Abuse Anonymous: Can group therapy cure domestic violence? – Published in The Independent Magazine

A pioneering group therapy project in Hull is helping the perpetrators of domestic abuse to change their violent ways. And it seems to be working…






It was Philip Larkin who perhaps best summed up how the traumas of childhood can be handed down from one generation to the next.

“They fuck you up, your mum and dad/ They may not mean to, but they do,” he wrote in “This Be The Verse”, while describing “fools in old-style hats and coats … half at one another’s throats”.

“Man hands on misery to man,” he concluded. “It deepens like a coastal shelf/ Get out as early as you can/ And don’t have any kids yourself.”

In Hull – the poet’s hometown – a pioneering project is trying to break the pattern, without subscribing to Larkin’s desolate view.

Throughout the day, men arrive to do what many British males can go through their whole lives avoiding – they come to talk about their feelings. No one is forcing them to. They have to refer themselves; they must accept they are 100 per cent responsible for their actions; they must consent to their partners being offered help; and they must also agree to be searingly honest about their often gruesome behaviour.

Mark Coulter, the manager of the programme, Strength to Change, describes the 87-point checklist that greets perpetrators at every meeting as “like looking in a mirror”.

It details psychological abuse (threaten affairs, dictate what clothes she wears), financial abuse (make her beg for money), intimidation (threaten to hurt the children in front of her, destroy possessions she loves) and sexual abuse (force her to have sex with someone else, rape). >

We rightly hear a large amount about the provision for victims of this grim catalogue of harm, especially in the run-up to Christmas, domestic abuse’s ‘peak season’, as it were. But what is being done to prevent it from happening in the first place? The answer, historically, has been surprisingly little. The first large-scale programme for perpetrators in England and Wales did not begin until 2004. Across the UK, there are only about 40 groups like this one – offering intense emotional support on a self-referral basis.

On the whole, we as a society concentrate on simply cleaning up the mess. The absence of men from the debate – and the solution – probably betrays the collective attitude we have towards domestic violence. As Coulter explains: “There is often a cynicism about the capacity of men to change – are they just pulling the wool over everybody’s eyes? At a more fundamental level, there’s also the reaction: why should we offer services to these animals?

“I think, morally, we have a duty to provide services and challenge the culture that accepts men’s violence,” he adds. “And we need many more early-intervention programmes. This is not to minimise or take away from the need for women’s services. It’s not an either/or, it’s a both/and.”

Coulter believes our attitudes to masculinity mean “men are set up to fail”. “Even basic stuff around not expressing your emotions, not being able to be vulnerable. By the age of three or four, generally we learn: boys don’t cry, it’s embarrassing, it’s weak, it’s shameful. That doesn’t make for a healthy man. That doesn’t make for a healthy community. That certainly doesn’t make for a healthy relationship. That’s why two or three women a week die from domestic violence. What society does is it accepts it, it colludes with men’s violence. If two to three women were dying a week because of flu, we would be talking about an epidemic or a pandemic.”

Strength to Change was launched in March 2009 with a local media blitz to encourage men to come forward for help. Those who do make a 12-month commitment and receive one-to-one sessions before starting a minimum of 40 weeks of group work. Elucidating the power of the group sessions, one of Coulter’s colleagues says: “Some of the conversations we have really do touch me. I remember someone started talking about miscarriage and I just think to myself: I wonder if anyone else in the country is having this conversation with a group of men?”

The Government – or parts of it, at least – are focusing on prevention. Earlier this year, the legal definition of domestic abuse was extended to include under-18s, as well as to cover psychological intimidation and controlling behaviour – which often paves the way for physical brutality later on down the line.

The Home Office’s annual ‘This is Abuse’ campaign was relaunched this week with the aim of raising awareness among teenagers of what constitutes abuse within a relationship. A youth-oriented website (thisisabuse.co.uk) has been launched. There are also digital ads covering everything from emotional coercion to sexting and rape; a campaign on MTV targeting boys with messages from male stars such as Jason Derulo and The Wanted; and a separate TV advert tied into a Hollyoaks storyline.

