In their seminal work on domestic violence, “When Men Batter Women, New Insights into Ending Abusive Relationships.” Drs. John Gottman and Neil Jacobson defined battering as:

“physical aggression with a purpose to control, intimidate, and subjugate another human being. Battering is always accompanied by injury, and is always associated with fear and even terror on the part of the battered woman.”

This compelling research examined the two types of batterers, nicknamed Pit Bulls and Cobras, and included data showing that, unfortunately, violence rarely reaches an end point in abusive marriages.

Research into how batterers think can help a therapist tease out whether not an abusive relationship can be salvaged, or whether it is beyond the reach of therapeutic intervention.

Gottman and Jacobson describe two categories of batterers; Cobras and Pitbulls. I will discuss Cobras in a future post.

Emotions Explode Quickly

Pitbulls are men whose emotions tend to explode quickly. They are fundamentally insecure and have an excessive and unhealthy dependence on their long-suffering partners. The research confirmed that there is nothing a battered woman can say or do that can effectively stop the physical battering. Once battering starts, it rarely ends, even if the batterer went through a treatment program.

Typically even if physical battering does decrease or even stop, it is merely replaced with emotional battering. This abuse leaves no scars and is not illegal. It is, however, for a previously physically battered spouse a highly effective constraint. It is as effective as physical assault. Verbal abuse is a “sweet spot” for these abusive husbands. They quickly learn that verbal tirades can control their spouses without running afoul of the law.

How do you Spot a Pitbull Husband?

  • Pitbull husbands are quite different from Cobras. They are internally aroused, and their anger increases as the battering runs its course.
  • Pittbull husbands are capable of feeling remorse, and they confine their aggressive behavior toward their partners.
  • Although they feel remorse, they defend themselves arguing that their partner are complicit, or even totally responsible.
  • They are often extremely jealous, possessive, and paranoid.
  • They are extremely emotionally dependent on their partners. They fear being abandoned or being betrayed.
  • Pitbull husbands have a desperate need to control their spouses.
  • They are stalkers, and are often obsessed with a partner who has managed to leave them.
  • They are easier to leave initially than Cobras, but because of their tendency to obsess, they can sometimes be more dangerous in the long run
  • They sometimes describe themselves as victims, and their spouses as the perpetrators.
  • They acquire control by isolating their partner and denying their experience as valid or accurate.
  • They monitor relentlessly.
  • They demand adjustment and change from their partner, but are never satisfied.
  • They avoid change themselves. Problems in the marriage are always outside of the Pitbull.
  • They can be charming and engaging in early stages of courtship. They entrap, then control.
  • They sometimes struggle with depression.
  • They often learned their behavior from a father who was also abusive.
  • Pitbull husbands are capable of chronic ongoing brutality.
  • The pitbull is most dangerous after the relationship is ended by divorce or separation. They ruminate and feel victimized by abandonment.
  • Unlike Cobras, Pitbull husbands have been known to respond to therapy. But they first have to take responsibility for their actions, and actively seek to change. “Responsibility Therapy” is foundational to recovery.

Ready for a change in your relationship?

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Daniel Dashnaw

Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist and the blog editor. He currently works with couples online and in person. He uses EFT, Gottman Method, Solution-focused and Developmental Models in his approaches. Daniel specializes in working with neurodiverse couples, couples that are recovering from an affair, and couples struggling with conflict avoidant and passive aggressive behavior patterns.

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  1. Hello Dr. Dashnaw,

    I am separated from a husband who has an abuse problem and I had an alcohol problem. I have worked on myself and I feel I am in a good place psychologically. My husband refuses to speak to me we have been separated for three years. I’m wondering if you think that counseling would help. And how do I approach him with that scenario.

    1. Hi Patra, I'm glad to hear that you are in "a good place psychologically." Good for you!

      Separations can be very stressful. It sounds like your husband has not fared as well as you have during the separation. If your husband is still actively drinking, couples therapy might be somewhat complicated.

      I strongly suggest that you speak to one of our couples therapists Catherine Pfuntner. Catherine has an ICADC credential as an addiction specialist. She might be able to help you understand what your options might be.

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