The Psychology of
Domestic Violence

The Psychology of Domestic Violence with Dr. Katreena Scott

Jenna Mayne: Welcome to she is your neighbour, a show where we discuss the realities and complexities of domestic violence. This podcast is brought to you by women’s Crisis Services of, Waterloo Region, a charitable organization in Ontario, Canada. I’m your host, Jenna Main. Join me as we talk to different people each week to learn how domestic violence impacts people from all walks of life. She is your neighbour, and we all have a role to play in ending domestic violence.

This episode is called the Psychology of domestic violence with Doctor Katrina Scott. Doctor Katrina Scott is the academic director of the center for Research and Education on Violence against Women and Children. She’s a professor at Western University in the department of Applied Psychology, and she is a child psychologist by training. In this episode, we talk about why people use violence in relationships. We talk about the cycle of violence and the psychology behind how and why violence escalates. This episode is part of an eight episode series called when violence escalates, which explores how violence builds, leading to severe incidents and death.

I got, so much out of this conversation with Katreena, and I really hope you do, too. I just think we can’t talk about stuff, domestic violence without talking about the role of men who are most commonly the perpetrators or the ones engaging in the abusive behavior. So I think that’s really important to highlight and talk about. The other interesting thing we talked about in this episode was the role of shame. And this is something we’ve talked about before. We’ve talked about it a lot in regards to the woman or the survivor who is experiencing the abuse and, not wanting to share her experience because of the shame. But in this episode, we also talked about the shame that men feel when they’re using abusive behavior. So that was a really interesting piece that we talked about, and we also talked about power and control, and Katrina talked about how you can’t be a good dad if you are also an abusive partner and just explain how there really are steps we can take to prevent, violence from escalating and how we can work with men to do this. Now, before we get started, I’d like to note the following episode includes a discussion of domestic violence and abuse, which may be distressing or traumatic for some listeners. Please take care of yourself and don’t hesitate to ask for help if you need it.


Jenna Mayne: Hi, Katreena. Thanks so much for being here today.

Katreena Scott: Hi, thanks so much for having me.

Jenna Mayne: Oh, we’re really excited to get talking with you. We’ve been looking forward to having you on the podcast. So really excited for our conversation today.

Katreena Scott: Me too.

Jenna Mayne: Oh, good. So could you just start by sharing a little bit about yourself.

Katreena Scott: Yeah, for sure. So I am the academic director for the center for Research and Education on Violence against Women and Children at Western University. So we’re a pretty large knowledge mobilization center in Canada, and we do lots of work on addressing gender based violence. We do public education and professional education. We do work with workplaces. We work on changing the experience of survivors in the family law system. We work with criminal justice partners and child protection partners, and we try to be a center for collaboration, for research and community partners who are doing this work. My own work, over my career has mostly been about how to better intervene with men who are using abuse and causing harm in their families.

Jenna Mayne: Great. Thank you. Yeah, I know you’ve done some really interesting work over the years, so we’re looking forward to hearing a bit more about that today. So today we’re going to be talking a bit about the psychology of domestic violence and how domestic violence escalates. So I was hoping we could start with some of the basics and you could just tell us what the cycle of violence is.

Katreena Scott: Yeah, for sure. So the word cycle of violence used in a few different ways. I think in this context, it’s useful to think about the cycle of violence as referring to intergenerational patterns of abuse. The fact that children who grow up in families where there’s violence and that might be child abuse and neglect, or child exposure to domestic or intimate partner violence, those children are more likely to use violence later in their own relationship. And this happens despite the fact that for many of them, they vow never, ever be like their parents. It’s also important to say that not all individuals who use abuse in their relationships have grown up with violence, and that certainly not everyone who grows up with violence goes on to be abusive. But it is a major risk factor and it is a cycle that we want to break. I just want to also mention while we’re doing this podcast, I’m likely to slip into using some gendered language and talking about boys and men as engaging in abusive behavior, and women, girls and gender diverse people as victims and survivors as well as children. And we know that violence in relationship is gendered, with women more likely to live in fear and be injured or killed, and men more likely to perpetrate violence. But I also want to acknowledge that there are male victims of family violence and intimate partner violence, and also female people who perpetrate violence.

