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Can Violent Men Really Be Reformed?

Domestic violence intervention programs have to answer this question every day.

The #MeToo movement has raised the question of whether predatory men can change for the better and led to many philosophical, abstract, and heated conversations between friends and colleagues. But for Jeffrey Edleson, who has spent the past 30 years counseling men who have been violent with their spouses and children, this question is far more personal.

“I think that can happen and I have seen it happen,” Edleson, a dean and professor at the University of California, Berkeley’s School of Social Welfare, told Fatherly. We spoke with Edleson about group-based therapy, the challenges of treating men who are in therapy under court order, and how he responds to criticism from those who claim that bad men never change.

What does this type of treatment entail?

Most are small groups of men who meet weekly, at least once a week, over a four-to-six-month period. There’s a lot of learning that goes on and processing of experiences and trying to learn new ways to interact with their partners. Even if they’re separated and unlikely to get back with the partner where the violence occurred, they’re likely going to be in a new relationship. That’s the general picture of the interventions. They’re all fairly similar, in that there’s a lot of education about belief systems and how we learn behaviors as a child and as a boy and, as men, how that’s reinforced.

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What about couples therapy?

Some people argue couples counseling would be a better approach, but there’s little research to back that up. Often the men complete group work, and their partners then feel safe enough to enter couples counseling. There’s an opportunity for that.

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Is group work preferable to individual therapy?

I counsel men individually as well, and I actually think group work is a more effective intervention because, when it’s just a counselor and another man, many times the man dismisses the feedback. But if it’s other men who are in a similar situation, and they hear the same thing from those other men, it’s a more powerful form of feedback because it’s from peers rather than some professional they’ve been mandated to see. A lot of these men are very good and very accurate critics of other men.

How quickly does it group therapy begin to yield results?

These are men who, for 20 to 40 years usually, have behaved this way, and unlearning it takes a lot of time. I don’t think four to six months is usually going to do that, but for some men it does. I’ve seen some men have a born-again kind of experience, or an ‘aha moment’ pretty quickly. For others it takes going through multiple times to learn the skills, and a lot of long-term hard work. In California they require it to be 52 weeks.

What sort of things motivate these men to change?

Originally most men came without a court or police mandate. When I started working in this area almost 40 years ago, most men were more socially mandated to come into treatment by their partners going into a shelter, moving out, and separating. And definitely access to their children was a big motivator. Now, 90 percent of men come into treatment as a result of police intervention or court-orders. But I think they’re similarly motivated to make the change in their lives because this isn’t the first relationship they’ve been violent in. It often happens in their teenage years, even as bullies in elementary school.

What challenges do you encounter attempting to motivate violent men to change?

A lot of times men will come in blaming their partners for their violence. It usually takes a couple of sessions turn that around. For a  lot of men, all kinds of emotions like fear, and insecurity come out as anger and one of the exercises groups do is look at the range of emotions you’re feeling and trying to develop a vocabulary to better describe what they’re feeling and think about the sources of those feelings. Rather than just turning everything into anger and then expressing it through violence. 

Why do some men simply not respond to treatment?

One reason is their level of motivation. One study found that many men went to the men’s programs but, as soon as their partners returned, they dropped out of the program. A lot of times the motivation is to get her back, and she’s back, the men lose the motivation to go to groups. Men that are looking at it in a kind of strategic way tend to fail unless they, through the experience of the group, move from that strategic thinking to being motivated to make real change in their lives.

Can you give me any examples of this type of transition occurring?

I had one man in a group who had been through groups five times and he said “all this time I was treading water and now I’ve decided I’m going to learn how to swim.” I thought that was a beautiful metaphor, I’ve kept it in my mind for probably 30 years. I thought it was a great analogy for a lot of men who are just trying to do their time, they’ve been assigned by the courts to do this. But hopefully when they’re doing their time, they see other men making change and working on it, and get motivated to make their own changes.

How does this change when children are involved, either observing the violence or experiencing it first hand? 

Doing better for your children and having access to your children is a huge motivator. At the same time violence against women and violence against children are highly linked. I’d say about 50 percent of families where the man is violent towards the woman he’s also violent toward the children. There’s a higher risk if it’s not their biological child. Children’s exposure to the violence against women can have pretty traumatic effects, much like if being directly abused. They don’t even have to be touched, just watching it can have a similar effect of being abused themselves. It’s even scarier for kids when they’re in another room and hearing all this and not knowing what’s going on. A lot of children will intervene at that point, and that’s very dangerous for them as well.

Since treatment progress seems gradual, that has to make custodial situations and coparenting difficult.

Generally the courts will assign some kind of of access. Even when they block that access, a lot of children still have contact with their fathers. And frankly, a lot of mothers want their kids to have contact with their fathers, but it’s tough for women when the court mandates a rigid custodial situation that’s not always safe for their children. What moms report is that the father is intoxicated, or he’s living with a woman who’s told me he’s being violent towards her and I don’t want to put my kids in that situation. They would be in violation of the courts if they said no, but they often are very upset about having to drop off their kids in certain circumstances. However, many moms want their kids to have a good relationship with their fathers and hope it gets better with time. There are still a lot of men who are there to fulfill a court order to see their kids. One of the main challenges of a group leader is to transform that man’s motivation from meeting the requirements to actually making changes.

Many people believe these programs do not work. How do you respond to that criticism?

There are a lot of people who argue we shouldn’t be wasting our resources on programs like this. I would argue back, and I would say is that these programs are not an answer to violence but they’re part of a bigger solution. They should be part of a multi-pronged intervention that includes courts, police, education systems, doctors, clergy, giving clear messaging about what’s OK in relationships and what’s not. It has to be a multi-factor intervention on a social level as well as a clinical level to really make change in our society. These programs play an important role, but not the only role.