It happened in a men’s group I was facilitating. A passionate intern got frustrated with a group member and blurted out, “Battering is a choice...a simple choice. It is not hard to make another choice. People can simply choose to stop battering!”
At that point, most of the men in the group mentally checked out. I shook my head and smiled, remembering how, in my early years as a counselor, I wanted the process of change to be simple. Describing battering behavior as a choice, while true, is an oversimplification. It does little to help those who batter. This intern needed to understand some of the driving forces behind the “why” of battering, as well as the “who” behind the person that makes violent choices in relationships.
The Adverse Childhood Experience Study (ACEs) shed light on the “who.” Examining 10 aspects of family dysfunction some children are exposed to, the study found that the chance of growing up to use violence in relationships increases with every ACE suffered before the age of 18. This important discovery highlighted some of the long-term effects of ACEs.
The Family Peace Initiative, in partnership with Hope Harbor in Kansas City, administered the 10-item Adverse Childhood Experiences questionnaire to over 200 participants, all males, in a Battering Intervention Program (BIP). The average number of self-reported ACEs among those participants was 4.2. There were some dramatic differences between the ACEs reported in the original study and those reported by our BIP participants. See the chart below:
Adverse Experiences CDC Study (males) BIP Male Participants
Emotional Abuse 7.6% 69%
Substance Abusing Caretaker 23% 59%
Parents Separated or Divorced 21% 61%
Witnessing Domestic Violence 11% 53%
Physically Abused 29.9% 57%
The male BIP participants often talk about adverse experiences beyond the ones measured by the ACE questionnaire. Abandonment by a parent or caretaker, oppression, systematic abuse, poverty, homelessness, and being bullied come up in group conversations. It is now accepted knowledge that among those who batter, high ACE scores are the rule, not the exception.
Expecting someone to establish healthy, respectful relationships after being raised in a world of abuse, cruelty, and disrespect, is unrealistic. Some of these men are able to overcome their ACEs, but many cannot. The skills necessary to survive a cruel upbringing are not the same skills required to create and maintain healthy relationships.
Of course, many people who experienced horrible childhoods do not use violence in their relationships. The ACE resiliency studies indicate the more children experience unconditional love, receive messages of value, and are allowed safety and protection from dangers, the less negative impact their ACEs will have in the long term.
On one level, my intern was right. Battering behavior is a choice. However, human behavior is much more complex. Understanding the impact of past traumatic experiences is critical in helping BIP participants learn to make respectful choices in relationships.