A new book by eminent American psychologists Gottman and Jacobson explodes conventional wisdom on wife batterers and the counselling cure. Hettie Judah reports
A COUPLE of days ago when I was researching this piece I sat with a girlfriend and excitedly explained some of the pioneering techniques used to re-educate violent men. "That's all very well," interrupted my friend "but what if they then have to go back home to really stupid women?". At the time I was gobsmacked, to put it mildly, by her reaction, but on reflection, it seemed almost logical in response to the popular portrayal of batterers and their victims. It is all too easy for women who have not experienced domestic violence to regard battered women as, at the very best, poor judges of character, and at worst, irritating harridans who bring such treatment upon themselves.

The subject of my enthusiastic rantings was a book called Breaking The Cycle, the product of eight years of scientific study by John Gottman and Neil Jacobson into the pathology of batterers and their partners. Their research is the first to take a scientific (as opposed to psychoanalytic) approach to violent relationships. Gottman and Jacobson persuaded about 200 couples to argue over a commonly disputed point, be it money, sex or violence, under laboratory conditions. Couples ranged from a happily married "control" group to those in extremely violent relationships where the wives had been attacked with guns and knives. Jacobson and Gottman's discoveries were made by monitoring the arguments of couples in laboratory conditions over a number of years; the behaviours of both partners, their language, heartrates and physical responses were all scrupulously analysed.

Alongside discussions of the accountability of batterers (absolute, whatever the circumstances), whether women batter men (none were found in the study, although many women hit back in self-defence), and why women don't leave (actually most do, but leaving increases the risk of a violent attack), Gottman and Jacobson present a deeply complex portrait of the men involved. They concluded that the fashion for offering batterers counselling and therapy is at best useless, at worst actively dangerous; not only do men quickly learn to "talk the talk" and say what people want to hear, but it becomes too easy to forget that batterers are criminals, not patients.

While Gottman and Jacobson applaud the punitive aspect of prison, they conclude that the only effective treatment for domestic violence is a technique known as CCR (Coordinated Community Response) developed in Duluth, Minnesota. CCR involves two stages of re-education. Firstly, the community at large, judges, magistrates and police included, are taught to recognise domestic violence as a crime and to work together to identify it. Secondly, the batterers themselves are shown how their beliefs about women, while supported by centuries of patriarchal culture, are wrong, and experience how it feels to be on the other side of the equation.

This CCR technique is actually already being pioneered in Britain by the Merseyside Probation Service Domestic Violence Group Work Programme. The scheme is too new for the results to have been fully analysed, but evidence thus far shows it to be vastly more effective than either prison or therapy, with batterers often experiencing a profound change in attitude.

In common with the men on the Merseyside programme, the backgrounds of those in Gottman and Jacobson's study varied wildly. Some men saw themselves as deeply artistic loners, some were classic Californian hippies, others sensitive musicians. It was not unusual for wives from the study, many of whom were very bright and attractive college-educated women, to initially regard their husband as the fragile and damaged product of a broken childhood whom it was their job to nurture. By and large such men did not have a history of violence outside of the home; the battering was not part of larger pugnacity but a means of maintaining control, at whatever cost, over their partners. When eventually confronted with their behaviour, such men would characteristically dismiss, minimise and deny the accusations, offering themselves as the victims; they were "trapped" into having to cope with out-of-control women, to whom the only logical response was physical.

Despite their support for CCR, there are certain cases where Gottman and Jacobson are convinced it will have little or no effect. During the laboratory research certain data appeared which prompted an entirely new understanding of the batterer. While most men, as they became agitated during arguments with their partners, showed an increase in heartrate, a minority, perhaps 20 per cent, showed a heartrate which lowered, even though they were outwardly displaying signs of anger; in other words they became internally more calm. Gottman and Jacobson labelled this sub-group Cobras and it is they who they feared were unsuitable for CCR. Unlike the majority of their test cases (nicknamed Pitt Bulls), Cobras did not attempt to deny their abusive behaviour, often manifested highly anti- social tendencies and were likely to be involved in criminal or violent activity outside of the relationships. Whereas Pit Bulls were often intensely needy and jealous of their wives, Cobras were independent, and tended to taunt their wives by pushing them away.

Such discoveries cry out for further research and there is clearly much work to be done in exploring the dynamics of abusive relationships before an effective and widely applicable solution can be developed. Away from the Merseyside CCR programme and Gottman and Jacobson's sophisticated research techniques, behavioural changes seem painfully slow. According to Myra Johnson of Women's Aid (England), the refuges alone admitted 54,500 people last year; on average a woman is beaten 30 to 35 times before she seeks help and it can take up to 20 years for a woman, once she has decided to leave, to make the break completely. It is still up to a battered woman to press charges against her partner and few do, since the likelihood of conviction is very low. How, as occurred in a recent British case, do you prove that every evening as you sit down to supper with your children in front of the TV your husband gets out his shotgun and trains it on you as you eat in case you do anything "wrong"? Or, years after the bruises have gone, that a man caused eight miscarriages by punching you in the stomach every time you got pregnant? Of the charges made by women, 98 per cent are withdrawn and of those only a fraction go on to a CCR programme, but Merseyside already deals with about 100 men a year. We still have a long, long way to go.

'Breaking the Cycle' by Neil Jacobson and John Gottman is published today by Bloomsbury