VOICES OF THE ABUSERS. Husbands who have mistreated wives discuss need for help

At the request of the men interviewed for this story, their names have been changed. The counselors' names are their own.

WE think of the family as a bulwark against the world. But there is a down side to this: It sometimes makes people feel that whatever happens within the family, short of murder, is private - a personal, not a legal, matter.

In this context, while smacking your next-door neighbor would be reasonable cause for assault charges, doing the same to your wife can seem like a family argument that just got a little out of control.

``Many men we see - it just never occurred to them that what they do is against the law,'' comments David Adams of Emerge, an 11-year-old counseling service for men who batter, in Cambridge, Mass. So, he says, you often get very respectable people - ``doctors, lawyers, ministers'' - battering their wives.

``So often, men have the attitude that what they do in private should not count ... that they should only be judged according to their public behavior.''

A common image of a batterer is a man who cannot control his temper, who lashes out in frustration. But Mr. Adams says that at Emerge, battering is thought of as a deliberate strategy, a way of maintaining control.

Some batterers are so violent that this behavior spills over into all areas of their lives. But for many, home is the one place they can express violence without being punished for it.

Thus, batterers ``are able to have the last word in arguments,'' he remarks.

``They are able to secure compliance on the part of the woman. They are able to not deal with her grievances. The woman is perpetually on the defensive. She's always dealing with his grievances.''

Adams points out that ``every husband gets angry at times, but if once a month or twice a year you get violent, your anger has more weight.''

Don Conway-Long, of Raven, a men's counseling service in St. Louis, uses words such as ``choose'' and ``choice'' a lot to discuss the actions of batterers.

He says that there are men who have witnessed battering as children - a very common prelude to becoming batterers themselves - who choose not to. He points out that there are men who had terrible experiences in Vietnam, who again choose not to become batterers.

Many men choose violence against women as a way of releasing anger, he comments.

``We live in a culture that permits us to make that choice and supports that choice ... that provides ways for men to show they have dominance over women.''

There are groups all over the country that offer counseling. Unfortunately, batterers seldom perceive themselves to be in need of these services.

Mr. Conway-Long estimates that they reach ``about 1 percent'' of all the men who need help.

Many men come to Emerge because they are required to by the courts, ``rather than genuinely seeing that they have a problem. Internal motivation often doesn't develop until later,'' says Mr. Adams.

`THE men we see are very susceptible to which way the law leans. If the law is taking a laissez-faire approach, it's much easier for the men to minimize or deny their violence.

``If the law is imposing clear sanctions, then battering men take it more seriously. They see it not just as a domestic affair, but as a crime against the state.''

The main way Emerge works with batterers is through group counseling. Two Emerge therapists are present at each session, but almost more important are the support and perspective the men give each other.

A visit to a group session at Emerge changes your image of a batterer. ``People think a batterer should have a tattoo on his ear,'' as Conway-Long puts it. ``Usually we meet Dr. Jekyll - we never get to meet Mr. Hyde.'' In fact, all the clients are so handsome, likable, well dressed, and articulate, you become positive that you have stumbled into the wrong place, perhaps the Divorced Dads Workshop.

But faces tighten and smiles disappear when you mention the grimly clinical words ``domestic violence.''

You have to really respect people for having a problem and trying to deal with it. And deal with it head-on they did. The men were pretty hard on each other. The attitude seemed to be, ``We're here to do a job, so let's get down to it.''

THIS particular group hadn't had an incident of violence for some months, but Emerge sessions try to cope with all aspects of abusive and controlling behavior.

For instance, one man, Steve, had left his wife of many years, taken up with a girlfriend, broken off with her, and now is in couples therapy with his wife, although he doesn't want to resume the marriage. ``Of course, the couple sessions are not to put our marriage back together. It's more of an autopsy,'' as he puts it.

The other men spend about 20 minutes telling him that this behavior is abusive. John points out, ``You don't take a car to the repair shop that you're going to junk next week. You're really hurting her - giving her some false hopes.'' Jim describes Steve's behavior as ``wishy-washy'' about six times.

``I appreciate your help, guys,'' says Steve finally.

THE topics discussed, like dealing with a partner's anger, reflect the sort of thing any couple learns to deal with. The subject of women getting angry is particularly touchy, since the men are trying to learn to control this reaction in themselves.

Adams points out that in many relationships ``there's not a whole lot of room for the woman's anger. For men, there is a great tendency to translate everything into anger. You're good at expressing anger. We'd like you to be good at responding to your partner's anger.''

The trap here, he says, is getting into a pattern where ``you are willing to give up abuse as long as she follows the rules. If she gets angry, that gives us the `right' to be abusive.''