Crime Prevention Minister Norman Baker told The Independent that the drive “is part of a long-term commitment to prevent abuse before it starts” and that by changing attitudes from the age of 13, especially among boys, it can avert violence in adulthood.

That belief is underlined by ‘From Boys to Men’, a three-year research project led by Manchester University criminologist Professor David Gadd, which aims to explore “why some boys become domestic abuse perpetrators when others do not”. The study found that by the time young people are 14, most have some experience of domestic violence, involving either their parents or their own partners.

Professor Gadd says two key factors emerged. The first was young men entering relationships “with expectations that could be deemed sexist” and armed with excuses for lashing out. He explains: “Most young people think domestic abuse is wrong. Then, when you say, ‘Is it OK to hit your partner if they’ve been unfaithful or if they’ve hit you first?’, about a fifth of young men will say yes. If you run enough of those circumstances, you’ll get to a point where about half of young men will say it’s OK to hit your partner.”

More significantly, the research highlighted many “deeply troubled young people” whose own upbringings have been damaging and abusive and who have not known “what a relationship of trust looks like”. Prof Gadd warns: “There really isn’t in-depth therapeutic service provision for young people with those sorts of problems – or even for older people. There is no government commitment to preventative education and relationship education in schools at the moment. Unless you do that, you really do store up problems for later on.”

Strength to Change has won an award from the Centre for Social Justice and been highlighted as an example of best practice by the Home Office and European Crime Prevention Network. Police data shows an 80 per cent reduction in offending by men who have completed the scheme, and a steep drop in the number of police call-outs and the severity of incidents. An independent cost-benefit analysis estimated that the service saved the tax payer £8m in just its first 16 months. And the project can provide services to 55 men, 66 women and 113 children each year for the same cost as keeping just three offenders in prison.

Nevertheless, Coulter holds out little hope it will be replicated across the country. After all, according to Women’s Aid, England has only two-thirds of the spaces needed for victims seeking refuge from violent partners, and a third of funding to domestic violence services from squeezed local councils has been cut since 2010.

But he is still determined to continue the struggle, which, he reveals, is partly informed by personal experience. Coulter was in a 10-year, emotionally-abusive relationship and saw first-hand the lack of support for men – which compounded his sense of isolation.

“I never talk about it to the men in the programme until they get to the group sessions,” he says. “At that point, everyone imparts something of their history, so at that stage, I say: I’ve been in an abusive relationship. I have experience of going through the family courts. I know what it’s like as a father not to see your children. And, at the same time, I’ve never had a fight, I’ve never thrown a punch in my life.

“At some level, I know what it’s like to be in their shoes. Even though I’ve had quite a privileged background, I do think: there, but for the grace of God, go I…”

  • Domestic violence perpetrators can call the free and confidential Respect phoneline for help on 0808 802 4040 or visit respectphoneline.org.uk


Abuse anonymous

Three men with a history of domestic abuse, and one victim, on the benefits of group therapy…


Jack is clear that he is entirely responsible for his past behaviour. But you do not have to look very hard to see some of the factors that resulted in him sitting in this room.

“I watched it all when I was a child, my mum getting battered and stuff like that,” he says. Then there is the drug-dealer father who brought his son up to be a macho man who would never run away from a fight; best friends who were addicts; and stints in jail for beatings and stabbings that only fuelled the violence, as he battled to stand up for himself inside.

“My criminal record is as long as my arm, I’ve done some bad stuff,” says the 30-year-old. “But no one’s ever come in and helped me, they’ve just left me. All the anger was going on to my girlfriend.

“I felt like she wouldn’t listen, like no one was listening. I now notice myself getting angry, whereas before I didn’t understand it.”

