There is no standard profile of a man who commits violence. Men who abuse cross all socio-economic lines. They are doctors, lawyers, accountants, labourers, teachers, clergy and farmers. They can be employed or unemployed, young or old, and come from any cultural group.
While there is diversity in the type of men who commit violence, there are similarities in the behaviours of men who abuse. They usually have low self-esteem. They deny that they are abusing or they minimize the seriousness of their violent behavior. They refuse to see the effects their violence has had. They also usually hold rigid views about gender roles and negative attitudes towards women in general.
Many men who are violent towards their partners grew up in homes where they or a sibling were physically abused or where their mother was abused by their father. Witnessing violence in their home of origin has been identified as the most common risk factor for becoming abusive in adulthood.
There is a common misconception that men who commit violence against women somehow lose their heads, and that anger takes over and they lose control. However, men who commit violence against women are not out of control. This is proven by the fact that they are usually only violent towards their partner, and not violent towards other people in society such as their neighbours or co-workers.
They usually manage to control where they commit violence (in the privacy of their home and not in a public place). They also manage to control how they are violent (hitting the woman only in places that will not show, such as her breasts or abdomen). If a third party arrives on the scene (a neighbour or the police), the person who is being violent drops the knife, lets go of the throat, or stops holding the woman down. Men can control their violence so that they are not caught doing it, which shows a level of consciousness about what they are doing.
Violence against women is not about loss of control, it is about control. Men use violence because it works. They want a woman to do what they say, and so they terrify her. If threatening words work, they use that; if physical violence works, that is used; sometimes physical violence is used once, then a threat of violence is all that is needed to gain control. Anger management courses are not the solution for men who are abusive. Intensive counselling which looks at the roots of the causes of abuse is necessary.
Men who commit violence against their partners are most likely not violent outside the home. They can be charming in their public life. They can hold responsible positions and are well respected.
It is hard for people in churches to believe that the kind person who teaches Sunday school, or helps seniors, or volunteers with the children’s program, is the same person who has intimidated and hurt his partner.
While men usually deny that they batter their partners, if they do admit to the violence, they externalize the behaviour, saying that they were forced to do it. Society sometimes buys into this excuse-making behaviour, believing that social stressors – such as problems in relationships, anxiety, depression or unemployment – cause abuse. While these may play a factor in a man’s explanation of why he hurt a woman; in fact, they are neither acceptable excuses nor root causes. Many men face similar circumstances and choose not to harm women. Removing these stressors will not end male violence against women. Healing for those who have committed violence can only happen when they start to take responsibility for their own actions.
Drugs and alcohol may be present with abusive behavior, but they do not cause abuse. Sometimes people excuse the violence by saying that the person who abused was not in control because he was under the influence of alcohol. However, even when under the influence of alcohol, men avoid hitting their wives in the company of others and use techniques that render no visible bruises. Even when drunk, a person has knowledge of the social unacceptability of violence.
Not everyone who commits violence against women continues to re-offend. From a Christian perspective, grace is always possible, and we hold out the hope that even people who have committed the most heinous crimes are capable of repentance and accountability and, eventually, forgiveness. At the same time, Christian communities are often too quick to forgive men who have committed violence. Long-term external constraints will be necessary while the man works on developing internal methods to change his behaviour. This is a task that requires professional help, and is not within the scope of pastoral care, unless the pastor is a trained counsellor.
Some people avoid using terms like “abuser”, “batterer”, “sexual offender”, because they label a person with a negative behavior. In church settings, we usually avoid calling congregants liars, thieves and adulterers. When someone labels you, it can be hard to believe that change is possible.
The Christian community holds out hope that change is possible. The person who has offended, however, will always have a history of offending, and will need to be held accountable. Men who have committed repeated acts of violence are dangerous and society must take steps to protect vulnerable people from attack. Labelling people so that change is more difficult, is not the best way to protect vulnerable people.