People batter their partners—through violence and other forms of abuse—to establish power and control. The difference between domestic violence and a family dispute or argument is that batterers use acts of violence and a series of behaviors to establish ongoing control and fear in the relationship through violence and other forms of abuse.
At the very heart of domestic violence is the belief by perpetrators that they are entitled to control their victim/partner. Domestic violence can take different forms, but its goal is always the same: batterers want to control their domestic partners through fear. They do this by regularly abusing them physically, sexually, psychologically and economically (Idaho Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 1998). Acts of domestic violence are on a continuum; on one end you have homicide while on the other end you have name-calling, put-downs, and threats of violence. The abuse takes many forms. It can happen once in a while or all the time. But however often it happens, it often is as a hidden and constantly terrorizing act.
Abusers don’t batter because they are out of control. Control is what it is all about. Abusers choose to respond to a situation violently. They are making a conscious decision to behave in a violent manner. They know what they are doing and what they want from their victims. Men at Emerge, a batterers intervention program in Massachusetts, are taught that their violence is a deliberate strategy to control women rather than an impulsive act. In the words of a batterer from Emerge:
“If I get in an argument with someone at work, I don’t grab them by the throat, I don’t pull their hair, I don’t slap them. Why do I exhibit all this control at work, but when I’m at home with her I would slap, hit or pull hair? It shows I was very target specific.”
Abuse is a learned behavior. It is not a natural reaction to an outside event. It is learned from seeing abuse used as a successful tactic of control—often in the home in which the abuser grew up, but also in schools, peer groups, and the media. It is reinforced when abusers are not arrested, prosecuted or otherwise held responsible for their acts. People who batter do so because they can and it works. Abusers have received the message that violence against women is acceptable behavior. This message may come from a variety of sources including the childhood family and society (Wilson, 1997).