The Folly of "Fixing" Those Who Batter

repair manI remember, all too well, my early days as a battering intervention facilitator.  I took my job very seriously.  I focused on holding those in my classes accountable. I listened very closely to how they blamed their partner, minimized their behavior. If I ever heard the participants refer to their partner as “my old lady” or, “my old man”, I would demand they use names, pointing out that their language was just another way to dehumanize their victims.   I learned the language of a facilitator and I used that language well in my classes.   I was going to “fix” those who battered and in doing so, was going to protect victims of domestic violence.  I did not understand that my way of thinking said more of my immaturity than about those I was serving, and probably did little to protect anyone. 

I remember the first time I was introduced to the idea that maybe those who batter are not in need of being fixed.  Maybe they weren’t broken. Maybe, instead, people who have used violence in their families needed help in healing.

I began to learn about trauma.  I began to learn about adverse feelings and defense systems.  I listened as participants shared childhood experiences of feeling weak, powerless and helpless, and how they vowed as adults to never experience those feelings again. It became apparent to me that the skills they had used to survive cruelty when young were not the same skills needed to create amazing, respectful relationships. For many, the controlling, dominating and mistrusting behaviors, while incredibly dangerous to others, were products of surviving the past.  As I recognized that most cruelty used as an adult is evidence of unresolved cruelty experienced years before, things began changing for me. I slowly stopped “fixing” those I was serving and begin learning from them. Strangely, as I stopped trying to fix them, they became more willing to change.

Strangely, as I stopped trying to fix them, they became more willing to change.

If I was not supposed to fix them, then what was I really supposed to do? In a general sense, I realized that I needed to create space in my group room where people could heal. Over the years, I have recognized some general areas of focus that have been helpful.  While a facilitator has so many responsibilities, there are a few areas that can make or break a group or a program.  Here are a few that I think about:

  1. Safety:  The room and the program must be an emotionally safe place.  People often come expecting to be judged, condemned and berated. If we want people to explore their own cruel behavior and the cruelties that happened to them, they require safety. I found that creating safety in the program increases our opportunity to improve safety for their victim at home.
  2. Leading by Example:  I was an expert at telling my group members what they should do while I was comfortable staying safe in the facilitator role.  Once I began to do everything that I was asking my participants to do, and doing it first, everything changed.  I had been afraid to share my own story. Joining the group while continuing to lead the group was the most powerful change I have ever made. This is often a terrifying proposition for new facilitators.  I understand.
  3. Pursuing Beyond the Cover Story:  We all have a cover story that gives us comfort.  The cover story shows up as our resume and our “image”. This is the general information that we would like people to know about us.  However, all of us have an amazing story just beneath the surface that we tend to hide out of fear.  As safety is established in a group room, participants can move well beyond the cover story and begin to share and explore more meaningful aspects of themselves.
  4. Relationships:  It is not enough for me to be the “qualified professional” in the room.  I must care.  The more I connect and care about each participant, the more safety and trust is established.  Without safety and trust, I am helpless to make a difference.
  5. Curiosity:  I get teased about the questions that I ask.  My questions are intended to explore beyond the cover story and to help create a deeper internal focused perspective.  Dr. John Gottman says that behind the defense systems lies the gold.  I love gently getting to the gold.
  6. Emotional Acceptance:  The more afraid we are of our own emotions, especially sadness and fear, the more dangerous we can be, both to ourselves and others.  Helping people to become less afraid of themselves and their emotions increases safety.  If we are not afraid of our emotions, we don’t have to hurt others.  
  7. Accept Imperfection:  I had spent years trying to present to my groups that I had it all together.  I was slow to recognize that I was role modeling an impossibility.  No one can be perfect.  Acknowledging my own short comings and being okay with my mistakes gives my group members permission to do the same. 
  8. Accountability:  I had believed for years that my job was to “hold those who batter accountable”.  As I came to understand accountability as only one of many components in a healthy, respectful relationship, and not the sole component of my responsibility, I became more able to build better relationships with those I served.

To sum it up: I can say without a doubt that I have learned so much from those I have served.  I am a different person thanks to the lessons I have learned.  I have accepted that I cannot “fix” others, even though the stakes are high and lives can hang in the balance. By learning how to facilitate and guide with the above principles, I have found that people are pretty darn good at healing.

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