Updated on January 27, 2022
Domestic violence is a serious problem in this country: Approximately one in four women and one in nine men in the U.S. have experienced rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner in their lifetime, according to the American Psychiatric Association. The long-term psychological effects can be devastating for victims, 20 percent of whom (roughly) will go on to develop a mental health disorder.
Strikingly, the medical literature has turned up another mental health to domestic violence—between those who perpetrate domestic violence and personality disorders. Someone with an abusive personality disorder (such as narcissistic personality disorder, for example) may not spontaneously seek out help for their abusive behaviors, but a psychiatric evaluation and treatment could help them more fully recognize toxic behaviors and develop healthier coping patterns for managing them.
Domestic Violence and Personality Disorders
In the U.S. about 10 percent of the population suffers from some type of personality disorder. This percentage, according to the journal Innovations in Clinical Neuroscience, has remained consistent over time. Of course not everyone with a personality disorder will behave violently, but statistics suggest that people with certain types of personality disorders like borderline personality disorder, obsessive-compulsive personality disorder, and narcissistic personality disorder may have a higher tendency to commit domestic violence, particularly when other risk factors are involved such as substance abuse.
Personality disorders are complex forms of mental illness that affect both men and women. People suffering from these conditions often feel intense emotions. When some people experience intense anger or rage, they may feel incapable of controlling their feelings. Physical aggression can be one manifestation of these disorders. Individuals who are diagnosed with what psychiatrists refer to as “Axis II personality disorders” (which includes those conditions mentioned above), frequently begin to show symptoms of these conditions during childhood.
It’s not uncommon for people diagnosed with personality disorders to have been victims of violence themselves as children. Psychiatric professionals will look for symptoms when assessing someone’s condition, such as an unstable sense of self or a history of social difficulties. Often, for instance, people with a borderline personality disorder may struggle to trust others in their close interpersonal relationships and/or act impulsively, without thinking about the likely consequences of their actions.
The Effect of Personality Disorders on Relationships
People who have an untreated abusive personality disorder may demonstrate traits like:
- Sensitivity to rejection or abandonment
- Poor social skills
- Hostility toward a gender
- High levels of dependence
- Controlling behaviors
- Heightened feelings of rage
- Acts of mental and/or physical abuse
It is therefore not altogether surprising that an abusive personality disorder might raise the chances of committing spousal abuse (as some studies have shown). These types of behaviors can take a serious toll on a relationship and undermine the safety of the partner being victimized.
In many cases, the abusing partner will show remorse after an incident of abuse, but while their condition remains untreated, it typically remains unmanageable too. This is why domestic violence is seldom a “one-and-done” event. It is invariably chronic and may even escalate over time.
Abusive Signs to Watch for
A person who has displayed a tendency toward aggression and who is suffering from a personality disorder may be at higher risk of instigating domestic violence. While the initial signs may not always be easily identifiable, here are some signs to note that can indicate personality traits of an abuser and behaviors associated with domestic violence:
- Routine criticizing
- Blames the victim for their outbursts/behaviors
- Makes unfounded accusations
- Displays controlling behaviors (i.e. instructs partner what to wear)
- Throws objects
- Punches walls or kicks furniture
- Has physically attacked their partner
- Prevents partner from getting medical care
- Shows aggression toward household pets
- Prevents partner from seeing friends/family
- Prevent’s partner’s access to money
- Prevents partner from working
- Forces partner to engage in sex
- May refuse to wear a condom
These are just some of the signs and traits of domestic violence perpetrators.
Seeking Help Is Difficult But Crucial
Seeking help in situations that involve domestic violence is difficult for victims. They often feel conflicted about seeking help, knowing that their calls for help will signify legal consequences for their partners. Often, these situations continue until the victim suffers serious injury or worse or is able to leave the relationship once and for all.
In the meantime, perpetrators of domestic violence rarely seek help to manage their aggression. They may be totally unaware that they suffer from a personality disorder—yet with help and treatment they might begin to change their abusive behaviors.
What Should Victims and Perpetrators of Domestic Violence Do?
Both victims and perpetrators of domestic violence can benefit from mental health treatment. Often, victims require professional counseling to help them recognize they are in a dysfunctional relationship that could be dangerous for them and other members of the household. Quite simply, they may need help finding the support and resources they need to leave an abusive relationship.
At the same time, a person who has committed acts of domestic violence may want to consider whether their aggressive and dangerous behaviors are signs of an underlying personality disorder. In many cases, treatment can help. After an evaluation, psychiatric professionals can make a diagnosis and then recommend a course of treatment that is tailored to the individual’s needs. Treatment may involve medication and ongoing therapy. With treatment, people can learn how to effectively manage their mental health condition.
The worst thing that both victims and perpetrators of domestic violence can do is ignore the situation and hope it gets better. Victims are not obligated in any way, shape or form to remain with or forgive their abusers. Instead, they should seek counseling for themselves. They may need therapy to overcome the trauma they’ve experienced at the hands of an intimate partner. These situations are often emotionally charged. Therapists can help victims take care of themselves and teach them how to spot the signs of an abuser, so they are not vulnerable to these types of relationships in the future.
Abusers don’t have to remain abusive forever. Recovery is possible. It often takes time and commitment, but treatment can help people understand how their mental health condition may have developed and what they can do to manage it (so they can prevent themselves from lashing out at those closest to them). Therapists help clients understand which of their behaviors are dysfunctional and how to stop them. In these situations, treatment is essential, or the dysfunctional patterns of behavior are likely to continue.
If you are a victim of abuse or are engaging in abuse of any kind, seek help now before the situation gets worse. Visit FHE Health to learn about our mental health treatment and counseling programs. Our team of experienced clinicians is dedicated to helping people end the patterns of behavior that result in domestic abuse.