Lessons Learned: Update in the Battle Against Domestic Violence

Three women a day die as the result of domestic violence [DV] (nnedv.org). Join me for an “on the air” conversation with Radhika Sharma, education coordinator at Apha Ghar (Our Home, ApnaGhar.org) on the Voice America Empowerment Internet radio channel (click here to listen to show) on May 6, 2015 with replay available shortly thereafter on what you can do about it.

This is what I learned in a 40-hour training on how to combat domestic violence delivered by the community organization Apna Ghar. “Apna Ghar” is Hindu / Urdu meaning “Our Home”. (See http://www.ApnaGhar.org.) The rumor of empathy at Apna Ghar is no rumor – empathy LIVES at Apna Ghar and the work being there.

Three Women a Day Die From Domestic Violence (nnedv.org)

There is never a valid excuse for domestic violence (DV). None. I will not rehearse in details all the lessons emphasized in the content of the class on DV that occasions this post. DV is not caused by alcohol, drugs, testosterone, religion, bad up bringing, mental illness, lack of civil rights, education or lack thereof, or criminality, though it can be correlated with all these. Yes, DV is about power and control. Domestic violence is a problem in the community – my community, your community. Abuse is not limited to physical battering and is often accompanied by verbal, emotional, and financial exploitation. Abusers are innovative, calculating, and predictably self-deceived (unfortunately), and new forms of cyber-harassment and cyber-stalking are emerging, but these are out of scope in this post. In any case, a key approach of the abuser is to isolate the victim – and make her (or him) feel “less than”. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), one in four women will experience intimate partner violence during their lives. I am not making this up. This is unacceptable. Here is selection from what I learned in my 40 hour training on Handling Domestic Violence.

Given that 90% of batterers are men, we may very well be up against biology. Male biology. This is a hypothesis. The male gender may be naturally predisposed to aggression. This may have advantages if one is living in an environment with large animal predictors such as lions or hostile humans. However, predisposition is no excuse or reason. Culture, society, and community transform biology and nature. That is the definition of civilization. People are not born civilized. Yet woman is not a mere womb; man is not mere testosterone. Parents and society create civilized behavior in the process of education, development, and the up bringing of children. For example, we no longer eat our food raw. In general, we cook our food. Civilization marches on. Likewise, parents and siblings have a contribution to make to civilizing aspects of the male gender’s behavior that are uncivilized. I do not know how else to express the matter: Some men seem not to have been civilized in respect to treatment of women. Some men are acting in an uncivilized way towards women and children. Some men batter because they can. And they will continue to do so as long as men (and women) leave the matter alone and do not stop them. The best solution is when a man takes responsibility for his behavior and transforms it. He stops of his own accord and as an exercise of his freedom and power. Alas, matters often do not happen that way. While deploying the criminal justice system to deal with the extreme offenders, there may be a population that can be rehabilitated through training in healthy relations between men and women.

This is an on camera (educational) interview with Serena Low, former Executive Director, Apna Ghar (“Our Home”). Apna Ghar (“Our Home”) operates a Hot Line and Shelter for women who are dealing with domestic abuse, intimate partner abuse, including related violence, and need to find a physical location (place) to be safe. Serena provides a concise, on camera narrative of the issues and challenges faced by women in the community – and how Apna Ghar makes a difference. Serena also shares her thoughts on silence and empathy. Apna Ghar has corporate headquarters in the uptown neighborhood in Chicago ApnaGhar.org.  This material is rated suitable for General (G) audiences, but engages a confronting topic (domestic violence).  Also, please submit any comments here to ensure proper moderating of the contribution.  Click on the following to see the educational video  –

Thanks, Rita!

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), some 35.6% of women in the USA will encounter intimate partner abuse in their lifetime. This is a major public health issue the scope of which needs to be better appreciated and addressed.


