Changing the Men Who Batter
by Kate Mueller

The women and children living in fear in their own homes must be helped—helped to escape a dangerous situation, helped to find a safe place to live, helped to put their lives back together through legal and financial assistance, helped to heal psychological and emotional wounds. That’s obvious.

What is less talked about are the men who do the abusing—the perpetrators of pain and fear. But they need help too. If we are ever to have a society where everybody feels safe and respected, where no one lives in fear, we have to talk to the people doing the abusing, bring them into the social conversation.

Meg Kuhner, codirector of Circle, a nonprofit in Barre that provides services to domestic violence victims, did just that for 10 years. From 2004 to 2014, Kuhner worked closely with men who batter as a community facilitator in IDAP (Intensive Domestic Abuse Program), an intervention program for batterers. The program, which ended in 2014, was created and supervised by Spectrum Youth and Family Services in Burlington under VIP (Violence Intervention and Prevention). It ran, said Kuhner, for about 15 years, with programs in Barre, Burlington, St. Johnsbury, Bennington, and White River Junction to name a few.

Kuhner said she did this work “full of heart and passion,” her passion rooted in a conviction that all people can change, and she did witness big transformations. “I saw a tremendous amount of change,” she said.

Traits of a Batterer

Kuhner said that all the men she worked with were very well aware of their intentions. “They were clear as a bell about why they were engaging in the abuse,” she said. “One stated, ‘Abuse is the key to getting my own needs met.’” Victims, said Kuhner, have a “hard time wrapping their heads around” this fact: that the tactics abusers use are deliberate—that the men they love are consciously manipulating them.

Kuhner discussed some of the common traits of abusers. For one, they are usually extremely possessive. “They are incredibly jealous and possessive. They can’t tolerate their wives or girlfriends talking to or even looking at another man,” she said.
Another trait common to most abusers is a Jekyll-and-Hyde personality. They can switch quickly from angry and hostile to kind and loving. Often they appear nice in public, while being abusive at home.

They are egocentric and take everything personally, said Kuhner; everything is a personal assault. But though they are hypersensitive about their own boundaries, they have no sense of another’s boundaries, particularly family members.
How did these men get to be this way? Kuhner said abusive behavior is learned through the generations, within the family. Seventy to 80 percent of men who batter grew up in abusive families: “They watched Dad do this to Mom.”

But beyond the family is the broader patriarchal society, which, says Kuhner, supports hypermasculinity, validating the men’s sense of male entitlement. “They feel entitled to be head of the household,” she said. “They assign gender roles. The woman is a possession and seen as less than fully human.”

Changing Worldviews

The challenge for Kuhner and her coworkers in the program was to reframe the whole belief system of these men. To accomplish this, the men met in groups of six to 10, twice a week, for at least 13 months. The groups were facilitated by two people, one man and one woman: one person would be from the Department of Corrections; the other from the community. There were many groups throughout the state; Kuhner worked in one of three in Barre.

Some of the men were in their 40s and 50s, but most, said Kuhner, were in their 20s and 30s, and for the most part they were lower income. Kuhner sees their socioeconomic status less as an indicator of the men who are likely to batter and more the result of these men being unable to afford a good defense attorney.

The men, who ranged from felon-level batterers to multiple misdemeanor DV offenders, were offered the opportunity to decrease their time in prison by agreeing to participate in the program.

The teams used a number of exercises, key among them was role playing. The men were taught how to treat women as equals and have a respectful dialogue with a female partner: lacking a role model for this growing up, they didn't know what it meant to be in a good relationship.

The facilitators would also ask the men a series of questions that encouraged them to examine their lives and become more self-aware. The men would be asked to identify a time when they were violent. They would be asked what sparked the abuse, what they did that was abusive, what they were thinking and feeling at the time, and what they had hoped to achieve with that action, what their intentions were. And they would be asked what beliefs they held that made it OK to engage in this behavior.

Having male and female cofacilitators provided an example to the men that, over time, made an impression on them, said Kuhner: “They would see my male cofacilitator being very respectful to me and also to them. They had never been in a group with a real intention of respect.” The men typically conflated respect and fear and believed that respect was not possible without instilling fear in others.
Gradually they came to see that the best way to receive lasting respect is to give it and that this new way of being in the world worked not only in their intimate relationships but at work. They began to feel more successful at their jobs and in many aspects of their lives.

