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InPsych 2015 | Vol 37

October | Issue 5

Cover feature : Domestic and family violence

Working with perpetrators of domestic violence to change their behaviour

Behaviour change programs have, in recent years, come to play an increasingly important role in efforts to prevent domestic violence. The rationale for intervening with known perpetrators is based on an understanding that violence in intimate relationships often persists over time and that interventions that have even a modest impact on behaviour can, therefore, have significant value. At the same time, behaviour change programs represent only one component of the many different services that are required to address what is a significant social issue.

Understanding domestic violence

Although current definitions of domestic violence do not assume that all violence is perpetrated by men on women, the results of the Personal Safety Survey (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2013) suggest that more women than men are victims, with one in six Australian women reporting that they have experienced physical or sexual violence from a current or former partner. However, violence that is perpetrated by women (or in same sex relationships) is by no means uncommon and should not be treated as trivial (see Langhinrichsen-Rohling, 2010; Oriel, 2012).

What is a behaviour change program?

Considerable diversity exists in the types of behaviour change programs that are currently available. Differences between programs often relate to basic issues concerning the stated purpose of intervention and core understandings of the nature of domestic violence. There has been considerable, and at times heated, debate about which approaches should be preferred, although the available evidence suggests that the main approaches to intervention produce broadly similar outcomes. Debates about program design and content are often characterised in terms of the differences that exist between sociological (including feminist) and psychological explanations of violence. However, in practice most programs draw on elements of both theories, reflecting a common view about the nature of the problem as generated within a context of gender relations, socialisation and learning, and an orientation to intervention that focuses on changing behaviour and ways of thinking about interpersonal relationships (Day, Chung, O’Leary, & Carson, 2009).

The feminist psycho-educational approach of the Duluth Model (Pence & Paymar, 1993) has been particularly influential in Australia. This identifies the importance of a social and cultural patriarchal ideology that allows men to control women. Program activities are thus designed to teach perpetrators to recognise abusive behaviour as a deliberate attempt to assert power and control, with group facilitated exercises used to explore the use of various non-violent strategies that promote intimate relationships built on respect, trust, and equality (Gondolf, 2012).

Psychotherapeutic approaches are also used, including those which utilise cognitive-behavioural methods. These typically focus on addressing the thoughts and beliefs that justify violent behaviour and incorporate problem solving and communication skills, anger management techniques and impulse control (Taft, Murphy, King, Musser, & DeDey, 2003). In practice, this will involve an exploration of the origins and maintenance of beliefs that legitimise violence, including the impact of key developmental experiences, such as trauma. Perpetrators are helped to acquire new skills to help them to manage interpersonal conflict in ways that do not involve violence, with problems relating to anger, mental health, and substance use often identified as key targets for intervention. Couple or relationship counselling is also sometimes offered, although significant care is required to ensure that it is perpetrators, rather than victims, of domestic violence who are held responsible for their problems (see Weiss article, pg 14-15 in this issue).

The effectiveness of behaviour change programs

Although some well-designed program evaluations have reported promising results, overall the evidence relating to the effectiveness of perpetrator behaviour change programs remains weak. It has been estimated, for example, that at least one in three perpetrators who complete a program will go on to commit further acts of domestic violence that is reported by their partners, and at least one in five will behave in ways that lead to further police contact (Babcock, Green, & Robie, 2004). The actual rates of violence are, of course, likely to be even higher, given that domestic violence is often under-reported. Behaviour change is not, however, considered to be the only indicator of success; program facilitators may, for example, use their contact with perpetrators to prevent further violence by linking a victim to a support service or facilitating a process for separation. Regular attendance in a program also provides additional opportunities to monitor ongoing risk.

The identification of aggressive rather than physically violent behaviour (which can include looks, gestures, explicit threats of violence, property damage, threats to children or challenges to child custody or immigration status) is, from both a legal and an evaluation perspective, particularly challenging in a context in which violence typically occurs behind closed doors, where the only witnesses are the victims, and where the facts of the violence are often strongly disputed. It, therefore, becomes important to consider information about perpetrator behaviour from multiple sources, taking particular account of victim disclosure, as well as witness statements, police reports, charges and convictions, and perpetrators themselves (see Bowen, 2011).

