Change Is Slow in Therapy Group for Men Who Batter : Counseling: Many rationalize their violence to women. But in a series of sessions, some break the cycle.
At first, counselor George Thomas lets newcomers such as Rick vent.
“Some women like to be dominated,” said Rick, a gum-chewing man in jeans who rammed his wife’s head with his own until she bled. “Some women,” he added as listeners nodded, “are prone to violence.”
Most of the 18 men in the group were like Rick. A judge had ordered them to come to Thomas’ domestic abuse prevention program every week for six months to a year or risk having a warrant issued for their arrest. They do not want to be there. They often think what they did was acceptable.
Gradually, Thomas cuts them off and starts to challenge their thinking. “ ‘Prone to violence.’ When I hear that, I ask: Who do you know who asks for physical pain? If you want to find out if a woman is into abuse, ask the women you know--including your mother.”
As the men progress to more advanced counseling groups, some undertake a painful examination of their behavior and their past and seek new ways to connect with women. But Thomas knows there are no guarantees. He estimates that his own success parallels national findings that half of those ordered into counseling drop out and only about half of those who finish the course stop beating their partners.
With the spotlight on O.J. Simpson, a man with a history of spousal abuse now accused of killing his ex-wife, more people are asking what causes domestic violence and what can be done about it. Experts continue to debate the causes of domestic violence, which the surgeon general has identified as the nation’s single-largest cause of injury to women, and are working to distinguish different types of batterers.
Meanwhile, Thomas applies 20 years of experience as a lay counselor at the Southern California Counseling Center. His sessions in a brick-walled room of the center’s basement offer a glimpse into the lives of batterers and the way they think.
His program is one of about 80 in Los Angeles that follow new state guidelines for the treatment of batterers. Those guidelines require counselors to insist that batterers accept total responsibility for their behavior, understand it is a matter of power and control, and learn new coping skills in long-term, group therapy programs.
It’s not easy. Thomas knows the emotional world these men come from is often overgrown and disconnected, a place where women count for little unless they are love objects. Then they matter more than almost anything.
The way Thomas sees it, batterers are not necessarily abusing the power society accords them. “The reality is all these men are very dependent on these women. . . . They come in believing women have the power. They sense they don’t have control. When they act out is when they feel helpless and powerless.”
His counseling is not about squelching feelings of anger or rage, he said. It’s about changing the men’s values and beliefs.
Thomas, a long-divorced nonconformist raised on the rough side of Detroit, was a 1960s activist when he came to work at the Southern California Counseling Center, an unusual facility that trains lay counselors to provide affordable mental health services to the community. Amid the grass-roots shelter movement for battered women in the 1970s and ‘80s, he said, he was challenged to provide services for the men.
“A woman whose husband had slashed her throat in front of her kids called me up in 1986 and asked me what was I doing for batterers? I told her nothing. She told me if I wasn’t part of the solution, I was part of the problem and hung up. I said, ‘I’ll show her.’ ”
Thomas, 51, patterned his program after the Duluth Domestic Abuse Intervention Program, a model that is used by hundreds of communities nationwide, but he constantly revises it on the basis of his experience. He has tried to create a non-threatening environment in which the men will be confronted with their behavior, realize they are the problem and stay to become role models for other men.
At a recent Friday night class for new members, 18 men sat in a circle on sofas and chairs. The room was lined with handmade posters, such as those explaining the “Cycle of Violence” or the elements of “Power and Control.” One chart outlined the group’s regular agenda including a “check-in” of the previous week’s violent incidents and “brags” about the men’s successes.
Thomas applied the art of the question to newcomers who chuckled like schoolboys over their misdeeds. “I heard something about my girlfriend and I choked a little information out of her,” one said to group laughter. Thomas asked evenly: “Did she think you were trying to kill her?” “Yeah,” he replied, “I guess so.”
Another said he pushed his wife around after he had been drinking. “So now I’m divorced. That’s the best way,” he shrugged to applause from the group. Thomas asked the man how long he had been married. “Twenty-one years,” he said. “Four kids.”
Thomas asked some about their progress after the first eight weeks. Oscar, a scholarly looking man in wire-rimmed glasses, said he is learning to use the timeout technique, to stop and think when he feels his anger building. Before, when his wife got on his nerves, he said, he would have “hit the hell out of her.” Now, he said, “Time-out flashes in my mind. I thank the Lord.”
Rick said he is learning to control his anger a little and that week he had held back from thrashing his brother in an argument. But it is harder with his wife. He knows he is possessive. “Once we get started, it just doesn’t end. I want to deal with it,” he told Thomas. “I love her.”
Thomas generally passes over a longhaired, tattooed man in a muscle shirt whose negative generalizations about women are laced with expletives.
Thomas told the men they will soon graduate into smaller groups in which they will be taught techniques to stop the escalation, and learn to recognize abusive patterns in their families. They might role play with Thomas, re-enacting abusive incidents.
Along the way, Thomas will teach some new skills: Call women by their names and don’t generalize (“You won’t punch Betty, but you’ll punch a bitch”); take time to care for yourself; learn to express what you want verbally and develop a network of men to talk to in order to reduce emotional dependency on women (“Women become their voices. Men believe they don’t have to talk and women are socialized to speak for men.”)
