In a recent "Everybody's Business" column, I wrote about a few domestic violence myths. This week, I focus on another common myth: that perpetrators of domestic violence "have an anger management problem" and "they just need to learn how to control their anger." The reality is that they are usually in complete control of their anger. They purposefully choose to use anger to exert control over their intimate partners. Batterers most often control their anger in public, seeming to be calm and good-humored people. They usually want their violence hidden, rarely showing extreme anger or violence with their bosses, friends or others outside of the family.
When a batterer's violent behavior does become public - such as when the victim files for an order of protection or the victim's injuries require medical treatment - batterers want others to believe the abuse was not their fault. They work to convince everyone the victim provoked them to lose control. Abusers display anger and violence toward their victims because it gets them what they want: power and control over the victim. They use whatever method works to get and keep control: physical violence, humiliation, isolation, financial control, emotional abuse, threats to children and pets, suicide threats and pressured or forced sex. Because anger is just one of the batterer's tools, anger management classes are not effective to end their desire for power and control.
In New Mexico, everyone who is convicted of a domestic violence crime is supposed to complete a state-certified batterer's intervention program. Research shows that a batterer completing a certified intervention program is less likely to re-offend. But many domestic violence offenders are mistakenly ordered to anger management classes or even "domestic violence classes" that are not certified by the state and do not follow the best research to help offenders learn to stop being abusive.
Many studies show that anger management classes do nothing to prevent domestic violence and often intensify abuse because abusers learn tools to reduce appearing angry. Other forms of abuse - emotional, physical, financial - actually increase after abusers take anger management classes. Anger management classes do not help with domestic violence because domestic violence is not about anger.
Anger management classes and batterer intervention programs are focused on completely different issues. The main goals of an anger management program are for the participant to learn to control and express anger appropriately. The main goal of a batterer intervention program is for the participant to understand they are making choices to use power and control and then to change the beliefs they have that support their choice to be abusive. In anger management, anger is viewed as the primary problem. In batter intervention programs, abuse and control are seen as the primary problem. In anger management, anger is seen as losing control with no specific victim. Batterer intervention is focused on increased victim and family safety. Participants learn to have empathy for those they've hurt without blaming the victim. Facilitators and participants work to not minimize or deny their abusive behaviors. Good batterer intervention programs address anger, but the primary focus is holding the offender accountable and building their skills to make the choice to stop being abusive.
Anger management programs and "domestic violence classes" do not help to increase the victim's safety. For domestic violence offenders, real and lasting change can happen through specialized programs using specific methods. Change takes commitment and effort by offenders to do the work and by the community to make sure they get the appropriate services.
Williams is the executive director of Community Against Violence, Inc. (CAV), which offers free confidential support and assistance for adult and child survivors of sexual and domestic violence, dating violence and stalking; community and school violence prevention programs; re-education BIP groups for domestic violence offenders; shelter; and a community thrift store. To talk with someone or get information on services available, call CAV's 24-hour crisis line at (575) 758-9888. Visit TaosCAV.org.