By Jim Witters
The reports pop up sporadically on the six o'clock news: On an otherwise agreeable afternoon, a simple mistake by an unsuspecting woman results in a severe beating at the hands of the man she loves.
It could be a simple matter. Perhaps she failed to empty the lint from the filter in the clothes dryer; or maybe dinner wasn't just right; or maybe she decided to go shopping with her best friend without telling her spouse about it beforehand; or maybe nothing happened at all. He just beat her.
In polite society, men who pound their wives and girlfriends senseless are viewed as out-of-control barbarians, violent and virulent, often drunk on liquor or power or both. And, until recently, polite society turned a blind eye to the plight of the beaten women and often continued to treat their attackers as though nothing were amiss.
But not all men who batter are simple Neanderthals who know what they do is wrong and choose to do it anyway. And researchers say alcohol and drug problems are "probably not the precipitants of abuse." Counselors and behavioral researchers say that batterers often feel justified in their behavior and that society is unfairly persecuting them for their actions.
"In my opinion, they (batterers) are not cold, but more likely seething with distressing emotions and out of control," said Dr. Ola Barnett, a researcher at Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif. "They may well have a limited conscience."
Dr. Barnett said batterers often feel justified in battering because they were reared in an environment -- whether a family or neighborhood -- where violence was accepted as a proper method for solving problems or enforcing the rules. Between 40% and 70% of batterers in clinical samples have been exposed to abuse in childhood.
"Newer studies are beginning to show that batterers may have suffered psychological abuse as well and consequently feel insecure," Dr. Barnett said. "As adults they become emotionally dependent upon a wife and expect her to be responsible for making them happy. When she cannot make them happy, she is "letting them down." They do not know how to achieve happiness on their own."
A common rationale expressed in group therapy is something like this: "I told her not to do it. She knew what would happen if she did. She did it. So, what option did I have? I had to hit her. She deserved it."
"Although wives of batterers may be provocative, they do not provoke their husband's abuse in reality," Dr. Barnett said. "Almost anything can set off a batterer."
John Eidt is the coordinator of the Family Violence Intervention Program at the Volusia County Domestic Violence Council in Daytona Beach, Florida. He says the men who wind up in his program most often used violence to exert control.
"Society traditionally has seen males as dominant, the ones who set the rules and who are charged with enforcing those rules," Eidt says. "Violence is an enforcement mechanism used by most men."
In a study to be published in February 1998, Dr. Barnett examined the motivations of 30 batterers. The batterers say the lash out physically because:
Batterers say that smacking or beating a spouse or girlfriend frightens the victim and allows the batterer to get his own way. Eidt says his interviews with violent men revealed that anger, stress, jealousy, possessiveness and men's competitive nature resulted in partners being punished with a beating.
"These men tend to be desperate about keeping their wives and beat them to prevent them from leaving," Dr. Barnett said. "They are miserable, suffering low self esteem, and are vulnerable to stress and hostile. They use battering to control their partners, and it seems to work, so they continue."
Disrupting that pattern of behavior is difficult, Dr. Barnett says.
In some states, such as Florida, accusations of domestic violence generate a mandatory arrest. Victims' advocates argue that arrest signals the batterer that society does not approve of his behavior. But an arrest is no panacea, Dr. Barnett says.
"Arrested batterers should be kept under the orders of the court to make them follow through with treatment," she says.
Eidt's Florida counseling program deals with men whose violence against their spouses and girlfriends landed them in court. Eidt carries out the court-ordered therapy, which consists of a 26-week educational process.
The batterers are taught to deal with their emotions in less destructive ways.
Eidt's program, based on what is known within the counseling profession as the Duluth Model, teaches such skills as economic partnership, shared responsibility, responsible parenting, honesty and accountability, trust and support, respect, non-threatening behavior and negotiation and fairness. Once the man understands his role in the relationship with his spouse or girlfriend and fosters mutual respect, the tendency toward violence subsides.
When the pressure builds toward a violent outburst, though, the batterer must have tactics prepared for dealing with it, Eidt says. That is where "cool downs" or "time-outs" come into play. "A cool down is like preventive medicine," Eidt says. "Before you get to that place where you don't care any more, you leave." The person taking the "cool down" goes somewhere to relax and think the problem through. Then he returns to discuss the problem and resolve it.
"Most men, even those who feel justified in their violent behavior, realize at some level that physical violence is not acceptable," Eidt says. "Most men don't pick on those smaller or weaker. So we focus on that and give them the tools and techniques they need to avoid violence."
Once these men really examine the incident that "provoked" them, the generally recognize it as inconsequential, Eidt says. "They need to think beforehand whether it's worth jail time, court costs and a fine to hit their wife because the TV was too loud," he says.
In the last year and a half, Eidt says, his counseling program has shown nearly 100% success, with no one who completed the entire 26 weeks returning to the court system for a violent outburst.
"We are teaching them how to live totally violent-free lives," Eidt says. "Not just at home. This carries over into the work place and disagreements with the boss or a neighbor."
Dr. Barnett says such cognitive psychotherapy is beneficial because "it teaches the batterer to reinterpret life's situations." She says studies have shown a reduction in physical abuse after 16 to 24 weeks among men who complete a program.
"Learning about options other than abuse is very helpful," she says. "It is not uncommon for a batterer to truly believe that he had not other choice. Time out is a useful adjunct to almost any treatment plan. The batterer learns to stop even the first blow."
Dr. Barnett also says anecdotal evidence suggests males who batter would profit from using anxiety-relieving drugs, such as Prozac. But little research has been published on that subject. Another approach that is highly debated in the psychology field is the treatment of batterers as part of a dysfunctional couple. Critics argue that such treatment may be dangerous for the victim and may leave the batterer with the impression that he does not have to assume complete responsibility for his violence.
Eidt says he can envision a time when the world will be without violence. But he cautions that such an Idyllic existence cannot materialize from the ether.
"In time, we will see everyone adopt the new "equality" belief system, in which men and women are partners and neither is superior or subservient," Eidt says. "Right now we are on the cutting edge of that. Most of the men in our program are still from the old school. Dad was the boss. But as more people are educated and society provides new role models to follow, we will see a change."