Why Do People Commit Domestic Violence Crimes?

Domestic violence is a crime that occurs behind closed doors—both the closed doors of a shared dwelling and the closed doors of the domestic abuser’s mind.

The psychology of a domestic abuser is different from other violent criminals.  Often the abuser has no history of violent crime, and his sudden acts of aggression can seem uncharacteristic to his partner, family, and community.

A new study from the psychology research lab at Northwestern has shed some light on the mind of the domestic abuser. The study took a close look at the neuropsychology and psychiatric history of men imprisoned for the murder of their partner.

The Psychology of Domestic Murders

The Psychology of Domestic Murders


The study was conducted by Robert Hanlon, an associate professor of psychology and behavior sciences. Hanlon conducted interviews with over 153 murderers, 88% of whom were male. All had been charged or convicted of first-degree murder in Arizona, Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, or Missouri.

He found that the criminals who had been charged with spontaneous domestic homicide—meaning the murder was emotionally driven, instead of premeditated—displayed significantly different psychological characteristics than the murderers who killed strangers.

The research noted a higher rate of severe mental illnesses among the domestic murderers—particularly psychotic disorders. This group was also less likely to have a criminal background leading up to the murder. Additionally, the domestic murderers showed less intelligence, poorer general executive functioning (like impulse control), and a weaker attention span than the prisoners who had killed strangers.

Another interesting result of the study: roughly 80% of the domestic abusers had experienced some kind of head trauma in their past, and 78% of them had a history of illicit drug use. They were less likely to have past felony convictions, and they were less likely to be diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder. In 60% of domestic murder cases, drugs and/or alcohol was involved.

Hanlon was an expert witness in the trial of Aurora shooter James Holmes. He established the difference between domestic crimes and the cold, calculated murder of strangers. “These murders are in the heat of passion and generally involve drugs or alcohol and often are driven by jealousy or revenge following a separation or a split,” Hanlon said. “This is grabbing the kitchen knife out of the drawer in a fit of anger and stabbing her 42 times.”

In an interview with Medical Daily, Hanlon explained how families might use the information gleaned from his research to prevent future tragedies.  “These crimes are often preventable if family members are more informed about the potential danger from having someone who is severely mentally ill in the home and who may have shown violent tendencies in the past,” Hanlon said. “Family members may lull themselves into a state of false belief, thinking, “My son would never hurt me,” or “My husband may have a short fuse, but he would never seriously harm me.”

Why Does Domestic Violence Happen?

Denver Domestic Violence Lawyer


Murder is an extreme example, but the psychology behind all forms of domestic abuse is similar. Some psychologists believe acts of domestic violence stem from two destructive thought patterns that occur frequently in intimate relationships.

The “critical inner voice” is one of the thought processes. A domestic abuser may have a negative internal dialogue regarding himself or his partner. Often, they are responding to an insult, threat, or provocation—real or perceived. The abuser may have thoughts along the lines of, “If she/he really loved you, she/he would behave differently,” or “She/he is probably cheating on you, you idiot.”

Negative thoughts like these are not uncommon in many relationships. In cases of domestic abuse, however, the abusers have often let these negative thoughts accumulate, along with a growing sense of feeling wronged by their partner. This can make the abuser feel he has to retaliate—possibly in the form of physical abuse.

The second thought process involves what is called a “fantasy bond.” A fantasy bond is an illusion that the couple cannot survive apart. In many situations, this can cause individuals to refuse to separate, even after relationships become hostile and dangerous. Additionally, the couple becomes more comfortable abusing each other as they begin to view their partners of extensions of themselves.

This unhealthy belief can make couples feel one member has power over the other— a power that can be used to victimize. It can intensify feelings of hostility or righteous anger, as the thought of separation becomes life-threatening.

What it boils down to is that very little is simple or clear cut about domestic violence. If you have been accused of a domestic violence crime, remember that you are entitled to experienced and capable legal defense. Don’t sit idly by while your future is decided for you – speak to a criminal justice attorney as soon as possible.

About the Author:

Denver-based criminal defense and DUI attorney Jacob E. Martinez is a knowledgeable and experienced litigator with a record of success providing innovative solutions to clients facing criminal charges of any severity. Mr. Martinez has been designated a Top 100 Trial Lawyer by the National Trial Lawyers and has been awarded both the Avvo Client’s Choice Award and Avvo Top Attorney designation, evidencing his reputation for his exemplary criminal and DUI defense work and high moral standards.