I often get questions about Lundy Bancroft’s book, Why Does He Do That? Despite this being the best-selling domestic violence book ever published, we do not include it on our recommended reading list. Some of inquirers wonder why, while others insist that we’ve missed sharing important insights into abuse and abusers.
The omission is not an oversight. The reason Why Does He Do That? isn’t recommended for those working to stop their harmful behavior is because, at best, it isn’t helpful. Despite the promise of its title, it badly misses the underlying motivations for most individuals causing harm. At its worst, the book can leave those trying to change feeling needlessly confused, shamed, and hopeless.
How can I say the book is wrong?
Wait a minute, you might be thinking. Bancroft is presumably a well-qualified counselor who worked with abusive men for over a decade. The popularity of the book ought to say something about its credibility, right? How can I say it “badly misses” the underlying cause?
One word: research. Not mine, but findings of a small army of social scientists who carefully construct ways of studying this issue to discover the answers. We’re not talking about one study performed by a rogue, biased researcher, but hundreds of different investigations concluding the same thing.
Perhaps the best way to explain my deduction is to compare what Mr. Bancroft wrote to what the research says. Here are the key points from his book, followed by what objective examination of the evidence has found.
Why Does He Do That?
Who are the abusers?
The book title Why Does He Do That? leaves no question that Bancroft thinks, in heterosexual relationships, perpetrators are men and victims are women. He devotes two paragraphs in his 400+ page tome to discussing the possibility of women abusing men. There, when considering whether physical aggression by women toward men constitutes abuse, he says, “It depends.” He subsequently dismisses the notion by saying men are rarely affected by a woman’s aggressiveness.
Motivation for abuse, according to Bancroft
Mr. Bancroft argues that abuse is deliberate. That is, he says it’s a behavior that abusive men do on purpose because it benefits them. By mistreating their partner, the abuser gains more power over her. This makes it easier for them to vent their negative emotions and force their partner to perform whatever physical, emotional, or sexual services they demand.
Abusers feel superior to their partners, are self-centered, and intolerant of any defiance. They seek power and social status at any cost, and they want to control everything by any means. They are often charming, using their cunning to hide their manipulation and control of their partner.
He goes on to say the problem is not that abusers don’t realize they’re doing harm, but that they don’t value their victim’s happiness or safety. Furthermore, these men feel comfortable using violence, intimidation, and emotional manipulation to get their way. The behavior, he writes in Why Does He Do That?, is learned from their family, the media, and social norms about male dominance.
Dim prospects for change
Regarding hope for change, the author says it’s rare because abusers are reluctant to give up their privilege. Since their motivation is low, the impetus must come from strong, external factors like losing their partner or major criminal penalties. Real and lasting change can only happen by creating consequences for the behavior, education about causes (as Bancroft defines), and confronting his wrong-headed attitudes.
At the back of Why Does He Do That? he offers a comprehensive set of steps necessary for a man to take to demonstrate that he’s changed. These include, among others, agreeing that he chose to abuse, admitting that he carried an attitude of entitlement, accepting whatever consequences his partner now wants to place on him, and relinquishing his right to complain about how he’s treated.
So, what does the research say? Most of us are not academics, hungry to dig through piles of research reports. Fortunately, someone has already done that for us. A group of investigators performed a comprehensive look (called a meta-analysis) of 12,000 research studies about domestic violence and abuse. Then, they shared their findings in a 2,657-page database, with summaries of 1,700 of those peer-reviewed studies. The researchers openly reveal their source studies if you want to validate their findings.
Their conclusions can be found on the website of the Association of Domestic Intervention Providers (ADVIP) and were published in the scholarly journal, Partner Abuse. To distill their findings down further for the rest of us, the organizers wrote a report, The Partner Abuse State of Knowledge Project. Their Findings-At-a-Glance report is my source for what the research says (and is also the basis for all Ananias Foundation programs).
Who are the abusers, according to research?
Overall, 25.3% of us have perpetrated intimate partner violence (IPV) at some time in our lives. Rates of female-perpetrated violence is higher than male-perpetrated (28.3% vs. 21.6%) when averaged across the studies. As for emotional abuse, 80% of us have committed either expressive (name-calling, put-downs) or coercive (controlling behavior) forms of it. 40% of women and 32% of men reported using expressive abuse; 41% of women and 43% of men reported using coercive abuse.
Within abusive relationships, the research from large population samples shows 57.9% of IPV is bi-directional. In other words, it goes both ways; it’s mutual. Of the remaining 42% that goes in one-direction, 13.8% of it is male violence on a female, while 28.3% is female violence on a male. I’m guessing many people find this data astonishing—almost unbelievable—because the dominant narrative about domestic violence is far different.
As for impact on partners, the research finds female abuse victims experience more injuries, mental health issues, and substance abuse than non-victim women. Their self-esteem, work, and social lives are adversely affected as well. These findings are not surprising.
Research on male victims is very limited, however. What’s been studied has yielded mixed findings—some investigations show effects comparable to women, others do not. It’s premature to draw firm conclusions about this issue, but it would be irresponsible to say men are unaffected.
Motivation for abusive behavior: what the studies say
The studies found that men and women perpetrate violence from similar motives. The primary one is to get back at a partner for emotionally hurting them. Stress, jealousy, to express anger or other feelings that are difficult to communicate, and to get their partner’s attention also ranked high on the list.
