Taking the Steps To Stop the Abuse
Decker, MA, LP
One would hope that our homes could be safe havens for women,
children, and men. But all too often, they are not. Domestic
abuse is an epidemic in this country. It is estimated that
2 to 4 million American women are battered each year by their
husbands or intimate partners. And sadly, in the United
States, a woman is more likely to be assaulted, injured, raped,
or killed by a male partner than by any other type of assailant
(Browne & Williams, 1987). It makes no sense to continue
to go on this way.
Sometimes male clients have said to me, "Well,
wait a minute, Dave, what about all the abuse that my wife
does to me." In reality, it is true that women
can also be controlling and abusive in relationships with
partners, saying and doing hurtful, disrespectful, punishing,
and demeaning things. In fact, three national surveys by researchers
Gelles and Straus in 1975, 1985, and 1992 found that women
used violence even more frequently than men in familial situations.
But, especially when domestic abuse escalates to threats
and physical violence, it is my belief that there is a significant
difference between men and women. My partner is 5'4"
and 125 pounds. I am 5'9" and 180 pounds. If my partner
hauls off and smacks me in the face, I may be angry, annoyed,
and irritated with what she has done. But I will not feel
fearful, humiliated, and intimidated. If I make the decision
to use physical force with her, at that point or any other,
she is much more likely to experience fear, terror, humiliation,
intimidation, and domination. She does not have the ability
to hurt me physically in the way that I could hurt her. And
part of what Gelles and Straus found was that men were seven
times likelier to actually injure their partners when there
was physical violence.
Because of size, musculature, and socialization, most
women in heterosexual relationships cannot compete with their
male partners once physical conflict begins. When we as
men go to using physical force with our partners, we are much
more likely to be able to control and dominate a relationship
through threats, intimidation, and violence than our partners
are. In addition, other types of abusive behavior, including
sulking, name-calling, put-downs, cussing and swearing, slamming
doors, and punching walls take on additional impact. Partners
and children don't need to be reminded that those same behaviors
were part of an escalation to physical violence the last time
Volatile anger and abusive behavior are always destructive
in an intimate relationship and always lead to a loss of trust,
respect, safety, and intimacy. Although abuse and violence
may work on a short-term basis to get what you want and control
a person or situation, in the end it is never helpful in arriving
at constructive problem-solving and conflict resolution that
leaves both parties feeling okay about what has just transpired.
Because of our ability as men to control through the use of
threats and violence, it is up to us, from my perspective,
to take the initiative to make sure that abuse and violence
are not a part of the relationships we have with our partners
The following twenty steps from my book, Stopping
The Violence, A Group Model To Change Men's Abusive Attitudes
and Behaviors, are critical in the process of change if
you make the decision to do something about anger, abuse,
and control issues in your own life.
- Acknowledge to yourself and others that you have a
problem with anger, abuse, and control. Any meaningful
change is impossible without this admission. Then go out
and get some help to specifically address these issues. Group
treatment can be especially helpful because you can see yourself,
your attitudes, and your behaviors in others and other men
can serve as a helpful "reality test" about the
chaos and dysfunction the abuse is creating in your relationship
and your life.
- Address mental health and chemical use issues when
they are present in your life. If you are depressed,
anxious, using drugs, or drinking too much, get some help.
If issues like these are left untreated, they will interfere
with treatment focused on controlling and abusive behavior.
They will also interfere with just getting along in your
- Come to know that, when you are abusive to others,
you are always feeling inadequate, insecure, powerless, and
unloveable. People who basically feel okay about themselves
do not need to try to assume power and control over other
- Realize that controlling and abusive behavior hurts
you and those you love. When you are abusive, you erode
the self-esteem and self-respect of those around you and
you teach your children to be either bullies or "doormats"
in their interactions with others. In addition, you also
create emotional, physical, and, potentially, legal consequences
for yourself when you engage in these sorts of behaviors.
- Understand that anger is different from abuse and
control. Anger is a normal and natural human emotion.
It is what you do with this emotion when it arises that determines
whether it is helpful and productive or becomes toxic and
- Recognize that becoming abusive is always a choice.
You are continually making decisions even when you feel
rageful and completely "out-of-control."
- Take responsibility for what you feel, how you think,
and how you act instead of blaming others. People can
certainly trigger your emotional reactions, but no one has
the power to cause you to think or behave in a controlling
or abusive way. That decision comes from inside you.
- Accept that you cannot "fix," change, or
control other people. The paradox about being controlling
is that the more you try to control people and situations
around you, the more frustrated and "out-of-control"
you end up feeling which sets you up to become even more
controlling and abusive in your life.
