Trauma Reenactment: Deja Vu in Domestic Violence Intervention
- Last Updated: Wednesday, 04 August 2021 19:52
- Written by Steve Halley
Welcome to our blog. These posts share some of the many tried and true tools, skills, and techniques that the Family Peace Initiative has found to be valuable through the years. We hope that this Facilitator's Tool Box will become a resource for you in your own quest to be the best facilitator you can be. We will be adding new blog posts monthly. Enjoy!
One of the best tools for helping people examine their cruel behavior in relationships is the Control Log. In various forms the Control Log has been around for a long time. I think it may have been used in the very first battering intervention class that I ever attended, approaching 30 years ago. This tool is most often used within a group, examining one individual’s situation where they had used violence or cruelty. (Check out our video on Control Log uses here)
For those who are not familiar with the Control Log, it is in the form of a worksheet, It has sections intended to look at a participant’s (1) Actions, (2) Intentions, (3) Beliefs,(4) Minimization, denial, and blame, (5) Impacts on themselves and their partner/kids, (6) What nonviolent choice could have been made. The Family Peace Initiative added sections for surface feelings (the emotions that other people saw); Adverse Feelings (The emotions hiding beneath the surface feelings); and the Shadow Message (a core belief).
Over the past month, the Family Peace Initiative underwent a huge transformation, switching all of our services to an online format. I will briefly share a bit of what has been learned as we jumped into the water, headfirst, believing we must do this to provide needed services and ultimately protect victims during this pandemic. With courts shutting down and many services shuttering, we knew we might be the ONLY service with an opportunity to keep contact with those who batter. Ultimately, we have arrived on the other side of a transformation that would have never occurred without the existence of the coronavirus. Here are some of our findings and general thoughts. I hope you find them helpful.
I am sure you have seen collusion in your group. Here is an example. As Stan arrives for his Monday evening battering intervention class he is clearly agitated. Class begins with a “check-in”. When it is Stan’s turn, he states his name and reports that he is feeling angry because “my ex-wife is a bitch”. Before he can say anything else, another group member chimes in, “Oh, you got one of those, too.” Soon, in almost orchestrated fashion, some members of the group are talking about their ex-wives, bitches, and how the system is stacked against men in general. The conversation can take on a life of its own as group members commiserate with each other. Depending on the strength of other members, they may be hard-pressed to offer a different view.
I was excited to hear another Malcolm Gladwell book was out. No matter if you read The Tipping Point, or The Outliers, or David and Goliath, or his new book, Talking to Strangers, you are bound to learn more about a subject, and see things in a different light. I always find his insights intriguing and provocative. It reminds me of Paul Harvey’s “The Rest of the Story”. I think of this often when I listen to a domestic violence professional explain on a Facebook post or other media that domestic violence is caused by “male entitlement” or “male privilege”. Before they have even completed the sentence, I cringe: it is a good soundbite, but the statement is missing “the rest of the story”.
In November, I attended the 24th Annual BISC-MI conference in Ann Arbor, Michigan. It is always a treat to spend three days learning, sharing and connecting with others dedicated to intervene effectively with those who batter. I left the conference with new ideas, validation, and a renewed sense of “we are all in this together”. There is a wide range of approaches to working with those who batter, which the conference showcased nicely. Within this wide range, there were some important common themes. One of these themes, repeated multiple times throughout the three days, is the need for facilitators of programs to “do their own work”. This reminded me of Alice Miller when she said,
“In order to become whole we must try, in a long process, to discover our own personal truth, a truth that may cause pain before giving us a new sphere of freedom. If we choose instead to content ourselves with intellectual “wisdom,” we will remain in the sphere of illusion and self-deception.”
Sadly, the story is frequently the same when working with women in the prison setting. Regardless of the crime, from drug crimes to violent crimes, the story told by incarcerated women is one filled with trauma. I had been in private practice for over 10 years before we brought our Peaceful Families Program to the only prison in Kansas for women. I am trained in EMDR, I have worked with troubled kids for several decades. I am no stranger to trauma. However, entering the women’s prison was different. The experiences that incarcerated women have had in their lives often takes trauma to a new level.
I remember, all too well, my early days as a battering intervention facilitator. I took my job very seriously. I focused on holding those in my classes accountable. I listened very closely to how they blamed their partner, minimized their behavior. If I ever heard the participants refer to their partner as “my old lady” or, “my old man”, I would demand they use names, pointing out that their language was just another way to dehumanize their victims. I learned the language of a facilitator and I used that language well in my classes. I was going to “fix” those who battered and in doing so, was going to protect victims of domestic violence. I did not understand that my way of thinking said more of my immaturity than about those I was serving, and probably did little to protect anyone.