Jenna Mayne: Great. Thank you for explaining that. I think that’s important to note. So. I’m glad you mentioned that there and thank you for sharing a bit about the cycle of violence as well. I’m curious if you could talk a little bit about why someone might choose to use violence.

Katreena Scott: Yeah, you know, I’m really happy to, talk about that question. I want to talk about it to start with, this idea of somebody choosing to use violence, because, of course, people’s behaviors are a choice. But I want to emphasize that for almost all of the men that I’ve worked with in my career, their experience of their behavior is often not of choosing to be abusive. So I’ve met very, very few men who want to be abusive who think, you know, this is a good way to be, or, you know, who hope to grow up to be an abuser. It’s just not how it works, you know. Instead, the men that I’ve worked with, generally, they don’t see themselves as abusive. they often think of abuse as being limited to really physical violence or beating somebody up, but don’t recognize the harm of, for example, monitoring a partner or making them report on everything that they do. They also see abusive people as that guy over there. It doesn’t apply to them. When they do acknowledge behaviors, the harm is often minimized, that it’s not that bad or that the other person’s making too big a deal about it, or they blame the other person. You know, she drove me to it or have a sense that anybody in my situation would react the same way. So this idea that somebody might choose to use violence, you know, it’s important to recognize that any behavior has a choice to it. But that’s not often how, the men that I’ve talked to, they often don’t see themselves in that language. I think that it is important to understand how violence comes about in the first place. Place. Some of the reasons and some of the ways we think about this is we think about violence as a learned behavior. So from patterns at home or from violence seen in movies or games or online, we talk about portrayals of masculinity, and we talk about toxic masculinity. And, of course, there’s truth to all of this. So we continue to socialize boys and men to be more aggressive, to take what they want, and at times to use aggression and violence to get it. and we also don’t do a great job of helping boys and men recognize emotions and figure out how, you know, different ways to cope with and regulate their feelings and how to communicate those emotions and reach out for help. And this kind of teaching is, of course, particularly important for boys who are not getting positive lessons at home. But it’s not the whole story. Another important part of the story has to do with the way power works in relationship. So there’s a famous saying that goes something like, nasty things roll downhill. So it’s a recognition that when it comes to hurtful and harmful and abusive behaviors, those who have more power have more capacity to engage in harm. So in a workplace, it’s easier for a manager or a supervisor to mistreat an employee than the opposite. Parents are at, risk of maltreating their children, and not the opposite way. In intimate relationships, there’s also dimensions of power. So it might be physical power, it might be economic or financial power, it might be access to social capital. And so those power differences also play out so that the person in a relationship that has more power is more likely, to be able to use abusive behavior. It doesn’t mean that that power is going to be misused, but it does create an opportunity. And when things get tough, and increasingly, as there’s buildup of stress and challenges in families, when people are dealing with the challenges of living, maybe dealing with microaggressions themselves, when people’s coping gets overwhelmed, it’s sometimes the case that then that person who is more powerful takes that out on somebody in their life that is less powerful. You’re a good target if you’re less powerful. And it can give the person behaving that way a, feeling of being less overwhelmed and more in control, which is the very final piece of the picture. And that has to do with consequences. So it is critically important that when people use abusive behavior, something happens, but too often, nothing does. Too often, we’re afraid to say something, that there might be a concern about invading someone’s privacy. and then if we do say something, where do people go? How do we get the kinds of services for men so they can have these kinds of conversations? How do we recognize the shame that may result? How do we have a conversation about that? How do we open those, those doors and make sure that this doesn’t happen again? So, of course, the question about why somebody uses abusive behavior isn’t easy to answer. But, it’s part that it’s learned, it’s part because there’s opportunity, and it’s part because we don’t do enough to stop it.

Jenna Mayne: Thank you for elaborating on that. That is really helpful and kind of paints a picture of why abuse can start in the first place. And I’m really glad you talked about power and control. So we can see what a big part this has, like what a big role power and control has when it comes to domestic violence. That’s something that people don’t get in the beginning when we’re talking about abuse either. Right. I think sometimes people think domestic violence is about anger or about lots of other things, but don’t always see it as about power and control. I’m wondering if you’ve noticed that in the people who you’ve worked with, if they’re surprised, if they haven’t maybe seen themselves as having more power over the other person in the relationship, if this is a surprise to them at all.

