Can domestic abusers change? Meet an expert who thinks it's possible

"We can't arrest our way out of the problem [of abuse], and we can't shelter our way out of the problem, either"

Published September 17, 2014 3:42PM (EDT)

Ray Rice            (AP/Patrick Semansky)
Ray Rice (AP/Patrick Semansky)

Late Tuesday night, former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice appealed his indefinite suspension from the NFL, a punishment leveled only after video was released of Rice knocking Janay Rice unconscious in an Atlantic City elevator. Lawyers for the NFL Players Association are appealing on the grounds that Rice was essentially penalized twice for the same offense. They have a point. The video didn't reveal anything new about the brutal nature of the assault. The NFL had a damning police report, a grand jury's felony assault indictment and footage of Rice dragging Janay's limp body from the elevator. All of this evidence, according to the NFL, warranted a two-game suspension. Because, as commissioner Roger Goodell and Ravens coach John Harbaugh argued at the time, Rice was "taking responsibility" and being "accountable for his actions."

The appeal is only the latest development in an unprecedented national conversation about how the NFL, the criminal justice system and our culture as a whole routinely fails victims of intimate partner violence. And so many questions remain. There has been a lot of focused outrage at both the NFL and the New Jersey prosecutors, the latter of whom let Rice enter into a pretrial diversion program rather than face criminal penalties. But we also know that the criminal justice system has not "solved" the problem of domestic violence, and that jail is not a rehabilitative place where violent men get "cured." In fact, some zero tolerance measures, like mandatory arrest laws, have been shown to discourage victims from calling the police and sometimes result in the arrest of the victims themselves. As we know, Janay Rice was also arrested the night she was knocked unconscious.

So what remains is the question of what reform and rehabilitation for abusers actually looks like, and if it's even possible. It's a big and messy question, but one we all need to grapple with. Earlier this year, Rice said in a statement that he is undergoing counseling with Janay, and according to a report from ESPN, he is also enrolled in an anger management program. Is this a successful model of rehabilitation?

David Adams, a psychologist and co-director of a Boston-based abusers' education and intervention program called Emerge, doesn't think so. Anger management programs like the one Rice is reported to be attending are not designed to address domestic violence, Adams told me. "Those programs are intended to address stranger assault, road rage, for example." To put an abuser in anger management rather than a batterers' intervention program is a fundamental misunderstanding of abuser dynamics and domestic violence, he said, because it "identifies the problem as anger, when really the problem is about control."

It's a fundamental misunderstanding that many, many people share.

There is a pretty vigorous debate about the effectiveness of batterers intervention programs. And research about "success" rates varies, since the definition of a successful intervention can be hard to quantify. (Is it the end of violence? A reduction in violence? Heightened awareness about abusive dynamics?) Data about recidivism is also complicated. But the fact remains that current criminal justice responses that either temporarily lock up an offender or isolate a victim in shelter programs are failing victims, and Adams believes intervention programs can be part of a more robust, ongoing and community-oriented response to intimate partner violence.

I talked to Adams about Emerge, which is the first and oldest abuser education program in the United States, what Ray Rice's continued presence in the news has done for awareness of domestic violence and what he thinks needs to change if we're going address the problem of intimate partner violence at its root. (Our conversation has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.)

How do these men come to your program? Voluntarily? Through a court order?

It's about 50 percent court-mandated, and about 35 percent self-referred. And about 15 percent come to us through child welfare.

And what does a batterers' intervention program entail?

It's 40 weeks. It's group sessions. Each group is co-facilitated by a man and a woman. One of the reasons for that is we want to model men and women working together and sharing leadership. That's an important aspect of the work, independent of the education we provide.

The first part of the program provides very basic education about what abusive behavior is. And that's important because a lot of abusers don't think what they've done is abusive. Yelling, name calling, undermining her reputation, isolating her socially -- even things like punching holes in wall. A lot of people don't think of this as constituting abuse.

So we educate them about this, how the abuse impacts their victim, their children. Then we move into a counseling group for the remainder of the program, weeks nine through 40. It's more of an interactive experience for the men. We teach them how to provide constructive feedback to each other. Each person has goals that they are expected to report in from week to week. So if someone is living with his partner, for instance, there are goals that pertain to showing more empathy. Listening and supporting her, for example.

If they are not together as a couple, then the goals often relate to ongoing responsibilities as a parent, his dating behavior. The essence of our program is really teaching empathy. Because if you had to identify a core personality characteristic among most abusers, it would be narcissism. A lot of people think of rage when they think of abusers. They think of people who are angry. But for a lot of abusers, that's not the issue. It's control, a sense of entitlement. Part of what narcissists tend to do is take any kind of disagreement as a sign of betrayal. They are really big on loyalty. They blame other people for their problems.

