Robin J. Landwehr answers six common questions people have about what happens in a group designed to help abusive men stop abusing.
When was the last time you were told – court ordered, even – to pay your hard-earned money and spend two hours per week for at least six months to change an abusive behavior that you don’t even think you have?
For many of the people who start intimate partner violence (IPV) offender treatment groups, this is exactly how they perceive their situation when they just get started.
Now, there are many different ways that these groups are conducted. And while there are also groups for women offenders, as well as groups that serve LGBTQIA+ people and relationships, I can only discuss the kind of groups that my co-facilitator and I run: IPV offender treatment groups that consist of cis men who are in treatment for abusing women.
And nearly all of the members in these groups are court ordered to be there, and only the threat of jail motivates them to go.
I’m willing to bet that this doesn’t surprise you much, but you may be shocked to find out that some men do learn new things and change their behaviors.
So, here are the answers to six of the most common questions people ask about IPV offender treatment.
1. “They Don’t Want Help, So Why Bother?”
It just seems to make sense that if someone doesn’t want to change their behavior, they won’t. And I can’t deny that there’s a lot of truth in that logic.
But some people, when put in a position where they have to reflect upon their lives and behavior, do begin to recognize a need for change and start to move toward it.
This isn’t just for the benefit of the survivors (both actual and potential) that these people cross paths with, but also for themselves who abuse. I’ve never witnessed an IPV offender that appeared genuinely satisfied with their life and intimate relationships.
And you may be thinking, “So what if they’re miserable? They deserve it!” – but there are a couple of problems with that way of thinking.
For one, most of these men are fathers who will continue to influence their children, so we just can’t afford to throw in the towel.
And two, realistically, most of these men are not going to be locked away.
It may not be comforting, but rehabilitation may be the only way to make their influence on our society better.
Besides, just because someone doesn’t initially want help doesn’t mean that they won’t end up getting it.
As someone who has worked primarily with survivors of IPV for a number of years, I certainly understand why someone might only feel anger for offenders and want to write them off. But the truth is that offender treatment sends an important message to survivors.
It tells them that what happened was not their fault, and that it is their partner who needs to change.
2. “How Are These Groups Structured?”
Our group in particular consists of nine themes, and each them takes three weeks to complete. So, the entire process from start to finish is at least six months long.
Very few people have the opportunity to stop what they’re doing for six months and take a serious look at who they are as people and partners.
In fact, most people would never do this unless they’re forced to – as is the case for people in IPV offender treatment.
And that’s unfortunate, because all of us could probably use this kind of intense reflection.
Just because most of us are not “abusive” in our relationships doesn’t mean that we don’t have unhealthy ways of doing things that can damage or end them.
The people in IPV treatment are required to pay, and they are required to participate. There are rules to follow, and the primary ones have to do with what isn’t tolerated in group, such as disparaging remarks about women.
For example, members aren’t allowed to refer to their partners as “balls and chains” or “the old lady.” Proper names or titles, such as “my wife or girlfriend” are required.
This is because we try to teach the participants early on is that their thoughts, speech, feelings, and beliefs about women will affect how they treat them, and so we immediately begin working on changing their language.
But probably the most important thing that my co-facilitator and I do in group is model.
It’s very important for the participants to see us collaborate as equals – for them to see a man respect a woman the way my co-facilitator respects me.
His influence is crucial. He doesn’t collude with the men whey they try to start a “Well, you know women” discussion in group. They get to see an example of a man who will fearlessly push back at gender stereotypes in front of a room of other men.
He shows them that it can be done.
My role is to not only to teach and hold the group accountable to women, but also to be a woman the men can practice debating with without being able to turn to violence.
It forces them to consider their words, to control their emotions, to use their minds instead of their fists.
And many programs are predicated on this first, basic, overarching value.
3. “Were the Offenders Abused as Children?”
I want to make it clear from the beginning that this article will not excuse abusing others, regardless of what kind of abuse you may have experienced. But we can’t ignore that there’s a strong correlation between people who have been abused and those who abuse.
