Men’s Behaviour Change — it’s not about doing therapy with the men

Victims of domestic abuse are often curious about how Men’s Behaviour Change Programs work — what the programs do, and how the facilitators of those programs understand and go about their task.

Part of our mission here at this blog is to awaken seminaries, pastors and Christian counselors to the need for more training on how to respond to domestic abuse. We have published recent posts illustrating how much room there is for improvement in how seminaries teach about domestic abuse. (We used the case study of Dallas Theological Seminary, but other seminaries may be not much different from DTS in the way they address domestic abuse.)

Note: These programs are known by different names in different countries. In America it might be called Batterer Intervention Program (BIP), Domestic Abuse Intervention Program (DAIP), or  Domestic Abuse Intervention & Prevention Program (DAIPP). In Australia it’s usually called Men’s Behaviour Change Program (MBCP). In the UK it might be called Domestic Violence Perpetrator Program (DVPP).

With those two ends in mind, we are showcasing here an article by Rodney Vlais who works for No To Violence, Victoria, Australia.

Elements of DV Perpetrator Program Work is written for professionals working in the field of Men’s Behaviour Change. Below are excerpts from the article (Domestic violence perpetrator programs: Education, therapy, support, accountability ‘or’ struggle?) which I think will be of particular interest to our readers. I have removed the scholarly citations; academics and professionals should consult the original article for full citations to the research to which Rodney Vlais refers.

Note: We make no pretense at this blog to be on top of the field of Men’s Behaviour Change, but we do get the impression that it can vary quite a bit from place to place. So do not assume that the things you read about below will necessarily characterise your nearest Men’s Behaviour Change Program.

Also note that this article is in Australian spelling (what a relief, says Barb!) because Rodney Vlais is an Aussie. 🙂

If you find this a hard read because you are so under the weather with PTSD, scroll down to the subheading Real Apology — you will probably find it balm for your wounded soul.


Therapy [Healing]

….Australian minimum standards of practice do not view therapeutic healing as having a central place in Men’s Behaviour Change Practice (MBCP) work. This is because a focus on healing can:

  • support men’s “victim stance” that can lie at the heart of their violence-supporting narratives, strengthening their justifications and rationalisations for their use of violence
  • centralise the “triggering” of (undeniably) intense emotions due to attachment-based or other interpersonal experiences, rather than men’s use of gender-based privilege and entitlement to perpetrate violence and control as a way of coping with these emotions
  • lose focus on the central place of women’s and children’s needs and voices
  • take too long if it is viewed as an essential component of change – those affected by his use of violence can’t wait for the years of healing to occur before there is a significant reduction in risk.

Importantly, MCBP can acknowledge and work, to a limited extent, with family-of-origin and intra-psychic issues without necessitating a healing approach. This can extend to working with men’s emotionally maladaptive reactions (as distinct from behavioural responses) without a focus on healing the psychological hurts that might in part be feeding these reactions.  (p 5)

Not about doing therapy with the men


A number of risks can arise through privileging therapy above the other elements of the work, and in failing to ground the use of therapeutic tools within conceptual underpinnings that centralise the needs and voices of women and children. First, as mentioned previously, metaphors of healing can creep into the work, undermining other aspects of the program.

Second, a focus on building a “therapeutic alliance” between the facilitators and program participants – an important building block in many therapeutic contexts – can take priority over women, children and others affected by the man’s violence being the primary clients of the program. While nurturing rapport, trust and emotional safety within facilitator – participant relating is vital, and while facilitators can be allies to men in their attempts to change, this is not necessarily the same as building an alliance.