I remember the first time I was introduced to the idea that maybe those who batter are not in need of being fixed. Maybe they weren’t broken. Maybe, instead, people who have used violence in their families needed help in healing.
People commonly come to battering intervention programs thinking they needed help with managing their anger. Many have taken anger management classes in the past, but the problem continued. I normally listen as they explain many of the ways their anger has disrupted their lives. They believe that if they could get a handle on their anger, life would get better. Eventually, I explain that I have some good news and some bad news for them. The good news is that while I have met many who believe they have anger issues, I have never met anyone who actually did have an anger problem. The bad news is that the real problem is much more difficult than addressing “anger”. I offer that If we are going to address this problem, we are going to have to talk about what the anger is protecting. We are going to have to talk about fear. Addressing an anger problem without addressing fear is literally like barking up the wrong tree.
Anger is commonly defined as a response to a perceived threat to either one’s self or others. Therefore, by definition, anger is a response to fear. Battering behavior is never a result of an anger problem. Battering behavior is a pattern of behavior desigend to dominate and control another. There are plenty of other tactics that serve the purpose of dominating and controlling another. Anger is just one of many.
Working with those who batter is serious work. The damage that domestic violence inflicts on partners, children, extended family and friends is no laughing matter. However, in the effort to help people change, humor can help. Building relationships has been shown to be the single most powerful tool in the helping professions, and one of the most powerful tools in relationship building is laughter. With the best of intentions, groups facilitators put on the “accountability mask” week after week, creating a group experience that is serious and can be intimidating and unenjoyable to those we are trying to help. Change can be a painful process, but it does not have to be painful all the time. Facilitators become better at their craft when they can incorporate fun working with those who batter.
I recently read about the challenges facing veterans returning from war. Many had lived through unimaginable trauma during their service…experiences that will likely remain engraved in their memory for life. Often, veterans, like other victims of trauma, create stories upon their return, based on truth, that can be shared with family and friends without too much emotional risk. Soldiers do not have to go into details and reexperience the emotional intensity of their entire story. They can remain safe in their retelling of their “cover story” without having to risk emotional activation and the stirring of their traumatic memories.
Participants in battering intervention programs have cover stories too. It is often too vulnerable for participants to initially acknowledge and be accountable for, not only the violence bestowed upon their partner and children, but also the violence and cruelty that had been bestowed upon them long before they could do anything to be safe. While the cover story is designed for psychological safety, part of the change process is to help move the conversation beyond the cover story, toward genuineness on a deeper level.
Battering intervention is changing.
Recent neurobiology findings show that early trauma experiences literally change the brain.The Adverse Childhood Experiences study (ACE) has provided us with insight regarding the impact of family dysfunction through the lifespan. Adverse experiences have been linked to a wide variety of difficulties, including increased dysfunctional behaviors, chronic health conditions, low life potential, and even early death. One noteworthy finding of this study is the more adverse experiences one has, the more likely a person will use violence against their partner. Battering behavior is, unfortunately, all-too-common when one has childhood experiences of family dysfunction and other forms of cruelty. It is time for facilitators to integrate this information into our approach.
I remember listening, as a passionate intern got frustrated with a group member and blurted out, “Battering is a choice...a simple choice. It is not hard to make another choice. People can simply choose to stop battering!” I watched, as most of the men in the group mentally “checked out”. I shook my head and smiled, remembering how I had wanted the change process to be simple in my early days of this work. Describing battering behavior as a choice, while true, is an oversimplification that does little to help those who batter choose differently. This intern needed to understand some of the driving forces behind “why”, as well as “who” makes violent choices in relationships.
Look no further than a judge in Kansas determining that a 13 and a 14-year-old girl were “aggressors” when they had sex with a 67-year-old man to understand that our legal system can really screw things up. We see this happen often in domestic violence cases: a victim of domestic violence uses some form of illegal violence in a situation that leads to their arrest. This use of illegal violence is not the same as “battering”, as that term requires an ongoing pattern of domination and control of a partner. Without examining context and patterns, victims of domestic violence are often arrested, charged, plead or are found guilty and then ordered to complete a battering intervention program. It seems obvious, but victims of domestic violence, even if they use illegal violence, should never be sent to a battering intervention program (BIP).
If you have led domestic violence groups, you have surely had conversations about entitlement. It is common to hear group participants discuss entitlement beliefs and attitudes such as, “I am in charge because I am the man”, or “I make the money, so I get to decide how it’s spent”. Facilitators have been coached through the years to help participants examine these entitled beliefs to help participants pursue a more equal, non-violent relationship. While entitled beliefs are commonplace in intervention classes, facilitators do not often recognize how these beliefs can come from different sources. Understanding the different roots of entitlement can be useful in intervening with those who batter and can help to elevate safety for those living with an abusive individual.