Jim points out that in business, men handle other people's anger very differently. For instance, in his job, if someone points out that he has made a mistake: ``I'd say, `Wait a minute. I'm sorry. It's my fault. And I understand why you're angry.'''

He says that when he went home - ``of course, now I don't have a home to go to'' - he would start giving explanations and justifications instead.

``If you say, `You're right. I can see why you're angry,' it defuses the whole thing. What used to be an hour argument is now four minutes. It takes the strain off....''

MOST men who are batterers rather naturally do not want to talk about it. But some are so eager to escape from this cycle that they are willing. Some even speak up in public.

Paul, who has been going to Emerge since September, says it helps him to stand up and say, ``I used to be a batterer.''

He is poised, clean cut, and athletic looking, with a wide, friendly smile. In yellow tie, gray pants, and leather pilot jacket slung over a shoulder, he looks like a cover for Gentlemen's Quarterly. You believe him when he says that if you told his co-workers that he used to beat up his girlfriend, they'd say, ``Oh, no - Paul's a nice guy!''

``My father was an alcoholic. I grew up watching my father come home drunk and start arguing with my mother - sometimes money, sometimes bills,'' he says. ``He'd smack her. My brother and I, we started to protect her. I see myself as my father. I thought it was a normal kind of thing, a way of controlling women.''

His face wrinkles in pain as he talks about his relationship with his girlfriend, Laura, a relationship marked by jealousy and suspicion and arguments that sometimes ended with grabbing and hitting.

``I'd feel sorry about all the thoughts that were in my head after the anger was released. I could never control it during the anger.''

Paul would deliberately take a drink before provoking a fight, so that he could use the drink as an excuse afterward.

``I did a lot of ignoring - that's a kind of control, too. I was jealous - not trusting and not being trustworthy. I wasn't understanding anything she said or anything she talked about. I would take it in the wrong context and start an argument about that.

``I was always being negative, never positive. I did things like date other girls. I was very dishonest.

``I always felt that Laura was very attractive. I always felt unattractive. I thought, `I'm not cute enough for her. She'll find a nicer-looking guy with a better car.' But she wasn't looking for that. She was just looking for a little compassion and honesty. I didn't give her any of that.''

Laura's sister was a counselor, and she told Paul about Emerge. Initially he was skeptical: ``I didn't think I was getting anything. Look at these guys telling me about their problems.''

Paul's worst problem had been spying on Laura when she was with other people. He made a promise to the group that he wouldn't do this anymore - a promise he wasn't always able to keep. On one 30-degree winter day, he stood freezing outside a bar where Laura was talking with her friends. ``You want to do good, but you have so much hate and anger inside you.''

The men in the group recommended another line of behavior.

``They're not only scolding me. They're comforting me, too. They want to stick by me and help me,'' says Paul. ``Discussing my last violent act, I shed a tear, not feeling sorry for myself. It was a tear of `look at what I am doing to this woman.'''

Ability to take criticism in the group is a key success in the program, Paul feels. He says that when a man in the ``hot seat'' (being critiqued by the group) ``becomes totally negative and aggressive, I know he's not going to stay in the program. You can see it in a person when they change.''

BATTERERS tend to have very traditional ideas about the relationship between men and women. Paul characterizes his old attitude: The man should be ``like a god. I should be first,'' he says. ``Now I look on a woman more as an equal.''

At Emerge, men learn to treat women in a different way. ``Walking down the street and whistling at a woman - I would never do that now. I have done it,'' Paul says. ``Picking up a woman in a bar - I wouldn't do that.

``Everyone in the group has a full deep respect for women while they're sitting in that room. I think it's great that Emerge has that effect on men.'' Asked what about when they're not in that room, he says, ``If they're lying to the group, they're only lying to themselves.

``I feel I've really progressed a lot. I'm going to stick it out at Emerge. I know it will take longer... I feel now as if I'm achieving something in life. I felt no good, really rotten sometimes. I was scared to face the truth. Facing the truth is the biggest obstacle to any problem.''

Paul asks to have his advice to other batterers put in bold letters: ``It's going to be hard [maintaining the relationship], because the woman is always going to have that question at the back of her mind: Is he going to be violent like he was before?''

Paul says he's lucky because he's only 26 and has time to resolve his problem. He wants to be married and have a family, and be ``compassionate, caring, loving.''

He'd like to get back together with Laura. ``I want her to learn that there is good in me. The only way I can ever get married or have a relationship is by showing that the violence is gone.''

Local women's shelters often have information on counseling for men. Raven, a service in St. Louis, has a national directory: Write PO Box 24159, St. Louis MO, 63130, or call (314) 725-6137. Emerge has its office at 280 Green St., Cambridge, MA 02139; telephone, (617) 547-9870.

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