[Lifetime Prevalence of Rape, Physical Violence, and/or Stalking by an Intimate Partner by State of Residence—U.S. Women, NISVS 2010]

What does a healthy relationship look like? This was assumed by the class. Everyone knows, right? Maybe not. Some survivors may never have seen a healthy relationship or seen one in sufficient detail. A healthy relationship includes (1) keeping one’s word; (2) respect for boundaries; (3) contribution from both individuals to the relationship; (4) treating the other person as a possibility and an end in her- or himself and not a mere means; (5) community and sharing, not isolation. In a marriage, we probably also need to be able to say something about what healthy sex looks like too. I see lots of boundary issues. Women who struggle with being able to set boundaries or do not succeed (in spite of all efforts) to maintain boundaries; men who do not respect boundaries. In almost every relationship in breakdown, there is confusion about boundaries. This is where intervention and training can make a useful and positive difference.

As a rule, whenever there is a loss of power, then risk of violence goes up. Violence and [authentic] power are inversely related. The policeman says “Stand over there, please” and I stand over there because he has authentic power. If the police man has to pull out her gun or threaten deadly force to get compliance, then she has lost power and force is the method. This is from Hannah Arendt’s book, On Violence. For example, whenever any government loses power, it tries to impose its legitimacy [“power”] through violent means. We see this (arguably) in Syria today and the so called Arab Spring. The main issue here is how power relates to “legitimacy” and “authenticity.” When a person escalates to violence, it is often after the person has experienced a loss of power. They try to get their power back by means of force (violence). Tactically, an experience of authentic, legitimate power reduces the risk of violence. There are many issues in the relation between power and force that require inquiry.

I came away from the session by Dr. Priscila Freire thinking: We have not yet identified the definitive model or paradigm for handling DV. I shared that with the class. Many heads nodded in agreement. DV has a mental illness component; but it is not mental illness. It has an alcohol or drug abuse component; but it is not addition. Likewise, with civil rights, homelessness, criminality, or social justice. All of these are involved. Yet one size does not fit all.

If none of these are the paradigm, what is? I speculate that DV is a developmental aberration. It is an anomaly in child development. The batterer is [some batterers are] a two year child in the body of a twenty- or thirty- or forty year old man. Think temper tantrum. Very dangerous. Very scary. Of course, often the tantrum gets strategically planned, and that is even worse. In child development instead of autonomy, we get shame and doubt; instead of initiative, we get guilt; instead of productivity, we get impulsivity; instead of integrity, we get fragmentation. Once again, see above in that some men batter because they can. The survivor is not to blame, and the survivor has not succeeded in protecting her own space. We must always be cautious not to seem to blame for this. The batterer has not learned to respect proper boundaries. This is a psychological paradigm. Obviously this is a hypothesis and more work is required here.

Empathy belongs to the community. Empathy lives in the relatedness between individuals. Indeed as a form of data gathering, empathy samples the experience of the other without merger or over-identification. In that way it is actually a healthy defense against compassion fatigue, burn out, or fragmentation. If you experience these, then you are doing it wrong. Empathy provides a trace of the other’s experience, not the over-whelming presence of a totality of a tidal wave of affect. Yes, you have the unhappy experience of the other, but as a trace affect, not the whole bottomless pit of suffering. What the person then does with that experience, the action that is taken,  is a further challenge.

Another important and easily accessible video is Jackson Katz’s Ted Talk “Violence Against Women – It’s a Man’s Issue.” This presentation has gone viral – and rightly so – concise, powerful, a learning moment. Many of the reflections in this blog post are inspired – or directly “borrowed” from Katz’s Talk. Thanks, Jackson!

I offer further reflections, which are my own position and opinion (not those of Apna Ghar): Saying what is not the cause of domestic violence is easier than saying what is. Domestic violence is not caused by alcohol, drugs, religion, bad up bringing, mental illness, lack of civil rights, education or lack thereof, or criminality, though it can be correlated with all these. It is not even caused by lack of impulse control, though it is correlated with that too. Positively expressed, domestic violence is a maladaptive method of seeking power and control. It is about power and control. It is worth repeating: Hannah Arendt (1968) pointed out that power and violence are inversely related in any given community. The more power, the less violence. The less power, the more violence. The remarkable thing is that Arendt was referring to the politics of governmental organizations but her analysis applies remarkably well to domestic violence. When an individual (or organization) is experiencing loss of power, the risk is to resort to violence in order to regain power and control. The risk is of an escalating use of force.

