Making Change Fall 2006, Volume 7, Number 2

"The process begins, says Schroyer, with an admission of the truth of what’s going on, followed by accepting responsibility."

by Susan Bonne

Abusers Transformed:

Men must look within to end the cycle of violence



or many men, abusive patterns were established in childhood, when they witnessed violence at the hands of fathers, gang-member peers and society at large. But transformation — ending the cycle of violence and learning the art of partnership — starts from looking within at core values and belief systems.

Ty Schroyer knows both sides of the story. A former abuser himself, he went through a treatment program in 1981, changed his life, and then devoted the next 19 years to helping other men learn to be in relationships without resorting to verbal or physical abuse. Currently the Victim Witness

Coordinator for St. Louis County in Duluth, he understands that abuse is about control, and that many if not most perpetrators don’t see the error of their ways until forced to view their actions through others’ eyes.

“Men don’t go into domestic violence groups on their own. They are usually there for one of two reasons: their partner is going to leave them if they don’t participate, or they are under court order to go through a program,” he notes.

Jeremy NeVilles-Sorell, a national technical assistance provider and former group facilitator in Duluth, concurs. “Men start the [therapeutic] process,” he says, “and think, ‘I’ll just do this and I’ll be done’ but it doesn’t work that way.” Sorrel is an African American and Native American whose cultural backgrounds often inform his therapeutic approach.

At the same time, NeVilles-Sorell says most men engaged in domestic violence realize that the situation isn’t working for them. They’re getting pressure from their partners, kids, relatives and law enforcement. So why do some men attend domestic violence treatment programs and make no changes, while others do change and put abuse behind them?

Processes critical to behavior change

National research highlights the importance of overcoming denial of violent behavior and engaging in new ways of thinking and acting. A survey of nine men who had successfully changed their abusive behavior as a result of an intervention program identified the following four processes as critical to their success: recognizing and taking responsibility for past abusive behavior; developing empathy for others; accepting full responsibility for changing abusive behavior; and improving communication*.

The process begins, says Schroyer, with an admission of the truth of what’s going on, followed by accepting responsibility. Once there, men are encouraged to reflect on why they batter, conduct a values inventory, and finally, learn to see their partner as an equal deserving of respect and civility.

A values inventory is important, Schroyer believes, because values are the foundations of beliefs and actions. “We grow up and don’t really reflect on our values and the beliefs that create our thinking, which in turn creates our emotions. These beliefs and values influence us, but we’re not paying any attention to them, we’re just living our lives.” In his work with batterers, he asks participants to reflect on their thinking and beliefs, to lay them out and to ask, how sound are they? Do they make sense? Who are we as men?

Schroyer also challenges the men in his groups with the idea that battering doesn’t just ‘happen’—rather, all behavior is intentional and can be traced to underlying belief systems.

If action is intentional, then excuses like ‘I just lost control’ don’t hold up. “When we do something nice, we never say, ‘oh, I was just out of control’,” Schroyer points out.

Some values are based on societal mores, including a deep strain of sexism that Schroyer believes is inherent in all of us. “Women have been treated as secondclass secondclass citizens for hundreds of years,” he states. “This societal thread allows men to believe on some level that they have more authority than women. Sexism makes it easier for men to ‘cross the line’.”

A Call to Men

Ted Bunch, founder of A Call to Men in New York Men and the director of Safe Horizon’s Domestic Violence Accountability Program, holds similar views. Teaching 300 to 400 men a week in offender classes for over 10 years, he came to believe that societal forces underlie men’s abuse of women, and that it will ultimately take a societal response for men to change.

“It’s a matter of male dominance, male privilege, entitlement and the historical oppression of women,” he explains. “It’s based in English common law, which held that women and children are a man’s property.

“We’re looking for treatment where there is no illness. Domestic violence is how men act out their sexism,” he explains. “If she doesn’t do what he says, he’s supposed to do something about that.” Yet Bunch also stresses that men are capable of controlling their behavior and should be held accountable.

“He’s capable of not abusing. His abuse is exclusive and selective to one person…[he can] control his anger with his friends, his boss, the police…..He turns it off when he leaves the house and turns it back on when he gets home.

