Treatment Programs For Batterers Must Be Tested To See If They Prevent Abuse OrActually Place Women In Further Peril, Says Expert

September 15, 1998

American society needs to take a critical look at treatment programs for men who batter their wives or girlfriends and stringently test them to make sure that they actually work to end domestic violence, says one of the foremost researchers of abusive relationships.

"Court ordered treatment is the only thing we have to hold batterers accountable for their actions. Treatment serves an essential social need and must be continued," says Neil Jacobson, a University of Washington professor of psychology and coauthor of "When Men Batter Women." "But we don't know how well these programs reduce abuse. We need to find out because if they don't, they could be lulling victims into a false sense of security and into danger of more violence."

Whether existing treatment programs are effective in preventing abusers from reoffending is an open question, according to Jacobson. He says studies of such programs have been flawed, although the more scientifically sound ones have reached pessimistic conclusions.

"Battering is not just physical abuse, but a whole constellation of power and control tactics. Our research says that emotional abuse can serve the same controlling function as domestic violence. However, studies of treatment programs typically do not even look at halting emotional abuse," Jacobson explains.

"Physical and emotional abuse both must be stopped. Any treatment must take into account all uses of emotional abuse and the issues of power and control. Our research suggests batterers go underground after they are arrested so they don't have to go to jail. They control women through acts of subtle terror that leave no blood, bruises or broken bones."

October is National Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Jacobson will participate in a number of public domestic violence conferences and workshops, as well as deliver keynote addresses at several professional meetings around the country. At all of them he will emphasize the need to evaluate treatment programs.

Jacobson and his colleague John Gottman, another UW psychology professor, wrote "When Men Batter Women" earlier this year following an eight-year study of 200 married couples, 60 of them marked by extreme battering.

In their landmark study, which was funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, the researchers brought batterers and their partners into a laboratory, videotaped them during arguments (no physical violence was permitted) and measured their physiological responses.

These responses provided the first scientific evidence that batterers fall into at least two distinct types of abusers that Jacobson and Gottman subsequently called Pit Bulls and Cobras.

The heart rates of one-fifth of the men actually dropped when they were arguing with their wives, and their cold-blooded, deliberate behavior and the violence they exhibited led to them being dubbed Cobras. This type of batterer also is characterized by a history of antisocial behavior. Cobras are likely to be violent outside their marriages, abuse drugs and alcohol and come from violent, traumatic childhoods. They insist on total control in their marriage to get immediate self-gratification. Their violence is swift and ferocious, making it particularly difficult for battered wives to leave them. However, the danger period for a woman who leaves may be shorter because Cobras generally stop pursuing their spouses after a short while and go on to other activities they can control.

Pit Bulls are not as likely to have criminal records and usually confine their violence to family members. Many have had battering fathers. They also insist on total control in their marriages and fear abandonment. This can lead to jealous rages and attempts to deprive their wives of independence. Pit Bull violence is marked by a slow burn that explodes into violence. They may be easier to leave initially, but can be more dangerous in the long term because some of them are likely to become obsessed with their spouses, stalking and harassing them. O.J. Simpson is a typical Pit Bull, the authors say.

"The message about physical violence has gotten out to the public because of the Simpson case, but I still don't think a lot of information about emotional abuse is out there," says Jacobson.

How important is it to check and test the validity of treatment programs?

"If you believe violent crime is a problem, this is probably the single most important crime to study," says Jacobson. "It is difficult to believe that someone (a batterer) who has been raised for 10 or 20 years not to respect women and has treated them as chattel, will suddenly change after a 16-week group treatment class. But we really don't know, and we also don't know if Cobras and Pit Bulls respond to treatment differently. We must make it a priority to answer these questions."
For more information, contact Jacobson at (206) 543-9871 or

Jacobson will discuss domestic violence issues at a number of public and professional meetings around the country in the next several weeks. His schedule includes:

Sept. 24 -- Palm Springs, Calif., 10:30 a.m. keynote address to annual Family Court Services Training Institute at the Riviera Hotel.
Sept. 25-26 -- Sioux Falls, S.D two-day domestic violence workshop sponsored by Great Plains Psychological Services from 9 a.m. to 4 30 p.m. at Sioux Vocational Services. Public talk, 7 p.m. Sept. 25 at same location.
Oct. 1 - Atlanta, all-day domestic violence seminar and 1 p.m. luncheon talk sponsored by Partnership Against Domestic Violence in the Urban Life Center at Georgia State University.
Oct. 2 -- Raleigh, N.C., all-day workshop at North Carolina Psychological Associations 50th anniversary Institutes and Conference at Embassy Suites Hotel at Raleigh-Durham Airport.
Oct. 22 -- Concord, Calif., 1 p.m. luncheon talk and 2-5 p.m. workshop sponsored by Battered Women's Alternatives at the Concord Hilton Hotel.
Oct. 30 -- Oakbrook, Ill., all-day workshop on domestic violence sponsored by Family Shelter Services at the Marriott Oakbrook Hotel.
Nov. 5-8 -- Washington, D.C., address on "Betrayal in Relationships: Implications for Infidelity, Domestic Violence and Divorce" at annual convention of Association for Advancement of Behavior Therapy in Marriott Wardman Park Hotel. Date and time not yet scheduled.

University of Washington

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