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Photo credit: Coburn Place.

Here’s an idea from the 1960s and 1970s that’s hard to wrap your head around: in scholarly studies of the era, women were blamed for causing their own abuse. That’s right. Women weren’t victims. How could they be? They “provoked” their offenders. That mentality allowed many batterers to grow up and imitate abusive behaviors that were considered “okay.” It also spawned a cycle of violence that continues today.

It’s taken decades, but there’s a new attitude emerging that puts responsibility for change on the abuser—not the victim. Rooted in a 1977 intervention program founded in Cambridge, Massachusetts, there are now over 1500 programs in the U.S. to help batterers change their behaviors.

Like all human behavior, domestic violence isn’t easy to dissect or circumvent, but programs designed to interrupt the cycle have taught us something about battering psychology. Oddly, they can also help us learn about ourselves.

Here are six facts about abusers and what we can learn from their mistakes.

1) Many abusers are more likable than their victims, who are beaten down from years of physical or emotional abuse. Batterers externalize so much that they often suffer very few consequences from their behaviors, unlike their victims, who lose jobs, friends, work and sleep. Victims are secret keepers who sometimes hide abuse. Lesson: Offer compassion toward others. You never know who may really need it.

2) There are just enough “hot-heads” to make us think they are always the abusers. Often, just the opposite is true. Abusers are more typically the nicest guys in the world—and they’re experts at manipulation. “Most abusers lead a double life,” says David Adams, one of the founding members of the first U.S. program to focus on changing abusers. Lesson: We can’t make assumptions about who abuses and who doesn’t.

3) Abusers have a lack of empathy that causes them to miss the link between their own behavior and their partners’ unhappiness. They describe their victims as “never happy” and “constantly complaining.” If there’s a problem, it isn’t theirs. “Abusers often think of themselves as victims, which makes them very convincing to other people,” says Adams. Lesson: Even the most balanced people behave in unhealthy ways when we operate from a victim mentality.

4) Abusers don’t understand the outcomes of their violent behaviors. To help them develop empathy (#3 above), therapists try to help abusers see how violence is just as destructive for them as it is their victims. When batterers describe their feelings, they often have fear, anger and distrust, all of which are direct byproducts of their own destructive behaviors. What they feel, they impose on their victims. What they complain about, they cause. Lesson: This sounds a lot like projection—I see in others what I feel in myself first—never a good idea for a happy life.

5) Abusers have a distorted view of violence. To change, they need a clear definition: any behavior that keeps someone in fear. That’s important because many abusers steadfastly maintain that they seldom, if ever, strike their victims. But they throw things, curse, put holes in walls and glare at their victims—all of which cultivate fear. Moreover, abusers don’t have to repeat violent behavior to keep their victims in check. Once they’ve shown violent behavior, a menacing look serves the same purpose. Lesson: A well-examined life is difficult, but it’s the only way we can begin to see ourselves for who we are and make changes. Bad behavior isn’t just hard to change—it’s hard to live down.

6) As crazy as it seems, there is a simple logic to domestic violence: it gives the abuser the benefit of control. Since abuse is a learned behavior, it often takes years to unlearn. Just as victims seek help many times before they make a decision to flee permanently, abusers may need years to unravel twisted thinking and replace it with healthy attitudes and behaviors. Lesson: Everyone has the capacity for change, no matter how engrained our behaviors are. If you realize you have a behavior that’s destructive, never give up on improving yourself, no matter how many times you backslide.

Today, there are laws to protect victims of domestic violence, but abuse is still far too common. Intervention programs like the one founded in the 1977 are part of many court orders and sentences. Some abusers seek help voluntarily after realizing they need to change. What do you think? Can abusers change their ways?

Here in Indianapolis, I’m a huge supporter of Coburn Place, where victims of domestic violence receive long-term transitional housing, counseling and training to help women become financially independent. They need sponsors and supporters to meet an especially critical need—replacing an old boiler that provides heat for the building where residents live with their children. If you want to make a difference and help end this cycle, you’ll never find a better organization to support.

Life is short. Wear the good stuff.