Helping the abuser in domestic violence

(This article is part of an Ethiopian Review weekly series that is intended to highlight and help stop the growing problem of domestic violence in the Ethiopian community.)

Abusers often do not take responsibility for their behavior. They blame their partners, stress, alcohol or drugs, anger, loss of control, an unhappy childhood, or someone or something else. The fact is, lots of people are under stress, drink, use drugs, get angry, or were abused as children. Yet most of these people do not choose to use violence and control in their intimate relationships.

Domestic abuse is about one person’s decision to manipulate and control their partner. Abuse is not a loss of control. In fact, it’s usually just the opposite. Abusers control their partners in many different ways. Think about it: they are able to control their own behavior when necessary. They usually don’t hit their co-workers or the store clerk who makes a mistake, but they often use those things as excuses for abusing their partners later.

Abusers can change, but it’s not easy. If enough is at stake, they may decide that they need to change. Regardless of what your partner does, it is important to continue to plan for your own safety.

A program for batterers

Most abusers go to batterer programs because a court ordered them to go. Ordering abusers to attend a batterer program is sometimes used by the courts or probation as a tool for holding them accountable. Or, they may hope that the abusers’ behavior will change. All batterer programs are different. They use different tools and have different goals. None of them can guarantee that a person’s behavior will change after the program. Since not all batterer programs operate in ways that put your safety first, ask your local domestic violence program for information about the programs in your area.

While it may seem like a positive step for your partner to attend a batterer program, it doesn’t mean that he will choose to stop his violent behavior or that you will be safe. Many abusers who attend a program continue to be violent and controlling. You should plan for your safety based on who he is right now, not who you want him to become.

Drinking or using drugs

Even when abusers stop drinking or using drugs, their abuse often continues. Alcohol and other drug use do not cause domestic violence, although abusers often use it as an excuse. Abusers who drink or use drugs have two separate problems – abuse and alcohol/drug use – that need to be dealt with separately. Many abusers get more violent – and more dangerous – when they stop drinking or using drugs.

Many drug and alcohol treatment programs offer groups for family members or family counseling sessions, but these are not always safe for people being abused by their intimate partner. You may be abused for what you say or the counselor may say or do things that put you in danger. Also, your partner may blame you – and you may blame yourself – for both his drinking and his abuse toward you.

If you decide to tell the substance abuse counselor that you are being abused, don’t do it in front of your partner. No counselor should ever insist that you participate in services if your partner is abusing you. You are the only one who can decide whether it’s safe to participate or whether it’s safer to refuse.

Couple counseling

According to abused women who have gone for couple or family counseling, it doesn’t work, and often makes things worse. Counselors who don’t know about the abuse or who don’t understand domestic violence may do or say things that put you in danger.

Couple counseling assumes that both people in the couple are free to share their thoughts and feelings. That cannot be true if one person is abusing the other. It is often dangerous for abused women to express their feelings and talk openly about the abuse in front of their partners. Some women are threatened or assaulted for things they said – or didn’t say – during a couple counseling session. If that happens, tell your counselor about it in private. Ask them to find a way to end the couple sessions without letting your partner know what you said.

Going to counseling together suggests that you share some responsibility for your partner’s behavior – a belief that he may already have. An abuser’s behavior is his responsibility, no one else’s, and he is not likely to change unless he takes full responsibility for his actions.

(Source: New York State, Office for the Prevention of Domestic Violence)