Katreena Scott: Yeah, I do. I think that for, in a lot of ways, we like to attribute violence to, as you say, problems with anger, or maybe it’s problems because of substance use, or maybe it’s a mental health problem. And it’s true that all of those problems can go together, but what makes it abusive behavior is the fact that individual, then is causing harm to another person. So in terms of dealing with whatever problem that they’re having, the way that they’re dealing with is taking advantage of and doing it in a way that hurts people around them. And, often the men that we work with don’t. They don’t recognize that when they start, they may have a little bit of a sense of that and feel so ashamed of it, they won’t even talk about it or think about it. They may not have as much of, an awareness of how much impact that they’re having on the people around them or with shame. They may then continue to blame the person. So it gets kind of worse and worse. I would say that our systems as well, don’t tend to ask those questions. If we have somebody who’s struggling with whatever that problem is, it’s useful to think about, well, how does that problem look to other people in that person’s family? How is that playing out at home? How can we then raise awareness of that and help the people themselves think about what might be happening?

Jenna Mayne: Thank you. Yeah, that’s really helpful to understand. I also want to talk about the caring Dads program, which you helped develop. I wonder if you could tell us a little bit about what this program is.

Katreena Scott: Yeah, for sure. So, caring dads, you know, came out of some of these conversations. How do we have conversations? And in this case, how do we have conversations with men as fathers about the kinds of violence that they might be using at home and the kind of abuse that they might be engaging in? And, you know, it came out of the same recognition that this conversation had to be had. So I’m trained, like my training is at that of a clinical child psychologist. So I’ve done a lot of work with children who’ve experienced adversity and violence at home. And lots of times I was working with children who were there because of the violence that their father had engaged in. And it might be that a father had been directly, abusive or neglectful to the child, or many times the children had been exposed to violence that he had perpetrated against their mother. And these kids often still had contact with their fathers, but nobody was having those conversations. Nobody was talking to the men about what does that mean for your child? How are you going to kind of reckon with this? How are you going to think about rebuilding or changing your behavior and rebuilding a relationship with your children? and children were still seeing their fathers, and this silence is harmful. We know that silence around violence is harmful. So we wanted to start to have conversations with men. And so we worked together across women’s services and, men’s services and children’s services and started to think about how do we do a better job at having conversations with fathers about the, the violence that they abused in the home and the impact on children and the fact that you can’t be a good dad and an abusive partner. The fact that being a good father means also being a non abusive partner to children’s other caregivers.

Jenna Mayne: Thanks for explaining that. Yeah, I’ve heard so much about the program, and I know it’s really developed over the years, and it’s used really widely now, so it’s definitely great to learn more about it. I’m wondering, as well as part of that program, how do you talk about changing behaviors in that program, or how do you kind of get at, changing abusive behaviors?

Katreena Scott: Yeah. So I’m glad you asked that question as well, because I think sometimes people think that abusive behaviors can’t be changed, that, you know, somebody, once they’re abusive, they’re always abusive. And it is true that there is a, small subset of guys who, or abusive people in general where change is really hard to come by. But for many people, change is not only possible, but change happens. And it does require work. It does require change, but, change is possible. And so in terms of making that change in the caring dads program as well as other programs, I think really strong programs for addressing abusive behavior. The first job is honestly creating space to have the conversation. Although it sounds difficult, and I think it sounds challenging, when we know about the impact on victims and survivors, it’s still the case that in order to invite somebody into change, you have to create a space where you can have real conversations. So that is a space that, holds off some of the judgment of those people as people and allows a space for exploring behaviors, allows a space for exploring the impact of those behaviors. Also allows a space for saying, who is it that you want to be? What kind of father did you want to become? What kind of partner do you want to be? What’s important to you? And so often, you know, men engaging in abusive behaviors will talk about how important it is to provide safety and security to their family. and so it’s a gradual process of then holding up a mirror to who you want to be and what’s happening because of your behaviors. And that’s part of recognizing abuse, a part of taking accountability or recognizing the impact on somebody else and then changing that behavior and walking through in terms of behaving differently. So once you do that, and that’s a big part, being able to hold the mirror up, recognize that this is the behavior that is harmful, and decide that these are the things that I’m going to change, then sometimes it’s a little bit of skill building around, being able to take responsibility for themselves and their emotions. It might be developing new skills for communication or connection. but the kind of things that you want to do to behave or to be a healthy and secure and safe person in the lives of people you love.

