Can Batterers Change?

We are often asked if abusers ever change.

The answer to this question is a tricky one and it varies widely. First, there is a range is what an attempt at change can look like. On one end of the spectrum, it could be a man trying everything in his power to keep a promise made to his wife that it would “never happen again”. It could also be an abuser who made that same promise with no intention of deliberate follow through.

Often the batterer we think of when we evaluate change is the one actively involved in some kind of rehabilitation program (usually facilitated by a court mandate). This is also the batterer we are better able to track and have more access to researching. For those reasons, data on this topic is likely to be skewed toward court-involved men in Domestic Violence Intervention Programs (DVIPs).

Even narrowing the field to men engaged with a DVIP produces a wide range of approaches and a lot of grey area surrounding outcomes. According to the Duluth Model, “68% of men who pass through the criminal justice system response and are sent to our men’s nonviolence classes have not reappeared in the criminal justice system over a course of eight years.” That is a promising statistic. Unfortunately, the Duluth Model is not used universally.

That means that the best case scenario is that approximately two-thirds of abusers don’t appear in the criminal justice system for eight years. Which really just means that they don’t get arrested. We know that domestic violence is one of the most under-reported crimes, so we can assume that some of these men continue to batter (perhaps scaling back to “just” emotional, verbal and financial tactics to control) without detection.

The question here is not how many batterers change, but if they can. Since we believe abuse is a choice, we must also believe that abusers can choose to stop it. The difference between success and relapse could be any or all of the following factors:

  • Motivation: Is the batterer truly embracing change? Has he admitted to a problem? Is the timing right to focus on treatment and implementing new habits?
  •  Support: Is there adequate support from family/friends? Is there incentive from the legal system?
  • Treatment: Is he receiving treatment? Is the treatment high quality? Does it follow a proven curriculum?
  • Other Factors: Is substance abuse also an issue? Are other medical or mental health issues being addressed? Are current living or work situations healthy?

As a society, if we are going to address the entire issue of domestic violence, we must not neglect change among the abusers. In Clackamas County we practice offender accountability through the Domestic Violence Deferred Sentencing Program (DVDSP), within the Family Violence Coordinating Council (FVCC), and numerous DVIPs.

Don’t Help, Can’t Fix

You don’t have to be employed in the domestic violence field to be affected by it—domestic violence touches everyone. It can be hard to know how to handle a friend, an in-law, a co-worker or child seeking support for an abusive relationship. It’s easy to fall into “shoulds”, decide to solve the situation yourself, or pass judgment on the decisions she has made thus far.

The first step, as always, is to step back and remind yourself that she knows best. She came to you. She has survived this far. She best knows the dangers of her situation. She is capable of making choices to keep herself safe. This can be a hard idea to grasp, especially if there are children involved, substance use, or mental health issues, such as depression. Survivors often need some urging in acknowledging their intuition—and encouragement in listening to it—but they know.

This approach bolsters self-esteem and self-determination, while also taking much of the pressure off of you. You no longer have to come up with the answers or determine the direction. You are free to support and encourage, to point out progress, offer praise and practice positivity. This role is mutually beneficial and will ultimately allow you both to “work” together better, and longer.

You are likely wondering why helping is bad. To assume you can help someone implies that you have some kind of power or expertise that they lack. It erects a power structure that complicates the relationship and may constrain the ways in which you can support or she can confide. Helping strips her power and augments yours, as if you are leaning over a ledge offering a leg up. Utilizing your own strength may seem the easiest way, but it will exhaust you in the end and can leave her dependent and still unable to trust in her own intuition and abilities.

Similar caution must be offered against trying to fix the situation. Once again, such a stance is dangerous in all that it implies. Most glaringly, it implies that she, or her life, is somehow broken. Fixing discounts her many positive attributes and all the hard work she has put in thus far, focusing only on the wrong, the negative, or the [perceived] broken. It also presumes that there is an available and obvious answer to her problem that she was somehow unable or unwilling to see. Fixing does nothing to empower her, in the present or in the future, and embarking on such an endeavor will likely create distance between you two that will exist for a long time to come.

Release yourself from the burden of helping her out of abuse or fixing the violence in her life. Concentrate instead on supporting her where she is at. This collaborative approach assumes no power and implies no lacking; it will strengthen you individually and together.

For more information on this concept or approach, read Helping, Fixing or Serving by Rachel Naomi Remen.

She Knows Best

Have you ever thought about all the ways a survivor may be told she doesn’t have a clue what’s best for her?
To start, her abuser tells her. He tells her all day long. He’s told her for years. He’s told her so many times she’s begun to tell herself. She doubts herself. She questions her abilities. She may even distrust her motives. She has been brainwashed to blame herself for his abuse.

Society then echoes this sentiment.