If you have worked within the movement to end domestic violence for any length of time, you have heard the mantra, “Victim safety and batterer accountability”. This mantra sums up the focus of the fight to end gender-based violence. The proliferation of battering intervention programs was one of multiple ways the system has worked to establish “batterer accountability." While accountability is a critical element for getting those who batter into our doors, and to keep them there, it is an unfortunate shortcoming for facilitators to rely on accountability as the primary focus of the intervention. It often requires much more to be effective.
I admit that early on in my career, I thought accountability was the answer in working with those who batter. I wanted them to take complete responsibility for ALL their abusive behavior, and they were going to recognize the impact that their behavior had on their partner and children...whether they wanted to or not. I saw myself as protecting women by holding participants of my program to a high bar, and I would be satisfied with nothing less. I was going to get these men to change, as there was simply too much at stake to not.
I have been moved by the experiences shared by so many during the the recent Kavanaugh hearings. However, I took pause when our President said, “it is a scary time for young men in America”. The argument is that Judge Kavanaugh has been the victim in the Senate proceedings, and now young men everywhere need to be afraid, as they, too, can be potential victims of false allegations. What struck me, however, is how many times I have heard this “victim” position claimed by perpetrators of domestic violence.
In domestic violence intervention classes, it is common for participants to initially use the defense of, “I’m the real victim here!” They argue that their partner is the one who was violent: “I was protecting myself and I was the one arrested!” They like to point out that if the police come to a domestic violence call, it is the man that is going to be arrested. We hear this frequently as people try to avoid accountability and present themselves in a positive light. While there is no doubt that there is a rare case of someone being falsely arrested and convicted, the clear majority of those who claim this defense are guilty of the crime. In fact, the vast majority of those who were arrested, but not convicted, are also guilty—there just wasn’t enough evidence for a conviction.
I remember him well. He struggled at first in the batterer intervention class. I believed he was trying. He wanted his partner to come back home. She had left him after he had been arrested for beating her. She was living with her parents. He was seeing their kids on infrequent visits. He wanted his family back. He knew he had to complete our class if he was going to have a chance to get what he wanted.
He was a charming, charismatic guy. He had a sense of humor that he used often to make us all laugh. People liked him. He expressed concern for others and tried to be there when others needed him. At the same time, he struggled to be accountable for his own cruelty in his relationship. He liked to blame his partner for his violence. He tended to make excuses for his violence. He was afraid that he was going to lose his wife and kids. He was not sure if he would have a reason to go on living if she ever decided to leave him for good. He was desperate to do what he had to do to get his family back. He had talked once in class about a heated argument with his wife because things were not moving fast enough for his liking. He just wanted her to come home.
I was completing an initial assessment with a young man who had been referred to our battering intervention program. He clearly did not want to be there, but he was doing his best to show that he would cooperate. His answers were short, to the point and he came across as angry in his general demeanor. When I asked him for basic information about his partner, he called her a “bitch” and said that he did not really want to talk about her. When I asked him questions about his mother, he again, used the term “bitch” and described qualities that he did not like about her, including the fact that she had left him when he was young. I decided to dig deeper, so I pointed out to him that I had only asked him about two women in his life and he had described both as “bitches”. I asked him if he felt that way about women in general or was it only these two. He jumped out of his chair startling me. He took off his shirt and turned to show me his back. Tattooed in large bold letters across his shoulder blades was “All Women Are Bitches!” He then turned back toward me and said, “Any more questions?”
I must admit that when I entered private practice I thought I was on my way. I was a trained therapist. I was going to focus my practice on individual and couples counseling, with a little batterer intervention on the side. I had been trained through graduate school and supervised practice. I had learned how to diagnose mental health concerns and I had learned the fundamentals of a variety of therapeutic models. My education was good, but I had no way of knowing what I did not know. Looking back, there were so many things that I thought I knew, but…
When Sherry and Bill came to my office for couples counseling I had no idea what I was about to learn. They were an older couple, from rural Kansas where they had farmed together for most of their adult lives. Sherry did most of the talking while Bill listened.
One topic that seems to get considerable discussion among BIP facilitators is "the chicken or the egg" conversation regarding "thoughts or feelings". The discussion centers around which approach is better. While there are plenty who would argue that focusing on "thinking and beliefs" impacts feelings and is the best approach, there are others who vehemently argue the focus must be first on feelings. The Family Peace Initiative would say that there really is not a "chicken or egg" conundrum on the topic. A facilitator needs to have the ability to work with both thoughts and feelings with those they serve. The inability to do so limits the effectiveness of BIP work. A better question to be asked is not whatto focus on, but "how" do we focus on both simultaneously.
