of domestic violence are male (Government of The Netherlands 2011). Surprisingly, in most cases of IPV the line between perpetrator and victim is blurred – relationships are often dynamic and both partners can take on the role of perpetrator and victim (De Beaufort-Eliens 2018).

Why are individuals violent towards their partners?

The factors that lead a partner to use violence against their significant other vary and depend heavily on individual circumstances. There are however, several factors that may increase an individual’s risk of becoming a perpetrator of IPV (WHO 2012).

One of the most common causes of abuse is the experience of trauma or violence in the perpetrator’s personal history (WHO 2012). The explanation goes as follows: As social animals, humans learn through observational learning. If someone observes violent behavior from a young age at home, they are more likely to repeat such behavior in their own actions (Branscombe and Baron 2017). This pattern is only aggravated if individuals with such a history have not acquired conflict-resolution skills throughout their life. In this case, they may not know how to express their feelings in situations of conflict and thus, automatically turn to violence (De Beaufort-Eliens 2017).

An additional risk factor is the cultural background in which the perpetrator is raised. Growing up in a culture in which it is common for men to control the lives and actions of women can also induce aggressive behavior, particularly if the female partner refuses to perform the role her partner expects her to play (De Beaufort-Eliens 2018).

Triggers of Violence

Common triggers of violence behavior include stress, loss of control and vulnerability, or a behavioral disorder of the perpetrator (De Beaufort-Eliens 2018). Here, the underlying logic is based on the frustration-aggression-hypothesis prevalent in studies of psychology. According to this hypothesis, stress – or a constant state of frustration – ultimately leads to aggression as individuals that feel stressed lose control over their emotions and behavior more quickly (Branscombe and Baron 2017).

Frustration can be caused by low income, insecurity or other personal circumstances. The likelihood of committing IPV further increases in combination with alcohol or drugs, as substance abuse raises the likelihood of losing control (Branscombe and Baron 2017).

To help a perpetrator overcome their outbursts, it is crucial to identify their source of vulnerability – including suppressed trauma for example – as well as the underlying factors that cause such behavior. For individuals with disorders such as ADHD or autism for example, stopping violent behavior towards their partner is especially difficult as these groups find it more difficult to control their behavior or lack the capacity for certain emotions such as empathy (Branscombe and Baron 2017).

Challenges for Perpetrators

Very few perpetrators are proud of being violent towards their partner – the majority feel ashamed about being unable to control themselves and hurting their significant other (Branscombe and Baron 2017). In other cases, perpetrators are unaware of their damaging behavior and therefore cannot break the “known circle” (Stichting Wende 2020). The fact is however, that perpetrators almost always require assistance to effectively change their behavior (Stichting Wende 2020).

Getting support can pose a challenge in itself since it requires the individual to admit their mistakes to a third party. Only if the perpetrator is willing to open up and actively work on improvement, is treatment possible (De Beaufort-Eliens 2018).

The Blurred Line between Victim and Perpetrator

When thinking about abusive relationships, one often automatically assumes that one partner is the perpetrator actively causing harm, the other the victim of abuse. However, pair therapies in The Hague revealed that in the majority of cases there is no clear distinction between victim and perpetrator (De Beaufort-Eliens 2018). There are however often differences in the type of violence an individual will wield against their partner: Whereas one partner might employ physical violence, the other can be psychologically abusive (De Beaufort-Eliens 2018).

When both partners are in some way perpetrators, they often abstain from getting professional help – after all, since they themselves have been violent towards their partner, reporting abuse may seem illegitimate to them (De Beaufort-Eliens 2018). As a result, violent partners sometimes remain stuck in a harmful relationship.


Branscombe, Baron and Baron, Robert A. (2017). Social Psychology. Fourteenth Edition, Global ed. Harow, England: Pearson Education Limited.

De Beaufort-Eliens, M. (2018). “Interview SPP.” De Waag, Den Haag, September 26, 2018.

Government of the Netherlands (2011). “Domestic Violence: More than 200.000 victims each year.” Government of the Netherlands. At

Stichting Wende (2020). “Help for Perpetrators.” Stichting Wende. At  helps/hulp-voor-plegers/.

WHO (2012). “Intimate Partner Violence.” World Health Organization. At;jsessionid=514ECEC4B64E67867386EB88F564E5FA?sequence=1.

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