And even if someone didn’t experience or witness abuse growing up, that doesn’t mean that the relationships they witnessed were healthy. It certainly doesn’t mean that they were raised to respect the gender that they would go on to date.
So, in offender treatment, we talk about this. We ask questions like, “What were the gender roles like in your home?” or “Tell us your memories of how you learned to treat partners.”
Many men remember getting subtle and not-so-subtle messages about women, such as what they want from men, and how men are supposed to treat them. Examples range from “All women want is a man with money” to “Someone has to make a decision, and it just makes sense that it should be the man.”
In group, we try to introduce the idea that nobody has to be “the boss” in a relationship, and that equality is something to strive for.
That may sound like a total “duh” to you, but for many people, it really isn’t.
4. “What Needs to Happen for Them to Change?”
One of the things we take a look at in group is the “pros and cons” of using abusive behaviors in a relationship.
Now, you’re probably thinking, “Hold up, there are no ‘pros’ to using abuse in relationships!”
And of course you’re right.
But using abusive tactics can result in getting the immediate results that you want.
For example, if I’m tired of arguing or have no desire to compromise, I can simply use the threat of violence to get my way. To shut you down. To end the argument – on my terms.
That is an attractive and well-used hammer for abusers in relationships, even if they don’t realize that they’re swinging it for that purpose.
If we’re going to change the behavior of those who abuse, we must help them acknowledge that this is one reason they use violence.
It has become a “pro” in their minds, and they need to learn another way.
So, our job is to help them recognize that non-violence is the better choice. We discuss what their violence has cost them, and those that they care about.
We engage them in ways that forces them to think critically about their behaviors – and choose a different path.
5. “How Do You Teach Them to Stop Abusing?”
Our group explores all types of ways that we can be abusive in relationships – and how to do the opposite.
We discuss how physical, emotional, sexual, and other types of abuse are used to control someone’s partner.
We use probing questions, watch short videos where the men must identify abusive situations, and require them to share the ways that they have used these same abusive tactics.
On the flip side, we also discuss how you conduct yourself in a loving, healthy relationship.
We explore how you compromise instead of using violence to immediately get your way. We talk about how you can demonstrate trust for your partner, and how you support them emotionally.
Everything we do is to help the men recognize a healthy alternative to their previous abusive behaviors. Some of them learn, and some of them don’t.
6. “Does This Stuff Actually Work?”
You may have heard that IPV offender treatment programs are not very successful. I wish that I could tell you that I have solid proof that this is false.
But the truth is that there are different kinds of treatment models, and success can be measured in many different ways. For example, do you measure by whether the offender is physically abusive again, or if they are arrested again?
The Duluth Model, which is one of the most researched IPV treatment programs, reports that 68% of men who go through their criminal justice system response and attend their treatment program have not re-entered the criminal justice system in over eight years. This is a pretty favorable statistic.
Still, many agencies and experts disagree with each other about whether or not IPV offender treatment works.
From a facilitator’s perspective, I work with human beings, not numbers. I have witnessed what I believe to be real change in some of our participants, and I have also witnessed people who still have a hard time thinking any other way.
And some do return several times, but some we never see again. I’m hoping that the latter is a good sign.
The purpose of our groups is to hold abusers accountable for their behaviors and also to help modify them so that they can be safe as partners and parents.
There are times when our job is frustrating, and we fear that we’re just spinning our wheels. But we believe in our work because we’re committed to the survivors of violence who are counting on us to do our best to help.
Personally, I take this work very seriously because of all the years that I worked with survivors of IPV. Having witnessed how this violence affects people, I do all that I can to build an environment of change in the group.
Our groups can be intense, and they’re loaded with opportunities for the men to reflect upon their behaviors.
And that is what is going on in group.
Dr. Robin Landwehr is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism She’s a mental health counselor and an unapologetic feminist. She holds a Doctor of Behavioral Health degree from Arizona State University, a M.S. degree in Mental Health Counseling from Capella University, and is a licensed counselor in North Dakota and Florida. You can follow Robin on Twitter @RobinLandwehr1 or visit her sometimes neglected personal blog at The Hippie in Me.
Photo: Flickr/Jim Wall