MW began the domestic violence treatment with beliefs and a mindset seen in many domestic violence offenders in the initial stages of therapy. His presentation was highlighted by the denial that his behavior was abusive and a deeply ingrained unwillingness to take responsibility for the abusive behavior. This denial of responsibility for the behavior was facilitated by using techniques of victim-blaming; outright denial that the behavior even occurred; justification of the abuse; and minimization of the abusive behavior.
He and his spouse had been married for almost fifteen years. His patterns of abusive thinking and behavior had taken root over this time because his behavior had never been seriously confronted. He had used a number of power and control tactics over the years to “keep her in line.” She finally reached her breaking point when their children were present when he slapped her and verbally degraded her. This led his wife to leave the home with the children, have him served with an Order For Protection forbidding contact with her, and consult an attorney to discuss a divorce.
Upon interview and in the initial four to six weeks of treatment, MW’s inability to take responsibility for his violent behavior was obvious to all, but not to him. He justified being verbally and emotionally abusive by believing that he had the right to say abusive and mean things “when I get pissed off.” He shared the widespread, but mistaken, belief that domestic abuse only occurs if there is physical violence present. To him “words are no big deal” and “she makes something out of nothing and knows I didn’t mean it.” He was shocked to find out that a domestic abuse charge can occur if his words inspire fear in a spouse.
He blamed his spouse frequently for his own behavior in the initial stages of treatment, and through this blaming justified and excused his abusive behavior. This idea was reinforced by his family members who also excused his abusive behavior by discounting and being excessively critical of his wife. They claimed, “I can understand why you would do that given how irrational and crazy she can be. Anyone would respond like that.” Lastly, he minimized the nature of the abuse by telling her to “toughen up” and by describing the things that he would say and do as “no big deal; I didn’t hit you.”
For the first four to six sessions of the treatment MW maintained this posture of denial and lack of responsibility-taking. As the program progressed, however, he gradually began to see the abusive, damaging, and painful nature of his words. He developed a sense of victim empathy when asked to put himself in his partner’s shoes, and gradually the message regarding the abusive nature of the words began to sink in. He was particularly moved when his 12-year-old daughter, on one occasion and in tears, told him how hurtful his words were both for her and her mother.
Around session eight, MW reached a milestone in the treatment when he was able to embrace the idea that he is solely responsible for his abusive behavior and has the power to end and change the behavior as well. His focus shifted from the external “she’s the problem and if she changes then things will be better” to the internal “regardless of what she does or how angry and frustrated I become, I have no right to say or do abusive things, and I can control my behavior at all times.”
This shift in thinking as seen in MW’s case was essential for a successful treatment outcome. He was able to then truly embrace the ideas and goals of the treatment, which included recognition of and putting an end to domestic abuse in all its forms, and the development of improved communication skills with his partner.
He successfully completed the course and was able to reunite with his family and save his marriage. He also experienced a personal liberation of sorts in that he no longer needed to expend energy explaining or justifying the lies of his past abusive behavior and thinking. He felt better about himself and his life, and his increased self-esteem was obvious to all who knew him. Without his being able to accept the responsibility for his behavior and begin to see things through a new “lens,” no such successful treatment outcome would ever have been possible.
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© Dr Jeanne King — Domestic Violence Prevention and Intervention