A fundamental misdiagnosis of the abuser’s problem? — an example from Dallas Theological Seminary
Spousal Abuse: A Christian Response to Abusive Relationships is a video podcast made by Dallas Theological Seminary. Readers may remember that John Dyer gave us the link to this video when he was responding to our Review of “Sexual Issues” – A Really Bad Book for Pastoral Training. The video is part one of a two-part series which is meant to be basic intro to the larger topic of abuse for students and alumni, as well any one else who might find it useful. [I will be reviewing the second video in a subsequent post.]
The video has three people on the discussion panel:
Darrell Bock, Executive Director for Cultural Engagement at the Howard G. Hendricks Center for Christian Leadership and Cultural Engagement;
Gary Barnes, a Professor in the Biblical Counseling Program at DTS who also has a part-time private practitice as a licencsed psychologist specializing in marriage and family;
Debby Wade, a marriage and family therapist and a licensed professional counselor. She has a private practice (Authentic Christian Therapeutic Solutions) where she specializes in working with intimacy issues and couples, and marital work.
The average viewer would expect that these three people (especially the psychologist and counselor) ought to understand domestic abusers well — the mindset of domestic abusers, their character disturbance, their techniques of abuse, and the tactics they use to get away with their evildoing.
Some of the discussion and material presented on the video seems fairly good. But I have to sadly report that the professionals seem to fall short of understanding the domestic abuser’s fundamental problem. And the mistake I think they make is a classic mistake that many people make, professionals and laypeople alike. Here is the pertinent part of the video transcript, picking up from 26:32 in the video:
… for most of the [abusers] that I’ve worked with, there’s fear and insecurity that are there, and so the male feels so threatened. Although he’s the intimidating — the mean, grouchy one — on the inside, he’s really the one that struggles with feeling insecure in fear, and that motivates his need to control everything, almost like, “If I’m not controlling it, it won’t happen the way I want.” Or, “If I’m not controlling it, she may get closer to other people. If I don’t control the people she’s around, she may like them better than me.” But such a sense of fear that kinda feeds what he [Darrell Bock] was saying — that need that, “I should be able to control this and it’s my right to control it.” . . .
You know the irony here is that the person who’s controlling is really manifesting incredible weakness and incredible insecurity.
And I think there’s a great sense of being hopeless or helpless themselves, see, that really drives this sense of, “I really need to be in control here, and I’ll —” whatever means is necessary is actually justified.”
So unraveling that, it seems to me, from me from a counseling standpoint has got to be a very complex and long-term operation.
Like I say, this is not just negative emotions of anger that are out of control. This is deep-seated important places for them to get awareness of that aren’t going to be a quick and easy awareness.
Now, I am not a mental health professional, nor do I have the specialized training required for facilitators of men’s behavior change groups. But I read widely enough in the field and have attended enough conferences and training events to know that the DTS panel in this video have a different understanding of the abuser’s mindset than people like Lundy Bancroft, Dr George Simon Jr, and the trained facilitators of men’s behavoir change programs in Australia and New Zealeand (I can’t speak so well for America or the UK).
Bancroft and the others I’ve mentioned with him believe that the fundamental problem of a domestic abuser is his BELIEF SYSTEM, not his emotions. And abusers do not lack awareness: they know what they are doing, they plan it, there is strategy in it. Strategy to hide their wickedness from the public, strategy to maintain control over the victim. They know how they are feeling: and they have well-developed strategies to avoid dealing with their feelings in a responsible manner. The problem with the abuser is his thinking, not his feelings: the abuser believes he is entitled to mistreat his mate because he is superior; he has a deep seated belief that he is the centre of his universe and his mate must meet his needs and whims. This mindset, this attitude, is the fundamental issue which must be tackled first. And because abuser will strongly resist admitting that this attitude of theirs needs changing, tackling that attitude may be all the therapist ever gets to do when working with the abuser.
