Hello, My Name Is Brian, and I Abuse My Wife

Can group therapy cure domestic violence?

Brian thinks he's in relapse.

The 48-year-old lawyer perches on a brown pleather couch and booms in his reliably loud voice to the five other men in the therapy room on a sweltering Thursday evening in July.

His wife shares few of his goals, he says. He wants action, excitement and career success. She's content with her modest office job, watching movies, gardening.

"As far as I feel like I've come," he tells the group, "I still feel like I have a deep well of contempt in my marriage."

The other men sitting around Brian—with his red golf shirt and Birkenstocks and his full, brown hair—nod. He may indeed be in relapse. But Brian hasn't fallen back into alcohol or drugs or gambling. Brian may be sliding back into another dangerous pattern: abusing his wife.

The dozen or so men who come and go from Brian's group include doctors, holders of Ph.D.s, engineers and business executives—educated men with good jobs, nice houses and seemingly picture-perfect families. None has ever been arrested for domestic violence.

Yet each man meeting here at Allies in Change, a nonprofit counseling center in unincorporated Washington County, has harmed his wife or children. Not necessarily by physical violence—although some have. Each has rained hell on his family with shouts, threats or bullying.

The vast majority of dangerous husbands and fathers who end up in counseling groups such as this one are forced to attend by the order of a court or child welfare agency. Not these men. Most of their behavior—manipulation, narcissism, guilt-tripping—would never be considered criminal.

All but one arrived voluntarily, albeit reluctantly, after being told by a wife or therapist that their abuse had to stop. That they, and not their families, shouldered the blame for their hurtful ways.

In weekly sessions, the men parse their feelings, trading stories about marital misunderstandings in the vernacular of self-help books. Men talk of refilling their wives' emotional reservoirs, and swimming in the "relational pool."

But as Brian vents, a question hangs in the room: Do those new words mean he will stop abusing his wife?

"You're trying to change a lifetime of behavior," Brian says. "It's hard to turn 30 or 40 years on its ear."

Most do-gooders working to end domestic violence wouldn't know what to do with Brian—or whether he was worth saving.

About 6 percent of women in the Portland area will experience abuse this year, according to the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey. That's in keeping with national statistics

In Portland, a host of services that grew out of the feminist movement aid only victims of domestic violence, mostly women.

Abusers don't garner a lot of sympathy, and there remains a great deal of skepticism that anything short of prison can stop a batterer from harming his next victim.

"He's trying to save his relationship," says Lundy Bancroft, a national expert and author on domestic violence, about why he doubts the sincerity of men who aren't under court order. "He doesn't want to change."

Dozens of programs in the state work with abusive men. Just a few offer groups open only to so-called "voluntary" men, those who've never been arrested.

Chris Huffine runs one: Allies in Change in Cedar Hills.

"If you want to solve domestic violence, you have to treat perpetrators," Huffine says. "If you just treat victims, you create new places for new victims to be abused."

He knows advocates for survivors sometimes eye him suspiciously, as if he's coddling the bad guys. Huffine, who's practiced in Portland for 23 years, disagrees—and he was willing to open his doors to prove it.

Huffine and his clients allowed WW an extraordinary view into their therapy. We attended eight two-hour group sessions as men ages 32 to 70 talked about their histories as abusers, their efforts to take responsibility for their actions, and their struggles to repair the harm they've caused. They had one condition: that we not reveal their identities.

The sessions revealed these abusers—whose names have been changed—at their most candid: what they say to each other and what they think about themselves. The sessions also revealed many of the men as still struggling to face up to the angry impulses and coercive tendencies that have brought them into this room.

The Allies in Change therapy room sits on the first floor of a gray Cedar Hills office building next to Highway 26, around the corner from the Sunset Strip Gentlemen's Club and a DMV branch. On this Thursday evening when Brian announces he's in relapse, five men enter the therapy room, some clutching paper cups of warm tea, and take their seats in maroon office chairs.

Inspirational posters—a snowy streetscape, a tropical waterfall and a volcano with orange, glowing lava—hang from the beige walls. "You are a role model to your children," one reads. "Is there anything you'd like to change?"

Brian has memorized every word.

Huffine opens the session by prompting each man to offer a full reckoning of their past abuse. All of them have recounted their histories many times before. John, a 59-year-old construction manager who keeps his thinning hair in a buzz cut, has been married 39 years to his high-school sweetheart. The couple no longer shares a bedroom.

"I would try to make her feel sorry for me," John tells the group, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees and his hands folded together. "If she balked, I would bring up an example of where I gave into her."