Jenna Mayne: And I know when you’re talking about these behaviors, I know some of them develop over time. Right. They’re kind of gradual. It doesn’t happen right at the beginning of a relationship, necessarily. A lot of people find that the relationship is really good at the start, or so it seems. And then as things go on, things change and the violence can escalate. I’m wondering if you can see, speak to this a bit and why this happens.

Katreena Scott: Yeah, it’s absolutely the case. You know, nobody is going to go into a relationship where, you know, the first time things start to go wrong, there’s, you know, abusive behaviors that are happening right again. No, nobody’s going to stay in that relationship. and so it is a situation where there’s a slow, often a slow escalation. It is often a situation where, you know, the couple feels very close to each other. Maybe this is the first person that, the person who’s behaving abusively, maybe this is the first person that they’ve been able to open up to that, they feel like they have a connection with. They really want to have. As I said, the value is to have a good and a strong relationship. And so, you know, the first time something goes wrong, then, and the first time they engage in something that’s abusive, the question then is, okay, wait a second. How strongly is the message that, oh, actually, it’s the other person’s fault. Like, it’s not my fault. And then that pattern can set in where, no, it’s that person’s to blame, not me. and then slowly, that can grow so that the next time it happens, that pattern is already set. And so then it becomes even more so that it’s the other person that’s telling blame. I’m not to blame. And then I think the other thing that comes in there is shame. So when people engage in behaviors that they’re ashamed of, you know, and abusive behaviors and behaviors that hurt others are the kinds of things that we’re often ashamed of. The easiest thing to do with shame is to push it away and not talk about it and make it about somebody else. We really hate being ashamed. And so for a guy who’s being abusive, one of the things that helps that cycle repeat is the shame that he may be feeling and then avoiding and pushing onto his partner and making it about her. And then the next time that shame comes up, as well as all of the other emotions that might be happening in that event, and then it goes on. And the extent to which the abusive behavior has helped him sort of feel more in control has helped him feel like he’s kind of doing okay, that gives him relief from that initial, from what’s happening or his concern about maybe where his partner is or makes his concern about the security of the relationship, well, then he’s reinforced for doing it. And if it doesn’t have any consequences, if nobody is saying, you know, there’s some harm here, don’t do this, like we need to talk about this, then it can escalate.

Jenna Mayne: Thank you. That’s really helpful to understand. And I do love that we’re talking about shame and specifically for men who are abusive, because I think women who experience domestic violence, we know there’s lots of shame and stigma associated to that. But I think it’s really helpful to unpack the shame that men experience who are abusive and how this shame is kind of. It’s a part of all of it, right. It’s kind of a cloud over the whole relationship. No one is feeling very good about it. So I’m, Glad we’re talking about that and how it impacts men because I think that’s an important piece if we are going to move forward.

Katreena Scott: It’s a tough line because I think that it’s important and it’s valuable to understand. For many individuals who engage in abusive behavior, they have their own history of childhood abuse. They have their own history of victimization. they’re feeling shame. They have thoughts that are. That it’s not a good situation for them. And being able to recognize that and at the same time recognize that because of that, you’re causing harm to somebody else and that needs to stop. It’s sometimes hard for people to hold both of those in their heads at the same time, but it’s critical.

Jenna Mayne: Yeah, that’s so true. It’s so true. It’s, you know, something has happened to you, but now you’re making something happen to someone else. And. And I think it is so important to recognize. So we’re also talking about people’s men’s childhood experiences and how experiences in their childhood can impact what happens in their relationships down the road. And I know you talk about this more in the beginning of the episode here, but I’m wondering if you can elaborate on it a little bit more and help us understand why someone’s childhoods can so greatly impact their relationships later on.

