Expert Encourages Alternate Treatments for Men who Abuse Women

Armen Hareyan's picture

Treatments for Men

The ability to effectively treat men who repeatedly abuse women may be improved through individualized therapy rather than the traditional group treatment approach, according to a Purdue University domestic violence expert.

"We know that group treatments work for some men, but others will continue to physically, verbally, psychologically and sexually abuse women," said Christopher I. Eckhardt, associate professor of psychological sciences. "Our perspective is that treatment guidelines should focus on the individual's background, motivations for engaging in abuse, and readiness to change their behavior, rather than a 'one-size-fits-all' approach to treatment.

"Domestic violence researchers and counselors in the field do not fully understand why partner abuse occurs and how we can change this behavior in every case. But we do know that people are likely to respond differently to different methods of intervention, and for many men, individual treatment may be the way to go. The safety of women matters the most, so we need to make sure we consider all effective forms of intervention with this goal in mind."

Eckhardt and Christopher M. Murphy, associate professor of psychology at the University of Maryland, are near the end of their four-year clinical study to evaluate the long-term use of individually based intervention for abusive men. Eckhardt and Murphy developed a new treatment manual based on their earlier research. They also are comparing the effectiveness of their individual treatment versus a standard group therapy in a study, which concludes next summer, and is funded by the National Institute of Mental Health. Guilford Publications published the manual "Treating the Abusive Partner: An Individualized Cognitive-Behavioral Approach" ($35) this month.

According to Eckhardt, partner violence interventions have traditionally focused on abusive men's attitudes that lead them to believe they are in a position of power in their relationships. For example, some men use physical and emotional abuse to limit their partners' access to friends or bank accounts. Because it is assumed that these male attitudes are learned and reinforced through society, group therapies that re-educate abusive men about gender attitudes and how society labels and treats women have become the standard method of treatment.


One potential benefit of the group format is that men can provide an environment to help each other change their behavior, Eckhardt said. However, the opposite also can happen, and negative attitudes can be introduced and reinforced in the group setting, he said. Concerns about sharing personal information in a group setting also may keep some men from talking about personal issues, such as being a victim of abuse themselves.

"The published research tells us that men who attend group therapy for partner abuse are only about 5 percent less likely to reoffend compared to men who regularly meet with their probation officers. Our research shows us that other forms of treatment also could be beneficial," Eckhardt said. "Men don't abuse women for the same reasons, and by tailoring treatment to individuals, counselors can more directly focus on other problems, such as anger-control problems or the after-effects of childhood traumas. These factors must be addressed before any re-education efforts can have an effect."

While the results of the clinical trial have not been evaluated, Eckhardt expects that the individual approach will be especially useful for men classified as being at high risk for reoffending. The intervention described in the manual outlines how to create an atmosphere that encourages men to take responsibility for their abusive behavior, to modify attitudes and emotions that have become extreme and to specifically instruct men on relationship skills that may prevent further abuse from occurring.

Eckhardt said encouraging some agencies to use this form of therapy will be a challenge, as most states have guidelines that will promote intervention programs for abusive men that are in a group format only.

"This is favored because if you only consider the short-term cost of treatment, group treatment appears to be the least expensive option," Eckhardt said. "The cost for individual intervention is indeed higher, but if we can keep someone from repeating the behavior, then the long-term costs will actually be less for this approach. We want to stop the revolving door."

The National Institute of Mental Health funded the clinical trial and publication. The National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, the National Institute of Justice and the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation also supported Eckhardt's research.