Commonly, participants in BIP classes have strong beliefs about emotions. Participants will say how they were taught to avoid expressing sadness and fear in their childhood. It is normal to hear comments like, "My step-dad told me that he would give me something to cry about if I kept crying", or, "If people knew that I was afraid, they would think I was weak and would take advantage of me". Participants live in fear of being seen as weak, soft, and unmanly. They mask this fear through aggression, addiction, and a host of other defense systems.
In 1989, my wife, Dorthy, was serving as the Director for a shelter program for women trying to escape partner abuse. When she realized that her agency had served the 7th victim of the same abusive man, she recognized that something had to change in society’s response to domestic violence. While serving victims effectively is critical for their and their children's well-being, serving victims after they have been abused will never end domestic violence. Dorthy knew that getting the abuser to change was the only way to stop the violence. Her efforts to start a program for those who batter in those early years formed the foundation of what is now the Family Peace Initiative.
Since the movement to address domestic violence began, the focus has been on victim services. While there is a continuing need for additional money for victim services, battering intervention programming remains almost entirely unfunded. There are beliefs that contribute to this. Here is a list of some:
I had the pleasure of listening to Chris Huffine present last November at the BISC-MI "Miles To Go" Conference in Michigan. Chris has a remarkable skill of describing with clarity what he is trying to accomplish within his Allies in Change Program in Portland, Oregon. One topic that Chris discussed was the overall goal of helping move participants from an external focus to an internal focus. I wondered how many professionals listening to his presentation realized the importance of what Chris was saying. Moving people from external to internal focus is exactly what we ty to accomplish at the Family Peace Initiative as change is unlikely to occur without this. It is an extremely important facilitator skill and may be one of the most challenging to master.
Dominating and controlling another, blaming and the anger that our participants often express, are all forms of external focus. Conversely, internal focus consists of managing, being fully aware of, and being accountable for oneself. Chris Huffine talks about the need to help participants become aware of the emotions behind the anger. He teaches that anger is seen as some other emotion plus blame. Helping participants examine the "some other emotion" without the blame helps them to move toward a calmer, less reactive internal focus.
John Gottman says that the way an argument is started helps determine the way it will end. I believe that the same is true for battering intervention program groups: a good beginning can influence how the group ends. I have to confess, when I started doing this work, I didn’t give much thought to how the group started. It was only after I was involved in this work for a while that I noticed the impact of the start-up, whatever it might be. I hear of some programs using mindfulness activities to begin classes, with good results. One man told me of meditative readings that he uses to set the tone for his group. While there are countless approaches to beginning a group process, I’ve noticed that quite a few of us use a version of “check-in” to start group--but the purpose and way it is administered varies greatly. After trying to use the check-in in a variety of ways, we’ve found a relatively simple version gives both facilitators and participants good results, but for different reasons.
Much the way a vehicle is propelled by a motor, in many ways, people are propelled, or “driven” by beliefs. Rarely do we make a choice of what we say, do, or not do, without a belief “driving our car”. A central aspect of many batterer intervention programs is bringing the beliefs that serve to "justify" cruel behavior the surface. Examples of these beliefs include, " I am the man, so I am the boss" or, "When I am violent, it is because she pushed my buttons". Many group facilitators have been trained in the cognitive behavioral strategies for identifying these beliefs, and discussing them with participants. However, when using a trauma-informed affective approach, these moments can be used to accomplish even more.
It is no longer surprising to me when a participant discloses he was angry when he was first told he needed to attend a battering intervention program. It is common among those we serve. It still puzzles me that a person can be violent and cruel to their partner and not recognize the need to work on changing their own behavior. Thank goodness, most of our participants change their perspective over time. One of the helpful ingredients to make this change happen is something we call the “Ping Pong Effect”.
When discussing the process of change with those who complete our program, they commonly acknowledge the frustration and resentment they held when they first arrived. When reflecting on what helped them to move beyond this, they frequently refer to the stories that were shared by others in the group. They will say something like, “Once I learned that there are other people who are like me--in a strange way, I felt better. I realized I was not alone.”
If you have been paying attention to the news lately, you have heard many women who have been sexually assaulted speaking out publicly. If you are familiar with the #METOO thread, you know that nearly 1.5 million women have acknowledged that they have been victims of rape, sexual abuse and sexual harassment. This should not be a surprise, as research has indicated this prevalence for a long time. Dr. Mary Koss completed a study at Kent State in the 1990’s that showed almost one third of American women, by the time they reach age 25, will have experienced rape, or attempted rape. What often goes unspoken is the number of men—likely millions, who are sexually assaulting women. Some of these men who sexually disrespect women walk into our BIP classes each week. Sexual respect is a topic BIP programs can't afford to ignore.
