What Anger Really Says

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I once facilitated a therapy group for perpetrators of domestic violence. The group was made up of men who had gotten in trouble with the law and were ordered by the court to attend. These men were not happy to be there.

It was our unenviable duty to teach them that violence is not necessary. We had help from what we called the Duluth Model.

If the Duluth Model was a supermodel in a string bikini, it would’ve gotten the guys’ attention. Unfortunately, it’s only a time honored, widespread treatment approach, developed many years ago in Minnesota and used by groups such as ours all over the world.

The Duluth Model is basically feminism directed at men not interested in feminism, teaching them that women are human beings, too, and deserving of care and respect. It highlights all the subtle and not-so-subtle ways that men exert their power and control to intimidate and coerce women.

The Duluth Model has nothing to say about women abusing men, other than it rarely happens and, when it does, must be understood in the context of the greater power of men.

We had two paid facilitators, one male and one female. I was the male. My colleague often found herself in the inevitable position of being the target of most of the men’s wrath about having to be there. My job was to model how a man can show a woman, namely my co-facilitator, respect. Most of the time, they probably thought that, when I was doing so, I was betraying them.

It’s hard to argue with the premise that these guys needed a good dose of the Duluth Model’s version of feminist theory. Clearly women, and everyone else, for that matter, are deserving of respect. Things generally just don’t go well when you intimidate, coerce, threaten, blame, control, or assault people. It’s understandable that, when you come across a person who does, you will think it’s right to teach them to stop.

Unfortunately, the longer I spent in the group, the more I came away with the belief that we were going in the wrong direction with these guys. In light of the fact that domestic violence treatment often does not work, I was beginning to see what was missing.

The Duluth Model is founded on the proposition that perpetrators have more power than their partners. Here’s the thing, though: these guys were not powerful people. Not a single one was particularly successful financially or in their vocations. They were not well respected, even before they committed their crime. Many were minorities. Even in their relationships, where you might imagine them lording it over their partners, it was often not the case. They felt besieged, bullied, and beaten.

Moreover, all of them lived in a world that was steeped in violence. Just like all the rest of us, violence was there in the movies they watched, the music they downloaded, and the sports they played. Their country, our country, was fighting two wars at once. Violence is described in all the history books as the thing that settles everything. Even those who were religious had a God in mind that would come back to kick everyone’s ass and send the malefactors to Hell.

The marinade of violence seeped in even deeper for these guys. Everyone in our little group was a victim of domestic violence as well as a perpetrator. As children, they had been assaulted by the hands of their parents and, in many cases, by the very woman who succeeded in sending them to jail.

This group of perpetrators of domestic violence was concurrently a group of trauma victims. Trauma that was unacknowledged, unaddressed, and untreated. Anyone who knows anything about trauma knows how well that goes.

This doesn’t excuse their actions, by any means, but it is necessary to admit that, when we try to whisper an alternative to violence, there is a hard rock band around them, pounding away, screaming for blood.

The key to the Duluth Model is the Power and Control Wheel. You may have seen it. It looks like this:

The image tries to show all the various kinds of behaviors that are centered around the exercise of power and control.

The thing is, though, these men were not engaging in those behaviors out of a sense of power and control. They acted that way out of weakness and unmanageability.

Anger is an emotion people feel when they are powerless. Truly powerful people have no need for anger. Anger makes you feel temporarily more powerful and it makes you look that way to others. But, it’s a sham. The display of anger, and it’s companions, rage and violence, is phony power and counterfeit control.

I came to believe that the Duluth Model and its wheel only perpetuates the myth that those behaviors within the wheel exemplify power and control. They don’t. The behaviors highlight weakness. Every time those men engaged in abuse, intimidation, coercion, threats, blame, isolation, manipulating partners through the children, or using male privilege, they were showing how weak and unstable they were.

I came up with a better design for the wheel, one that exposes the truth beneath the bluster. The core of the problem.

This is what I think the guys in the group had been trying to tell me: it can be a big bad world out there and they don’t know what to do about it. In that, they are in the same position as their partners.