Mark, 48, describes himself as a tech worker. He has been married more than 20 years. "My go-to is verbal—raising my voice," he says. He targets his children, too. "When I felt they hadn't done what they were supposed to do, I really shamed them," he says. "'You can't do the one thing I asked you to do before you go out and play?'"

Larry, a Portland doctor in his 50s, is more blunt. "I'm particularly good at putdowns, scoldings, giving people the silent treatment and shaming," he says.

To many, little of this behavior would appear to be domestic violence.

Partly, that's because the men are often unreliable narrators of their own abuse.

"We have the Disney version of stories in here," Huffine says. "The R-rated is what you get when you talk to the women."

It's also because the public understanding of domestic violence has evolved beyond physical assault in recent years. Name-calling, belittling and shaming constitute abuse, if the acts are ongoing and severe. And, in fact, that type of subtle abuse can hurt just as much as physical violence.

"It's not as clear-cut," says Annie Neal, Multnomah County's coordinator of domestic violence prevention programs, "but those things can be really devastating." (Are you an abuser? Take the test here.)

The men know that the stories they tell here only hint at the depths of their problems. Each knows the insults he's hurled at his wife, the times he ignored her, overruled her or barked at her—have added up over the years. Each also knows the potential for physical violence is real.

Brian, the lawyer, also speaks on this night. He doesn't sugarcoat.

Brian tells the men about a trip to Disneyland years earlier, when his son was 8. Even after a long day in the theme park, the boy buzzed around the hotel room giddily. Brian wanted peace and quiet.

"I picked him up," he says flatly. "I held him up over my head, and I slammed him onto the bed. 'Enough,' I told him.

"That scared everyone," Brian says.

No one in the therapy room says anything. Nobody has to.

Brian first spotted his wife, Sarah, 15 years ago at Mount Tabor Park as he let his dog run in the off-leash area. And she noticed him.

Days later, on St. Patrick's Day, they ran into each other at an Irish pub. "You're that guy with that dog," she said. Brian recalls thinking, "Girls that remember my dog get my attention."

Their relationship rocketed forward, and the first few months were, in Sarah's words, "pretty perfect."

Both were in their 30s, never married. About a year after they started dating, though, Sarah told him she was pregnant. "You're welcome to go," she told him. "I'd love for you to stay, but I'm going to do this."

She waited for an answer. Brian, who'd grown up in a suburban Midwestern family, hesitated. He came around weeks later.

"I was raised to believe that's what I should have done," he says. "I'm in," he told her.

Sarah soon saw flashes of Brian's bullying—teaching her a lesson at every opportunity.

"He would find 10 ways to tell me whatever the thing was that I was trying to stand up for was wrong," she recalls. "So, OK, fine. I'm wrong. I'm done. Let's go."

Sarah never felt good about the way arguments ended. "I wasn't wrong all the time," she says.

Money was often a source of Brian's explosions. Sarah—who says she deferred nursing school to help Brian focus on his career—was the one who paid the bills. She once paid a Visa bill late, incurring a $35 fee. Brian erupted.

"Brian has such high expectations of me, our son, and himself," Sarah says. "When one of us doesn't fulfill those expectations, it triggers something in him."

"I had my own private world and she wasn't complying with it," he says. "It was her fault, and she needed to learn a lesson and be taught a lesson."

Six years ago, they vacationed in Mexico. Brian and Sarah were drinking, and today neither recalls what started the fight. "He just blew a fuse," she says.

Brian grabbed her and threw her around the hotel room, she says. "I sat on the bed," Sarah says, "and he pushed me off." She slept on the floor, and the next morning woke up with bruises.

"I can apologize for my part of it," Brian told her later that day, "but you need to, too."

Sarah says she had no idea what sent Brian off "this crazy, crazy ledge." But she apologized to him anyway.

Weeks after they returned from Mexico, the couple sought counseling. A therapist sent Brian to Huffine.

"So what is it you want?" Huffine asks Brian during the July session.

"More feeling of a partnership," Brian tells Huffine and the other men. "I can have frank conversations with my paralegal that I can't have with my wife."

The five other men in the therapy room, most still in their dress slacks and shirts from work, listen intently. "Have you thought about why that may be?" Huffine asks.

"Not in a positive way," Brian says. "I don't feel like I have a marital partner who has goals."

"How does that affect you?" Huffine asks pointedly.

"One of my goals is to have a partner who's tied into me," Brian says. "She has no goals. She's OK just sitting around the house."

"You understand that's a contemptuous thing to say?" Huffine says. "Do you think one of the reasons she's not connecting with you is because you're not connecting with her?"


"I'm not hearing a lot of curiosity about Sarah," Huffine says. "I'm hearing self-pity. What are her goals? Of course she has goals! They're just not the goals you want her to have."