I like to describe empathy as a muscle that gets stronger with use. Most abusers have very flabby empathy muscles, so to speak. Part of what we do is have them report ongoing interactions with their partners and then ask the other men in their group to see it from the partner's perspective. Because it's easier to spot other people's abusive behavior than your own abusive behavior. We really engage them in that process.

We’re giving them tools. Listening is a big one. Then, hopefully, they begin to incorporate that so it changes the dynamic.

And what is happening with the partners during this process?

Throughout the program, we reach out to the partners and maintain confidential communication with the partners. And by the way, that’s very different than an anger management program. Ray Rice was referred to an anger management program. Those tend to be much shorter, they tend to be 10 weeks. They are not specifically designed to address domestic violence. Those programs are intended to address stranger assault, road rage, for example.

And doing that identifies the problem as anger, when really the problem is about control.

I noticed in his press conference, Ray Rice said that part of what he learned is that husbands have to “lead” their families and he has to "lead" his wife and without that "leadership" his family will crumble. I think that's a good example of how he has already been given a wrong notion about what needs to change.

How prevalent are programs like Emerge? We have an almost unprecedented level or awareness around the Ray Rice case, which would make you think that -- even as a matter of optics -- the NFL and the New Jersey prosecutors would really want to get this one right. And yet he’s reported to be enrolled in an anger management program. What's the disconnect? 

You tend to have defense attorneys who plea bargain for a shorter program.

I think one of the biggest misunderstandings about abusers is that they don't often come across as an abuser. They can sometimes come across as more "likable" than their victims. A lot of times they don't have an arrest record. So people tend to think of the 25 percent of abusers who fit the stereotype of an abuser, and those are the ones who are often referred to batterer programs.

In Boston we had Jared Remy, the son of Jerry Remy, a former Red Sox player and Red Sox announcer. He was also not referred to a batterer program even though he had a very egregious history of violence against women.

A lot of this is driven by plea bargains. Particularly in these kinds of celebrity cases. My program actually gets a high degree of voluntary referrals. We do get a fair number of men who don't fit the abuser "type," but these men are often referred by their partners. Often it’s the partners who call us first.

This is a 40-week program, which is certainly more extensive than a 10-week anger management program. But unlearning abusive thinking and behavior seems like a lifelong process. What happens after the program ends? 

My program really focuses on who their friends are, too. Just like recovering alcoholics need to be selective about who their friends are, we ask the men in our program to really consider who their friends are.

The other thing we ask him is, "How will you explain your situation to your friends?" If they are out of the house, how will they explain that? Not just to their friends, but their families? Because a lot of the time, these men go back to live with their families.

A lot of times abusers will give these skewed descriptions without really explaining why. We are really keen on having them give honest accounts of their situation, so that their friends and their families can hold them to a higher standard. Because a lot of the time, friends will throw the victim under the bus. Say, “Well, I never liked her, anyway.”

We've seen some really good results from that. We've seen men say, midway through the program, "A lot of my friends have the same problem I do.”

Men who abuse their partners are often very good at manipulation, at manipulating their partners into believing the violence is justified. How do you account for the manipulation that happens inside the program? How the men in your program may be manipulating you. Saying, “Look at all that’s changing. Look at how much better things are.”

That is a standard feature. The quick fixes and manipulations. That's why we reach out to the partners. We refer the victims to support services, for one thing. And we help the victims identify the ongoing manipulation. We want people to get clear about what real change is and set limits about what’s happening.

So one of the manipulations is to convince a woman to come back. To pressure her. Part of what we say to victims is to say, "Don't assume that he has changed at this point. Only time can tell. Get support for yourself, and maintain whatever limits you want to place on the relationship."

Abusers will try to manipulate everybody. And they are quite successful.

I do a lot of training of clergy [who provide counseling to abusers]. And one of the ways that abusers manipulate is to put on a big show of remorse. A lot of perpetrators cry more than their victims do. Clergy often see this as a signal that things are changing, they’re overly impressed by that. But for narcissistic abusers, they aren't crying about their victims. They are crying about what happens to them.

They have this saying in Alcoholics Anonymous, “Fake it till you make it.” A lot of real change starts with phony change, really. Anyone who has problems they don’t want to address -- their initial efforts to change are often not very sincere.

That's kind of standard. I think the important thing is that people be clear about what real change is, so we can have consistent expectations. We send a brochure to the partner that says, "How do I know that he's changing?" Can you get angry at him without him getting more angry?

