Behind Closed Doors: Breaking the cycle starts with admission of violence

(Editor’s note: Nearly 40 people across the state have lost their lives to domestic violence this year, more than double the number of similar incidents reported last year. 

This series, which was born out of two tragic cases in Eden Prairie, will focus on levels of domestic violence, its psychological aspects and what can be done to help those abused behind closed doors. 

The Star News will highlight a domestic violence lethality screening tool used to assess perpetrators’ likeliness to reoffend and reach out to organizations like Rivers of Hope that aim to help victims.)

• Therapy exists for batterers that can help restore lives and families

by Theresa Malloy

ECM Sun Newspapers

With the staggering number of domestic violence-related deaths across Minnesota, people are left to wonder how it is possible relationships can become so violent and fatal.

Because each case is different, the root of domestic violence remains unclear, and contributing factors can range from media messages to mental illness.

A majority of the batterers have witnessed domestic violence before, said Aaron Milgrom, the director of therapy at the Domestic Abuse Project. According to Tubman Family Crisis and Support Services, family violence happens in one in three families in the United States. Nearly 3.3 million children between the ages of 3-17 have experienced or witnessed some sort of abuse in their families. Many women experiencing domestic abuse come from abusive families, and it takes an emotional toll on children who develop negative behaviors as a coping strategy, according to the Lee Carlson Center Domestic Abuse Program in Blaine.

(Photo illustration) A majority of the batterers have witnessed domestic violence before. According to Tubman Family Crisis and Support Services, family violence happens in one in three families in the United States. Nearly 3.3 million children between the ages of 3-17 have experienced or witnessed some sort of abuse in their families.
(Photo illustration)
A majority of the batterers have witnessed domestic violence before. According to Tubman Family Crisis and Support Services, family violence happens in one in three families in the United States. Nearly 3.3 million children between the ages of 3-17 have experienced or witnessed some sort of abuse in their families.

This makes breaking the cycle so critical, Milgrom explains. His work at the DAP has focused on men’s therapy and helping to change the behaviors of batterers. DAP is a private nonprofit group based in Minneapolis that specializes in working with men who are batterers. Counseling for men did not start at DAP until 1980 or so, and therapy for male batterers is a newer field. Women’s shelters and advocacy groups were an earlier development promoted during the feminist movement in the 1960s.

DAP gets referrals from those who have gone through the Hennepin County or other corrections systems. However, the man must call and schedule the first appointment. A probation officer or significant other cannot make that call. The first step is to admit fault and seek this help, Milgrom said. The program is rooted in social justice and understanding the perpetrator must be held accountable.

“Men are resistant at first, but that goes away with time,” Milgrom said. “We have motivational techniques that help engage them. … This could be the only place that they can talk about it.”

The men attend group therapy sessions and must attend at least 23 for completion. The program can be finished in about four months, but men can choose to stay for up to a year if they feel that is necessary. Each session costs $5. Accountability and safety measures are in place, and participants could get dismissed for absences or not following guidelines. The men sign releases so partners can call for acknowledgement that they are attending the program.

Why violence?

Violent behavior in a domestic relationship is most likely seen when a man feels like he is losing his significant other. It could be jealousy or awareness that she is trying to leave that triggers men to want to exert power, Milgrom said.

While male batterers are usually trying to hold on to something, women batterers could become violent when they try to leave or get away from the relationship.

Violence can increase after a couple gets married or if a partner is pregnant, Milgrom said, because “men see it as a threat for their attention.” Behind Closed Doors

A majority of domestic violence cases are men battering women. Women can also be abusers, and there is an uptick in women committing violence on their partners. Sometimes they might fight back and get charged, said Natalie Keifer, the domestic abuse coordinator at Lee Carlson Center. Keifer said part of this is that women who are being controlled and manipulated build up that fight or flight reaction.

“There’s shame about becoming abusive,” she said.

There are few programs for these women batterers in the metro area. Keifer does some individual therapy sessions to address it. Eastside Neighborhood Services in Minneapolis is one of the organizations that offers a therapy program for women batterers.

Outside parties can be surprised to find out about domestic violence, especially if a man has good anger management at work but not at home.

The attachment theory can help explain how people regard a partner in a relationship differently. Sometimes this vulnerability, attachment and shame can contribute to abuse, Milgrom said.

