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Elusive Empathy: Rethinking Domestic Violence

Given the sensitive nature of the topic, I believe it is prudent to open with a clear statement. This post is in no way attempting to diminish the objectional nature of the commission domestic violence or to imply/place any sort of blame on survivors of, witnesses to domestic violence, or their families. The purpose of the post is to inform and reframe the conversation about domestic violence, particularly those who commit these crimes. Resources for survivors of domestic violence will be provided at the end of the post.

Domestic violence is one of a few “hot button” issues that are hardly discussed in the public discourse outside of when someone famous is involved. For example, compare the amount of coverage about NFL players or Chris Brown with the expiration of the (arguably) more impactful story of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) expiring on December 21, 2018, during the government shutdown (Gathright, 2018). Domestic Violence is an emotionally charged topic; as a result, many find it easiest to view through a mostly black and white lens. Many people view those who perpetrate these offenses as unilaterally terrible, disgusting, or generally less than human. 

Defining Domestic Violence

Domestic violence is the mistreatment by someone against one or more people in a current or former intimate and/or cohabitating relationship.  This includes dating/intimate partners, individuals who share a child or children, spouses, parents, and anyone else that is or has cohabitated with the survivor(s) (e.g. other family members, roommates). Colloquially, the term is used to describe physical or sexual violence, but domestic violence is an umbrella term that also encompasses threatening behavior, psychological/emotional mistreatment or manipulation, threats against family/children/pets, and financial harm or control. Intimate Partner Violence (IPV), while sometimes used interchangeably, refers specifically to mistreatment between past or current partners or spouses.

Challenging the Status Quo

When someone says, “domestic violence” many people think of a very specific subset of domestic violence, namely: A monogamous cis-gendered heterosexual couple in which a man is engaging in IPV, specifically verbal, physical, and/or sexual abuse, towards a woman; 9-1-1 may be called and the man may or may not be arrested, charged, and convicted. While this is not an uncommon description of domestic violence, it does not fully represent the many forms of domestic violence.

The chances of women experiencing any form of IPV sometime in their life is about 33% (United Nations Population Fund, 2017; United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2019). Violence committed against a woman is approximately three times more likely to be some form of domestic violence compared to men (United States Department of Justice, 2017). The gender gap is even larger when limited to IPV, with the ratio growing to around four or five times (U.S. Department of Justice, 2017). The CDC reported that about 25% of women experience physical violence at the hands of an intimate partner sometime in their life and about 16% experience sexual violence (U.S. CDC, 2019). Many clinicians (and the public) tend to overlook other forms of IPV, such as male victims of IPV and IPV perpetrated within LGBTQ+ relationships. Men’s rates of experiencing IPV are about half that of women for both physical and sexual violence (~14% and ~7%, respectively) (U.S. CDC, 2019). However, this data also suggests that roughly one third of IPV is perpetrated against men. Lifetime rates of IPV experienced in relationships with co-habitating same-sex couples are 21.5% of men and 35.4% of women (Ard & Makadon, 2011). Data that incorporates other specific forms of domestic violence is much more difficult to gather, because it is not always labeled as domestic violence (e.g. child abuse or elder abuse perpetrated by a family member).

Beyond “Power and Control”

One shortcoming in treatment settings is related to inadequate provider knowledge about IPV. One study indicated that 50% of providers falsely believe that patriarchy is a strong predictor of IPV, and far less than half of providers correctly identified some of the strongest predictors of IPV, such as unemployment, an aggressive personality, or stress related to low income (Babcock et al., 2016; Capaldi, Knoble, Shortt, & Kim, 2012). Risk factors for IPV actually appear to be similar between men and women including poor impulse control, substance abuse, jealousy, anger, retaliation for emotional hurt, being in an unhappy relationship, or certain adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) such as being abused or neglected as a child or witnessing domestic violence (Babcock et al., 2016). These ACEs have been linked with many other unfavorable outcomes in life but is beyond the scope of this discussion. 

Providers tend to view male-perpetrated IPV as an exertion of power and control and female-perpetrated IPV as self-defense or emotional expression (Cannon, Hamel, Buttell, & Ferreira, 2016). They noted that both of these views could cause more harm than good by alienating male clients and potentially justifying or exacerbating IPV committed by women (Cannon, Hamel, Buttell, & Ferreira, 2016). This is problematic particularly for work with male clients, because of the crucial nature of the therapeutic relationship (Ardito & Rabellino, 2011). 

Finding Empathy

Whether discussing domestic violence as a whole or IPV specifically, perhaps the best course of action for clinicians and non-clinicians alike is to start from a place of empathy, as difficult as it may be. Through my clinical work, I have seen the impact of empathy on the therapeutic relationship and treatment outcome. A skilled clinician who can identify and empathize with a client’s insecurity, fears, shame, etc. that led to the offense(s) is far more likely to facilitate prosocial change than one who does not. This empathy allows the client to feel heard and allows the clinician to challenge the client’s beliefs and behaviors. 

Empathy is not just useful in a clinical setting; in multiple settings I have heard clients discuss how unmet emotional needs were a contributing factor to their violent actions. Just as a clinician will set their immediate emotional reactions aside in order to respond in an empathetic manner, doing so in our everyday relationships may be one of the best ways to prevent domestic violence. However, if you are the recipient of domestic violence, you may be accustomed to only listening to your empathy and need to practice tuning in to your anger to cue you to take action by setting healthy boundaries for your own protection and well-being. Empathy should never lead to enabling the perpetrator’s actions. 

Resources for Survivors

National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV)

National Domestic Violence Hotline

Illinois Coalition Against Domestic Violence (ILCADV)

City of Chicago Help on Domestic Violence

Women’s (has a lookup by ZIP code)

* Please note some survivors (e.g. adult men, transgender persons, or women seeking safety from a female partner) may unfortunately find it more difficult to find appropriate resources. If this is the case, contact either NCADV, National Domestic Violence Hotline, or a local women’s shelter and ask for recommendations from their intake callers. 


Ard, K.L., & Makadon, H.J. (2011). Addressing intimate partner violence in lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender patients. Journal of General Internal Medicine, 26(8), 930–933. doi 10.1007/s11606-011-1697-6

Ardito, R.B. & Rabellino, D. (2011). Therapeutic alliance and outcome of psychotherapy: Historical excursus, measurements, and prospects for research. Frontiers in Psychology, 2, 270. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2011.00270

Babcock, J., Armenti, N., Cannon, C., Lauve-Moon, K., Buttell, F., Ferreira, R., … Solano, I. (2016). Domestic violence perpetrator programs: A proposal for evidence-based standards in the United States. Partner Abuse, 7(4), 355–460. 

Cannon, C, Hamel, J., Buttell, F., & Ferreira, R.J. (2016). A survey of domestic violence perpetrator programs in the United States and Canada: Findings and implications for policy and intervention. Partner Abuse, 7(3), 226–276.

Capaldi, D. M., Knoble, N. B., Shortt, J. W., & Kim, H. K. (2012). A systematic review of risk factors for intimate partner violence. Partner Abuse, 3(2), 231–280.

Gathright, J. (2018). Violence against women act expires because of government shutdown. Retrieved from

United Nations Population Fund. (2017). Gender based violence. Retrieved from

United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2019). Violence prevention. Retrieved from

United States Department of Justice. (2017). Police Response to Domestic Violence, 2006-2015. Retrieved from:

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