Katreena Scott: So when we talk about how childhood experiences end up leading to abusive behavior later on, I love being able to think about the complexity of how and when that happens because, as I said at the very beginning, when you get kids, let’s say you get a teenager at that point, it’s so much part of that child’s identity to say, I am not repeating these patterns. I have grown up in this place where I’ve seen my father behave abusively towards my mother. I am not going to do that again. Even as they’re saying that they’re starting a relationship with somebody, maybe another. So they’re starting a relationship with a young woman, and that young woman is doing things that make them feel uncomfortable. And all of these emotions are coming up, and they’re at the same time as vowing never to do this again. They find themselves yelling at their partner and feeling like she’s the one that is causing all of this stress in their relationship and she just needs to stop. And in psychology, we call these vicious cycles. There’s something that happens, we try our very, very best to avoid it, and then we end up creating it. An easy vicious cycle to understand is, you know, I really, really don’t want. My father cheated on my mother all the time. I saw how that happened. It’s really important that my partner doesn’t ever cheat on me, and so I’m going to monitor her and make sure that she never cheats on me, and I’m going to make sure that this relationship is really the only thing she’s thinking about. Not only is that abusive, but it’s almost driving her to cheat. Right. It’s driving that relationship away. So that’s a really easy example of a vicious cycle where my desire to make sure this never happens. Right. This never happens to me, I never repeat the patterns, end up repeating the pattern.

Jenna Mayne: Yeah. It’s so interesting how that can happen. And even with the best of intentions, how things can sometimes get a bit out of control. I also know that when it comes to leaving a relationship, a relationship that is not working, it’s become abusive and a woman is ready to leave. I know that can be the most dangerous time for a woman, and I’m wondering if you can. Yeah. Can you explain why that is?

Katreena Scott: Yeah, there’s a few reasons why it is. I think the one that we think about most often, and the one that kind of comes to mind in sort of popular kind of literature or talk is that, you know, this idea that that’s a loss of control for him and he’ll do everything he can to get trouble. That sort of sense that if I can’t have her, nobody can. And there’s an element to that that’s important to understand. But I think there’s a couple other things to understand. One is that in the context of the relationship, when they’re together, the survivor, the victim, there is continually monitoring and managing his risk. Right? So all of those little tiny things that she may have been doing to make sure that things go well, that don’t trigger him, that makes sure that things are a little bit easier. All of. And to, take a break or to put some resources in when he seems to have had a day where abuse might occur afterwards. All of those things that she’s been doing, she no longer can do. And so she’s not doing that monitoring and managing, and she’s not able to take as many steps to keep herself safe. So there’s that part. And then I think it’s important to understand that his distress is also escalating. And to ask, is anybody reaching out to him? Who’s monitoring with him his risk level, who’s monitoring with him his distress level? To what extent is he then ruminating and going over again and again, sort of revenge fantasies or the thought that she’s the one that has caused that? And who’s talk. Is he getting angrier and angrier? And if so, who is talking him down and having conversations with him about that?

Jenna Mayne: Thank you. Yeah, that’s really helpful to understand because I know that’s something we talk a lot about at our organization is, you know, leaving is the most dangerous time. Make sure you have a safety plan in place. Make sure you’ve sought support for this, and you’re not kind of just doing this on your own on a whim, especially if the abuse has been going on for a while and it is likely to escalate. That is something that we talk about with our clients here, and we do try and warn the public about as well. Something else that I’ve got thinking about as we’ve been talking here is I know you’re talking about the caring dads program, and I’m also thinking about for couples and relationships, I know sometimes couples try and go to something like marriage counseling or go to counseling to kind of fix their relationships, but I also know that this doesn’t always work very well when there’s domestic violence. And I’m wondering if you can explain a bit about this or talk about why this might be.