Welcome to the first edition of the Family Piece Initiative (FPI) Intern’s Blog. This blog will be written by Katie Z. and Anna K., both social work interns, who will be spending the next nine moths learning how to intervene with those who batter. It is our pleasure to share with you some of our learning experiences as we pursue the knowledge and skills to become facilitators for a batter intervention program (BIP).
The first significant lesson we learned at FPI was through an orientation class. Orientation is the first class that participants attend during their 27-week program. We were invited to engage in the class alongside participants who had been court-mandated to the program. Shortly after this class began, it became obvious that we were going to be asked to become vulnerable and take ownership for our own cruel behaviors, exactly what we ask of our participants. Somehow, in what seemed like just a few minutes, the facilitator had all of us sharing things about ourselves that we wouldn’t normally share in every day conversation. Her approach seemed so natural, but we are still not sure how she so easily got us to open up. It was sobering for us to participate in a process that asked us to examine our own beliefs, attitudes, and adverse emotions. It became clear that the FPI journey to becoming a skilled facilitator begins with the ability to look at ourselves.
Ten days after the horrific event, the answers to so many questions about Stephen Paddock’s motive for creating death and destruction in Las Vegas remain unknown. USA Today: October 11, 2017, when referring to Sheriff Joe Lombardo, reported: “Lombardo told the Las Vegas Review-Journal that investigators have interviewed Paddock’s entire family, including his two ex-wives. He said the investigation is progressing, but that a motive for the shooting has not been determined. We may never know,” Lombardo said, “All those things that you would expect to find, we have not found.”
As we watch the news unfold, there have been many predictions, not the least of which is that Paddock must be a batterer. Some have seized the opportunity to declare that almost all of those who are terrorists battered their partner. The challenge with this thinking is that we haven’t refined our approach—it is as if every domestic batterer is prone to mow down others without provocation. We know that domestic violence is common while murder is rare. It is a mistake to think all murderers have the same motive, just as it is a mistake to think all batterers have the same motive.
One of the men who completed the Family Peace Initiative program made a statement a while back that has really stuck with me. He said, “I always thought that my job was to protect my family from monsters who might hurt them. I will never forget the day I looked in the mirror and realized that the monster was not outside the house, but living inside the walls of our home. I realized for the first time that the monster was me.” How is it possible that this man could be completely oblivious to the fact that he is “the monster” his family needs protection from?
In our approach to trauma-focused batterer intervention, we ask people to become responsible for two things: 1) The first is to be accountable for the cruelty that they have used against others; and 2) The second is to become responsible for healing the impact of the cruelty that was done to them long before they could do anything to prevent it. The cruelty they experienced as a child can never be their fault, but they must take on the responsibility to heal the impact of those experiences. To show how these two components are linked, let me give you an example of how it plays out in routine conversations in our group room.
Russ arrived at my office for his initial domestic violence assessment. He had been arrested for domestic violence, and was seeking a diversion agreement with the district attorney. As a condition prior to the diversion being granted, Russ was asked to complete a DV assessment with me. He was a business owner in a small town. He did not want this situation going to court because it could certainly heap embarrassment on him and his family, and impact his business.
I interviewed Russ for nearly two hours. He began his assessment by telling me that he was completely embarrassed that he had hit his wife. He explained that Bethany had an affair with a co-worker. Russ confronted her shortly after he had found pictures of Bethany and the co-worker on her phone in a compromising situation. The confrontation turned to yelling, and during the yelling, she stood up and pushed Russ. Russ slapped her in the "heat of the moment", and Bethany called the police.
Learning styles vary among those who attend BIP classes. The more activities used that relate to different learning styles, the stronger the BIP curriculum. One activity that we use is the Completion Letter. As the name describes, this is a letter that is written and presented by the participant to the class at the end of the program. This assignment carries with it the expectation that it will be a demonstration of what was learned throughout the 27 weeks. The following example was recently read in class as part of a completion process. Of course, the names have been changed:
"Bob” sits in class talking about the cruelty that he used against his wife. He acknowledges yelling at her, calling her names, and on several occasions, punching and pushing her down. The rest of us sit quietly, listening to his effort to take ownership of his violence. As he gets close to the end of what he wants to say, he makes a comment that I have heard far too many times among those who use violence in their families. Bob says, “as bad as I have been to my wife, at least I have never been abusive to my kids.”