- Remember that you can always take a time-out in a
potentially explosive situation. We have always known
that time-outs can be a good strategy for children. They
are also a good strategy for us as adults. A time-out is
not a magic "cure-all" but it can allow you to
take a break and get away temporarily before you say or do
something that you will only end up regretting later. Part
of taking a respectful time-out, however, is making and keeping
a commitment to yourself and your partner that you will return
to address the problem or issue at a later time when you
have calmed yourself down. Hopefully, you will not make the
time-out strategy into simply another weapon in your arsenal
of abusive behaviors.
- Think about the potential consequences before you
become controlling and abusive. Domestic assault is illegal.
You can lose your freedom and end up in jail. But even more
important, you have the potential to damage or even completely
lose your relationships with your partner and children for
the rest of your life.
- Identify clearly what triggers your anger and your
controlling and abusive behavior. Start to get to know
yourself. Tune into what you are experiencing internally
(e.g. your thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations) and
what you are reacting to that is going on around you (e.g.
situations, people, places, times that are triggers for you).
Abusive people rarely have a good sense of the totality of
what is contributing to their personal escalation process.
- Slow down enough to notice what you're thinking.
Your thoughts are powerful. They can dramatically increase
the intensity of your anger and the likelihood that you will
become controlling and abusive. Or they can work to help
you calm down in potentially volatile situations or when
you have a desire to try to assume control over someone else.
- Become aware of all your feelings, not just your anger,
and learn to respectfully communicate these feelings to others
(including people outside your immediate family). Anger
is always a "cover-up" to hide the feelings that
make you more vulnerable, like hurt, disappointment, sadness,
and fear. But sharing these hidden feelings is, in fact,
the process that can bring you closest to the people whom
you love and decrease the stress and tension that you experience
in your day-to-day living.
- Turn conflicts into positive problem-solving opportunities.
Conflict is normal and to be expected in intimate human relationships.
In fact, intimacy cannot exist without conflict at times.
Don't make your partner into the enemy (that certainly isn't
the way you started out with her). Make her into a teammate
and work together to figure out how to deal with issues that
arise in your relationship and in your own life.
- Think about the messages you received from your family
and from society about what it is to be a man. Control,
abuse, and violence are learned. Begin to understand where
and how you learned to be controlling and abusive and work
hard to counteract those messages.
- Redefine your manhood as non-controlling, non-abusive,
and non-violent. Learn to jettison the macho and destructive
messages and life scripts that contribute to your controlling
and abusive thoughts and behaviors in the present.
- Take the risk to count on other men for emotional
support. Develop friends and confidants with whom you
can share your joys, sorrows, and difficulties in a consistent
and ongoing way.
- Learn to experience a genuine sense of pride in who
you are by taking control of how you view and how you act
around the important people in your life. Assume personal
power in your life rather than trying the exert power and
control over others.
- Start to believe in your "heart of hearts"
that you can truly change the controlling and abusive parts
of who you have been. Begin to visualize a new and different
"you" and behave toward others with that vision
- Don't expect the partner with whom you have been controlling
and abusive to applaud or even acknowledge the efforts and
the changes you are making, especially early in the process.
Healing for women in abusive relationships and for the relationship
itself is a long and difficult process. Control, abuse, and
violence destroy trust, safety, and intimacy in relationships.
If your partner is willing to stay with you, the healing
requires a consistent pattern of emotional and behavioral
change on your part over time. Women in abusive relationships
often still love their partners but they do want the controlling
and abusive behavior to stop. Plan to get emotional support
and encouragement from other places in your life and work
hard not to use a partner's apparent lack of interest and
support as another reason to become abusive with her in the
Overcoming abusive and controlling attitudes and behaviors
is a lifelong process that involves self-awareness, finding
effective ways to deal with life stress and frustration, and
seeing and making better choices when anger and a desire to
control and become abusive do arise. Contrary to what
some people believe, abusive men can change, not just in stopping
the physical violence but also in intervening in emotional
and verbal abuse and addressing the controlling attitudes
that fuel other sorts of abusive behavior. Continuing to be
abusive will lead, quite simply, to feeling bitter, miserable,
alienated, and alone. This way of being is a dead-end street.
The alternative to this depressing life script is different
and better: working actively toward loving and nurturing connections
with others and yourself. Make a commitment to yourself and
those you care about that you will become one of those men
who chooses to become non-abusive and non-violent. It can
happen if you decide to make it so.
© 1999 David J. Decker, MA, LP
Phone: 612-725-8402 or 651-646-4325 - www.ANGEResources.com