We Need a New Treatment Program for Men Who Commit Domestic Violence

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Bob Livingstone is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCS 11087) in private practice for 22 years in San Francisco, California. He holds a Masters Degree ...Read More

News about domestic violence fills our airwaves, television screens and internet sites. Several players from the National Football League have been charged with battering their partners. Let’s explore what we as a society can do to prevent domestic violence.

First of all if a women is injured or killed by a man, it is not her fault that this happened. She does not play a “role” in instigating the violence. There is no excuse for a man to pummel a woman; so let’s not have any more press conferences with women apologizing for their “role” in getting punched in the face and unceremoniously dragged out of an elevator.


There is a tremendous need for a therapeutic group for men who batter women physically and/or emotionally. I am a psychotherapist and have been in private practice twenty-seven years. I have worked with batterers individually and in groups. The options for them now are jail or court mandated fifty-two week groups. Some folks need to be in jail because they are so dangerous to others. Others who are incarcerated will not learn how to deal with their internal wounds that caused them to strike out. They will be more damaged after they leave prison and more likely to reoffend. The court mandated groups teach the participants how to echo the jargon the group leaders want to hear. The other downside is that if they reoffend, they are kicked out of the group. I propose to form a group that is voluntary, confidential and on a sliding scale basis so no one will be turned away because of lack of funds.

Contrary to what we are being shown on the mainstream news, batterers come from all ethnic and economic backgrounds. Many professionals would not give the group idea I propose here much of a chance of having any members. After all, they would say, these folks have impossible to treat mental health disorders like narcissism or borderline personality. They are assessed as sociopaths. They traditionally shun treatment. But, I say we have to try to do something. I believe that the first emotion batterers experience immediately before committing domestic violence is not rage. It is fear; the fear that they will be abandoned and this fear quickly turns into anger. Until batterers can feel their own pain and be accountable for their actions, they will continue to injure and murder women.

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Men feel encouraged by our society to express anger, but not sadness. They feel that any display of sadness is a sign of weakness. Weakness is simply not allowed. It can’t be talked about except by dissing another man. Men can never admit that they have any weaknesses. Men feel that they have the inherent right to control everyone around them; especially women. This belief system fuels men’s basic insecurity and worry that they are not going to measure up. Their fear of being shamed is high. This fear of being shamed gets repressed by men’s denial of being allowed to be vulnerable.

Men feel that they have the right to have power and control over women minds and bodies. This sense of entitlement allows for the purposeful loss of impulse control that leads to men beating up women.

This all creates a ticking time bomb ready to explode at any moment. The cycle of violence begins to kick in gear when men are feeling disrespected. They may feel disrespected if their partner has a different view point than theirs, if they want to have sex and their partner doesn’t, if their partner demonstrates more independence than the man can tolerate. They can feel disrespected if their partner prepares a meal that didn’t anticipate. Men beat up women when their expectations are not met and often times their expectations are totally unrealistic. For instance the need for the man to feel that his partner is always emotionally there for him; that she is totally tuned in to his needs one hundred percent of the time. This isn’t possible for anyone to deliver.

Men can be vicious with their words and ugly words can destroy a woman’s self-esteem and confidence. Hurtful words can cause long lasting damage and are an underrated form of abuse. Women develop strategies for avoiding men’s hateful words by anticipating when this spewing may occur. They may purposely hold back their authentic feelings out of the fear of being verbally assaulted. This creates fear, tension and a repressive relationship for women.

I don’t believe that there is any research that points to the effectiveness of court mandated domestic violence groups for men. These groups reinforce the men’s inability to be accountable for their actions. The men are asked only to show up for the class and have a minimal level of participation. This participation will usually be reciting from the text exactly the way it is written. The men quickly learn how to play this game and it fits in with their deceptive and dishonest ways. During breaks in class the men share how they have outwitted the instructor and lots of laughter takes place.

Perhaps the most egregious aspect of these groups is that if a man reoffends and is caught by law enforcement, he is terminated from the group. This causes the men to downplay or not disclose the current violence they are inflicting, I believe the recidivism rate of male batterers is high and this policy does not make any sense at all. It would be necessary to incarcerate if the person had a clear history of being assaultive or murderous.

I believe that the policy of mandating men to fifty-two week batterers groups needs to be eliminated basically because these groups are ineffective. We can develop programs that are voluntary, affordable, confidential and long term. In many cases men will need ongoing support the rest of their lives. I think a model that adopts some of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA’s) program will be helpful. It would be beneficial for men to have a sponsor, someone to call when they feel that they feel they are going to lose control and physically hurt someone.

Men will not be thrown out of the voluntary group if they do reoffend. Honesty will be encouraged and the understanding that the recovery from being a domestic abuser is a long, arduous journey. This path will not be smooth sailing.

Fees for the groups will be on a sliding scale basis. Therapists who run these groups will be aware that they are doing so to give back to the community, not as a means to make money. It would be best it there was one male and one female facilitator running each group. The group leaders then could model appropriate communication. The men will also receive honest feedback from a women about how they come across.

One of the important issues to deal with in the group is self-awareness. The men need to recognize when the potential for violence is building. Most men are under the impression that “She pissed me off and then I hit her.” They are not in touch with the agitation that may have been building for weeks. They push away body sensations that are cues that violence may occur at any minute and disaster may happen soon if the course isn’t changed. In other words, the mindset that delivers a punch to the woman’s stomach has been incubating for a much longer time than men realize.

The group will also focus on defining the meaning of disrespect. Many men have their radar continually on, searching for the disrespect vibe. They are on guard for it 24/7 and often times they feel disrespected if someone looks at them the wrong way. Why do men need to have respect from others? Does respect mean never disagreeing with them? Does it mean that his opinion automatically trumps hers?

The group will help the members develop critical thinking skills so they can learn to appropriately question long held dysfunctional beliefs such as: Men have to control every situation. Men are failures if they make less money than their female partners. Men have to intimate in order to succeed.

The group will also focus on male identity questions. Does a real man cry or express feelings of inadequacy? Does a real man beat up his partner? What does self-respect truly mean? What does empathy mean? What does it mean to really feel your own pain and why is it important? Where did the men learn the use of violence? Were they abused as kids?

The group won’t have a text or workbook to follow. This will prevent rote memorization and feeding back what the members think the facilitators want to hear. The group will have topics to discuss which they will create with the assistance of the facilitator. The group will be responsible for writing their own book for discussion that comes from the class.

In order for men to attend a voluntary male batterer group, a massive education campaign needs to take place. Each community needs a strategy that will reach the men in their neighborhoods. The overall message needs to be that real men admit they have abused women and real men get assistance in order to become better men. It would help if community leaders could speak out about domestic violence and the need for men to get involved in stopping the cycle of abuse.

There is also no pathway in American society for males who batter to find redemption from the world they live in. Their communities, families and partners often avoid them. They are viewed as pariahs whose notoriety is widespread. They are seen as violent monsters whose image can never change.

This really needs to change because it is a huge stumbling block in dealing with male perpetrators of domestic violence. If these men feel that they will never be forgiven for their crimes against humanity, high motivation and enthusiasm for change will not be present.

We have to find a way to acknowledge the intense work men have gone through. We have to find it in our hearts to forgive them and honor them for the time they have been non-violent. We can also celebrate when these men devote time to helping other men who have been batterers.

Keep Reading By Author Bob Livingstone, LCSW
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