I can’t think of a better example of denial than what “Bob” just said. As if he can separate out his violence in the home and play like it only impacts one person. Whenever there are children, abusive behavior towards “my wife”, is child abuse. It is impossible to abuse a partner without abusing the kids. A parent is not a “good parent” if they are abusing their children’s other parent. Period.
If you have been doing work with those who batter for any length of time, it is likely that you have heard the “mantra of shame”. It usually comes unexpectedly. The mantra normally begins with a sigh, and then the eyes shift toward the floor. There is a pause and then the words come, barely audible. “I promised myself…… I swore that I would never become… I vowed that I would never be… like my dad… and look…I am just like him.” Tears often follow.
I have heard this mantra of shame numerous times. This mantra is loaded with the emotional energy of sadness, fear, anger and profound grief for both the suffering of the past and the reality of present day. It is a humbling moment when those who batterer realize that they have recreated the horror and trauma of their own experience. They have found themselves face to face with their own “River of Cruelty”.
I remember playing “tackle the man with the ball” during recess in 5th grade. I hated this game. I didn’t mind “tackling the man with the ball” but I was terrified of being the one getting tackled. I did not want my classmates to know I was afraid, so occasionally, I would muster the courage to grab the ball and run. The blood thirsty mob would join in pursuit, and just as I was about to be tackled, I would throw the football over my head, high up into the air, and someone else would pick up the ball and run. I had effectively given my fear away to someone else.
My work with those who batter reminds me of “tackle the man with ball”. Many who batter go to great lengths to look brave, courageous or manly, but when the façade wears thin and fear becomes intolerable, anger, violence and threats are useful tactics to hand off the fear to others “like a football”. This need to give adverse feelings away to others is a direct result of growing up in “The River of Cruelty” where fear is considered weakness.
Here in Kansas, everyone who gets referred to a batterer intervention program undergoes an assessment prior to engaging in the program. One question we ask is how they were disciplined as a child. A few questions later, we ask about experiences of physical abuse. The answers that people give to these two questions says a lot about how cruelty is passed from person to person and from generation to generation.
Commonly, when the question about discipline is asked, the answer goes something like…
“Oh, I was a bad kid growing up. I got whoopings all the time when I got in trouble.”
I follow up with a question like…
“What did a ‘whooping’ look like in your experience?”
If you are not familiar with Yoda from the movie Star Wars, you are missing out. In this movie, Yoda comes to the aid of Luke Skywalker who has crash-landed on a mysterious planet. Yoda earns Luke’s trust and trains himto be a Jedi Knight. Yoda eventually helps Luke to use his new-found powers to pull his spaceship out of a quagmire. Now, Luke is ready to do battle with Darth Vader and the dark side! Without Yoda, Luke would have had a problem that would have seemed impossible to solve. He certainly would not have been prepared to battle Darth Vader. Figures like Yoda are examples of “enlightened witnesses”. This is a term Alice Miller used to describe the important people who guide us, teach us and accept us at critical moments in our lives.
Most batterer intervention programs work to help those who batter take responsibility for their abusive and cruel behavior. This is believed to be a critical step in the process of change. At the Family Peace Initiative, we too, focus on this critical step. However, over the years, we noticed continuing obstacles for many participants in being able to move toward responsibility. Often, these obstacles centered around the cruelty and trauma participants had experienced long before they became cruel to their partner. With this realization, we expanded what it means to be “responsible” to include responsibility for "healing the impact of the cruelty that was inflicted on them during childhood." Adding this dimension over 10 years ago seems like one of our most significant improvements in helping people become nonviolent. It is as if we found an important missing puzzle piece to our work.
At the Family Peace Initiative, we have several trained victim advocates on staff as BIP facilitators. They bring a knowledge of victim centered work and domestic violence dynamics that absolutely make us better. I was surprised to learn that advocates can pay a high price with their colleagues when they get involved in our work. They receive comments such as "What is making you go to the dark side?", like they are betraying victims by helping provide services to those who batter. Contrary to their colleagues' assumptions, many advocates report becoming better at their work with victims after they became skilled at working with those who batter.
Different people can do the exact same thing for entirely different reasons. Consider a Sunday morning church service. There might be 200 people in the service singing, praying, and listening to a sermon. While everyone looks like they are doing the same thing, they likely have different motives for being there. Some are probably there to commune with God. Others are there for the social interaction. Still others are there because their spouse or parent insisted. While all in attendance are seemingly doing the same thing this Sunday morning, their motives for being there vary widely.