So, for example, as a woman is getting ready to leave an abusive relationship, and the man is experiencing a loss of power, this is the dangerous time for the would-be survivor, a time in which people get hurt or even killed. Even if an escalation to violence is ultimately self-defeating, the abuser tries to get the power back by means of force (violence). In no way does this mean accommodating some ideology of machismo or manliness. The violence erupts as the individual experiences a loss of power. The equation “power up, violence down” applies remarkably well even in therapy. When one of the participants experiences a loss of power or control, the risk of acting out increases. “Acting out” includes risky enactments of diverse kinds, including violence. Tactically, an experience of authentic, legitimate power reduces the risk of violence. If such an experience can be provided while maintaining respect for persons and integrity of boundaries, then all participants are likely to benefit. This is easier said than done, and it is where structured men’s psychodynamic and encounter groups can make a difference, in which men who have mastered such dynamics can present them to men who have not.

For purposes of this discussion, it is useful to take a position as to why men abuse, acknowledging that, in spite of the above-cited correlation of violence with loss of power, no easy explanation is available as to the cause of domestic violence. A one size fits all approach is not workable. Although the focus in this chapter in on work with the survivors of domestic violence, we cannot allow the men who cause the problem to fall out of the equation and the debate, even if they rarely end up in psychotherapy. Why do men abuse? The reason why men abuse is because they can. The probable future is that a given abusive man will continue to relate abusively as long as men (and women) do not stop him. The optimal solution is when a man takes responsibility for his way of relating, seeks help, and changes. This rarely happens without intervention.

One prominent micro-narrative is that the abuser lacks impulse control. I have my doubts. Rather the violent acting out is strategic and manipulative. Rarely is the violent way of relating a mere matter of lack of impulse control. This story is regarded with increasing skepticism, though after long practice, rehearsed lack of impulse control can become habitual. If the abuser’s mother or grandmother walked into the room as he was about to hit his intimate partner, he would stop. He would stop of his own accord and as an exercise of his freedom and power. Alas, matters often do not happen that way. By the time domestic violence has become a pattern, it has also, unfortunately, become a strategic way of relating. Even if not premeditated, the abusive behavior had become a preconscious way of relating that has a defined payoff – getting one’s way by throwing a temper tantrum. The lack of impulse control is a pretext, and well-rehearsed. Acting out violently is an effect, a consequence, a symptom, of defective self-regulation, not the cause of it. Sufficient impulse control is usually available, and the acting out is not an isolated behavior but a pattern of overall affective disequilibrium that manifests itself pervasively in relatedness (or lack thereof) across multiple situations in the family, at work, and in everyday life. Rarely, a man may abuse out of a sense of guilt because he wants to be caught. It is a way of asking for help – the wrong way. One can indeed get criminality out of a sense of guilt as in Freud’s penetrating article of the same name where the guilt precedes the acting out and is the cause, not the effect (Freud 1916a: 332). But this is a much less common scenario.

Men abuse because they can. This may sound like a provocative and confronting statement. It is. What it means is that men who abuse have a choice. They are autonomous and accountable and are able to choose otherwise if they decide to do so. Men are responsible. The opportunity is for other men to confront men who abuse with a compelling case of their own responsibility in the matter – with reasons and motives not to do so. Providing the answer is deceptively simple. As usual, the devil is in the details. One proposal that has traction is that men abuse because of a failure of leadership – on the part of men. Not only the abusers, but ALL men. This is a bold statement. It needs to be better known. Explanation is required. Responsible men with power need to engage with – talk to, counsel with, empathize with, and confront – other men about proper, responsible, civilized behavior. Not just when they witness abuse ongoing in the moment (though obviously that too), but when men are together in situations in men’s culture and community not frequented by women. Empathize with the perpetrators? A high bar indeed, Yet empathy does not mean “agree with,” “condone,” or “excuse.” Empathy may mean withholding judgment long enough to identify the triggers specific to a given individual and intervene in such a way as to empower the individual to make the responsible choice in his words and actions.