Most of the men saw themselves as good dads or wanted to be a good dad or, at least, be seen as one. This desire provided another opportunity for change.

The cofacilitators would ask the men to identify the characteristics of a good father: such as caring, tender, emotionally open, responsive, flexible, reliable—and, yes, loving and affectionate to the mother. They would then ask the men to list the characteristics of an abuser: controlling, poor communication skills, blaming others, possessive, intolerant. Just that exercise alone could be transformational, said Kuhner, when the men realized that there was no overlap between these two ways of being: as abusers they could not be good dads too.

Helping the men find internal motivations such as these for change was key, said Kuhner. Simply being enrolled in the program to avoid jail—an external motivation—wasn’t sufficient for lasting change.

Kuhner says it’s unfortunate that this particular program ended. Intervention programs do exist in the state for batterers. These programs are overseen by the Vermont Council on Domestic Violence. The council, which is mandated by the legislature to provide leadership in the state’s effort to eradicate domestic violence, was originally created by Gov. Howard Dean in 1993. But the time in treatment is far shorter in current programs, with groups meeting once a week for six months, which Kuhner feels is not sufficient time to change behavior.

The Power and Control Wheel
by Kate Mueller

The power and control wheel graphic was created in 1982 as part of a curriculum, developed in Duluth, Minnesota, for men who batter women. It grew out of conversations with women who were battered. They were asked, “What do you want taught in court-ordered groups for men who batter?” From the women’s responses emerged the environment in which these women lived and the tactics used by batterers. This wheel is now widely used, nationally and internationally, as a conceptual tool for facilitators and for batterers and their victims, helping people see patterns in behavior.

The flip side to the power and control wheel is the equality wheel—showing relationships that are equitable, responsible, and supportive.
Meg Kuhner noted that all the tactics and behaviors represented in the wheel are not against the law. An abusive person can only be arrested and prosecuted when he resorts to physical and sexual violence. But that doesn’t mean the psychological and emotional abuse is any less harmful: Kuhner said that women often report that emotional abuse is worse than physical. But women will also downplay anything that isn’t overtly physical since many see physical assault as the only real battery, Kuhner said. They’ll rationalize for their abusive partners, saying, “Well, he’s never actually hit me.”

During my phone interview with Kuhner, she took me on a trip around the wheel. Underpinning everything is male privilege, which she says provides “entry to this way of behavior.” The man’s role as head of household is, in his mind, indisputable and justifies all his manipulative and abusive behavior.

Using intimidation, scaring the woman, is key to establishing control. Kuhner said this can be subtle: the woman is trained to make no demands and to respond to cues. She gave the example of a man driving too fast and the woman requesting him to slow down. The man instead of complying scares her further by accelerating and giving her a hard look, his eyes off the road for several long seconds. Soon the woman feels she can make no requests or comments that could possibly be construed as critical.

The man lowers the woman’s self-esteem and erodes her confidence through emotional abuse: constantly calling her names, telling her she’s incompetent, stupid, and fat, and gas lighting her—causing her to doubt her own feelings and even her sanity.

Isolation, said Kuhner, is “a batterer’s best friend” and is a particular problem in rural Vermont, where the woman and her partner may be living down a long driveway off a dirt road. Abusive men will keep their wives and girlfriends from seeing friends and family. Kuhner said this starts slowly and escalates. The initial request may be, “please don’t see your parents this weekend, I really miss you when you go” to making threats to destroy or harm something important to the woman—a possession, a pet—if she visits her parents or a friend.

The abusive partner also establishes economic control. The men that Kuhn worked with were upfront about this, saying they would tell their partners: “My money is mine and your money is mine.” The woman may either be discouraged from working or forced to give all her money to her partner. Over time, the woman has no friends and no resources.

Batterers are notorious for not taking responsibility and for minimizing the abuse. They make light of it and blame the woman: she is the one responsible for the abusive behavior; she caused it.
But, Kuhner said, these men can change; change that she has witnessed firsthand.




Kate Mueller, editor of Vermont Woman newspaper, lives in Montpelier.