Zen, Mindfulness, and Therapies for Men Who Abuse Intimate Partners

Chuka Nestor Emezue//

Content warning: domestic violence.

In a 2012 article, Ashleigh Owens, then a J.D. Candidate at Fordham Law, shared the following story pieced together from local media publications:

“On January 17, 2010, in West Haven, Connecticut, Selami Ozdemir murdered his wife, Shengyl Rasim, in front of their two children. Ozdemir then used the same gun to take his own life. Although undoubtedly a tragedy in its own right, the devastation of this murder-suicide is compounded by the larger failure of the criminal justice system in preventing these and similar deaths from ever occurring. This was not the first time that Ozdemir’s violent behavior had been brought to the attention of the Connecticut criminal justice system. In September 2009, the police were called to Ozdemir’s house where they found Rasim lying beaten against the crib where their three-month-old daughter slept. Rasim’s mouth was bloodied and her cheek welted.” [1].

Every year, physical and sexual violence remains a collective hazard for 1.5 million U.S. women. Though many such incidents go unreported, even those that are reported to law enforcement often fail to prevent perpetrators from doing further harm. Though negligence on the part of the criminal justice system contributes to this failure, it is not the only factor, as the question of how to rehabilitate abusers is a difficult and unresolved one. For men who are found to have abused intimate partners, there are generally two possibilities within the legal system: incarceration, or the successful completion of a batterer intervention program (BIP). BIPs are considered a community-coordinated response to hold abusers accountable and rehabilitate them, while keeping victims safe.  Rehabilitation, however, is tricky business.

Since BIPs were established at the urging of feminist movements in the 1980s, the programs have developed into a complex matrix of psychoeducation, cognitive behavioral therapies (CBT), and courses in anger management, impulse regulation, and conflict resolution. Group activities, role playing, case-study vignettes, peer coaching, and other imaginative modalities are common reformative tools. Staffed by bilingual psychotherapists and para-professionals, BIPs emphasize the humanity of violent abusers. They aim to intervene and rehabilitate, rather than to treat. Treatment connotes run-of-the-mill psychopathology, men who are violent because they are psychobiologically wired that way. Though abusers often report borderline or antisocial personalities, this psychopathological paradigm obscures the social risk factors behind domestic violence. Illness narratives around criminality have come a long way from the problematic diagnoses of “imbecility” that 19th century medical practitioners once attributed to the cranial attributes of violent psychopaths. Today, however, the paradigmatic push for intimate partner abusers to be rehabilitated and pursue reconciliation threatens to essentialize abusers in a new way.  

Abusers, it turns out, despise any relinquishment of power and control. As they are obligated to simmer through weeks of required batterer intervention, sometimes up to a year, they often remain proud non-conformists and non-adherents. Therapeutic rebellion takes the form of program non-completion (attrition rates of 40-75%) [4], absenteeism, inert participation, and peer back-patting (“I could be worse”). Some never attend sessions, violating crucial treaties with the law and risking jail time. Others attend sessions, bide their time, and earn a certificate of completion, only to re-offend with subtler, less explicit forms of violence. Mounting evidence details the scandalous inefficiencies of state-regulated batterer interventions in interrupting recidivism, re-offense, and re-planned victimization [3, 4]. True rehabilitation is rare and fleeting.

However, it may be too soon to give up the promise of BIPs. The era of shame-and-blame for abusers, tempting as it may seem, is over. This therapeutic shift coincides with the push in biomedical realms for complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). A “third wave” of CBT has thus made its way into batterer intervention programs, emphasizing the healing powers of a more promising modality: mindfulness. New therapies pair mindfulness with reformative justice [4], aiming to peel back layers of trauma epigenetics, intergenerational trauma, toxic stress, adverse childhood experiences, and social determinants of violence [6].

Mindfulness originated in the 16th century, based on Zen Buddhist teachings. The practice and philosophy of Zen Buddhism did not reach the global West, however, until the 1950s, when it was transported by monastic monks and popularized by Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki (1870-1966), a distinguished Japanese teacher, author, theosophist, linguist, and academic [7]. For the West, mindfulness evaded the moralizing prescriptions of middle-class America and organized religion. After all, Zen, though ascetic, had no excellent gods, no pious rituals, no final penalties for its saints and sinner. Proponents of mindfulness-based interventions define its ability to work only in a space of sensorial presence: in the here and now [6]. A mutable essence.

