Domestic Abuse: Nature or Nurture?

The song titled “Cherry Wine” by Irish musician Hozier is a whimsical sounding piece with very dark undertones. It describes the feelings of man who is being abused by his partner, love for her, a desire to stay with her despite pain inflicted by her hands, and an almost desperate need to explain that he wasn’t that hurt. With lyrics such as “The way she tells me I’m hers and she is mine/Open hand or closed fist would be fine/The blood is rare and sweet as cherry wine” (Hozier, 8-10) guiding the intended audience through the song, the writer reveals knowing the relationship could kill him by saying “Her fight and fury is fiery/ Oh but she loves/Like sleep to the freezing” (Hozier, 22-24). This is a startling realization for the listener that the victim is more than willing to let the love of his partner cover so great a sin they could give in to whatever they wanted. This song presents two different people, a partner that is willing to continue to be abused, and an abuser who hurts the person they claim to love. Studies on the on the latter suggest that many factors contribute to their actions, both environmentally and genetically. However, it is worth noting that many factors that correlate with a domestic abuser also correlate with the victims of domestic violence. This apparent discrepancy warrants a further look at what factor exactly causes brutality and what can be used to help predict it

Unsurprisingly, aggressive tendencies can be traced back to childhood. Dunedin, a city in New Zealand, has had many researchers contribute to its 21-year study titled The Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study. In this investigation they tracked a child’s behavior and environment from birth to age 21, checking in every two years when they were younger and every three after age 15 (Moffitt and Caspi, 1). This allowed them to see correlations in the lives of male perpetrators and victims, and female perpetrators and victims. The general sentiment is that “Violent and anti-social behavior is usually attributed to social factors, including poverty, poor education, and family instability.” (Carpenter and Nevin). But, Moffit and Caspi argue that “aggressive delinquency at age 15” had a strong correlation with being both the person being harmed by their partner and the person doing the harming, regardless of gender (6). As a matter of fact, Moffit and Caspi also found that “When the data were analyzed, victimized women were 10 times more likely to be perpetrators than other women and male perpetrators also were 19 times more likely to be victims than other men.” Substance abuse also comes into play, as it also also strongly connected to all four subgroups (Moffit and Caspi, 6). Though these childhood experiences can indirectly have an impact, other things as simple as ideations of their parents can have a large impact. Some research suggests that men who perceive themselves as falling short of the traditional adherence to their gender role, and/or men with poor emotion regulation are at risk of perpetrating intimate partner violence, especially men who have both aforementioned traits (Berke et al). Vandello and Bosson maintain that as physical aggression is seen as a way to show manhood, abusing their partner might serve as a way for men feel or appear more masculine (qtd. Berke et al).

While environment can play a large part in antisocial tendencies, genetics also have a role. As such, it is said that “A person’s genetic makeup (genotype) predefines a range, which determines the individual’s potential and limitations. Environmental factors determine the exact location of the limitation within that range.” (González-Tapia and Obsuth, 60). One such genetic factor theorized to play a large role in aggressive behavior is the MAOA gene, specifically MAOA-L, a low activity allele. Nicknamed the warrior gene, it is responsible for coding an enzyme responsible for the breakdown of some neurotransmitters such as dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin (Mcdermott et al). Brunner et al investigated several generations of a family known for all its male members engaging in extreme, persistent, and reactive aggression, and all of them having a functionally blocked MAOA gene (qtd. in González-Tapia and Obsuth, 61). While that seems to imply heavily that having a low functioning (or nonfunctioning) warrior gene makes you unnecessarily violent, McDermott et all found that “…that aggression occurs with greater intensity and frequency as provocation is experimentally manipulated upwards…” and caution that while there have been studies and surveys on this gene, “…no controlled experimental studies have tested whether the warrior gene actually drives behavioral manifestation of these tendencies.”

Due to the effect of both nature and nurture, there are many areas where the two overlap and influence one another and no specific experience or trait always causes aggression. In fact, González-Tapia and Obsuth point out “…the MAOA-L gene variant influences the levels of individuals’ impulsivity and emotional regulation, however, this in itself does not necessarily result in aggressive or antisocial behavior as an outcome.” (62). The best link scientists have found genetically only plays a role, and the most likely environmental causes such as being the victim of violence, perpetrating violence, substance abuse, low IQ, and low socioeconomic status all only play a role in creating a person with a risk of inflicting violence upon their partner. To make things even less clear than before, because the MAOA-L gene is carried on the X chromosome it doesn’t seem to play as large of a role in in genetic determination of female aggression; females with two X chromosomes, even if one chromosome carries the allele, are very unlikely to express that phenotype due to the fact that the other X chromosome may have a better functioning version of the warrior gene (González-Tapia and Obsuth, 61). On the other side, this might help explain why men are more likely to commit acts of brutality against their partner and women are more likely to be victims. Breiding et all conducted a survey that found “…nearly 13.4% of women versus 3.5% of men have been injured physically as a consequence of IPV.” (qtd. Burke et al). However, it is worth noting that men are also affected and should be

No matter the cause, intimate partner violence wreaks havoc on victims of all genders, both emotionally and physically. Despite feelings of love for their partner, most are also afraid of them, a fact well reflected in Cherry Wine, the artist singing:

Her eyes and words are so icy

Oh but she burns

Like rum on the fire

Hot and fast and angry as she can be

I walk my days on a wire. (Hozier, 1-5)

The constant stress is taxing on the person, so much so that other problems arise or are made worse. Moffit and Caspi report that “Abused Dunedin women were three times more likely to suffer a mental illness than nonabused women.” (6). The worst part is, the group most at risk of intimate partner violence is young adult women with children. The likelihood of a young women to be abused is double if they are a young mother (Moffit and Caspi, 10). Children in the middle of these situations have a larger chance of witnessing the abuse, or even becoming victims themselves. Because of this, the cycle of violence is unending, with the child being a victim of violence or watching a parent be and then growing up with a large chance they will be victims or perpetrators of that same abuse. Cherry Wine is about more than simply raising awareness about intimate partner violence. While it does that, it also pleads with society to see how harmful abuse can be, even just for an adult without children. Society also needs to take that a step further and have more resources aimed at creating more help for the children caught in the middle of this tragedy. Intervention is crucial to not only protect our most valuable resource, but also to build a world where fewer people will live in constant fear of someone they love.

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Domestic Abuse: Nature or Nurture?. (2020, Mar 31). Retrieved June 25, 2021 , from

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