When the men ask why they batter, Thomas skims over root causes, saying they matter less than current behavior. Although alcohol or drugs are problems for about a third of the men, he assures them they remain responsible. Discussing childhood mistreatment is important only to understand adult problems, not to wallow in excuses.
Thomas had little patience for a theory advanced by a man in one of his more advanced groups. John, a slight, fast-talking man who was convicted of hitting his wife, asked Thomas: “Aren’t males born more aggressive? When I watch ‘National Geographic,’ I see how it is with the male and female lions.”
“We didn’t come from lions,” the counselor replied.
Even though he is sometimes angered by his clients’ behavior, Thomas retains his compassion. “They don’t have to be perfect. They don’t have to be right,” he said. What’s important is that they “be willing to think and be open.”
Experts disagree on the causes of spousal abuse, and what it means that 72% of men surveyed nationally are not violent in their marriages. Some say it proves abuse could not be the result of social conditioning; others say it proves it could not be a natural instinct.
Whatever the cause, researchers are learning that there are different types of batterers.
According to Don Dutton, a psychologist and researcher at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, 55% of battering men are stifled people who don’t know how to express anger, which can erupt into violence in reaction to stress.
Another 20% have “borderline” personalities, a style defined by intensive anger in intimate relationships and mood swings described in the “Cycle of Violence” chart hanging in Thomas’ basement--increasing tension, a dramatic blowup, remorse and apologies.
A quarter, he said, are generally considered untreatable due to severe antisocial psychopathic tendencies.
Researchers believe the different types of batterers may require different types of intervention; the problems of some men are too complex and deeply ingrained to be solved with a brief education in the cycles of violence and coping skills.
Advocates for the victims of spousal abuse say the most serious problem with counseling programs is the false hopes they raise in victims that their partners will change, preventing them from making permanent plans to protect themselves. Some also worry that group sessions can devolve into negative male bonding.
Experts agree that counseling works only for men who have decided they want to change and are receptive to treatment. For some, the motivation is fear of jail; others fear losing their families or are fed up with their behavior.
In fact, most counseling programs are based on the belief that men can choose to be less violent. But to the men, it doesn’t feel like a conscious choice, Dutton said. “This stuff has been jerking them around for years.”
Andrew, a muscular young man, told Thomas during a recent counseling session that he had attended therapy groups “from Saugus to Long Beach” in an attempt to conquer his problem and they all offered different advice. “I got to find out what makes me go off the wall,” he said.
At “check-in,” Andrew reported that he has become less physical with his wife since he began counseling, but his verbal abuse has escalated. When his wife decided to have lunch with an old boyfriend, he said, he started a name-calling fight that ended with the police being called to their home.
Then he suggested that if only she had not gone to lunch, none of it would have happened.
This time, the four other group members nodded with Thomas as he brought out the “Power and Control” chart. They had already been taught about their tendencies to blame, justify, deny and minimize. “What I’m talking about is denial. You got to be responsible for yourself,” Thomas told Andrew. “Take a timeout. Call the 24-hour hot line.”
Andrew looked confused. “You guys are telling me I need to take a timeout? When? I’m with the kids. I can’t talk ‘til she’s ready. She said one word that lit the candle. When could I have stopped it? When?”
Brian Scott, who has been in counseling six months and sometimes helps Thomas lead the sessions, said that when he feels that kind of rage, he starts to think of what’s important. “My kids are important, but I’m important too.” He said his home is peaceful now. “It took a lot of communicating and timeout. With other people too, not just her.”
After class, Scott caught up with Andrew in the hall, telling him it was hard too for him in the beginning and not to be scared off.
Scott, a 30-year-old unemployed sign technician, said he realized he had a problem during one argument with his wife when he heard his daughter say, “Just hit her.” He did not want her to grow up thinking this was acceptable.
“I was one of them guys who said I’m not to blame,” Scott said. “George (Thomas) got me. He said, ‘What you’re telling me is a bunch of B.S. How can it be her fault? If a big man like myself walks up to you and curses you out, do you hit me? No. Why when this little woman curses you out, do you hit her?’ I got to think about that.”
At the next weekly meeting, Andrew returned and reported at check-in: “My wife and I are doing good. . . . Too well. I’m waiting for something to happen. A lot of times we reach a level where there’s nothing to kiss and make up for. It’s like, now what?”
Thomas suggested Andrew and his wife make a contract to spend five minutes talking over their feelings when the tension inevitably starts to build again. If one or the other can’t do it, they owe the person a dinner or a back rub, he said.
Daniel, a convicted wife-beater with a slow and lilting Caribbean accent, bragged that he has put the idea of equality into practice in his relationship. “My life is wonderful. I don’t have no problems. For the rest of my life I’m going to be equal to my partner.”
To the scorn and fascination of other group members, Daniel reported how he now does housework voluntarily, cleaning the bathroom, doing dishes and shopping for groceries. “If I hear the baby cry, I get up and feed her.”
One listener said, “If a friend came by and saw me doing housework and my wife kicking back, I’d be embarrassed. . . . My mom would say, ‘Hey, you don’t have to do that.’ ”
Another said his friends would call him a wimp.
Daniel just laughed. “In the night when you need some loving, who are you going to go to? Your friends or your wife?”