Individuals abused as children were more likely to commit domestic violence in adulthood. Dysfunctional mother-child relationships through the toddler years and poor father-child relationships during the school-age years had the strongest effect on behavior later in life. Life experiences and emotional trauma, especially in childhood, seem to prime us for acting in hurtful ways toward our partners.
Prospects for change
Examining the data revealed mixed evidence for the effectiveness of perpetrator intervention programs. The best results were found for interventions that encourage a strong therapist-client relationships. In other words, relating to clients and treating them kindly and respectfully matters.
There is also little evidence to indicate one type of program is better than another. Thus, there’s no reason to mandate a particular theoretical or ideological method for treatment. Collectively, we’re still trying to figure out what works best.
Research indicates a questionable role for law enforcement and the criminal justice system as a remedy for domestic violence. Based on the analysis, investigators found that sanctions after an arrest have no effect on whether the person reoffends. They did, however, find strong evidence that men are consistently treated more severely at every stage of the prosecution process than women.
What’s the truth?
As you can see, Lundy Bancroft’s book Why Does He Do That? and the research come to very different conclusions about many domestic violence-related issues. How do we know which is right: Mr. Bancroft, or the research? The answer is the same way we can “know” anything—we use sound and established methods to test the conclusions—then we trust the findings.
Why did he write that?
Personal biases and hidden motivations likely affected Mr. Bancroft’s objectivity in writing Why Does He Do That? He did no formal research for his book. Rather, he supposedly relied on his observations of the men in his groups while working for Emerge, a Massachusetts-based batterers intervention program provider.
Emerge was the first agency in the US to provide such services. “First in the nation” sounds impressive, but it means the program was developed on an ideology that lacked solid research to validate the approach.
Emerge used, and still uses, what’s called the feminist model of domestic violence as the basis for their programs. The theory maintains that domestic violence is perpetrated by men like those described in Why Does He Do That? Abusers’ motivations, the ideology declares, are the reasons he states in the book: a superiority attitude and the desire for power and control.
It’s hardly coincidental, then, that Mr. Bancroft found exactly the traits and motivations in his clients that his training indoctrinated him to expect. It’s called confirmation bias, and it’s one of the huge pitfalls of drawing conclusions from our own experiences. Even when the evidence indicated otherwise, he chose to ignore what his clients said and assume the theory was right.
For example, Bancroft shares the most common explanations offered by perpetrators for why they acted abusively. They frequently said that they didn’t understand what they were doing, couldn’t control their emotions, or acted out of unresolved trauma or substance abuse problems. He dismissed all these explanations offhand as their attempt to deflect responsibility, however.
Writing to market
It’s also helpful to consider who Lundy Bancroft’s audience is for Why Does He Do That? In his own words, it’s female partners of abusive men. It’s definitely not a self-help book for those who have caused harm.
His objective is to try to convince women to leave their toxic relationships. The best way to accomplish this is to paint their abuser as an evil, self-centered narcissist who does not love or care about them. Seeing them as a wounded soul acting out from their own past traumas could make those women empathetic and give them hope for change. Brand their partner’s chance for change as bleak, and there’s no reason for them to hang onto the relationship.
As an author myself, I’ve learned a few things about what makes a book successful. One of the easiest paths is to “write to market” or writing what you know your audience wants to read. Vampire books are hot? Write a vampire book.
Domestic violence advocates have long been frustrated that many abused women remain in their relationships. Also, most domestic violence organizations embrace the feminist model of abuse. Fighting a despicable villain is how they rally their members and raise money.
I’m not sure if it was marketing brilliance on Mr. Bancroft’s part or luck, but Why Does He Do That? gave those advocates and organizations an “authoritative” tool to reinforce the message they want to convey. It’s a great way to have influencers perpetually recommending your book. Never mind being correct – just tell them what they want to hear and they’ll buy it, or sell it for you. It also provided Mr. Bancroft a lucrative platform for collecting fees for speaking, training, and serving as an expert witness.
My lived experience
As unscientific as it is, but while we’re talking about personal observations, I’ll share mine. When I was trying to figure out why I acted in hurtful, abusive ways, I didn’t relate to what Bancroft wrote. I was not trying to be abusive, did not decide to abuse, and I didn’t want power or control.
Certainly no one has ever accused me of being charming! However, I did love my wife and felt sick thinking that I was hurting her. Like the researchers found, I just wanted her to stop hurting me with her words.
In working for the last seven years with men and women who have also caused harm in their relationships, I seldom see the denial or attitudes described in Why Does He Do That? Most often, our clients are contrite, humble, and hurting people who deeply regret not being aware sooner of the impact of their behavior. They are motivated to change if they can find a path for doing so.
I hear their stories of adverse childhood events as they begin to connect their past traumas to their hurtful behavior. Yes, they have perpetrated abuse, but before that, they were the victims. The saying, “hurt people hurt people” is evident in their lives.
Damage from Why Does He Do That?
It’s tragic that Why Does He Do That? has attracted such a broad following within the domestic violence community. The confusion, shame, and hopeless that flow from its pages have caused immeasurable and unnecessary harm to everyone who reads it. Only when we tell the truth – as messy as it is – can we hope to understand, and therefore stop, domestic violence.