Sexism underlies the notion that it’s okay for men to control women, and control is at the heart of abusive or coercive behaviors. Don Chapin, a facilitator at Portland Oregon’s Crossroads program, has been doing batterer intervention work for 27 years. He also believes that the culture at large is part of the underlying problem.

He notes that while most men aren’t abusive, “all men are on a continuum” when it comes to controlling behaviors; the culture permits and even encourages the idea that men can and should exert control. “Unlearning that lesson is a lifelong process,” says Chapin.

“Society gives us ‘permission’ to act in controlling ways,” he adds, stressing that controlling a partner need not be physical to qualify as abuse. “A lot of men don’t understand what their controlling behaviors are; they think of abuse as hitting, and if they’re not hitting [their partner], then they’re not abusive.” Controlling behaviors may include displays of anger, intimidation, verbal abuse or threats.

Men who have undergone transformation can look back and recognize how a need for control influenced their life choices. Former drug dealer, gang member and abuser Warren Edwards grew up on the streets of Harlem, where “all my role models were men in control.” A life of violence landed him in prison, where for 10 years, nothing was in his control. When he got out, he wanted to control “everything and everybody,” a common feeling among men reentering their lives and relationships. In Edwards’ case, his outlet was to abuse his intimate partner.

Today, Edwards counsels other men and runs a group in a batterer intervention program at My Home, Inc. in St. Paul. What led to his transformation? Most experts agree that self-understanding is key, along with a real desire to change. My Home Director Farris Glover says, “A program works as well as the individual wants it to. Warren is a perfect example of that.”

Chapin notes that no change is possible until a man is honest with himself and others—and honesty must be defined as more than truthfulness. Abusers must honestly look at their behavior and then accept responsibility for that behavior, and not make the system or a partner an excuse, or a contributing factor, to violence or abusive actions. Once a man understands his motives and has accepted responsibility for his actions, change can take place.

Both Chapin and Schroyer suggest that men involved in the process find or create a support system for themselves, not unlike AA, where they can turn for counsel and help, especially if they find themselves in a crisis. It’s important, however, to choose an objective observer, and not just a relative or close friend who may not hold them accountable.

Equally important is the emotionally safe treatment environment or ‘asylum’ created through respect and the shared experience that groups and facilitators offer. In fact, in one study of the effectiveness of batterer intervention programs, this was the single most important factor in behavioral change2. Group leaders like Edwards, who were former batterers themselves, have credibility and can also offer unique understanding as to the batterer’s frame of reference, “[meeting] the client where the client is at,” according to Glover.

In another study, 20 men who were previously violent and who were violencefree for two years credited their change to two primary complementary factors: an externally presented opportunity to create a new nonviolent identity (e.g., spiritual experience, supportive or benevolent other) and the personal agency to make the most of that opportunity***.

Positive reinforcement is also a powerful motivator. Edwards described a moment in which a comment from a stranger outside a bar literally led him to the changes that turned his life around. “You deserve better than this” were the words.

“People want to be good,” says Edwards. “Nobody wakes up in the morning and says, ‘I ‘m gonna whup my woman today’….it doesn’t work like that. It’s a process that leads people to do those things.”

Bunch’s perspective on society’s complicity in abuse and his commitment to a respectful treatment education and accountability model shape his message. “I tell [perpetrators] that they’re no different than good “non-abusive” men…they just go farther in acting out their beliefs.”

In the same vein, Schroyer makes time to focus on positive action--what it takes to be in a loving, healthy relationship. He stresses the importance of developing intimacy and a sense of true partnership. “People start to benefit from the rewards…she responds, and it builds,” he explains. “There’s a freedom in that—you have a friend, a companion that you’re eye to eye with.”

While some experts liken going through a domestic abuse program to drug or alcohol treatment, others shy away from this framework and the language of addiction. There are, however, similarities. As with substance abuse, a man can stop battering all at once, but true change takes time and continued work and the tendency to violence or controlling behavior may always be there.

In another study, 20 men who were previously violent and who were violencefree for two years credited their change to two primary complementary factors: an externally presented opportunity to create a new nonviolent identity (e.g., spiritual)

Safety of victims is paramount

IDVAAC Executive Director Dr. Oliver Williams reminds us that transformation should not be taken for granted as permanent.

