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Psychologist teaches men how to argue better to save women’s lives

Julia Babcock

Dr. Julia Babcock works with male batterers to break domestic violence cycle

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines “intimate partner violence” as physical, sexual or psychological harm by a current or former partner or spouse. The CDC labels such violence as a serious, preventable public health program affecting millions of Americans in heterosexual and same-sex relationships.

Psychologist Dr. Julia Babcock conducts research designed to stop intimate partner violence before it begins, which is the CDC’s ultimate goal.

Babcock, however, approaches this work by breaking with tradition.

“There is a lot of research that studies the victim of intimate partner violence, but not the perpetrator,” said Julia Babcock, an associate professor in the department of psychology and co-director of the Center for Couples Therapy, a clinical research center at UH that offers therapy for couples.

Babcock says the predominant model for domestic violence interventions is based on interviewing women in battered women shelters. The model focuses on addressing men’s patriarchal attitudes about power and control, she said.

Her latest study, however, sought to interrupt perpetrators’ patterns of psychological abuse during arguments rather than address sexist beliefs.

“Since most domestic violence occurs in the context of an argument, the experiment I conducted evaluated whether I could change how the communication goes during an argument with the batterer and his partner,” said Dr. Babcock.

“The idea is that reducing such psychological abuse may reduce intimate partner violence,” she said. “Whereas most therapies are built top down from theory, the new technology allows us to build a therapy package--technique by technique--from the lab up.”

Her findings indicated that male batterers could learn new communications skills and use them during arguments with their female partners to reduce the incidents of physical violence during or after an argument.

“The argument improved and the participants felt better about the argument and more understood,” she said.

Babcock notes this research is significant in that it breaks new ground in applying experiments to domestic violence and may improve batterers’ intervention programs.

Research studies on the efficacy of batterers’ intervention programs show that after a perpetrator completes a batterer’s intervention program there is only a 5 percent reduction rate in repeat offenses

“There is definitely a need to improve batterers’ intervention programs, since research suggests that they’re largely ineffective, but frequently prescribed by courts as a remedy for convicted IPV perpetrators,” Dr. Babcock said.

Babcock’s research focuses on male batterers because men are the perpetrators in about 85 percent of the abuse cases, and women are 10 times more likely to be murdered by an intimate than are men.

By listing an advertisement in local papers that said, “couples experiencing conflict,” the research team recruited 120 couples in the Houston area qualified for the experiment. To meet the criteria to participate in the study, two acts of physical violence had to occur in the last year, including but not limited to pushing, shoving, choking, using a weapon or a beating.

If there was no physical abuse, but the couple scored low for marital satisfaction, Babcock included them as a comparison group.

The couples were then invited to participate in an experiment in the “Emotions in Marriage Lab,” where the research team observed a couple in a 15-minute argument. Both male and female partner were connected to monitors to measure heart rate, respiration, skin conductance, movement, pulse, transit time of blood flow from the periphery to the heart, skin temperature while affect (such as anger, contempt, fear, disgust, etc.) was noted.

Midway during the 15-minute argument, the researchers interrupted the argument at 7½ minutes to change the communication dynamics. Each man was randomly assigned one of three communication skills, instructed on how to use it and asked to apply it in the second half of the argument.

Those three skills were:

  • take a time out
  • edit out negative language and make the same points in the argument using more neutral words
  • accept “influence,” meaning listen to his partner’s ideas, trust that she may be right and validate her ideas even if they differ from his own.

“What we found is that the interventions worked to make the second half of the argument better,” said Babcock. “Batterers could learn these communication skills and when they applied them in arguments with their female partner, it decreased aggressive attacks on the female partner, contemptuous behavior, criticism and put downs in both the woman and the man.”

Babcock’s article based on this UH experiment, “A Proximal Change Experiment Testing Two Communication Exercises with Intimate Partner Violent Men,” won the “Best of 2011 Violence Research” award for the most exemplary research being conducted on violence and aggression. Five senior researchers convened by the Psychology of Violence Journal selected articles they believe have the potential to advance the field and direct the future research on violence.

~Melissa Carroll