Empathy is all about firm but semipermeable boundaries between the self and other; and empathy works best where firm boundaries are maintained, even amidst a communicability of affect. Empathy means surfacing the fear that gets transformed into rage; surfacing the rage that leads to violence. Leadership has been missing, but fortunately is finally starting to emerge – admittedly all-too-slowly – as powerful men step up, speak up, man up, and address the issues.

Another example of failure of leadership. ABC Nightly News reports that Ray Rice stated that he told Roger Goodell that he (Rice) hit his fiancee. Goodell has maintained that he did not know about it (ABC 2014). Hmmm. Yet another appalling failure of leadership? A pattern is starting to emerge … From the community perspective, a turning point is at hand. The conversation is ripped from the headlines. In an attempted honor killing of a young girl, Malala Yousafzai is shot in the head by the Taliban for advocating women’s education (Dhume 2012). The bullet reportedly travels around the side of the skull without penetrating it, damaging her hearing on one side. She survives to address the UN General Assembly. However, before getting too self-righteous about the atrocities perpetrated in foreign lands, we may usefully clean up our own mess. A case in point comes across the wire minute-by-minute. A major sports franchise shows its character. Hmmm, that’s part of the problem. This mess includes the scandals erupting in major institutions such as the Catholic Church (Pashman 2014), the football program at Penn State under Sandusky and Paterno (Wikipedia 2014), the Boy Scouts of American (McGrael 2010). Why do so many men rape boys and girls? The same system that results in men abusing women also produces abusers of boys. What about the boys and young men who have been traumatized by the violence perpetrated by men against their mothers and sisters? This is not changing the subject. It is the subject. It is a sobering fact that most victims of violence – of both genders – are victims of violence by a man. This is something that men and women have in common – both demographics are victims of male violence. That must give us pause. Standby for update and the next post in the series….to be continued.


ABC. (2014). http://abcnews.go.com/Sports/ray-rice-told-goodell-hit-fiancee/story?id=25443285 [URL checked on 09/11/2014] Arendt, Hannah. (1968). On Violence. New York: Basic Books.

Dhume, Sadanand . (2012). “The Taliban’s latest target: a 14-year-old girl,” The Wall Street Journal. October 11, 2012 http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10000872396390444799904578050451861386588 [checked on 2014-06-08].

Katz, Jackson. (1012). Ted Talk: Violence Agaisnt Women – It’s a Man’s Issue:

http://www.ted.com/talks/jackson_katz_violence_against_women_it_s_a_men_s_issue?language=en [checked on May 2, 2015]

McGrael, Chris. (2014). “Sexual abuse scandal rocks Boy Scouts of America after $18.5m payout,” The Guardian. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2010/apr/29/boy-scouts-sexual-abuse-dykes [checked 2014-01-23].

Pashman, Manya Brachear, Christy Gutowski and Todd Lighty. (2014). “Papers detail decades of sex abuse by priests: Secret files hid archdiocese’s mishandling of scores of cases,” Chicago Tribune, January 21, 2014: http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2014-01-21/news/chi-chicago-priest-abuse-20140121_1_abusive-priests-secret-church-documents-john-de-la-salle [URL checked on 2012-01-25].

Wikipedia. (2014). “Penn State child sex abuse scandal,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Penn_State_child_sex_abuse_scandal [URL checked on 2014-07-06].

Wilson, K. J. (1997/2006). When Violence Begins at Home: A Comprehensive Guide to Understanding and Ending Domestic Abuse , 2nd Ed. Alameda, CA: Hunter House Inc. (Publishers Group West), 2006.

This blog and its contents are the work and opinion of Lou Agosta, PhD and do not necessarily reflect the views of anyone else mentioned in it (such as ApnaGhar or NNEDV and so on). All the usual disclaimers apply.

(c) Lou Agosta, The Chicago Empathy Project

Written By Lou Agosta

Lessons Learned: Update in the Battle Against Domestic Violence was originally published @ Listening With Empathy and has been syndicated with permission.


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