“We can’t predict that, and like alcoholism, we can’t trust it,” he said. “People sometimes regress. Women want to believe that men will change. They love the person but hate the violence. In getting men to change, safety must be paramount. Men need a plan to identify what to do in place of violence and abuse.”

Bunch agrees, noting that programs can provide a false sense of hope and safety. “Can individuals change? Absolutely,” he says, yet also contends that until society changes, and all men take it upon themselves to confront and disavow abuse, women must temper optimism with realism. “She has to plan for the man she knows him to be, not the man she hopes him to be.”

Barb Jones-Schroyer, who co-facilitates classes with her husband, Ty, talks about rehabilitation in the context of the five “R’s”--remorse, repentance, restitution, restoration and reconciliation--developed by Rev. Dr. Marie Fortune of the Faith Trust Institute.

“Remorse is first. It isn’t change; in fact, it might just be tears,” notes Jones- Schroyer. Then comes repentance, which represents “a 180-degree turnaround” in a man’s views of his own behavior; this is the point where a man takes responsibility for his actions. The next step is restitution, in which he does “whatever it takes to make amends to his partner, whether that’s paying child support, making repairs to the home, or telling the truth and restoring her name.” This is where trust begins to be reestablished.

Restoration, she explains, is when a man feels good about himself again, when he feels restored to God and to his community. Only then can reconciliation take place, “and only then if she wants it,” says Jones-Schroyer. “Sometimes the wounds are too deep.”

Women must focus selves

Latisha Edwards, partner to Warren Edwards and a Minnesota county victim’s advocate for women and children affected by domestic violence, notes that women need to focus on their own, and not their partner’s, progress.

“[Women] need to understand why they stayed in the relationship and to seek their own services--women’s support groups, personal counseling or both,” says Edwards. “They have to understand what domestic violence is, and be realistic…no one changes overnight. It’s a lifelong process.”

She also sees a lot of children go through the system, and works with women to consider the effects of violence on their lives, as well. “If a woman can’t find a reason to leave for herself, she can usually find the strength to leave for the children,” says Edwards.

Jones-Schroyer knows how hard it can be to leave, and although her work is faith-based, she takes issue with the church’s tradition of valuing marriage over a woman’s personal autonomy and safety. “One of the things we say to women is that ‘your life comes before any marriage. Choose life for yourself.’”

As a facilitator, Jones-Schroyer believes in the work, yet cautions “these classes are not a panacea—women need to always put their safety first.” She advocates women joining support groups, empowering themselves and setting limits. “If good things happen [in the relationship], that’s a bonus.”

Twenty years later, Ty Schroyer still says he works on himself to increase his capacity for intimacy, to love and respect his partner, and to go against “a whole lot of stuff the culture puts out there.”

And while personal accountability is primary to change, Chapin notes that holding oneself accountable isn’t the finish line either. It’s when a man begins to question societal norms and hold others accountable that change has happened on the deepest level. “Are they willing to confront someone else and call him on his behavior?” asks Chapin. “He may refrain from telling sexist jokes, but the next step is to confront the person who is still doing it and tell them how you feel and why it’s unacceptable.” He notes that non-abusers have a role to play as well.

“We as men have to tell our boys, brothers, cousins, friends, coworkers, to challenges those beliefs. It takes all of us together….90 percent of the problem is men, and 10 percent of men are causing the problem. Where are all the other men? We all have to participate.”

* Scott, K. L., & Wolfe, D. A. (2000). Change among batterers: Examining men’s success stories. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 15(8), 827-842.

** Wangsgaard, S. M. (2001). The participants’ perspectives: Factors of batterer group treatment that facilitate change. Dissertation Abstracts International: Section B: Sciences & Engineering, 61(11-B), 6153. (UMI No. 2001-95010-071).

*** Stefanakis, H. (2000). Desistence from violence: Men’s stories of identity transformation. Dissertation Abstracts International: Section B: Sciences & Engineering, 60(8-B). (UMI No. 2000- 95004-245).


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