Men Who Abuse: Abuser Types

This post is to provide an overview of male abuser types. You can review the most simple typology (two types) at the beginning, the post becoming more detailed as it concludes with types drawn from a review of 15 studies of abuser types, which cluster into three categories.

Gottman’s Pitbulls & Cobras

John Gottman is a professor of psychology known for his work on stability in lasting relationships and relationship analysis through scientific, direct observations of couples in his Love Lab at the University of Illinois. Gottman’s research utilizes physiological data (measuring heart rate, sweat, etc.) in combination with observations of interactions with real life couples. Gottman shared his research regarding men who abuse their partners in When Men Batter Women, presenting the startling discovery that while some men became very heated in an argument (as most of us can relate to), others stayed disturbingly cool and calm.

The more bullish abusers who lack the ability to control their anger or emotion are what he labels Pitbulls, while those who remain calm with little to no physiological response to situations most would deem to be upsetting, are labeled Cobras. Gottman also found that these two types of abusers engaged in different patterns of behavior and seemed to have different types of pathology. The Pitbulls are seen as more anxious, dependent, and have issues with emotion regulation (not able to control their anger). Pitbulls often only have trouble inside the home. Cobras, on the other hand, demonstrate more of an anti-social temperament and correspondingly have more issues with institutions. This New York Times article by Gottman provides further detail on the two types his research identified.

It is important to note that while Cobras might employ more strategy, both types can be controlling and both can benefit from a society that upholds male dominance (e.g. machismo) and aggression (e.g. like stalking romanticized as simple persistence).

Michael P. Johnson’s Types of Domestic Violence

Michael P. Johnson, Emeritus Professor of Sociology, Women's Studies, and African and African American Studies at Penn State and author of A Typology of Domestic Violence: Intimate Terrorism, Violent Resistance, and Situational Couple Violence, builds on Gottman’s Pitbull and Cobra types, subsuming them to sub-types of what he calls Intimate Terrorism. Intimate Terrorism, according to Johnson’s research, is a distinct form of domestic violence that  differs from other forms of domestic violence because the abuser is both extremely violent and controlling, while the abused partner is neither. He argues that the Pitbulls and Cobras Gottman identified are best understood as sub-types of Intimate Terrorists.

The other forms of domestic violence Johnson identifies are as follows:

  • Violent Resistance typically involves a violent and controlling abuser and a victim who responds to their partner’s intimate terrorism by resistance via violence. The victim is not controlling, only using violence in retaliation or as a coping mechanism to manage the coercive control they experience.

  • Situational Couple Violence is, for lack of a better term, more run of the mill domestic violence. It involves partners who are characteristically controlling or violent, but when they disagree, tensions escalate and and things can become violent. With this type of domestic violence, the violent episode may be a one time event or could become a recurring problem in the relationship.

  • Mutual Violent Resistance describes dynamics in which both partners exhibit behavior consistent with that of an intimate terrorist type, utilizing violence to attempt to control the other.

Holtzworth-Munroe & Stuart’s Types

Amy Holtzworth-Munroe is a professor of Clinical Psychology at Indiana University Bloomington, where she teaches and manages the Holtzworth-Munroe Family Relationship Lab. Research at her lab focuses on “families experiencing separation or divorce, particularly those families who have a history of intimate partner violence and abuse.”

Holtzworth-Munroe & Gregory Stuart reviewed data from over 15 studies related to types of batterers, and developed three overarching abuser types based on the severity and frequency of IPV, the generality of violence (extrafamilial or intrafamilial) and the perpetrator's psychopathology or personality disorder:

  • Family Only: FO batterers represent about fifty percent of batterers. They have the lowest frequency and severity of violence and rarely engage in violence outside of the family structure. Alcohol is a factor in about half of cases involving FO perpetrators. There is generally no psychopathology present, they have remorse for their actions and respond best to intervention/prevention programs. They have generally positive attitudes toward women and marriage, but lack the regulatory/communication skills that can prevent disagreements from escalating.

  • Dysphoric or Borderline: DB abusers represent about 25 percent of batterers. They are the most psychologically abusive of all battering types and have high levels of pathology, including borderline or schizoid personality disorders. Their abuse is primarily wife-focused, but can, at times, extend outside of the family. They are the least predictable in terms of levels of violence, with long periods of calm and then intensely violent outbursts. DB batters often have very dysfunctional childhoods and are extremely dependent, afraid of abandonment, jealous and possessive. DB abusers are reflective of the more “classic” models of domestic violence, where they experience shame, rejection, fear and feelings of inferiority, then lash out in violence or anger, then make attempts to repair afterwards.

  • Generally Violent and Antisocial: GVA batterers are the most violent subtype, with high levels of violence within and outside of their families. They are the most likely to evidence characteristics of antisocial personality disorder and will often have histories of criminal behavior, arrests and substance abuse. [1]

These types are seen to be fairly stable over time (i.e. they don’t change or transition into another type), but there are some questions to subtypes beneath the surface of these broader categories [2].

Written by Abigail Hazlett & Chelsea Brass

[1] Holtzworth-Munroe, A., & Meehan, J. C. (2004). Typologies of men who are maritally violent: Scientific and clinical implications. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 19(12), 1369-1389.
[2] Holtzworth-Munroe, A., & Stuart, G. L. (1994). Typologies of male batterers: Three subtypes and the differences among them. Psychological Bulletin, 116, 476-497.