Challenges, and future directions

One of the most significant challenges facing those involved in delivering programs is finding a way to engage those who are not voluntarily attending. This may be by a criminal court as a condition of a community based order, by a court as part of a civil Family Violence Order (or intervention order), or by Child Protection authorities through obtaining an undertaking from the perpetrator. There is some evidence that mandating treatment does not, by itself, necessarily lead to poorer outcomes, although particular skills are required to engage clients who present with limited problem awareness and low motivation. There is also evidence that many behaviour change programs experience high rates of attrition, with some studies showing that up to half of all of those who start programs do not complete. This is of major concern given evidence that those who begin and fail to complete rehabilitation programs are left at higher risk of re-offending (McMurran & Theodosi, 2007). A direction for future work is to understand more about who presents the greatest risk of repeated violence, so that more intensive programs can be offered to those who are identified as at higher risk. One of the most important findings to emerge from offender rehabilitation research over the last 30 years is that higher risk offenders have better rehabilitation outcomes than those who are lower risk. There is also reason to believe that over-intervening with those who are at low risk can have the unintended consequence of increasing offending (Andrews & Bonta, 2010).

Related to this are efforts to understand more about how program activities might be more closely matched to the needs of different perpetrators, based on the basis of the severity, frequency, and the generality of their violence. There has been some interest in identifying different typologies of perpetrator (see text box for an example), although this work has yet to inform program delivery in any meaningful way. Nonetheless it makes sense to carefully assess the functions of the behaviour under consideration and develop interventions that directly address those factors that promote or maintain the violence.

Johnson’s (2008) Typologies

  • Coercive Controlling Violence - a pattern of emotional abuse, intimidation, coercion, and control commonly associated with persistent and serious physical violence.
  • Situational Couple Violence - relates to particular conflicts that escalate into violence.
  • Violent Resistance - occurs as a direct response to high levels of coercive control, and can also be understood as a form of self-defence.
  • Separation-Instigated Violence - first occurs following separation, but which can be differentiated from continuing violence that also occurs in the context of a separation.

In conclusion, it is clear that psychologists have an important role to play in the further development of behaviour change programs for perpetrators of domestic violence, but there is much work to be done to ensure that the programs that are offered achieve their intended goals. Nonetheless, these programs will continue to have an important role to play as part of wider community efforts to prevent the harmful effects of violent victimisation.

The author can be contacted at andrew.day@deakin.edu.au


  • Andrews, D. A., & Bonta, J. (2010). Rehabilitating criminal justice policy and practice. Journal of Experimental Criminology, 4, 451–476.
  • Australian Bureau of Statistics (2013). Personal safety Australia 2012. Catalogue No. 4906.0. Canberra, Australia.
  • Babcock, J. C., Green, C. E., & Robie, C. (2004). Does batterers' treatment work? A meta-analytic review of domestic violence treatment. Clinical Psychology Review, 23, 1023–1053.
  • Bowen, E. (2011). The rehabilitation of partner-violent men. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell.
  • Day, A., Chung, D., O’Leary, P., & Carson, E. (2009). Programs for men who perpetrate domestic violence: An examination of the issues underlying the effectiveness of intervention programs. Journal of Family Violence, 24, 203-212
  • Gondolf, E. W. (2012). The future of batterer programs: Re-assessing evidence based practice. Boston: Northeastern University Press.
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  • Pence, E., & Paymar, M. (1993). Education groups for men who batter: The Duluth model. New York, NY: Springer.
  • Oriel, K. (2012). Intimate partner violence in same-sex relationships. In R. S. Fife & S.
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  • Taft, C.T., Murphy, C.M., King, D.W., Musser, P.H., & DeDeyn, J.M. (2003). Process and treatment adherence factors in group cognitive-behavioral therapy for partner violent men. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 71, 812.

Disclaimer: Published in InPsych on October 2015. The APS aims to ensure that information published in InPsych is current and accurate at the time of publication. Changes after publication may affect the accuracy of this information. Readers are responsible for ascertaining the currency and completeness of information they rely on, which is particularly important for government initiatives, legislation or best-practice principles which are open to amendment. The information provided in InPsych does not replace obtaining appropriate professional and/or legal advice.