Battering is a Choice, But...

DV is a choice

I remember listening, as a passionate intern got frustrated with a group member and blurted out, “Battering is a choice...a simple choice. It is not hard to make another choice. People can simply choose to stop battering!” I watched, as most of the men in the group mentally “checked out”. I shook my head and smiled, remembering how I had wanted the change process to be simple in my early days of this work.  Describing battering behavior as a choice, while true, is an oversimplification that does little to help those who batter choose differently. This intern needed to understand some of the driving forces behind “why”, as well as “who” makes violent choices in relationships.

The Adverse Childhood Experience Study (ACES) sheds some light on who is making the choice to be violent.  Examining 10 aspects of family dysfunction, the study found that the chance of someone growing up to use violence in relationships increases with every adverse childhood experience that they endure before the age of 18.  This important discovery highlights some of the long-term effects of adverse childhood experiences. 

It is now accepted knowledge that among those who batter, high ACE scores are the rule, not the exception.

The Family Peace Initiative, in partnership with Hope Harbor in Kansas City, administered the 10-item  Adverse Childhood Experiences questionnaire to over 200 male battering intervention program (BIP) participants.  The average number of self-reported ACE’s among our participants was 4.2.  There were some dramatic differences between the ACE’s reported in the original study and those reported by our BIP participants, as the chart below suggests:


CDC ACE Study (men only)


Emotional Abuse



Substance Abusing Caretaker



Parents Separated or Divorces



Witnessing Domestic Violence



Physically Abused



BIP participants often talk about adverse experiences beyond the ones measured by the ACES questionnaire. Abandonment by a parent or caretaker, oppression, systematic abuse, poverty, homelessness, and being bullied often come up in conversation. It is now accepted knowledge that among those who batter, high ACE scores are the rule, not the exception.

Expecting someone to establish healthy, respectful relationships after being raised in a world of abuse, cruelty, and disrespect, is unrealistic.  Amazingly, some do this, but many cannot.  The skills necessary to survive a cruel upbringing are not the same skills required to create and maintain a healthy relationship. 

Of course, there are lots of people who have experienced horrible childhoods who do not become violent. The ACE study addresses this by offering valuable evidence on resiliency. Simply stated, the more children experience unconditional love, receive messages of value, and are safe and protected, the less negative impact ACE’s will have in the long term.  When these resilience factors are absent or minimal, cruelty wins the day.

Acts of cruelty are almost always evidence of unresolved cruelty.

On one level, my intern was right. Battering behavior is a choice. However, it is much more complicated. Acts of cruelty are almost always evidence of unresolved cruelty. Understanding the impact of the traumatic experience of participants is critical in helping them create lasting change that leads to safer, more respectful choices in relationships.

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