Knowing how to respond to an individual who chooses to abuse their partner can be very difficult. The New Hampshire Governor’s Commission on Domestic and Sexual Violence offers some quick do’s and don’ts for how to respond to abusive partners while maintaining the confidentiality and safety of the partner who is being abused.
1) Meet in a public place or with other people around. Most abusive partners will only focus their rage on their intimate partner, but you still should be careful of your own safety. Prior to meeting with the abusive partner, find out the extent of the violence from the victim. Has the abusive partner assaulted anyone else? Under what circumstances?
2) Be prepared for the abusive partner to confront you. If the abusive partner becomes aware that the victim has spoken to you, s/he may seek you out to tell their ‘side’ of the story. The abusive partner may come to you to find out what the victim has said to you. The abusive partner needs you to believe that s/he is not at fault, and will try to convince you that the fault for the abuse lies entirely with the victim, or deny it altogether. Do not confirm or deny anything the victim has said to you or even whether you have spoken with the victim.
3) If the abusive partner is arrested, support accountability. It is inappropriate to advocate for the abusive partner to avoid legal consequences for the behavior, or to provide a character witness for legal proceedings. The greatest chance for change lies with the abusive partner being held accountable for the violence.
4) If the abusive partner acknowledges any abusive behaviors, encourage him/her to accept responsibility. Let the abusive partner know unequivocally that violence is never okay, and power and control have no part in a mutual, loving relationship. Ask the abusive partner to take responsibility for the behavior and invest the effort to change. Make appropriate referrals for services if the abusive partner is serious about his/her efforts to change his/her abusive behavior.
5) Beware of claims of a conversion experience. Often abusive partners will claim that they have “found God” in an attempt to gain access to the victim or make the faith leader pressure the victim for reconciliation. Avoid urging the victim to reconcile based on this claim, and don’t confuse remorse for getting caught with true repentance. If the repentance is genuine, it will be a great strength and comfort to the abusive partner as the accountability process progresses; if not, the abusive partner will seek to use this ‘conversion’ as a way to avoid the consequences of the actions. Also be aware that a ‘confession’ and request for ‘forgiveness’ may be another tactic designed to manipulate you to get the victim back under control. Underscore that the idea of repentance means turning from abusive ways and THAT the abusive partner can choose to change, whether or not the victim chooses to forgive.
6) Confront the abusive partner’s religious rationalizations for the abusive behaviors. Just like the victim, the abusive partner’s faith can be either a resource for change, or a roadblock. Challenge the use of scripture to justify abusing the partner. Point out teachings that talk about the equality of men and women and the responsibilities the abusive partner has to the family.
7) Challenge the abusive partner’s excuses. The abusive partner will use a number of excuses for the behavior: alcohol or other drugs, an abusive parent, low self-esteem, stress, unemployment, provocation from the partner, etc. The abusive partner may minimize, deny, lie about, or blame the violence on others. Do not allow the abusive partner to rationalize the behavior, or lay the blame on the victim. Only the abusive partner can change the behavior.
8) Avoid labeling the abusive partner. Using the terms “batterer” or “abuser” makes a statement about who the person is, rather than confronts what the person has done. Using terms such as “men/women who batter” implies that the person can choose the behavior, and thus make a choice to change.
9) Reinforce his/her love for the family. Someone who uses abuse in a personal relationship is attempting to meet needs in a way that is harmful to others. Encourage the abusive partner to look at how the behavior affects the children and the partner to help him/her develop internal motivations to stop the abuse.
10) Help the abusive partner distinguish between feelings and behaviors. There is a difference between feeling angry and raging. No one can get hurt from another person feeling emotions; harm occurs when emotions are inappropriately expressed. Dispel the myth that the victim “makes” the abusive partner feel certain emotions, thus “causing the violence.
11) If the abusive partner is male, help him redefine masculine thinking. Show him that “real men” do not need to use tactics of power and control within a relationship. Help him to understand that it takes as much strength to control his own behavior as it does to control his partner, and that rigid sex roles are as harmful to him as they are to his partner. Be a role model, if you are a male faith leader.
12) Assess for threats of suicide or homicide. If there are threats of suicide, follow your institution’s suicide protocol. Take all threats to safety seriously. If the abusive partner makes threats against the victim, warn her/him immediately. When some abusive partners are suicidal there is an increased risk of them causing potential harm to their victims.
13) Refer to a batterer intervention program. This is the most appropriate intervention to address the abusive partner’s feelings of entitlement, “black-and-white” thinking, and the abuse tactics. Some of these programs also integrate “parenting after violence” programs that can help the abusive partner recognize what effects the behavior has on the children. Contact your local crisis center to find reputable programs.