Mindfulness-based interventions have found use in suppressing depression [9], anxiety disorders, PTSD, mood disorders, and chronic stress [10]—even among survivors and child-witnesses of partner violence [8]. Architects of BIP curricula infused with mindfulness attempt to slow down the firings of negative cognitions—“she made me so mad”—by restructuring reasoning, planning attentiveness, and allowing meditation to guide the body and mind, often with self-corrective tactics for when the mind wanders to trivialities. Sessions leverage activities like body scans, mindfulness of mundane activities (sitting, breathing), hatha yoga, quiet meditation, and noted but non-verbalized emotions. Mindfulness-based interventions attempt to parse out the attitudes, buried feelings, and excitements of the participant. However, it remains unfamiliar psychological terrain for abusive men who have known only a limited spectrum of affections and disaffections cultivated through adverse childhood experiences—men who know brutality well.

Whether mindfulness can be a solution for abusive men required to practice it remains to be seen. It is likely that half the journey to therapeutic success is attained if a candidate expresses genuine readiness to change. Still, with mandatory sentencing to treatment, the oversampling of minority men in batterer programs, as well as reductionist views on the etiologies of partner violence, readiness is hard to measure. This may be a sign that we need the varying forms of mindfulness therapy that exist, including dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT), and integrative behavioral couple therapy (IBCT) [6] (also see Ost, 2008 for a review of their efficacies).

As an example, Dr. Amie Zarling, a clinical psychologist and associate professor at Iowa State University, and her colleagues deployed the primary components of acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) to pioneer the Achieving Change Through Values-Based Behavior program, or ACTV. A study that compared incarcerated abusers in the ACTV program to incarcerated abusers in a traditional treatment found reductions in recidivism and re-offense for ACTV completers, as well as a slight reductions in violent charges reported by law enforcement [3].

Though mindfulness for abusers may seem like an unviable rehabilitative option to the sensibilities of the lay observer, trauma-informed mindfulness interventions show early promise in reducing re-abuse, dropouts, and general violence, especially for abusers willing to change. Beyond its faddish use and marketability, the option of mindfulness therapy for violent abusers remains highly plausible, with emerging empirical evidence of treatment efficacy.


[1] Ashleigh Owens, Student Note, Confronting the Challenges of Domestic Violence Sentencing Policy: A Review of the Increasingly Global Use of Batterer Intervention Programs, 35 Fordham Int’l L.J. 565, 567 (2012).

[2] Lydston, George Frank. The diseases of society:(the vice and crime problem). JB Lippincott Company, 1904.

[3] Zarling, Amie. “Reply to Lessons in Program Evaluation: The ACTV Batterer Program Study and Its Claims.” Violence Against Women, vol. 25, no. 4, Mar. 2019, pp. NP1–NP7, doi:10.1177/1077801218794301.

[4] Ferraro, Kathleen J. “Current research on batterer intervention programs and implications for policy.” Battered Women’s justice project (2017).

[5] Ibid., citing Iowa Department of Corrections, 2012.

[6] Baer, Ruth A., ed. Mindfulness-based treatment approaches: Clinician’s guide to evidence base and applications. Elsevier, 2015.

[7] Larson, Kay. Where the heart beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the inner life of artists. Penguin, 2013.

[8] Lamers‐Winkelman, Francien, J. Clasien De Schipper, and Mirjam Oosterman. “Children’s physical health complaints after exposure to intimate partner violence.” British journal of health psychology 17.4 (2012): 771-784.

[9] Segal, Zindel V., and John Teasdale. Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy for depression. Guilford Publications, 2018.

[10] Hofmann, Stefan G., et al. “The effect of mindfulness-based therapy on anxiety and depression: A meta-analytic review.” Journal of consulting and clinical psychology 78.2 (2010): 169.

[11] Berry, W. (1987). The collected poems, 1957–1982. San Francisco, CA: North Point.

Image: Alexandre Chambon

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