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Violence in close relationships is a serious societal problem, and it is most often men who commit this violence. But what really characterizes the typical perpetrator? What happens to the family that is exposed to violence, and what help is available?

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The following considerations are largely based on a lecture by psychologist Per Isdal, who is among the founders of Norwegian Alternative to Violence Foundation (ATV), who was recently honored as Psychologist of the Year for his groundbreaking work in this difficult field: violence.


What is violence?

Violence is any act directed at another person which, through this act of injury, pain, intimidation or insult, causes that person to do something against his will or to stop doing something he wants.

Violence can take many forms. Isdal and others within professional environments who work with violence operate with five different types of violence:



    This is any form of physical force which, through pain, injury, intimidation and abuse, forces another human being to stop doing something he wants or to do something against his will.

    These are all actions aimed at another person's sexuality, which, through pain, injury, intimidation or abuse, causes that person to do something against their will or stop doing something they want.

    These are all actions directed at things or objects, which through their actions seem frightening or offensive, influence others to do something against their will or stop doing something they want.

    These are all ways of harming, intimidating or insulting that are not directly physical in nature, or ways of controlling or dominating others using an underlying power or threat.

    This is violence that works by virtue of its ability.


Men are most often the ones who resort to violence. Due to men's violence, 1000 women in Norway are on the run. They live at a strictly confidential address. Between 1200 and 1800 women go to a violence alarm in Norway at any given time. (4) At the same time, it is recognized that women are also perpetrators of violence, and researchers and professionals assume that several thousand men live under such conditions in Norway. Reform - a resource center for men - receives between 40 and 50 inquiries annually from men who are exposed to violence from their partner. The center assumes that every fourth to sixth person who is exposed to serious partner violence is a man.


Violence in intimate relationships

When violence enters the family, it creates systems. Once a serious episode of violence has occurred, this has a great traumatic potential.

Thus, the latent violence, the possibility of new violence, will largely control the behavior of those who live in such a situation.

The risk of new violence can control everything the victim does. Having experienced violence means that you know it can happen again. Violence is then present all the time by virtue of its possibility

In such cases, the family has entered a system of violence: The onset of violence in the family changes the family system and creates a system in which interaction and communication are organized in relation to the violence and the possibility of new violence. It is heartbreaking to hear stories about how latent violence can affect both adults and children in a family.


Symptoms of domestic violence

Because in close relationships creates extensive mental problems, not least for the children, the family will want to get in touch with the support system at some point. Not least, it is likely that children will come into contact with mental health care or school counselling services.

However, there is no automaticity in the violence being discovered. In the encounter with the services, the perpetrator would like to appear as the most resourceful in the family: calm, polite and easy to sympathize with. He is used to being in control, and also demonstrates this to those he meets in the services.

On the other hand, we often meet a hysterical, irritated woman who seems difficult to relate to, and who can therefore easily arouse an antipathy in the helpers.

Then the perpetrator's projections have reached the services, and one becomes blind in relation to seeing the obvious: That we are facing a woman (or child for that matter) who clearly shows reactions to traumatic conditions.

Maybe it will be too uncomfortable to see? Maybe it's getting too scary? Perhaps it is easier to interpret the symptoms (to the mother and children) as expressions of individual conditions or organ-brain dysregulation.


When violence is not part of the analysis

When health services do not have in mind that domestic violence may be part of a problem complex, common hypotheses of the health services workers can easily be:


  1. This mother obviously has major mental health issues
  2. This child obviously has major regulatory difficulties (...often explained by biological conditions in the child)
  3. This dad is a stable, calm, and patient man and can not be blamed for the problems


Although this conceptualization may seem somewhat far fetched, there may actually be something to it.

In only 0,4% of children with experience of violence, violence is themed in child and adolescent mental health care (in Norwegian: BUP).

According to the nationwide survey «Violence and abuse against children and young people» 25% of Norwegian children have experienced episodes of violence in the home. 8% of the children have been victims of, and 6% have witnessed, serious violence from at least one of the parents. Every fourth victim of serious violations had had contact with the service.

At the same time, a retrospective study of 18-year-olds who have been treated in the Norwegian child and adolescent mental health care shows that as many as 60% of this group had experiences of violence from home, but only in 0,4% of the cases was this registered in the child and adolescent mental health care records (source).


This is a potential profile of the violent man

With this as a background, we can ask the question of what the typical perpetrator is, if he exists. Per Isdal tells the following story, which illustrates some of the personality that so often characterizes the violent man. He tells (freely retold):


  1. Violence is about the perpetrator's psyche

    "I have a story about a couple I met who makes me sure in my case that violence is the practitioner's problem and is about the practitioner's psyche, his story, and his way of relating to his surroundings. Initially, it was a very scared man, who felt that no one could love him. In his life and upbringing he was exposed to good reasons to believe this: Mother left him, and he was left with a depressed father.

    He was afraid, but he did not accept this uncertainty.

  2. Violence is often projection of own uncertainty

    Instead of acknowledging that he had become a vulnerable man, an anxious man with a failing self-image, he transforms fear and externalizes it. In other words, he does not feel the fear as something of his own, but as something "out there". He does not perceive that he himself is afraid, but is convinced that it is the partner who is not to be trusted. This is his way of regulating emotions. He regulates his own anxiety by regulating her.

  3. Violence is extensive mental control / a strong need for control

    This results in him exercising extensive mental control over his wife. In the story of this couple, his need for control was visibly proven in a very concrete way: He bought a stamping clock: and she had to stamp in and out. At all times he should know where she was, for a single reason (… not that he was an anxious and insecure man, but…) that she is not to be trusted!


  4. The violent man achieves exactly what he (unconsciously) fears - not to be loved

    He wants love, but his behavior is precisely the guarantee of failure. Through his controlling behavior, he forces constant confirmations of his insecurity - of not being loved. The paradox is that such "small" interventions in everyday life, such as having to stamp in and out a few times a day (it did not take that long), still create large and extensive problems for those who are tried to be controlled in this way. 

  5. Violence transforms the family to a system of violence / a control tyranny

    She still accepts it both out of empathy / love (she understands that he is insecure), but also out of fear (she understands that he will torment her if she is not obedient and submits to his orders). Thus, a system of violence has emerged: a control body in the family. Orders that must be followed, and the imminent threat of violence, if the wife is not 100% obedient. Such men are controllers, and they can be incredibly good at creating control systems!

  6. Perpetrators of violence must acknowledge their own problem of violence

    The pervasive problem is this: These men do not see themselves, only the one they are trying to control. He does not take responsibility for his actions and feelings. However, this is something he must do, if the couple is to get something reminiscent of love. If the relationship is to be saved at all, it is therefore often he who must first go into his own therapy, where he is actually able to understand that what he is doing is violence. Only then can it be meaningful to try to save the relationship.

  7. Jealousy is often the reason for referral - violence is the real problem

    Inquiries about family protection are often linked to jealousy - and then it turns out so often that it is really a question of a system of violence: A controlling man who is insecure and anxious, but who does not see himself at all, but only the one he is trying to control. This is called "jealousy", and it may sound so innocent, but behind the facade there may just be talk of an established system of violence in the home, where he exercises control so as not to be let down, and where she lives in a constant trauma.

  8. Violence is not a family problem - it's a violence problem

    Once the couple has sought help from the family counseling service, or somewhere else where they will work with the "jealousy", it is important to understand that violence is about the perpetrator's way of regulating emotions. It has not occurred due to family problems, but it does create family problems. They have not arisen because the wife is untrustworthy or unfaithful, but they create an impossible situation for the wife - which makes her want to be able to do most things - only it gives a hope to "escape "The whole situation."


What is the correct help for families with violence?

The most typical feature of violence is that it is made invisible!

The difficult question therefore becomes what is the right help for a family where a system of violence has been established, and where the wife and children thus live in constant fear of episodes of violence. It is not necessarily the case that the victims in the family themselves bring up the violence neither in contact with the help services nor towards the police. Making violence visible is therefore the first and perhaps biggest challenge. 

This therefore tells us something about what is not the right help.

Any help that covers the violence, or that makes it still invisible, is an inadequate and indefensible help for families where there is a problem of violence.

It is not the right help to arrange couple talks, where both should talk freely about their own experiences, disappointments and wishes from the other party. Such an offer could be suitable in relationships where there is a real balance of power between the partners (or where this is within reach) - but in families where a system of violence has been established, this is not the case.

There is a great responsibility on family protection (and other support services) when they receive cases with "jealousy" as a reason for referral. School counselling services and child and adolescent psychiatry have a great responsibility when they receive cases with children that show behavioral problems, aggression, anxiety - and where it appears at all as diffuse and incomprehensible. Schools and kindergartens have a great responsibility to take concern seriously when children show serious maladaptation.

As the most typical feature of violence is that it is made invisible, an imporant task of the support- and protective services is to enable a detection of the violence - which does not hurt the victims worse, but where the victims are taken care of when the violence problems come to the surface.


Domestic violence can be extremely complicated

It will be too simple a picture to just talk about the violent man, even though we have done this so far to show some of the dynamics that arise where the violence comes in.

In practice, the systems of violence can be considerably more complicated, not least because violence can become a generational problem that is passed from one generation to another. A perpetrator may well have been a victim of violence, and a victim of violence may one day become a perpetrator.

Per Isdal emphasizes that we make far too simple models.

We like to think that it is men who are violent (period), but it is often more complicated than this! Women can also have problems with violence. For most children, the mother is the most important caregiver and therefore the mother's violence may be more dangerous for the child than the father's violence.

The violence in the home can also have many variations. It could be a violent husband, a violent wife, a violent husband and a wife who retaliates with violence; there may be couples where both use violence, and where the use of violence is equal; it can be a violent husband, who is also violent as a father; a violent wife who is also violent as a mother; or it could be sibling violence.

In short: we must be open to seeing the complicated connections, and at the same time always stick to this: Violence is the perpetrator's problem, and he / she must first and foremost acknowledge his / her own problem of violence before there is hope for improvement. If such a realization does not come, it will really only be a way out for the victim: To get to safety.

The services first task in meeting victims of violence is to enable the violence to be made visible - something that requires courage, a willingness to act, a high level of competence, and good knowledge of the aid apparatus for families in crisis. 


Possible to save the family?

Frode Thuen answers the following in one interview with Mental Health about the extent to which it is wise to go into couples therapy when the man is violent:

- No, some studies suggest that one should not go together in therapy for violence problems, because then you make it an interaction problem, while it is primarily about the man's lack of impulse control and aggressive tendencies. Here it is important to place the responsibility where it belongs, namely with the violent man.

- How are those who seek help? Are they getting out of the problem of violence?

- Yes, many of those who seek help benefit from it, especially if they go to specialists - As far as I know, alternatives to violence can show good results.

- What happens if the man does not seek help?

- Then there are not so good prospects. And that's what the woman needs to see. Many women think that they are the ones who will change, they will free him from all frustrations and all inferiority, or help him bring out his good sides. But spouses should not have such therapeutic duties. If you can not be with a man as he is, you should find another to be with.



(1) Per Isdal: The meaning of violence (Kommuneforlaget 2000)

  1. Violence against children: BUP employees' encounter with children exposed to violence.
  2. How can violence against children be detected in mental health care
  3. Violence in close relationships is a serious societal problem

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