By Sybil Cummin, MA, LPC, ACS
Domestic violence (DV) is one of the silent epidemics in our culture today. It is not well understood by the larger system that these couples will come into contact, let alone understood by the public and those who have not experienced DV. And even when you have experienced DV in a relationship, if you do not have the resources and support to understand what has happened to you, you can be left completely confused or believing what your abusive partner has spewed as truth. When 1 in 4 women and 1 in 9 men have experienced severe forms of physical violence in an intimate relationship(1), why is it not better understood?
One of the misconceptions or myths that is consistently used to defend abusive behaviors is that abusive partners “just have an anger problem.” If an abusive act is witnessed by others or called out in any fashion, the excuse that they have a problem controlling their anger is a go-to response. And, this excuse is routinely believed to be the cause of the behaviors. This makes sense to those who have witnessed a single abusive act or those in the system that do not have enough knowledge on the history of the coercive control that has been used throughout the length of the relationship. It is even an acceptable excuse for many victims feeling the wrath of this so-called anger problem. So, can DV just be explained as poor impulse control or difficulties controlling anger?
The answer is a big NO. There are many people in this world that struggle with impulse control and struggles to control their emotions when frustrated or angry. How can DV be distinguished differently than an anger management problem?
1. DV, also called intimate partner violence (IPV) is specific to abuse done to a romantic partner. For those with legitimate problems controlling anger, it does not matter who you are. If you frustrate them or make them angry in some way, they will explode. They will have a long list of road rage type incidents, problems with angry outbursts or violence at work, and they really struggle to control when and how they react. In contrast, a more typical perpetrator of DV can turn it on and turn it off. This makes their behaviors more confusing.
2. Adding to the concept above, the fact that they can turn it on and off like a switch allows them to have the public perception of being a nice and thoughtful partner; to have all their stuff together. They will be less likely to blow their top at a family gathering or work function, even if what their partner has said angers them. Many times they are able to hold it together until behind closed doors.
3. Those that truly have an anger management problem or impulse control problem are not as likely to be able to use a strategic and systematic plan to obtain and maintain power and control through the more coercive behaviors of DV. They do not have the patience.
So why is this excuse accepted so easily? One reason, as mentioned before, is the lack of education and true understanding of DV. Another possibility is that there are ways to “fix” an anger management problem. There are evidence-based programs and counseling that can help. It feels less hopeless for victims that there is a way for change that is accepted (somewhat) in our society. Victims are more likely to stand by their partners while they “try to work on it” than if it is labeled correctly as DV. It makes sense that since anger is a more accepted emotion for men in the mainstream culture, it can be used as a scapegoat for coercive control and physical abuse. So, while there would most likely still be a stigma attached to anger management treatment, it is easier to stomach than domestic violence treatment.
While many people truly do struggle to control their anger, this is not the case for many perpetrators of DV. Although there are many definitions of domestic violence, one of the common elements is that DV is a systematic process and that it is willful. With an impulse control problem, this would be much more difficult; having the forethought to know when and how to use different forms of control to get the desired results. The anger and physical violence that comes along with these forms of coercive control just make it scarier and more dangerous.
Assessing for the different elements of domestic violence, including economic control/coercion, spiritual abuses, verbal and psychological abuse, as well as assessing for physical abuse can help you sort out whether there is an anger management problem or a domestic violence problem. Your next steps as a professional working with these clients will be determined by this, as will the success of your treatment.
(1) National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (n.d.). Infographic based on data from the national intimate partner and sexual violence survey (nisvs): 2010-2012 state report. https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/pdf/NISVS-infographic-2016.pdf