“What are some good strategies when those feelings come up?” Brian asks. 

"Ask yourself, 'What am I unhappy about? What am I longing for?'" Huffine says. "How are you feeling right now?"

"More loneliness," Brian says, "and longing."

Huffine, 51, keeps a photograph of Martin Luther King Jr. in his office and a box of "macho tissues" above his desk. ("Extra large, extra strong," the box reads, "for blood or sweat, but never tears.")

In the relatively small world of domestic violence prevention in Oregon, Huffine is a central figure. He serves on a state advisory group for batterer intervention programs, teaches at Portland State University and advises state leaders on reducing domestic violence fatalities.

Huffine grew up the son of a teacher and a bookkeeper in Chicago's liberal Hyde Park neighborhood, and he recalls rejecting thinking in "boys vs. girls" terms early on.

At Carleton College in Minnesota, he majored in psychology and joined feminist causes, including an activist group for men against rape. He earned a doctorate in psychology at the Virginia Consortium Program in Clinical Psychology, a joint program in Norfolk of three Virginia universities.

Huffine then moved to Portland in 1991. Soon he saw an ad seeking a therapist to work with abusive men at Men's Resource Center, a Portland agency that offered counseling. Huffine confidently told his interviewer he'd done a great deal of research on anger-management problems.

"Just so you know,'" the interviewer replied, "we don't see this as a problem with anger. We see this as a problem with power and control."

The response proved to be a turning point for Huffine. "That was the very first time I'd heard those terms," he says, "and that's what started me on my journey."

Huffine is divorced, but in a relationship. He's still close with his ex.

He believes society's rigid understanding of masculinity—one that often rejects feminine qualities such as relationship-building and emotional awareness—plays a significant role in shaping men's behavior and trapping them in abusive patterns.

He calls this "the Man Box."

On another Thursday evening, Brian tells the group about an episode that morning with his wife. He was hurrying off to work when she mentioned her boss was leaving. She was upset.

"Are you going to apply for her job?" Brian wanted to know. "Maybe this is the kick in the pants you need."

Later, Sarah sent him an email: "I didn't want you to solve my problem. I just wanted you to listen."

"How do you know," Brian asked the men, "when she just wants you to listen?"

an these men change? That's the first question Huffine says he hears from people just learning about his work.

Voluntary groups such as his, which bills health insurance, have no real leverage to keep men coming. The drop-out rate is high. But a facilitator who doesn't challenge his clients risks colluding with them.

Research on the effectiveness of intervention programs show mixed results. To get better, a man must completely reimagine his relationship with his partner, says Michael Paymar, the co-creator of a well-known program that Huffine draws from.

"There can't be slips," Paymar says. "This isn't like AA. You can't slap someone or beat them up and say, 'I had a slip.'"

Huffine draws on anecdotal experiences—and some degree of faith. "Some men get it and some men don't," he says. "I'm absolutely certain there are some men who don't change at all from being here, and then I'm absolutely certain that there are some who do."

Victims' advocates are less hopeful. "There's not a proven track record," says Deborah Steinkopf, executive director of Bradley Angle, a Portland domestic violence shelter.

Brian says he sees his progress when he looks at Mark, the tech worker who started coming to the group only about a year ago.

On a Thursday night in June, Mark tells the group his wife recently tossed out one of his books. He talks mostly about himself—a sign to Huffine and the other men that he's not even thinking about her.

"It made me feel like nothing of mine had any worth," Mark says.

"Do you know how to get to a win-win?" Huffine asks him.

"Not with my wife," Mark says.

Tears well up in Mark's eyes as the other men gently nudge him. He's in what the group calls "the hot seat" tonight.

"If she's not feeling heard, this is another way to speak," says Doug, who was so skilled at playing the victim he once persuaded police to arrest his wife after neighbors called 911 because of his abuse.

"Where is the win-win?," Mark asks. "If I allow her to feel listened to and understood, where do I go from there?"

"I would say that differently," says Nick, a divorced man who recently disclosed to the woman he met on Match.com that he's in a group for controlling and abusive men. "'I need to hear her.'"

A third man, Joe, who's sleeping on the couch at home, interjects: "What you said means, 'I got to make her feel heard so I can move on."

"You're wanting to be heard," Huffine says. "She's had a whole marriage of not being heard."

The exchange is typical of what happens in the group setting, where the men try to help each other understand what their wives must be feeling. "If somebody's soft-pedaling something, we'll call bullshit," says Frank, one of the group's most veteran members. "It's intimidating to admit what you've done, but it's really hard to get the clarity until you start talking."