The same is true for those who batterer. While all battering behavior is an effort to gain domination and control, understanding the motive that drives this quest for domination and control is crucial for effective intervention and safety planning. A "one size fits all" perspective reduces a program's effectiveness and can leave victims extremely vulnerable. The Family Peace Initiative has operated since its inception with an understanding of different motives of those who batter. Here is the way we break down the common motives among those who batter, and how the differences can impact their victims.
It was a memorable group session. The topic for the day was "Sexual Respect". Both Janet, my co-facilitator, and Sarah, in the early stages of training, were there with me. We commonly approach this topic by making a list of all of the ways that people can be sexually disrespectful. We work hard with the group to generate a large list of 35 to 40 behaviors that would be considered sexually disrespectful. Once the list is developed, we have everyone count the number of these behaviors that they have used in the past. We love making lists at the Family Peace Initiative, as it is a simple, yet highly effective way to get participants to acknowledge cruel behavior. This time, however, our making a list took the group in a different direction.
Janet had looked thoughtfully at the list of nearly 40 sexually disrespectful behaviors that we had just created with the group. She then commented in a surprised tone, “I just realized that I have experienced 33 of the behaviors listed here.” The group fell silent. Sarah calmly added that she, too, had experienced over 30 of the behaviors listed and only a few days ago had been sexually harassed at a stoplight with her young son in the backseat of her car. She went on to say, “I would say that most of my female friends have experienced over 30 of these behaviors as well.”
The men were surprised at how common sexually disrespectful experiences can be for women.
Dick Mitchell, or “Chief Mitch” was the Director of a wilderness camp for emotionally troubled youth. I was fortunate that he chose to become a mentor for me while I worked at the camp. He believed in me, held me accountable when I strayed, made me laugh, played golf with me, and taught me how to be a better counselor. Often when I am facilitating BIP classes I get faced with situations where it is appropriate to employ a tool or strategy that I learned from “Chief Mitch”. While I wish I could remember more of his wonderful “pearls” of wisdom", the one that has been on my mind lately is a comment that he made to me over 25 years ago.
I was having difficulty figuring out how to get my group of 10 troubled kids to function well. My group was not accomplishing much and the kids in my care were extremely challenging in their behavior. I tried everything I knew to improve the situation, but nothing seemed to work. Out of frustration, I told Chief Mitch, "these kids are impossible!"
Chief Mitch came down to my campsite one afternoon to evaluate the situation. After spending a long, difficult afternoon with the kids and me, he said something like, “You know Steve, I think that probably 80% of the problems that happen in the groups around here are the result of counselor error. As counselors get better, problems seem to go away.” Then he walked away leaving me to puzzle over his words.
I think that Chief Mitch would agree with me when I say that probably 80% of the problems that arise in a BIP classroom are a result of “facilitator error”.
I remember a domestic violence poster that I saw in the early 90’s. The poster showed the picture of a battered woman. Her face was bruised and swollen. The caption said something like, “If this is happening to you, call this number for help”. In big bold numbers, the hotline number was inviting victims to call. When I started facilitating groups for those who batter, this poster represented my belief that our mission was to help protect women from being beaten up in relationships.
Every time we selfishly think of ourselves without considering the impact of our decisions on others, we have crossed the line into cruelty.
It did not take long before I recognized that my definition of abuse was entirely too narrow. Of course we want to help women, or men, who are being physically abused in relationships. However, there are plenty of other behaviors present in abusive relationships that are equally harmful, yet leave no tell-tale signs. My focus on the physical types of “abuse” was counterproductive in working with those who batter, as it allowed them to avoid examining the full spectrum of their abusiveness. Working with the FPI staff, we examined our use of definitions. We thought about the impact of our definitions on those we served. We explored how the definitions invited introspection or created defensiveness. We wanted a definition that encompassed the magnitude of the problem. Over the years, we've adopted some definitions, from other programs and from other sources, that have helped us immensely. Here are some of the definitions that have become central to our work:
Len came into my office many years ago for a domestic violence assessment. He had been arrested after an incident with his wife and was ordered by the court to complete the assessment and follow the subsequent recommendations. I must admit that I was excited to have the appointment as I was just starting a BIP program in this particular community. He was my very first referral there. I had been in private practice for a few years, and had completed a fair number of assessments in other communities. I have to admit that I thought I was pretty good at my work and I was ready to get this program up and running.
I was confident that this was an incident of situational violence where emotions had gotten out of hand. Nothing indicated a pattern of domination that I was “expert” in detecting.
