The Intervention Alliance
Although increasingly varied in their approach to working with abusive men, batterer intervention services (BIS) adhere to best practice that emphasizes (1) safety for women (2) accountability for abusive behavior and (3) the exclusion of protocols that might lead group facilitators to collude with batterers. BIS facilitators use instruction, worksheets, and self-report to educate abusive men but have disdained the concept of an alliance with batterers for change.
The Cornerstone of Traditional Therapy
While I believe that these values of safety for women, accountability for men, and avoidance of collision are always imperative to BIS, I also think that it can be instructive to look at traditional counseling as a model for batterer intervention, in particular at the therapeutic alliance. Originally developed in study of the psychodynamic relationship, the use of the therapeutic alliance has become a cornerstone of effective therapy. In fact, research suggests that the container of the therapist-client relationship is the marker of efficacious counseling rather than the effectiveness of a particular type of therapy. Green asserts that “No array of clever, change-oriented techniques is effective in the absence of a positive emotional connection between therapist and client.”* Transference, countertransference, and other aspects of the relationship have been explored in many ways, and research continues to validate the centrality of the alliance.
The intervention alliance is similar to the therapeutic alliance in its fundamental simplicity: If you want batterers to pay attention to you, to learn what you’re trying to teach them you, you’ve got to like them, and they need to know it. Over the many years that I ran treatment groups for abusive men, I liked and connected with virtually all of them. I affirmed their comments in group discussions, praised their self-disclosures of abusive behavior, and applauded their ability to sincerely and honestly critique other group member’s thoughts or actions. I did it because it was good practice, but also because I meant it.
I also learned not to judge new good members too quickly. When I was new to BIS, I verbally annihilated a guy who came into the group with a long loud attitude. After a couple years in the business, I realized that I was abusive of him. In my own dominance and intimidation, I validated his control and abuse of his partner. When he said, “I don’t belong here,” I learned to say, “Give it a few weeks, and then will talk about.” I needed to be a role model for openness and respect. My tolerance created a container for the intervention alliance in which the batterer eventually realizes he needs to intervene in himself. He needs to realize that he is part of the intervention alliance, with your support intervening with himself.
Clear, Solid, and Robust Boundaries
The intervention alliance doesn’t suggest that we shouldn’t have strong boundaries. We will adamantly refuse to tolerate demeaning comments about women. We will interrupt a man who blames her behavior for his abusive actions. We will challenge a man who seems to be coasting through the group. We will meet outside of the group with men who do not seem to be incorporating the concepts of respect and egalitarianism in their relationship, telling them that they must intervene more deeply with themselves if they are to continue in the program.
We will of course have clients who we don’t like. If we can’t use our heart to make an alliance, we will use our best practice, in fact the values that we are trying to inculcate: respect, openness, and compassion.
For many BIS facilitators, this discussion of the intervention alliance simply codifies what they do already. But it’s not something that we talk about. Like the proverbial ostrich that buries its head in the sand, the intervention alliance has been ignored in an attempt to create a wide swath that would annihilate anything that could result in BIS facilitator collusion with the batterer. The acknowledgment of the existence of an alliance is seen as an act that could put women at risk because some in the field of domestic violence believe that interventionists are not to be trusted and that their wayward practices could lead to further abuse and violence.
The Light of Day
I have taken a different point of view, positing that the failure to recognize, study, and make the alliance a part of the interventionist protocol actually leads to greater risk. The identification of both those aspects of the alliance that have the potential for collusion and those which may shower great benefits on the batterer and partner need to see the light of day. Openness to the existence of the alliance will help interventionists to be more wary of too cozy relationships with batterers, to be more aware of the complexities of the relationship, and increasingly able to adopt aspects which will improve their practice. I hope I have here deconstructed the alliance, identifying and scrutinizing its benefits as well as its dangers, contributing to an expanded best practice which can save the hearts and lives of women.
There is always a risk with batterer intervention. It is our job to ensure that our treatment is effective with the abusive man, but we also need to remember that safety of the victim is the highest value. For more information, see Interventions for Men who Abuse Women: Worksheets for Facilitating Domestic Abuse Groups, or contact Therapist Outfitters.
*Robert-Jay Green, PhD, Therapeutic Alliance, Focus, and Formulation: Thinking Beyond the Traditional Therapy Orientations.