Most abusers will apologize once or twice, but if they don't get immediate results, they will take it all back and say, “You’re the problem.” I think we help victims to be more savvy. And not just them, but their communities, too.

A lot of victims can come across as less "credible" than their abusers because of the dynamics we discussed. So I think a lot of judges are impressed. A lot of abusers overstate their abilities as parents. We really think of addressing this as being part of our work. Not just addressing individual abusers, but educating the community about abuser dynamics and real accountability.

Your point about Alcoholics Anonymous feels apt, in a way. We have these 40 weeks. And all of the tools your program puts into place about identifying abusive behaviors, boundaries, accountability. But in AA, you have a sponsor to support you through your program. Does anything like that already exist at Emerge? Would a similar arrangement even work?

We have experimented with that in the past. People can come past the 40 weeks, by the way. We encourage that. We haven't maintained a third stage that's worked successfully so far.

Our latest has been to try to develop a combination in which they are coming for support but are also engaged in work. To speak about domestic violence, which helps to reinforce what they’ve already learned.

But I’m not quite trusting that the AA model would work, that it wouldn’t just dissolve into mutual commiseration.

Which leads to the question of criticism of this approach. To me, it’s very clear that criminal responses to domestic violence are not effective deterrents to violence. They can also serve to criminalize victims, particularly women of color who report abuse to the police. But what is your response to criticism that says allowing offenders to enroll in these programs as an alternative to criminal penalties sends the message that intimate partner violence is a less serious crime than other forms of violence?

My response to that is that the alternative is not to go to jail for most abusers. If they don't go to an abuser program, they are likely going to go to an easier, shorter program. And even if they go to jail, jails have been demonstrated to be incredibly ineffective for addressing violence.

There is a difference between punishment and accountability. I think punishment -- mostly abusers, they take their punishment and then they’re free to repeat what they’ve done. It doesn’t require any change at all.

It’s comparable to our overemphasis for punishment for drugs. We have millions of dollars invested in incarceration, but nothing for treatment. Accountability involves a lot more than punishment. That doesn’t happen in prisons.

And the reliance on mandatory arrest policies also leads to the arrest of women in these situations, which is a harmful pattern that targets low-income women and women of color.

The result is the overrepresentation of people of color being arrested and poor people. People who fit the “stereotype” are more likely to be ensnared in the system. The ones who don’t go to private therapy. It’s the same issues with drug and alcohol crimes.

I’d imagine there isn’t one model of what success looks like in the program, since in some situations the partnership ends, but the man has been held accountable. And in some cases, the relationship may continue, but without the violence. How does Emerge define success?

That’s a good conception. It differs from person to person, and depends on what their starting point is. Some start out and are still living with their victims, so you expect different outcomes from them than from someone who ended the relationship. What you expect from someone who has ended the relationship is to be more responsible parents to their kids. To those still in the relationship, you expect them to be more sensitive partners.

And we hear from the men how they have involved more empathy. Just one little example was someone who started in our parenting program that is geared toward men with histories of domestic violence.

He was referred to us after his twin 5-year-old boys got so upset about the domestic violence in their home that they got up in the middle of the night, dressed themselves, and walked to school in the middle of the night. They were picked up by the police in the middle of the night, and he was enrolled in our program.

Over time, he was able to recognize the impact of his behavior on his kids as well as change his behavior toward his partner.

We’ve talked about how the current system does not bring accountability or safety to victims. Is there a legislative or policy agenda here?

It varies. Family courts, generally, are even worse than criminal courts on domestic violence. What we've seen over the past 10 years is this increasing attention to allegations of parental alienation. So a lot of judges have started to care more about that. If an abuser claims, "She is alienating me from my kids,” some judges will put more stock in that than they do domestic violence. They see domestic violence as being “trumped up” by the victim to gain advantage.

But it's a society-wide problem. The general public still has a lot of stereotypes about who abusers are. A lot of people don't know about existing programs. There was a survey I was reading about how a lot of people hadn’t heard of batterer intervention programs, but thought they were a good idea. At the same time, these people knew abusers.

I just don't think we think through enough of what should happen with offenders. We have a lazy way of thinking, “Just put them in jail,” as if that solves the problem.

I like to say, 100 percent of domestic violence is caused by abusers. Why should the burden to change always be on the victims? We're in the practice of incarcerating victims or hiding them. We can't arrest our way out of the problem, and we can't shelter our way out of the problem, either.

This whole idea of expecting change from the people causing the problem -- we still aren’t quite there yet.

By Katie McDonough

Katie McDonough is Salon's politics writer, focusing on gender, sexuality and reproductive justice. Follow her on Twitter @kmcdonovgh or email her at

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