Third, there is the danger of men’s genuine experiences of victimisation (particularly family-of-origin) being highlighted and privileged over their feelings or beliefs of being victimised based on male entitlement and privilege. Men’s genuine experiences of victimisation can provide important “grist for the mill” in men’s behaviour change work. However, for many men, the most potent contributor to their “victim stance”, and their feelings of righteous anger, is when their partner, children or others act or fail to act in ways that the man expects, with these expectations being unfair, unjust and fuelled by male entitlement and privilege. Doing therapy runs the risk of marginalising the vital work needed to address this latter sense of perceived / felt victimisation that is based on men’s recruitment into exercising patriarchal power and thinking.

Fourth, facilitators might become caught up in the enthusiastic participation and engagement by the men with particular therapeutic processes, and the perceived value and impact, without linking this back to women’s and children’s voices and needs. This can lead facilitators to perceive that the activity is “it” – the pinnacle of the session – rather than a part of a process towards family safety and the human rights of family members.

In practice, this means grounding the activity with processes before and after that enable the men to reflect on and work through what the discoveries or impact of the activity might mean for how they can support their family’s safety and dignity. Whether it be through invitational questioning, small-group work or creative visual or movement-based exercises, processes that link the “therapeutic” activity to commitments, beliefs and actions that the men can take towards other-centredness are vital. Otherwise, the self-centring nature of many therapeutic activities may strengthen men’s self-focus at the expense of the voices and needs of others.

The difference between adopting therapeutic processes and tools, and doing therapy, can be seen in how facilitators contextualise a particular activity within the group setting. [One program], for example, has outlined an emotion-focused approach to men’s behaviour change work, which on the surface could be seen as doing therapy. This approach assists men to become aware of maladaptive emotional reactions that in some cases might stem from family-of-origin attachment based experiences, or genuine experiences of victimisation based on social class, race or violence by other men. It does not, however, attempt to address or heal these hurts. Rather, it works with men to take responsibility for these emotions, to not draw on their male privilege and entitlement to use these emotions as an excuse to choose violence.

[This program draws] on emotion-focused techniques due to a concern about the limitations of relying solely on psycho-educational or cognitive-behavioural tools, though these are woven into their program. Therapy is not done with the men, rather, emotion-focused approaches are used to work towards men taking emotional responsibility and to choose non-violence.  [Emphasis original.] (p 7 – 8)


Support is another somewhat contentious term in men’s behaviour change work. Providing men with support, when disconnected from the elements of accountability and struggle on behalf of women and children, can place men too much into the centre of the work….  (p 9)

Change sustainability revisited

As highlighted previously, many men’s journeys towards non-violence are very long-term, and might require more than participation in a three, six or even 12-month program. Indeed, in [one] sample of long-term domestic violence disisters, many of the men reported that they had actually not left the program, despite completing it two to seven years previously. They expressed the need for regular “top-ups” by maintaining some contact with the program. Some had also made significant changes to their lives, interests and networks to immerse themselves in a social milieu supportive of non-violence, and to express the still newly forming identities based on a different sense of what it means to be a man, partner, and in some cases, a parent. In stories compiled of men committed to sustainable change journeys in the U.S., [one researcher] found common themes of the need for continual vigilance, and deep explorations of what it means to be a man, and the desire to be a better man….  (p 11)

Deconstructing choice


….[Some practitioners] argue:

….for a man not to abuse his partner, whether with physical force or psychological undermining or assertion of dominance, is a choice. Perpetrating domestic violence is so embedded in a sense of entitlement, hierarchical beliefs, and cultural devaluation of women that it “comes naturally”. Resisting those habits, norms, and absorbed models of male behavior requires a conscious, deliberate decision. Giving into them does not….  [Emphasis original.]  (p 12)

[Real apology]

….for men to offer a real apology for their behaviour they need to work towards, among other things:

  • acknowledging with specificity and directness, and without minimisation or justification, the fullness of their violent and abusive behaviours (for example, “I raped Jane in the room next to our children’s bedroom where they were almost certainly lying awake, have terrified her and our children on many occasions through physical threats and breaking household items, have over 100 times called her a …. and …. directly in front of our children, choosing these exact times to have the greatest impact to belittle her and to make our children ashamed of her….”)
  • understanding the possible consequences (“My actions have terrified and traumatised Jane and have affected every aspect of her life …. my daughters are now rightly terrified of men, and my son has been socialised to believe that being a man involves using violence and power to get what one wants at the expense of others, and that women are incompetent and inferior….”)
  • planning how to stop perpetuating the damage (“I will attend a men’s violence program, and will ask Jane about whether it’s best for her and our children if I find somewhere else to stay, at least for now….”)
  • engaging in repair work (“I need to work hard on treating Jane with respect so that our daughters can develop some sense of trust that not all men rape and dominate women …. I will draw on every positive, non-violent male role model I know or can introduce into our family’s networks, as I can’t repair the damage I’ve done to my son’s socialisation into manhood alone….”)….  (p 17)

[April 6, 2023: Editors’ notes:

—For some comments made prior to April 6, 2023 that quoted from the post, the text in the comment that was quoted from the post might no longer be an exact match.
—For some comments made prior to April 6, 2023 that quoted from the post, the text in the comment that was quoted from the post might no longer be found in the post.
If you would like to compare the text in the comments made prior to April 6, 2023 that quoted from the post to the post as it is now (April 6, 2023), click here [Internet Archive link] for the most recent Internet Archive copy of the post.]

21 thoughts on “Men’s Behaviour Change — it’s not about doing therapy with the men”

  1. This is a good read. I really like the steps and examples of real apology. When I do speak to X he says he is sorry “a lot”, but at the same time either blames me for his behavior, blames his father and never acknowledges specifics of what he did. He refuses counseling and / or accountability with a responsible person. This article sums it up. He is not going to change….and that is his decision. There is no room in my life for an unrepentant man or abuse.

    1. Brenda R. I am stealing that comment to use when people ask me about ex-idiot. I love it!!

      There is no room in my life for an unrepentant man or abuse.

  2. It’s so nice to know that somewhere, someone is getting it right. I wish the US were taking more of this kind of approach.

    I do wonder about the repeated use of the phrase “male privilege”. I think that it’s a subconscious thing, at most, with some men like my husband. He does not claim, or communicate (even subconsciously) “male privilege”, but simply “self-privilege”. I don’t see it as specifically a gender issue with him and other men like him, but just a purely selfish one. He treats other men the same way.

    Really good article, though.

    1. I understand your uncertainty about the term “male privilege”, Marah. And I believe you that your husband shows selfishness in the way he relates to both men and women.

      In conservative Christian circles we tend to hear a lot about the dangers of feminism, but nothing about the dangers of male privilege. I agree with you that with most men it is pretty unconscious. That is one of the aspects of having unearned privilege simply on the basis of some characteristic you have (such as your sex, or your skin colour) for which society accords you privilege for even though you have done nothing to merit it.

      You might like to read this list of male privileges: Male privilege checklist [Internet Archive link]. The final item in the list is that men have the privilege of being unaware of their male privilege.

      And bear in mind that the secular domestic violence sector has been working for decades on this subject, and they have come to the consensus that one of the underlying causes or predisposers to male violence / abuse of women is male privilege. These practitioners come from a feminist viewpoint, whether they are men or women.

      And if we hadn’t had secular feminists raising the alarm about domestic abuse, we would never have got the women’s shelters and other interventions services and laws we have today, which are trying to protect women and children from family violence.

      Mind you, in the first wave of feminism (Suffragettes) there were quite a few Christian women working on the issue of family violence. But in second wave feminism (the 1960s on) the impetus against domestic violence was spearheaded by non-Christians. We have a lot to be thankful for, from their efforts.

      1. I grew up in a militant feminist home. In fact, I lived that way for the first 30 years of my life (!). I think it’s a sad thing that the church has to take the lead from secular folks in protecting and advocating for the powerless….and still isn’t doing it right.

