© 2018 by James Encinas


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Apr 13

Battering Behavior is a Choice, But...


Edited: Apr 17

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.


Dear Steve thank you for this powerful, thoughtful, thought provoking, and insightful post. I know that this work is near and dear to your heart and I feel privileged to know you, walk with you, and learn from you.


I read somewhere that systems change begins when a few people step forward to act on behalf of what matters to them. People who as Brené Brown said, "understand that it is not about winning, not about losing, it's about showing up and being seen!" It is about having the courage to go into the arena knowing that you will get your ass kicked but doing so regardless. It is about dignity - the inborn sense of value and worth that lives in each of us.


Rainer Maria Rilke said, "Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”


Thank you, for asking the questions Steve! Thank you for sharing answers that you have lived into. Thank you for helping us to see that "hurt people hurt people." And in doing so hopefully create new and important questions that together we can strive to answer.


Questions such as:

  • who has helped you love the good that grows within you?

  • who has helped with the ability to see your inner dignity?

  • Who has given you a safe place?

  • who has helped you see the gifts and abilities you posses, the strengths and abilities you bring into the world?

And if the answer to these questions is "no one." If all you have experienced is cruelty, indifference, pain, and hurt.


Why would we choose to impose more hurt?


"WHY" is it that so many of our systems can't SEE and acknowledge what you have stated - "Expecting someone to establish healthy, respectful relationships after being raised in a world of abuse, cruelty, and disrespect, is unrealistic."

  • Why do we continue to shame and punish individuals who are operating out of their shadow, out of their pain and hurt, out of a place of anger, jealousy, or resentment?

  • Why can't we, given what the science, data, and research tells us, not see that if our pain is not witnessed and addressed we will continue to hurt ourselves and others?

  • Why is it that rather than working to heal fragmented, disoriented, broken, and fear based individuals we actually have created systems that are based on retributive justice and the punishment of offenders rather than on rehabilitation?

My dear colleague and friend Tia Martinez recently published a study that was commissioned by the Blue shield of California Foundation that I hope many read https://blueshieldcafoundation.org/sites/default/files/publications/downloadable/BreakingtheCycleLifeCourseFramework.pdf


This graphic from her study validates your wonderful point my brother - "Understanding the impact of past traumatic experiences is critical in helping BIP participants learn to make respectful choices in relationships."


Thanks again Steve I look forward to continuing to learn from you and the work that you and Dorothy are doing.


Blessings and love






Thank you, Steve, for your poignant, and powerful post. And thank you, James, for your thoughtful, reflective response.


With myriad experiences in my lifetime of growing up in domestic violence, and my children being raised with domestic violence, so much of what both of you shared resonated deeply. Reflecting back on the journey of not feeling safe, NOT being safe, and striving to create safety for my children, the vulnerability and raw wounds of my soul permeated through with my choices, and actions thereof.


With such a profoundly deeper understanding now through learning about the ACE study in 2006, the resilience research in the last few years, and the magnitude of just one caring, supportive adult in my life, my heart and soul is continually uplifted with hope, and on-going healing. I've come to fully believe that "hurt people can heal people". My healing journey will be life-long, and although still triggered on occasion, the vast coping, and self-regulatory tools in my toolbox which build my life are easily accessible, and readily available (mindfulness, meditation, intentional breathing, nature, music, dance, etc.)


Thank you too, James, for sharing Tia Martinez and colleagues research study on the cycle of domestic violence. It certainly rang true for my life. Although I wasn't the one to "break the cycle", I've dedicated my motherhood to supporting my daugher's healing journeys that they will "break the cycle".


Please know too I posted the Blue Cross research onto our home page of ACEs Connection, Parenting with ACEs and California ACEs Action.


Many, many blessings to each of you... With humble gratitude, Dana

Yes my friend "hurt people can heal people" and the more people like yourself that shine their light in this world the more of us that will be healed. Love and respect you and your work, which as you said is life-long but oh so full of wonder and joy. Please if you get a chance post Steve's post in all the places you've posted Tia and her colleague Arnold's research.

Steve: Great post and great to read as I probably would have sounded similar to that intern. Many of us are taught, it as simple as making a choice, especially since the highest number of ACEs are among women, who generally aren't as likely to batter in relationships, so it's often not clear how to untangle what is from ACEs and what is from gender-based violence and the culture we are all share, as well as the specific and individual experiences which vary. Most who batter are male, but that doesn't mean that's always true or that men don't batter other men, as well.


I'm grateful to James for inviting me into conversation, for challenging me to think about those who batter as more than perpetrators, and even more importantly think more deeply about what helps, heals, and supports people, in general, and who have battered. I'm still learning and still learning to ask new questions.


I'd love to hear how those in the workshop do feel and respond to comments like, "it's a choice," and I'm sure most of us were raised to believe that, even though it's not that simple, as you say because:


"The skills necessary to survive a cruel upbringing are not the same skills required to create and maintain healthy relationships."


I'd also love to hear more about what works better and well and more stories about healing and complexity because the narrative about those who batter is pretty narrow.


When I talk about Parenting with ACEs to people who have not experienced a lot of childhood adversity, I am often asked about how parents (and usually, it's directed at mothers), can make the same mistakes our own parents make in parenting and in relationships and in getting involved with those who abuse us or our kids. For some, this makes absolutely no sense. But one thing I share is that, if we grow up, early and often, with the experience that love and violence co-exist, that goodness and rage, co-exist, that we can be hurt by the same people who love us and who we love, we don't necessarily know anything different or me might but only as an abstract idea, not experientially.


Plus, we know that good people can do "bad" things and that love and pain can and often do co-exist. So what might be a "red flag alert" for some isn't the same red flag alert for others. I think this is not always clear to people who assume that they what they know and have learned about love and relationships, is somehow common sense, not also learned, often in childhood or maybe later in healing.


Anyhow, I'm glad to be part of this forum and for the chance to keep learning, stretching, expanding my own often simplistic and reactionary ideas. I do wonder how much of the ways we express our dysregulation and post-traumatic stress, is also gender based, how much we internalize vs. externalize based on the culture(s) in which we are raised. Again, I certainly don't have lots of answers but I love reading and thinking and learning so I can ask new questions and open my heart and head some more. Cis

Steve -


Thanks so much for your post. For me it shows how when one tries rationally (i.e., with higher brain functions) to understand "choices" made by a person responding from primal brain functions like flight or fight, it is not only irrational - it is also un-compassionate. What ACEs helps me/us understand is that being a victim of and/or witnessing abuse is traumatic, and in the aftermath that person deals with PTSD. And in this kind of triggered state of fear, higher brain functions of reasoning where one makes choices are not accessible. One has to learn to be compassionate with oneself and that comes through the compassion of others. There are oh so many reasons we must learn to be compassionate with others and with ourselves.

So true. I have come to understand that the more compassionate I am able to be with myself, the more compassionate I am able to be with others. I am a testament to the fact that compassion like love can be learned and must be taught. If you have never experience healthy love and many who have high scores have not, you will not know how to love humanly in the deepest way.

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