During my interview with Len, I was struck by how much responsibility he was taking for the incident. He described how his wife, Michelle, had gone on a camping trip with some of her co-workers. She had been drinking most of the weekend and she ended up sleeping with one of her co-workers. Len explained that he had learned of this after she returned home feeling guilty. “I can always tell when she is lying to me.” He said he had been stunned by the news as he never expected Michelle to “stray”. He said that he overreacted and in the “heat of the argument,” slapped her. He had never hit her before and he felt horrible. He had apologized to his wife for his behavior but he could never recover from her cheating on him. Len explained that they were in the middle of divorce proceedings. I listened intently, thinking I was pretty good at my work.
If you are like most facilitators in batterer intervention, you have had that moment in class when you are at a loss as to what to say. Perhaps a participant has challenged you in an unexpected way, or has raised a question that catches you off guard, leaving you frozen, looking for the right words to say next. During these moments, it is easy to feel lost, unsure, confused, or even incompetent. When I train facilitators, I hear questions such as, “What do I say when a group member blames his partner?”, or “What do I say/do when he/she gets angry?”, or “What do I say when a participant refuses to take ownership of abusive behavior?” It may be more helpful to start with a different question. Instead of “What do I say when…?”, it can be more helpful to ask, “What Focus Area needs to be addressed?” Understanding the Five Focus Areas of BIP can create more confidence in choosing how to address situations.
When I talk about the Five Focus Areas, I am talking about the fundamental categories that practically all BIP conversations can be placed into. These five areas are:
ATTITUDES AND BELIEFS
If facilitators understand these focus areas, it makes deciding how to approach a situation much more clear.
Without a “fence”, few horses will be trained, and few batterers will change their behavior.
Easter Eggs and Battering: Survival-based Motive in DV
My wife, Dorthy, and I took our son, Max, and our two grandchildren, Camri and Tylr, on an Easter egg hunt while we were living in a rural town in southeast Kansas many years ago. This hunt was a huge community event in our little town. Eggs had been spread out over the lawn of the county courthouse, people circled the square, with kids poised to race for goodies as soon as the horn sounded. Max and Camri, ages 5 and 6, knew what was happening. It was almost as if they could already taste the chocolate and marshmallow candy. However, three-year old Tylr was not sure what the commotion was all about.
The horn sounded, and mayhem commenced. I heard this almost uniform squeal from the kids who began to dart everywhere in search of candied treasure. Dorthy took little Tylr by her hand, encouraging her to run and find the eggs. We had agreed that we would meet at the fire hydrant after the chaos subsided and all of the eggs had been found.
...there are many who batter who are horrified at the thought of losing an “emotional egg” from their nearly empty “basket”.
Years ago, while working as a court services officer, I took “Ben” to visit Boys Town in Nebraska. This young man knew that his home situation was not healthy, but he was reluctant to consider a different living arrangement. When we walked into the main office of Boys Town, the receptionist bounded out from behind her desk and greeted Ben with enthusiasm. She asked about our trip, and asked if we needed anything. While she was polite to me, she maintained her attention and focus on Ben until the admissions representative joined us. The admissions representative interacted with us in the same enthusiastic manner. She was clearly prepared for our visit. She asked Ben excellent questions, and treated him as if he was the most important person in her life at that moment. We never sat in a waiting room. She simply treated Ben as if he mattered. The outcome of this visit was that Ben decided to live at Boys Town.The Boys Town receptionist and admissions representative created such a positive connection that it left a lasting impression on me. So much so, that I am writing about this experience 25 years later. Boys Town had intentionally honed the art of engagement.
"Beginning facilitators can become reactive to these early defenses. This reactivity can harm engagement efforts."
One of the first concepts that most of us learn when we are training to facilitate BIP groups is the need to address minimization, denial and blame. We learn that those who batter will use these tactics in order to avoid responsibility for their behavior, and they sure do. We are taught to challenge these tactics when they arise in group conversation, and focus on the dysfunction of using these tactics to escape responsibility. While bringing their attention to these behaviors is valuable, how we frame our response is crucial.
Has it ever occurred to you that perhaps our participants’ use of minimization, denial and blame is a positive indicator of awareness of their behavior being wrong? If they were not aware on some level of their behavior being “out of bounds”, they would not need the benefit of these tactics. If this is contrary to how you have approached this challenging issue in your group, please allow me to explain.
“…our participants’ use of minimization, denial and blame is a positive indicator of awareness of their behavior being wrong.”
Facilitating a domestic violence intervention group comes with many unique challenges. Accountability and ownership are key components to a BIP class, but it can be challenging to find a healthy balance between these while simultaneously maintaining a positive relationship. How to help participants take responsibility for their behaviors quickly and safely without sacrificing emotional safety can be a challenge for even the most seasoned facilitator.
Here at the Family Peace Initiative, we love to make lists. We have found that the simple act of “list making” can open doors to the ownership of behavior that can otherwise be challenging to open. Here is how we do it: