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Spotting Characterological Abusers

67% of couples in therapy have had a violent episode, half before they fully committed to each other. Some research suggests half of all couples experience Interpersonal Violence (IPV), with 80% of those being situational. While not amazing, there’s work that can be done to correct and grow. For 20% however, it’s characterological, baked into who the abuser is. Here’s how to spot them.


Situational IPV often includes:

  • Conflicts that escalated out of control
  • Minor injuries
  • Doesn’t involve control or dominance
  • Violence is reciprocal, no clear perpetrator of victim
    • Women start altercation 71% of the time
    • Men cause more harm
  • Partners do not generally fear the other
  • Remorse is shown, impact understood, blame internalized, and there’s a call to change
  • Does not escalate to characterological behaviors


Characterological IPV often Includes:

  • Asymmetrical with clear perpetrator and victim
  • Controlling, dominating, or belligerent behaviors
  • Abuser shows little remorse and blames the victim
  • Victim has no control over the abuser or violence
  • Victim fears the abuser
  • Often involves substance use / abuse
    • Men are 3 times more likely to be binge drinkers
  • Myth: Some ethnicities have higher rates of IPV
    • Fact: Lower Socioeconomic levels have higher rates of IPV


Spotting the two kinds of characterological abusers:

  • Pit Bulls
    • Violent with their intimate partner only
    • Motivated by fears of abandonment
      • Very jealous
      • Suspicious of partner becoming independent, keeps partner isolated
    • Domineering
      • Condescending & lecturing
    • Leads with forehead, head is tilted down like a pitbull growling
    • Anger builds gradually when getting more belligerent & contemptuous
    • Pulse relate slowly increases with anger, highest when they lash out
  • Cobras
    • Charming, highly manipulative, seductive
    • Violent in all areas of life
    • Motivated by power and control
    • Uses fear and intimidation to get power and control
    • Begins w/ high levels of belligerence; very provocative and domineering
    • More likely to use weapons to surprise and threaten victims
    • Looks threatening from beginning, does not appear calm
    • Leads with chin, make fast little head movements like a cobra
    • Heart rates drop before strike
    • Expresses no remorse


Emotional Abuse Considerations

  • Characterological Emotional Abuse is just as damaging to the victim over a long period of time.
  • Sometimes moves from physical to emotional abuse to hide the abuse without actually changing.
    • Often physical abuse is no longer necessary, the victim is  already beaten down.


When we don’t believe therapy can help the relationship:

  • When the abuser avoids responsibility for the abuse
  • When the abuser blames victim
  • When the violence is minimized
  • When theres has been a / have been severe injurie(s)
  • Skills training, anger management, time outs, deep breathing, etc. do not work!
    • These don’t work in long run as they don’t deal with the emotions of abusers (shame, fear of abandonment)


  • Victim Safety Plan
    • Develop safety plan
    • Get copies of important documents, accounts numbers, or anything needed to disappear
    • Hide clothes, money, etc. for immediate escape if needed
    • Establish a safe, unknown place to hide
    • Go without warning to a safety shelter
  • Not sure if your relationship involved Characterological abuse? We can screen for that:
    • CTS2, Intimate Justice Scale, Fear of Partner Ch. 9 p. 35, Social Control of Partner Ch. 9 p. 35
  • Attend Couples Together Against Violence (CTAV) ~5 months

Have any thoughts, questions, suggestions, or comments on this article? Broken link? Wondering how to this can be applied, modified, or adapted to your polyamorous, swinging, kink/ BDSM, or otherwise interesting relationship? Feel free to reach out to us here.