Editor’s note: This is a shortened version of Chuck Derry’s chapter, “Why Men Batter,” from the CBE book Created to Thrive. Click here to buy the book and read the chapter in full, as well as other authors’ chapters.
Author’s note: I will be using gender-specific terms when referring to victims and the perpetrators, identifying the man as the abuser and the woman as the victim. This language reflects the vast majority of domestic-violence-related cases where there is an ongoing dynamic of power and control.
The Power-and-Control System
Before we dive into who batters and why, we need to understand what battering is. I use the term “battering” because it puts the physical violence aspect of abuse into a broader context of power and control. Intimate partner violence is not just one person hitting another. It’s one partner, usually the (bigger and stronger) man, using violence to control “his” woman. Once the man completes his act of physical and/or sexual violence, the woman now knows that he’s willing to hurt her to get his way. This experience and the ongoing threat of violence becomes the foundation of a system of power and control that the offender establishes.
The power-and-control system is a sophisticated strategy where the batterer utilizes multiple methods to abuse. These can include
Emotional and psychological abuse
Isolation from family, friends, and colleagues
Minimizing and denying of violence or blaming the victim for his behavior
Using and/or abusing the children to control them, and their mother
Exercising cultural norms of male privilege to assert his power and dominance in the family and relationships
Controlling money and all family assets
Verbal and nonverbal coercion and threats
Additionally, the batterer often presents himself in public as a very nice, respectful, and caring man, to hide his abuse. This all makes it very difficult for her, and her children, to live safely, inside or outside of the relationship.
Who Are These Guys? And How Do They Get Away With It?
After working with over two thousand men in a batterers intervention program, I can count on both hands the number of men I disliked. Most of the men were very likeable. I often had to review their files to remind myself what they were like in private, at home.
Men who batter rarely fit the stereotype we have in our heads. And that is to their advantage. If he can convince you that he’s a good man, he can also convince you that it’s his wife, or the relationship, that’s the problem, not him. This is a key strategy of men who batter: divert attention from their behaviors, and/or present themselves as the victim of those they’re abusing.
In the 1980s the court systems often mandated marriage counseling when violence was involved in a relationship. They believed the violence was a symptom of a bad relationship, not that the bad relationship was a symptom of the violence.
Not true! When men batter their partners, it’s about the individual, conscious decision to hurt someone to get what they want. They may want their partner to shut up or admit to things they didn’t do. Or they may want to spend money as they please, win an argument, or make the process of maintaining power and control easier. Once his use and threat of violence is clear, even a simple look can produce the results he wants.
Understanding the consciousness of the batterer’s behavior is key. We must understand that battering is a choice, not a mental health problem, or a psychological issue, or some type of “anger issue.” Only then can we discover how to heal the wounds and provide the needed safety for victims, and perhaps impact the decision-making process of the man who batters.
The Benefits of Violence for Men Who Batter
When I started facilitating mandated groups for men who batter in the 1980s, we concentrated on building skills for healthy relationships, self-control, anger management, etc. Then battered women in Duluth, Minnesota, got together to discuss the impact of the violence on their lives and created the Power and Control Wheel. What emerged from their discussions was a more complex picture of battering.
The men who beat women not only beat them, but controlled where they went, who they talked to, what they wore, if/where they worked, how they spent money, when/with whom/how they had sex, how they raised their children, how they did the domestic labor, and on and on. The men controlled the women to get what they wanted. The threat and use of violence was the tool that made that happen. These Duluth women helped all of us realize that violence is powerful.
One night I asked the men how they thought their violence benefited them. At first, they looked at each other and said, “There are no benefits.” This didn’t surprise me. Men who batter routinely deny their actions and their intentions. So I said, “Well, there must be some benefits from the violence. Otherwise, why would you do it?” They looked at each other again, then started admitting to the benefits. They all chimed in until their answers filled the four-by-eight-foot blackboard I was writing their responses on.
These men clearly understood the benefits of their violence and how much they gained from it. That’s why they didn’t want to stop. Violence is functional—and that’s why batterers use it!
It was astounding how dramatically the groups changed once I understood this cost-benefit analysis of batterers’ use of violence.
How We Can Help Create Change
The “cost-benefit analysis” of violence was the first time I fully comprehended the necessity of a consistent, coordinated community response through the criminal, civil, and family court systems to levy safe and effective interventions that hold men who batter accountable while preserving the safety of the women and children they abuse. Research indicates that the more intrusive the interventions are, the more likely the individual will change.1
It’s critical to place parameters around an abusive man’s behaviors and then stick to those parameters. The victim herself cannot do this alone because she will be harmed. She can do it, however, when she has the support of the court system, other helping professionals, advocacy programs, family and friends, faith communities, and other social structures. She needs to understand that she bears no responsibility for his behavior.
Men who batter will try to slip past the set parameters, irrespective of whether they come from the criminal, civil, and family court system, from organizational practices in the workplace, other professional interventions, or congregational expectations. They will do so in very sophisticated ways. Once the intervention boundaries are set, it’s critical that the batterer adheres to them consistently. Maintaining those boundaries and expectations lets men know they can’t get away with it anymore.
Faith communities have the power to assist victims and hold batterers accountable. We can develop and implement comprehensive protocols , especially with the help of local advocacy programs. Safe Havens Interfaith Partnership Against Domestic Violence is a national resource that assists communities in providing the support and assistance necessary in these dangerous and complicated circumstances.
Accountability Is a Key Indicator of Change in the Man Who Batters
To truly change, the man who batters must fully acknowledge his harmful behavior. He must dismantle the system of coercive power and control he established and make amends for the harm he has created.
What does this look like?
First, he will listen to, accept, and abide by the wishes of the woman he abused. If they are still together, he will accept her independent opinions and her behaviors he previously attempted to control. He will replace his abusive behavior with dignity and respect. If they are separated or divorced, accountability may mean no contact with her in any way.
Second, an accountable man will accept the consequences of his behavior, even if that means jail time, loss of a job, removal from a congregation, or less time with his children.
Third, he will approach all those he has manipulated by providing false information about his wife/partner and will acknowledge and take full responsibility for his behavior. He will then apologize for his manipulations and the impact those manipulations have had on their lives. He will fully accept any consequences, which may include the end of professional or private relationships and a change in his public reputation.
These are just a few examples of accountability. These behaviors need to occur consistently, over months and years, to be proven genuine. To determine real change in a man who battered, we need to speak to the woman he abused in the past, and the woman he is currently in relationship with. This is where we can find truly reliable information, if it is safe to do so.
This is hard. These aren’t small requests. However, it’s minimal compared to the trauma and lifelong impact the man who batters has on his wife/partner and children.
Andrew R. Klein, Practical Implications of Current Domestic Violence Research: For Law Enforcement, Prosecutors, and Judges 4 (US Dep’t of Justice, Nat’l Institute of Justice, 2009), 52.
Purchase your copy of Created to Thrive: Cultivating Abuse-Free Faith Communities
Theology in Practice: The Image of God and Domestic Violence
10 Myths About Domestic Abuse You Didn’t Know You Believed: Part 1 and Part 2
Good Theology Is Not Enough