10 Personality Disorders That May Cause Intimate Partner Violence

Purdue's Katherine Collison discusses her new research on personality disorders (PDs) and intimate partner violence (IPV).

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | September 19, 2021

A new study published in Clinical Psychology Review takes an in-depth look at intimate partner violence (IPV) and the personality characteristics of people who perpetrate, or receive, IPV. Specifically, the researchers examined the 10 main personality disorders defined by the DSM-5 (paranoid, schizoid, schizotypal, antisocial, borderline, histrionic, narcissistic, avoidant, dependent and obsessive–compulsive personality disorder) and explored their associations with IPV. They found antisocial personalities and borderline personalities were most likely to be the perpetrators and/or victims of intimate partner violence.

I recently spoke with Dr. Katherine Collison, the lead author of the study, to discuss her findings in more detail. Here is a summary of our conversation.

What inspired you to investigate the topic of personality disorders and intimate partner violence and what did you find?

Prior to this project, my research was focused on the basic personality traits (i.e., patterns in the ways we tend to think and feel) related to general aggression and antisocial behavior. In doing this work, I realized that intimate partner aggression and violence were often researched separately from other forms of aggression and that far fewer studies have examined the basic personality traits related to intimate partner aggression compared to other forms of aggression. The goal of a meta-analysis is to synthesize all of the research that has been done to answer one specific research question and estimate the average effect size that exists in the literature. So, this project was really a starting point for me to better understand what research has already been done on personality and intimate partner aggression and where there might be potential gaps to fill.

What we found was that most research on personality and intimate partner aggression has focused on personality disorders, rather than basic personality traits. Personality disorders are clinical diagnoses that describe a pervasive pattern of distress or impairment in how someone thinks, feels, and relates to others. To me, personality disorders can be understood as collections of extreme scores on certain traits. Perhaps unsurprisingly, we found that most personality disorder diagnoses or symptoms were related to both the perpetration and experience of intimate partner aggression. Some of the personality disorders that had the strongest connections with perpetrating intimate partner aggression were antisocial, borderline, paranoid, and schizotypal personality disorders, and these effects did not seem to vary much by gender, ethnicity, or any of the other study characteristics we included as potential moderators.

You found that antisocial personalities and borderline personalities were most likely to be the perpetrators and/or victims of intimate partner violence. Is that what you expected?

Yes, for a few reasons. First, these have been two of the most widely studied personality disorders with respect to intimate partner aggression, and a few meta-analyses have already found that there is a strong connection between symptoms of these personality disorders and being aggressive in a romantic relationship (Spencer et al., 2019; Jackson et al., 2015). Second, the symptoms of these personality disorders are known risk factors for engaging in aggressive behavior or having relationship conflict, which is why they have been two of the most widely studied personality disorders in this area of study. Antisocial personality disorder is characterized by a history of antisocial behavior (e.g., stealing, conning others), self-centeredness, lack of remorse or concern for others, recklessness, and impulsivity. Borderline personality disorder is characterized by chronic feelings of emptiness, low self-esteem, intense and unstable relationships, fear of abandonment, and impulsivity, particularly when feeling emotionally overwhelmed. Additionally, in terms of more basic personality traits, we know that two traits that are central to each of these disorders, antagonism and impulsivity, are the traits most strongly linked to all forms of antisocial behavior. As such, both diagnoses have symptoms that impact relationships with others and make it more likely that conflicts are handled in unhealthy ways.

Can you talk specifically about the relationship between Borderline Personality Disorder and intimate partner violence?

It's important to understand that in order to be diagnosed with a personality disorder, a person has to meet a certain number of criteria outlined in the DSM-5. For borderline personality disorder specifically, someone has to have at least five out of nine possible symptoms. That means that two people with the same diagnosis might think and behave very differently from each other, which is one of the reasons I find personality traits to be more informative than a personality disorder diagnosis.

With that being said, it makes sense why several symptoms of borderline personality disorder might be related to being in a relationship in which intimate partner aggression occurs. Intense emotional mood swings, impulsive behavior, difficulty controlling anger, and extreme perceptions of others (i.e., idealizing someone in one moment and hating them in the next) could all put someone at more risk for becoming physically or psychologically violent with a romantic partner. Additionally, other features of borderline personality disorder, such as chronic feelings of emptiness, low self-esteem, and intense fear of abandonment, might put someone at more risk for staying in a harmful relationship.

How common is intimate partner violence? Do you have any statistics on prevalence rates? Does it vary by country, region, SES, etc.?

Unfortunately, intimate partner violence is common. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in the United States, approximately one in four women and one in ten men have experienced physical violence, sexual violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner in their lifetime. Additionally, over 43 million women and 38 million men in the U.S. have experienced psychological aggression from an intimate partner in their lifetime. We know that this is a pervasive public health issue worldwide as well.

What practical takeaways can your research offer to someone who is currently in an abusive relationship or has been in abusive relationships?

First, let me be clear that the factors that play a role in intimate partner aggression are complex, multifaceted, and related not just to personality, but to situational, cultural, and social-learning factors (among others). Related to that point, these findings are not implying that anyone who engages in or experiences intimate partner aggression meets criteria for a personality disorder, nor do they imply that all individuals with personality disorder diagnoses are in abusive relationships.

Intimate partner aggression can look many different ways, including hitting, slapping, name-calling, yelling in someone's face, throwing things at the wall or directly at someone, blocking a partner from leaving a room or leaving the house, and coercing someone to have sex or not taking no for an answer. For anyone who is in an abusive relationship, physical and emotional safety are the priorities. Talking to a trusted friend, family member, or licensed mental health provider about your experience can be a really powerful way to feel less alone, develop a safety plan, and get the support you need should you choose to leave that relationship. Additionally, the National Domestic Violence Hotline offers many helpful resources on its website and has a 24/7 phone number for people who are experiencing and/or engaging in abusive behavior and need help (1-800-799-7233). Seeking professional couples counseling can also be a way to help improve communication and the ways you handle conflict with your partner.

Do you have plans for follow-up studies? Where would you like to see this research go in the future?

This project really highlighted the need for more research on the basic personality traits that might serve as risk factors for intimate partner aggression. We got some great information about people who have personality disorder diagnoses or symptoms, but the reality is that intimate partner aggression is common and is not just being perpetrated by individuals with clinical diagnoses. I just finished a follow-up study that examined which basic, normative personality traits might put someone at risk for engaging in intimate partner aggression to try to fill in some of those gaps and we're currently writing up the results to submit for publication. In the future, my hope is that we can take this work a step further to help individualize treatment for people who are violent in romantic relationships and address some of the potential underlying mechanisms for that aggressive behavior.