      2. Amen, Marah. The church has failed to be leaders in many ways and lost their testimony because of it.

      3. In conservative Christian circles we tend to hear a lot about the dangers of feminism, but nothing about the dangers of male privilege.

        I agree with this statement, Barb. I think it is mostly because men started the conversation. Many would be very happy with women being in the kitchen, barefoot and pregnant and if he happens to hit her a few times because his dinner is late that should just be fine. I am in no way a liberal thinker, but abusive behavior should be a no-brainer in any circle. It is unacceptable.

        The suffragettes were soldiers for the rights of women and gave up much for those rights. The bra burnings in the 60s just made us look ridiculous and immoral, but did a lot of good for domestic violence protection. “Lord send us a revival in our lives and our countries that shows your glory and the Spirit of Your Love. A revival that promotes a gentle quiet Spirit of love to one another whether man or woman. A revival where Your Word is held high and violence is not needed to be advocated against. We love You. Amen.”

  3. I’d like to know how many men who have gone through these programs come out as loving and respectful husbands and fathers who do not abuse again. Regardless of the “success” rate if even one is allowed to continue abusing the program is a failure. You can couch it in any technical professional language you like. But the fact is that people who hurt other people are sinners and no early life experiences justify their crimes. They need to acknowledge that, repent, make restitution, and pay a penalty for the evil they have done. Any incident of violence should be reported to the authorities and prosecuted. Rape is rape no matter what relationship the rapist has to his victim. Rapists should always be arrested and prosecuted. The same goes for beating or other forms of physical abuse. Put them in prison, not “programs”.

    1. Hi, Suzanne, I agree that —

      people who hurt other people are sinners and no early life experiences justify their crimes. They need to acknowledge that, repent, make restitution, and pay a penalty for the evil they have done. Any incident of violence should be reported to the authorities and prosecuted. Rape is rape no matter what relationship the rapist has to his victim. Rapists should always be arrested and prosecuted. The same goes for beating or other forms of physical abuse.

      ….apart from the word “should” — as I don’t like should-ing on victims. Some victims do not report to the crimes to the police, for a range of very understandable reasons, and I don’t judge them for not reporting. But I encourage them that they have the right to report all crimes.

      Regarding the idea of putting them in prison, not “programs”, I want to say first of all that the situation is different in Australia than in many parts of the USA.

      I am not an expert on the situation, but I would caution you against assuming that abusers are being mandated into programs instead of prison. The prison term or the fine or other penalty for the crime (if convicted) may be being delivered in many jurisdictions. The programs may be offered as well, but not as instead of jail. Or programs may be mandated and if the man does not comply with attending the program, stronger penalties like jail may be delivered; this would need a strong parole board who were working closely with the facilitators of the men’s behaviour change program. And many of these abusers do not commit crimes, but do abuse in non-criminal ways. And the definition of family violence crime varies greatly around the world. So it’s not possible to send abusers to jail if they are not convicted of a crime, but it is often a lot more possible to either recommend or mandate them into behavior change programs.

      I agree that rapists should be prosecuted. But the realities of the law make this very hard.

      Getting the evidence of rape or sexual assault — evidence that will be strong enough to bring a conviction with the high bar of “beyond reasonable doubt” — is very difficult. Unless there is forensic evidence, medical evidence or a witness to the crime, it’s may not be possible to prove rape beyond reasonable doubt. And in my jurisdiction, when there is insufficient evidence of rape of sexual assault, it boils down to his word against hers (forgive the gender there, I know some males are victims of rape too) and that is just not going to be enough to get a conviction. Which is one of the main reasons why so few reported cases of rape and sexual assault get charged and go to court.