The “traditional” shelter model (littered with rules, regulations and heavily reliant on policing and punishment) tended to treat survivors as if they had done something wrong. The criminal justice system has been known to arrest survivors who fight back and refer them to a Domestic Violence Intervention Program or sentence them to fines and jail time. Child Protective Services can, and does, remove children for threat of harm (often called “failure to protect”).

Do the systems meant to keep survivors safe trust in her?

Then there are the friends, family, and/or acquaintances that often blame her for not leaving sooner. Or not staying gone. Some may still be resentful she dated such a guy in the first place. Others are unable to believe the abuse even existed.

There is a common misconception that a survivor who stays enjoys or invites the abuse. Of course this is not true (no one deserves to be abused—period), but acts as a sobering example of victim-blaming. These are only a handful of the harsh and undermining realities survivors face.

Let’s imagine for a second that she does know best.

Perhaps an innate understanding of safety and danger has allowed her and her children to survive the perilous relationship thus far. Perhaps she didn’t leave earlier because she knew it was not yet safe. Perhaps she contacts her abuser because she knows regular texting keeps him at bay. Perhaps her drinking was a form of self-medication, a desperate coping skill that she can only begin to address once she is free and safe and has time to process her trauma. Perhaps she doesn’t need rules and re-training but compassion, a safe space, and the chance to again acknowledge and trust her intuition.

There are many factors that play into our failing to act as if a survivor knows best; abusers are master manipulators, victim-blaming runs rampant, and systems struggle to implement and execute their good intentions.
If we want to effectively address domestic violence on both small and large scales we have to be more intentional about treating “victims” as survivors, capable of making their own best choices. She does know best. Let’s give her the chance to show us.

Clackamas County Resolution Services

Sometimes the amount, and extent, of available resources can be surprising. For example, most people are unaware of the work being done at Clackamas County Resolution Services (CCRS).

CCRS services include:

  • mediation (between individuals or within a community)
  • counseling
  • parent education classes
  • conflict resolution training

These services are available to anyone in the community and fees vary by service. Couples who are in the process of ending a marriage or partnership are entitled to some mediation sessions are no additional charge (the cost is covering by court filing fees).

Domestic mediation can be a helpful option for resolving disputes. It is less expensive than formal litigation and includes more accountability than meeting in a coffee shop or addressing conflict via text. For domestic violence survivors it is especially helpful to have a third party in the room—and vital that they understand the dynamics of abuse. Survivors are often baffled by the odd requests their abusers make and then further frustrated as his mind changes on a dime. It is not uncommon for a couple to hammer out a parenting agreement that heavily favors the abuser’s demands only to have him throw the agreement out the next day. Having another person to support a survivor’s reality can help reassure her sanity during a time when the abuser often revs up his tactics to maintain power and control.

That being said, mediation is not always the best thing for a DV-involved couple. CCSR screens for domestic violence and can alter the form mediation takes to suit individual need. This is also true for those with a restraining order at any time within the last calendar year. Couples with minor children may be ordered by the court to attend mediation.

About 75% of service users reach an agreement on some or all of their issues as a result of mediation. Mediation is also available in Spanish.

Beyond a Bruise: Domestic Violence Is…

There are many terms to describe an abusive dynamic between two people in an intimate relationship: domestic violence, domestic abuse, intimate partner violence, wife-beating (just to name a few). Yet, there is one image these all bring to mind–physical violence.

Domestic violence is typically considered to be a punch, a slap, a bloodied nose, a bruised arm or a blackened eye. And only that. This misconception is damaging to the many survivors living with, or navigating life after, an abusive and traumatic relationship that wasn’t physical. It doesn’t help the stigma that the legal definition (needed to precipitate an arrest or warrant a restraining order) encompasses only physical abuse that can be proven.

An abusive relationship is so much bigger than bruises; it cuts deeper too. We often hear survivors say that bruises heal in days or weeks but it can take decades to get an abuser’s voice out of their head. Most survivors report emotional abuse as the most debilitating; it nurtures self-doubt and often leads to a total loss of self-worth.

Abuse can look and feel like many different things but always boils down to the same issue:

Power and Control

Domestic violence is not a one-time event. It’s not the result of a single angry outburst or the product of one drunken night. Domestic violence is systematic. The tactics of abuse follow a pattern and it’s a pattern both survivor and the abuser are familiar with.

If you’re having a hard time wrapping your mind around DV being purposeful and calculated, consider where the abuser directs his “anger”. It’s not at his boss. It’s not in front of his friends. It’s toward his wife and it’s in his home. So often the behavior itself disproves the “uncontrollable outburst” theory.

It’s important to understand that the survivor of an abusive relationship knows best. It is not uncommon for a survivor to struggle with labeling her relationship as domestic violence–even if she is familiar with her partner’s unique abusive pattern. If she does confide in you, recognizing the extent of her suffering can make all the difference. In a society that draws the line at a black eye, it’s easy to become desperate for validation of other forms of abuse.