A month later, Mark emails Huffine to tell him he's not coming back.

After five years in Huffine's group, Sarah says Brian is still Brian.

"Brian wants things done the way Brian would do them," Sarah says. "He has gotten better about lowering those expectations a bit to let us all relax and just be ourselves. But it's still there, and his disappointment is apparent."

She stays in the marriage because of his improvements.

Brian thinks he'll stop going to Allies in Change after six years—that's about 10 times as long as court-mandated programs last.

Despite concerns he's slipping backward, Brian recognizes growth. On a recent vacation, Sarah asked Brian to call the airline to make sure the family had seats together. Brian didn't want to—they could check when they got to the airport, he thought. He stewed about it, and his anger came out toward his son, now a teenager, who was making breakfast for the family. Brian accused him of moving too slowly. "I got all in his grill and told him I was disappointed," Brian says.

In the past, Brian says, he would have followed the outburst with days of cold silence. Instead, he quickly saw his mistake and apologized.

Brian says he’s not where he wants to be—understanding and managing the feelings that cause his outbursts. “That would be ideal,” he says. “Getting close to that would be nice. I’m a helluva lot closer than I’ve ever been.”  

Larry, in his 50s

Many abusers hide their bad behavior at home. Larry, a Portland doctor, lashed out at his wife—and co-workers.

In public, Larry yelled at colleagues over scheduling snafus, belittled their analysis of patients' needs, cut them down with sarcastic remarks.

In private, Larry exerted power over his wife, even on their honeymoon.

They were on a cruise. Larry wanted to go to a dinner show. His wife, Susan, wanted to sit on the boat deck and talk. He grabbed her arm and shouted: "I didn't spend all this money on this cruise for you to be complaining!"

Once, Susan asked Larry about their weekend plans. They were still newlyweds. "You don't understand," he told her, "when I'm with you, you're on borrowed time."

The couple discovered they were infertile. Doctors told them it was Larry's problem—a shortcoming that damaged his sense of manhood. "I just felt like I was dead," he says.

Expensive fertility treatments not covered by health insurance followed. "With every [in vitro fertilization], I'd remind my wife how much we spent," Larry says. "And then when it failed, I'd literally cry over the money, never mind the fact that she had had a procedure, was hurting and was in pain."

Susan recalls, "He would get furiously angry, scream, yell and storm off."

Susan begged Larry to seek counseling with her. "They're going to blame me for everything," he told her.

Finally, a superior at work stepped in. He ordered Larry to seek treatment.

Larry entered Huffine's group in 2001. He's never left. That's not because he's still struggling. Susan remains married to Larry and says he's changed. Larry, who kept his job and was promoted, stays in therapy because he wants to make even more progress.

"I came to save my job," Larry says. "I ended up saving my marriage."

John, 59

John, a construction manager, controlled and manipulated his wife for decades before she realized she was a victim of domestic abuse.

Jill, John's high-school sweetheart, thought of domestic violence as something physical, and John rarely touched her. More often, he verbally manipulated Jill to always put his needs above hers.

"His need to be right was huge," she says. "His opinions mattered more."

Jill was still unpacking wedding presents when she experienced this. John insisted Jill put the toaster they got as a gift where he wanted it, even though she would be doing all the cooking. He exploded when she corrected his poor table manners.

"It was all about me," John says. "Everything had to revolve around me. My decision was the most important, and I knew it all."

On weekends, he'd take his family camping. He would become dictatorial ordering the kids to pack the car. "Even trying to have fun was difficult," he says. "I can remember many times Jill saying she didn't even want to go anymore, that I'd ruined it for her and the kids."

John learned his behavior from his own father. "I may not have had the best influences growing up," he says. "The choices were mine, and I made bad choices."

He breaks down in tears today talking about the effects of his abuse on his children. On occasion, John shoved and grabbed his wife. He remembers one particularly troubling episode.

"I picked her up and put her on the floor, and one of my kids went and got a baseball bat," John says. The boy was 10 or 12 and wanted to defend his mother.

He can't remember what set him off. Jill says it may have been an overflowing toilet.

"I was over the top of her,'" he says. "I had my hands up around her neck."

John and Jill sought counseling six times before a therapist identified John's abuse. By then they had been married 32 years.

“It’s very covert,” John says of the nonphysical abuse he inflicted. “It’s out there, but a lot of times people don’t hear about it. It doesn’t make it any better or any different. It’s just that I never went to jail. It’s not that I didn’t deserve it.” 

Are you an abuser? Find out here.

Need help? Portland Women's Crisis Line: 235-5333. Allies in Change: 297-7979.

WWeek 2015

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