No Shortcuts: Domestic Abusers Work to “Redefine Anger” in New Therapy Model
Roughly half of all calls to the Memphis Police Department relate to domestic abuse, of which some lead to court-ordered therapy for convicted offenders.
However, most traditional programs haven’t proven very effective.
The nonprofit Kindred Place Counseling Center (formerly known as the Exchange Club Family Center) is trying a different approach.
And James, a past participant, thinks it could actually break the cycle of violence.
This story was produced in partnership with the Institute for Public Service Reporting, and is part of the series Surging in Silence, which is supported by the Pulitzer Center.
James agreed to share his story on condition that we use only his first name. He was arrested two years ago for an incident he still disputes. A day spent arguing with his wife ended with a call to the police. In an affidavit, his wife said he choked her. James says he only grabbed her by the arms.
“We've been married 30 years. I've had to repair a door or two, but physical [violence] between the two of us was something we did not do,” he says.
There was little evidence of an attempted strangulation, but because the allegation is so serious, the case went to the courts. James says the legal process became so expensive he eventually accepted a plea deal, which included enrolling in group therapy.
That’s how James came to Kindred Place and its program, called Achieving Change Through Value-Based Behavior, or ACTV (pronounced “active”). It was launched in 2018 and sessions are facilitated by two therapists, one of whom is Amanda Russell. She says it differs from typical intervention programs for batterers, which focus on “changing patriarchal attitudes and beliefs that endorse power and control over women.”
According to her, studies show these types of programs aren’t much better than probation at lowering recidivism — because learned attitudes are only one factor. For instance, many abusers also have problems with drugs or alcohol. Those don’t cause someone to be violent, says Russell, but they do lower inhibitions and exacerbate anger and violence.
So if “you try to only work with [offenders] on the violence, and you don't address the substance use disorder, they're likely going to reoffend, because they’re going to continue to use drugs or alcohol.”
The six-month ACTV program is more holistic, according to Russell, and based on the premise “that people have a difficult time accepting their difficult emotions, and do a lot of things to try to minimize those emotions. One form of doing that is trying to control the people around them.”
For instance, many abusers tend to be jealous, violently so. Russell says that’s a hard emotion to feel, so a typical response is to try to keep their partner from ever going out.
Or, as a member of James’s ACTV group described this kind of emotional avoidance: “’You have a problem. You beat on it until it stops moving.’ I’m like, what?!”
But this is what breakthroughs sounded like, says James. At first, none of the 16 men in the group wanted to speak. “But by week three we were sharing, we were talking back and forth, holding each other up. There was weeping and there was gnashing of teeth.”
James credits Russell and her colleague, both women, with never judging the men while guiding them through difficult emotional territory.
“They take you back into childhood traumas, and they walk you through it,” says James. “To get these guys to walk through that kind of stuff in a group setting, it was impressive.”
James finished ACTV during the pandemic (the last few sessions were over Zoom) and actually misses it, he says.
It didn’t just give him invaluable insight into his own emotions, he says; it also helped him understand chronic abuse. One thing he noticed was that the most violent members of the group were also the most afraid of being alone or exposed.
James says partners know the most intimate things about you: “Those things that you hide from everybody else because you see them as weaknesses. She knows.”
And that feels dangerous to people who are afraid of being vulnerable. That’s why, according to James, these men “lash out. That's the only way they know how to do it. That's the only thing they've seen coming up.”
James and his wife have long since reconciled. He still doesn’t believe his actions that day rose to the level of a domestic abuser, but if there’s a silver lining to the painful experience, it’s ACTV.
James says he’s learned to really listen, and not just react, when he or others feel insulted or attacked. He laughs that he’s now constantly helping family and friends “redefine anger,” and using what he’s learned in his job as a security guard.
ACTV is something everybody could use, he says, and early in life. Especially abusive men — and women.
James knows domestic violence is too complex for six months of therapy to be a “cure-all.” But, he says, if these particular emotional skills could be taught to people stuck in cycles of their own violent behavior, “You're going to have a lot of different outcomes. A lot better outcomes.”
That’s the point, say therapists and advocates. Because domestic violence isn’t a problem that the legal system alone will fix.