Katreena Scott: So. You know, one of the things that there’s a pretty problematic history that goes back many, many years around the use of couple counseling in situations of domestic violence. Part of that history rests in a lack of a, good domestic violence risk assessment. So any intervention that involves domestic violence and involves two people really needs to start with an interview with each person separately with a sense of the level and the nature of risk in the relationship, then the other thing about that is, for me, and I think that in terms of recommendations as well in the field, is that if somebody is engaging in abusive behavior, the first thing that needs to happen is that they need to stop engaging in that abusive behavior. The other person can’t fix that. There’s nothing that’s going to happen between the two of them. That means that he’s going to choose not to behave abusively. He does have to ultimately recognize that these behaviors are harmful, that he’s responsible for these behaviors, that these behaviors have an impact. They create fear. They limit his partner’s choices. They make her doubt her reality. They make her doubt her sense of self. And until those behaviors stop, you can’t move on to start to build the communication that you might want to or to change different ways of relating as a couple. So I think that’s the other part that’s really important is what’s the work that has to get done first around stopping abusive behavior before you’re going to do the work of building that relationship back up.

Jenna Mayne: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. And I think the risk assessment is important to talk about and think about there, too. I know also, you’ve done a lot of work looking at domestic homicide, how we can prevent domestic homicide from happening. And, you know, there’s lots of risk assessment that goes into this and recommendations that are involved. I wondered if you could share a little bit about this work.

Katreena Scott: Yeah. So, and I know that you have done a great job on this podcast in some of the other episodes of time, talking about domestic, homicide and some of the risk factors and warning signs that everybody needs to be aware of, of domestic homicide. I think some of the things that I would add to that, and we know a history of domestic violence. We know that a recent separation are both important risk factors. We know that her sense of fear is important. We know that the extent to which, you know, she’s been being controlled by her partner is important. We also know that there are a number of really important risk factors that are about him. So those risk factors include his depression and suicidality. It includes, you know, whether or not there’s a lot of dysregulation in his life, and his kind of level of denial, his level of isolation is important to understand. And so I think that when we start to understand that there are risk factors that are coming from him as well, it helps to remind us that part of the risk assessment that we need to do, and also part of the risk management we need to do is have conversations with him. Because, you know, in those conversations, you likely can have the conversation about, you know, here’s what your risk looks like right now. This is where it might be going. And my guess is that’s not where you want it to go. My guess is that you want to do something different. And so let’s talk about what might be needed for you to make sure that you’re safe, to make sure that you’re taking the actions that you need to be safe in this time of stress, in this time of heightened kind of all sorts of things around the end of the relationship.

Jenna Mayne: Something else we always like to ask guests who come on the podcast, is how you think we can be better neighbours to families who are experiencing domestic violence? And I’m wondering what you would say about this.

Katreena Scott: Absolutely. I think that we’ve had lots of. We’ve had some conversation about how it’s really important to see what’s happening and then open a door to a conversation with people who may be experiencing domestic violence. I would say it is equally important to open the door to a conversation to somebody who might be using violence in relationships. Relationships. And we’ve found in some of our work that when you ask neighbours, friends, and families, and co workers, and you ask, do you have somebody in your life who you suspect might be using abusive behavior? There are a number of people who say yes, and their friends, their neighbours, their co workers, you know, they’re part of the family. And the question then is, okay, so is anybody actually saying anything about that, or are we complicit in the silence? It’s hard. It’s scary to say something, but there are resources out there in neighbours, friends, and families, and also in other kinds of resources about how do you start the conversation? And just like, when you’re talking to, you know, a, survivor, an important start point is non judgment. An important start point is, you know, here are the things that I see that are concerning. I’m worried about you. I’m worried about what’s happening. I’m worried about what your family is. Is there anything that I can do to help? Is there a way that we can start a conversation? And being able to start that conversation with people who may be causing, harm is just as important as being able to start the conversation with somebody who might be experiencing violence.

Jenna Mayne: Thank you. That’s so important to understand, and I think something we haven’t talked about enough. So I really appreciate you being here today and talking about this with us. I’ve really loved chatting with you and learning from you, Katreena. So thank you so much for being here.

Katreena Scott: My pleasure. Thank you very much.

Jenna Mayne: That wraps up this week’s show, but the conversation is far from over. We want to hear what you think. Use the hashtag sheiyourneighbour on Instagram, TikTok, Facebook, or Twitter, and join in the conversation.

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