      Police in my state told me that if there is insufficient evidence to get a conviction because “it’s just his word against hers”, but the police lay charges and take it to court and the offender cannot be convicted for lack of evidence, the police force gets charged with the court costs! As you can see, that is a great deterrent for the police to lay charges and take such cases to court, even though they may personally be convinced the victim is telling the truth and the crime really did happen. They are stymied by the high bar of “beyond reasonable doubt” that is necessary to convict a crime and put a man in jail. They usually only lay charges and take it to court if they are confident there is enough evidence to get a conviction. Bear in mind, that is only me speaking about my state, Victoria, Australia. The laws may be different in other states and countries.

    2. Suzanne, I don’t think these programs assert that every man changes as a result of the program. Quite the opposite: they recognise that some men do not change, and some change surface things but not the heart, and some change for a while but then revert to the abusive ways.

      Let’s think about treatment for cancer. There are many treatments for cancer which do not give high remission rates. Many have quite low rates of success but we don’t think that we should stop treating cancer even though we only have low success rates, do we? It is somewhat similar with men’s behaviour change programs. So I would encourage you not to be too hard on the men’s programs: the people running them and the philosophy behind them is not as black and white as you may think.

      As with all things that we do in society to try to ameliorate harm and reduce suffering, we as a whole community make decisions (through our politicians and policy developers) about how much money we will devote to different causes. There are arguments in the policy front about whether men’s programs are worth funding, but the evidence as I understand it so far is that running programs for men’s behaviour change is not a waste of money, so long as the money allocated to them is not taken from programs that give protection to women and child victims.

      1. I’ll add a quick note to this. Our program has referrals from both criminal and civil sources. On the criminal end our guys are sentenced (18 – 24 months) to a day reporting center where they are supervised, screened for drug use, and required to call daily, report once per week, do community service, and attend our class for a minimum of thirty-two weeks, some at their own expense. The charges against them are misdemeanors and would generally would carry a short term in jail where they would not have access to programing such as batterer intervention. So, I’m a big fan. I’m confident there is little hope of change while incarcerated leaving former, and future victims at risk. At least here they are confronted and challenged to change their beliefs and behaviors.

        On the civil side some men attend our class as a condition of their D.V.P.O.(protective order). So, the order is not simply a piece of paper but includes the 32 week class. Again, I’d rather have the opportunity to challenge these men and perhaps help their current partner, law enforcement, and the courts. Lastly, there is no way to measure the success of programs like ours. It really does rest with the individual within the class. We’ve all heard the statement, “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” I kind of view our class as a box of saltine crackers. I can’t force anyone to be non-violent, acknowledge their abusive behavior, or make amends but we are at least giving them a glimpse of what life can be like in the hopes that they will thirst after what is right. Peace.

      2. RevChris, you provide a great service, not only to the men you reach out to, but to the women and children who have been abused by them. May you add many souls for your labors.

      3. I’ve been told that a third of the men in the program are expected to get worse in their behavior. As for the success rate, it seems the figures are hard to analyze as a reduction in recidivism does not mean that psychological abuse is no longer present. Further, long term follow-ups are rare. One male facilitator I know of would privately lament the low rate of change in his program, but when required to complete records for government funding, he would claim a higher rate (about 10%) so that the program would continue.

      4. I’ve been told that a third of the men in the program are expected to get worse in their behavior.

        Do you know how and where that finding has been documented, Anonymous? How did you come across that snippet? Not disbelieving you, or it; just curious.

        That private utterance by the facilitator to you….that’s worrying.

      5. Barbara, that’s what a women’s advocate with a program told me, but I also read it somewhere (I can’t recall where). What is clear from the studies I have read is that the results are mixed, and that positive results must be read with caution because it is hard to ascertain the real rate of recidivism.

  4. Interesting, Anonymous. I have also been told that a third of men after completing a program get worse. I am pretty sure it was my counsellor who told me and she has been a facilitator in many men’s groups. Apparently, some men get worse because they learn more about abuse and they may change the type of abuse they inflict. The abuser simply changes strategies. The abuse becomes more covert and sneaky. And this subsequently makes it harder on the victim to be able to define the abuse.

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