Waterman revealed his domestic violence shame during a TV interview with Piers Morgan.
The actor, known for TV shows including Minder and New Tricks, told Morgan: “She certainly wasn’t a beaten wife, she was hit and that’s different.”
Rula Lenska left Waterman in 1998 amid claims that he was a drunken wife beater. Waterman denied her allegations.
But in his interview with Morgan, the actor said: “We were going through a horrible time and arguing a lot.
“The problem with strong, intelligent women is that they can argue, well. And if there is a time where you can’t get a word in … I lashed out. I couldn’t end the argument.
“Something must have brought it on. When frustration builds up and you can’t think of a way out … It happened and I’m very, very ashamed of it.”
He added: “I’d never done it before or since. But if a woman is a bit of a power freak and determined to put you down, and if you’re not bright enough to do it with words, it can happen.”
Domestic violence charity Refuge was particularly unimpressed with Waterman’s comments.
The charity’s chief executive Sandra Horley said: “I am appalled by Dennis Waterman’s comments about his violence towards Rula Lenska, which trivialise the abuse he inflicted on her.
“No one can make their partner hit them. However angry or frustrated Dennis felt, he could have chosen to deal with those feelings another way but he chose violence.
“He alone is responsible for his behaviour.”
Waterman revealed another controversial attitude towards women when he told Morgan: “It’s been suggested that I’m chauvinistic but I don’t think I am, I’m just… I think there is a place for women at home.”