Side note: George Simon seems to me to be wise in having a policy that if the abuser clearly refuses to change, then Simon will not work with him. Simon takes the view that, as a practitioner whose skills are much in demand, it is unethical for him to spend his time or be paid for working with clients who staunchly refuse to take responsibility by making any real effort to change. (Note: I am not implying that Simon’s policy should necessarily be adopted by all therapists in all settings. Different agencies will have different guidelines for their employees, and not all professionals are independent operators like Simon.)
While some abusers may have fears, insecurities or traumas from their upbringing or their past, these emotional issues cannot be dealt with therapeutically while the abuser holds to his mindset of superiority and entitlement.
Gary Barnes is right that it’s “not just negative emotions of anger that are out of control.” That’s for sure. Domestic abuse is not a thing that can be fixed by sending the abuser to an anger management course. But I don’t think Barnes is getting the whole picture when he says, “This is deep-seated important places for abusers to get awareness of that aren’t going to be a quick and easy awareness.” The way Barnes describes it suggests that the counselor’s job is to help this poor abuser come out of denial so he can really feel and face his insecurity and work through it therapeutically. But abusers know that well-intentioned people, especially those in the caring professions and Christianity, are suckers for the sob story, so they give the impression to people-helpers that they are driven by insecurity, fears, helplessness and hopelessness. This is a grand way of avoiding responsibility for their bad behavior: “I just can’t help it; I’m scared and insecure so I can’t control what comes out of me!”
Have the DTS panelists fallen into this trap? From what they say on this video, it sounds to me like they have. It seem to me that they would be sitting ducks for even a half-clever abuser who could play them for a fool, making them focus on his feelings of fear, insecurity, and helplessness so they did not look at his thinking — his fixed and prideful belief in his superior and special entitlement. This prideful belief may be well disguised with charm, humility, geniality, altruism, do-gooderness, or physical or mental disability. But it will be there if you look under the veneer, and the abuser’s mate will tell you about it if you have the patience to listen to her recount, ever so painfully, as she comes out of the fog, what it is like to live with her mate behind closed doors.
I know a few facilitators of men’s behaviour change groups, and a few expert therapists who work one-on-one with perpetrators, and these people, these rare birds, are able to detect the inauthentic manipulative display of emotion from an abuser (the stuff that is designed to distract the therapist from the abuser’s real problem) and to call it out for the pretense and evasion that it is. And they can also work with an abuser’s real emotions when the abuser’s hard shell of entitlement has cracked open. But it seems to me that there is a world of difference between the decoy emotions and the real emotions. It also seems that far too many counselors are thinking that they ‘get it’ about abusers, when they don’t.
And who suffers most when counselors misdiagnose the abuser’s problem by seeing it as an emotional problem rather than a belief problem? The victim of the abuser. The long-suffering hopeful partner who thinks, “Now he’s finally seeing a therapist! That must mean there is light at the end of the tunnel!” And how often is she disappointed because the ‘expert’ was really not an expert on domestic abuse at all?
It is time that comprehensive domestic abuse training was mandated in all pre-registration counseling and psychology courses, and that such training be consistent with what the real experts know: the Bancrofts, the George Simon Jrs, the other folk who have done the hard work on men’s behavior change programs, so that counselors and marriage therapists do not get led down the garden path by abuser’s manipulation and the misinformation that has been spread out there by people (including many who think they are ‘experts’) who should know better.
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Please see our Resources for books by Lundy Bancroft, George Simon Jr, Martha Stout, and others who really get it about the mindset of abusers. Also, Lundy Bancroft’s website, Lundy’s blog, and George Simon’s blog. For some good secular resources on men’s behaviour change, see, for example, NTV (No To Violence, Australia), and the New Zealand Family Violence Council Clearinghouse. The latter two sites would have links to other good resources internationally.
Also see our interview with Catherine DeLoach Lewis, a Christian therapist, in which she emphasizes the immense need for more extensive training in domestic abuse for all Christian counsellors.