The father-of-one, who says he “never cared about anything or felt for anybody”, describes the programme as “the best thing I’ve ever done in my life, to be honest”.

And, far from counting down the days until the course is over, he is concerned about what support there is for him afterwards.

“That’s the scariest part – when you’ve finished, is that just it? Because I’ve never had that help. I’ve never had someone wanting to share things with me or listen to what I’ve got to say.”

He laments: “It’s a shame you don’t get taught these things when you’re younger”.


“We had a real happy little family home, growing up. I don’t know where it came from. I’m still trying to pinpoint the exact thing today,” Gary says.

But he is disarmingly frank about his past behaviour towards the mother of his two children, whom he is still with.

“I headbutted her, spat at her, strangled her, threats to kill, threatened her family, putting her down – just making her feel like something you stood in.”

Social services intervened and removed the children from their care before they both resolved to end the violence. But talking about it to others was daunting.

“I felt ashamed about what I’d done to be here. And I found it difficult having a woman staff member in the group – talking to a woman about being violent towards another woman. But it made it easier for me to go and speak to my partner.”

Gary adds that he has now “been given the tools” to resolve an argument without violence. He proved it to himself when phoning his partner on the bus to tell her he was going to Strength to Change that evening. Three schoolboys recognised the name and shouted that it was the group for “men who beat women”. Gary simply shrugged his shoulders and responded: “Yeah, it is”.

“Two years ago, I couldn’t have imagined talking about my relationship to random men, do you know what I mean?” he says. “It’s just normal for us now.”


Tim was unable to accept he had a problem – until he realised he would be denied access to his children.

It was only then that he desperately looked around for help to change his abusive behaviour, but none was forthcoming. “I came close a few times to doing myself in, because I was getting no help from nowhere,” he says.

The father-of-six admits that he used to earn £2,000 a week or more “illegally”, while having countless affairs and being engaged in constant violence inside and outside the home.

But, he adds: “I know for a fact I would have killed myself, because if I wasn’t allowed to see my kids, I wouldn’t have had anything else to live for.

“My anger cost me everything. My violent behaviour destroyed my kids – they were scared to death of me. Only recently, I found out my daughter used to lock herself in the bedroom and cry. Now she says she doesn’t want me to give up the anger management because she’s seen how much I’ve changed.”

Tim is still going to group sessions despite having finished the programme and says the course has cured far more than his abuse. He has since put crime behind him, found himself a job and is going to college.

“I was like a pressure cooker walking around,” he says. “It’s like having a rucksack full of problems – I come here and the sack feels lighter.”


“It was the worst of the worst,” Amanda says, describing the height of the abuse she experienced at the hands of her ex-partner.

“The last incident that happened – he put me in a bath seven months’ pregnant, and he drowned me to a point where I was unconscious. He rang the police because he couldn’t revive me.”

She is calm and matter-of-fact when she details the experience, but tears form when the 25-year-old describes her “breaking point” – the moment she resolved to terminate the relationship for good.

It came at a domestic violence awareness course run by Strength for Change for the partners of the men they are trying to rehabilitate.

“My daughter, for about a year when she was three, had a stammer and I just thought she was having difficulty getting her words out,” Amanda says.

“One day, we were in class and one of the effects that came up was a stutter. And, ah, it broke my heart. It broke my heart. I got an injunction that same week. It killed me – the fact that I’d been failing to protect my children.

“I honestly thought that the relationship I was in was normal, because I got brought up that way.

“The controlling behaviour happened from very early on. I ended up just leaving all of my friends behind, which was the beginning of a domestic violent relationship. I didn’t see the signs.”

Education from counsellors has broken the cycle of abuse. At the onset of a new relationship, she could spot the beginnings of psychological manipulation and walked away.

“If it weren’t for Strength to Change, I certainly wouldn’t be spending a lovely Christmas being a strong, independent woman with my children home. I’m just so grateful.”

Case study names have been changed




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