“A majority of men come from an unstable world,” he said.

The absent father affects children. Girls sometimes try to fill this void with seductive relationships. Boys can go to different extremes, sometimes going into law enforcement or developing abusive patterns, Milgrom said.

Why stay?

It is dangerous for women or men to leave an abusive situation. When children are involved, it is sometimes even more difficult to leave. The reasons vary for each individual, but Keifer said the No. 1 reason is that the victim fears the abuser.

Other factors include financial dependency, fearing they would lose custody of children, substance abuse by either the victim or abuser, and even religious beliefs in the sanctity of marriage.

“Embarrassment and shame comes along with it,” Keifer said. “They blame themselves a lot of the time.”

Emotional attachment is also a reason to stay. Usually, a woman has a lot of love for her partner, and she can hold onto the hope that it will change, Keifer said.

Seeking help is difficult as well because often “the batterer will isolate the person,” Keifer explains, and “they don’t feel like they can to go family or get help.”

Breaking down the messages

Milgrom said one of the first steps in DAP is to break down the societal messages about power and male privilege. The messages say, “They’re superior and can control women,” Milgrom said.

Boys also experience more “violent socialization” growing up with societal standards of what boys should do.

This is paired with hyper-sexualized images and representations of women that men are exposed to at a young age. The pornography culture is also damaging because it “creates a really fake intimacy,” Milgrom said, that also supports mainstream advertising and other negative images of women.

Breaking down these messages is difficult, Milgrom said. But it’s a start.

Anger then tends to become a vector or excuse for a man to “express violence and use power,” Milgrom said. Alcohol or depression can contribute to poor judgment.

“Mental illness isn’t a cause,” Milgrom clarifies. “It’s a complicating factor.”


While breaking down rigid ways of thinking, the DAP therapy group also focuses on accountability.

“It holds men accountable, to take responsibility and challenges them with the feelings of change,” Milgrom said.

In one session, Milgrom has the group come up with examples of “hurtful behavior.” Some might see violence as hitting someone with a closed fist, he said, so they try to list all levels of abuse.

The men also get to tell their story of what happened.

“For the most part, none of them tell their story all the way through,” Milgrom said.

In this exercise, the man has the freedom to tell the story, then this story is framed with other questions: What did your partner have to do to get out? If she had a black eye, how would she have to cover it up? Would she try to avoid seeing people? What pain would she experience if someone asked about it? Was it worth it? How did it affect others?

Milgrom said men sometimes do not want to look at it and can struggle finding empathy for their partner. These questions might guide them toward a breakthrough.

However, Milgrom said the biggest breakthrough is usually when a man realizes how children are affected. If they do not have children, sometimes men can look back to how seeing violence affected them as a child.

“They view it through kids’ eyes with resistance, anger and shame,” Milgrom said.

Women’s breakthroughs usually come when “they truly start to believe that they’re worthy of more than that,” Keifer said.

The therapy program at Lee Carlson focuses on increasing self-esteem, working on shame and awareness of what a healthy relationship looks like.

DAP works with men in its group to be accountable not only for their past actions, but future ones. Men go through an anger management worksheet and make a plan for the future. According to DAP’s website, the goal for men’s therapy is for no physical violence to occur again. Follow-up research shows that more than 97 percent of men who complete the program had zero domestic abuse arrests within one year of finishing.

Lee Carlson also runs a restorative parenting group to help children who have experienced this domestic abuse.

Keifer said it focuses on rebuilding that relationship with a child and to create a more nurturing environment. It even delves into discipline techniques versus punishment.

For more information on DAP, visit or call 612-874-7063. Lee Carlson Center information is available at or 763-780-3036.

Rivers of Hope, a place to turn for help

Rivers of Hope is a nonprofit, community-based agency that offers advocacy, support and referral services for victims of family violence. Rivers of Hope has been serving communities in and around Sherburne and Wright counties since 1989.

By working in partnerships with schools, law enforcement, county social service agencies, emergency shelters and the court system, Rivers of Hope can help people need. All services are confidential and free of charge.

Rivers of Hope can be contacted 24/7. For assistance or general information, call the Crisis Line at 763-295-3433 or toll free at 800-439-2642 or email [email protected].