Change Among Batterers:
Examining Men's Success Stories

Reviewed by
Priscilla Schulz, LCSW

from an article of the same title by:

Katreena L. Scott and David A. Wolfe, University of Western Ontario, Canada

Journal of Interpersonal Violence, V. 15 (8), August 2000, 827-842

What is the scope of this study?

Treatment programs for men who abuse their intimate partners have been in existence since the 1970s and have become a popular remedy used by the criminal justice system to address the problem of domestic violence. However, between 1989 and 1998 six major studies that examined treatment outcome literature on batterer programs revealed no significant difference in "recidivism rates" of batterers who participated in treatment compared to those who did not. The authors of the present study suggest that a lack of theoretical and empirical information about how to get violent men to curtail or stop behaving violently towards their partners could lie behind treatment ineffectiveness. Of note is the lack of connection between research findings about batterers and theories of domestic violence and behavior change. In the present study, the authors conducted a qualitative investigation of successful batterer treatment. They described the perceptions of batterers who succeeded in changing their behavior toward intimate partners, and compared these accounts of success to theories about domestic violence and behavior change.

What is qualitative analysis?

Qualitative analysis is a "discovery-oriented approach." In this study it allowed researchers to gather in-depth descriptions and explanations of behavior change by former batterers. Such information is then used to clarify or elaborate upon empirical findings, or to challenge or explain theories.

How was the study conducted?

Linking successful batterer treatment with theory

Researchers identified five theories on the development of abuse and four theories of behavior change. From these, 28 "coding categories" were created against which participants' responses were compared to evaluate which aspects of theory were most salient to batterers' success in stopping violent behavior. In this way researchers hoped to link successful batterer treatment with existing theories in the field.


Participants were drawn from among men who had participated in a 20-week group treatment for batterers at Changing Ways, Inc., in London, Ontario, Canada. Nine men met criteria to be in the study. Study participants were those men who had succeeded in "changing abusive behavior through treatment" and had maintained that change for at least six months between January 1998 and July 1999. Participants, their intimate partners and Changing Ways' counselors evaluated men's success at changing abusive behavior.

Qualitative research methods

Skilled clinicians conducted hour-long, semi-structured interviews with each subject in private. The interviews were designed to encourage participants to freely talk about their experiences of behavior change. Both "grand-tour" and more specific questioning helped participants identify factors that contributed to changing their abusive behavior. Two, independent raters evaluated and coded participants' narratives, then matched accounts of abusive behavior change with the 28 "coding categories" drawn from theories described above. Only those factors that participants mentioned twice or more were deemed important in the process of behavior change and used for coding purposes. Reliability between raters was 80%.

What were the study's findings?

  1. Participants endorsed twenty-one of 28 coding categories. This meant that there was general agreement between participants' perceptions of what helped them change and theories of abuse development and behavior change.
  2. Four factors stood out as most important to the men in changing their abusive behavior. Seventy-five percent of the men endorsed the following factors:
    • Recognizing and taking responsibility for past abusive behavior - this was achieved in treatment through discussions with group facilitators and listening to the experiences of other group members.
    • Developing empathy for others, most specifically, for intimate partners - in particular, participants came to understand how fear, intimidation and the cumulative effect of "controlling behaviors" had affected their relationships with intimate partners.
    • Reducing dependency - this issue included accepting sole responsibility to change abusive behavior, and that their intimate partners were autonomous beings with a right to feelings, to make decisions and to have privacy about those feelings and decisions.
    • Improving skills for communicating needs, feelings and other difficult topics - most importantly:
      • Anger management
      • Conflict management and resolution
      • Learning how to listen to partners during difficult discussions
      • Learning how to share feelings and have intimate conversations

What were the implications of this study for batterer treatment?

Included in some batterer group treatment programs are interventions that attempt to change men's attitudes towards women, beliefs or personality characteristics. The findings in this study suggest that perhaps interventions that help men learn how to have healthier intimate relationships are more important for helping stop domestic violence.

What were the study's limitations?

This study primarily described the perceptions of nine former batterers regarding how they were able to stop abusive behavior. The findings are compelling, but the sample size was small and represented only 10% of men who completed treatment at Changing Ways, Inc. The opinions of other treatment participants who were not successful at stopping abusive behavior or who did not complete treatment were not gathered for comparison or as a control group. Conclusions drawn from the study are tentative and require further investigation.

Reviewed by Priscilla Schulz, LCSW, Center for Trauma Recovery, University of Missouri - St. Louis, August 9, 2000

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