Inside the Minds of Abusive Husbands
Editor’s Note: In March this year, the coastal Jiangsu province laid down landmark measures on personal safety in domestic violence cases. It mandated that alleged abusers must receive “legal education and psychological treatment.”
Two months later, in the same province, the Tianning District People’s Court in the city of Changzhou ordered China’s first ever mandatory psychological intervention as part of a personal safety protection order in a divorce ruling. The abuser is to undergo regular psychological counseling and treatment within the six-month validity period of the order.
Since 2013, Gu Xiaoqing has worked with government agencies on anti-domestic violence-related training, counseling, and outreach programs. Over all these years, however, she has never personally met an abuser. They often tend to steer clear of such programs.
“They avoid you, and always say they’re busy,” Gu explains. “They already know that they’re in the wrong, so they think that you’re just there to pile on. Nobody likes a lecture.”
In May this year, an injunction from the Tianning District People’s Court gave her that chance — Gu would finally meet the wife beater. The judge, Wang Dongli, worried more about the visit than Gu did and called before her first meeting, urging her to bring along a male colleague.
Since the Anti-Domestic Violence Law was passed in 2016, Wang’s court has issued over 22 personal protection orders, while across China, 10,917 similar orders were issued through the end of 2021.
Gu chose to go with a female colleague instead. While she understood the judge’s concerns, she also wanted to approach the abuser as an ordinary person, at least from a professional standpoint.
People often wondered how she could empathize with them, to which she replies: “It’s not endorsing them. It’s about assuaging them so that hostilities cool down, and we may start the real work.”
She finally came face-to-face with him at the counseling room at the courthouse. He was a young man who looked like an ordinary white-collar worker — until he began speaking, and his grievances gushed out.
He claimed the altercations with his wife were mere arguments, and that she didn’t stop pushing his buttons by curtailing his finances and provoking him. He said he eventually lost his cool and struck her, leaving a mark on her neck.
His wife immediately took a photo of the injury. She then requested a personal protection order during the divorce filings and asked that he move out, which the court supported.
Gu drew up an elaborate counseling plan: one session a week, and four sessions in total. After that, they would adjust as needed. The main challenge was always establishing trust. Unlike many other abusers, he was willing to talk. His degree of violence was low, and the divorce was finalized smoothly after just two sessions. Nor did he have any subsequent outbursts, so he and Gu finished ahead of schedule.
In Gu’s experience, they were found out sometimes because a family member reported them or because the children revealed the strife between their parents. Other times, the abusers let it slip while telling their story.
This initially threw Gu for a loop. How could people be beaten within an inch of their lives and still not go to the police? “There’s always an excuse for the women,” says Gu, “They don’t want to break up their family or they’ve been threatened.”
Over 10 years of working with local women’s associations and government agencies, thousands have called the All-China Women’s Federation hotline, but only about a dozen reported cases each year are deemed severe enough to merit counseling intervention.
Judge Wang Dongli has dealt with many divorces. “When marriages fail, everyone feels like they’re the aggrieved one.”
She saw longer-term value in psychological intervention in that man. Both partners had had previous marriages and their own children, and they got married not long after meeting each other through Douyin, the domestic version of TikTok.
Factors like finances and children can all lead to conflict, which may have triggered him to lash out. “They’re not old yet and could marry again, so the man’s behavioral changes matter,” says Wang. “We also arranged counseling for the wife, too, in the hope that she doesn’t carry the image of him into her future interactions with other men.”
“Online, some people saw this case and questioned why we go for therapy, instead of straight-up arresting and sentencing the guy,” she underscores. “But the protection order is more about prevention, focused on less severe behavior that does not meet the standards for public safety or criminal cases. In divorce proceedings, for example, the man might never actually have hit the woman; maybe he stalked her, sent threatening and abusive messages.”
None serves as evidence of domestic violence, except in certain circumstances. “Such as if the psychologist uncovered serious and imminent violent tendencies, they report that to us, and we might consider it when it comes to childcare and custody,” says Wang.
When they checked with the husband after the counseling sessions were completed, all seemed well, and he sounded sincere on the phone. But can a few sessions of mandatory counseling really change a person? Wang doubts it. She says: “It’s hard for anyone to say if he has fundamentally changed until he remarries and faces marital conflicts again.”
According to Wang, intervention is more important as a wake-up call. “It will all be worth it when he feels triggered in the future and has a flashback to being in court for violence and counseling,” she says.
Mandatory counseling for domestic abusers is just getting started, and it’s too soon to draw any conclusions. Fang Gang, a gender studies expert who teaches psychology, and founder of the China White Ribbon Volunteer project, which fights against domestic violence, is an expert on psychological intervention for men.
After the project opened a hotline in 2010, the first call he received was from an abuser, who claimed to be a civil servant from the northwestern Shaanxi province. He was looking for help, as his wife wanted a divorce after his repeated bouts of violence.
In September 2019, Fang’s team picked eight abusers across Beijing and held 30 group counseling sessions over six months.
All eight came of their own accord. Their degree of violence varied, but included two more serious and repeat offenders. However, their reason to agree to counseling was surprisingly uniform: none of them wanted to be divorced.
It was no easy feat putting this group together, and each session was valued, often running for a whole day. Fang guided them to share, and they talked at ease about the behavior of their parents and partners. But when it came to speaking about themselves, they became guarded, often shying away from important details.
Fang remembers one person in particular, a worker in his 50s. His first wife had left him because of the violence, and his second, also fed up, wanted out too. He was in denial at first, claiming that he hadn’t laid a finger on her. Then, he admitted: “Okay, maybe I pushed her around a little.”
The team brought in this person’s wife to confront him and showed past photos of her bruises. While listening to her grievances, he gritted his teeth and said, “Not my fault. She forced me into it. Women need a good lesson every once in a while.”
Fang says: “In such discussions and confrontations, we hope they realize that violence comes from the lust for power and control, and they learn to respect their partners.” By the time the group finished all sessions, the man changed a lot, and shared a reconciliatory hug with his wife.
In addition to addressing the violence itself, Fang also helped them go back to the source, which, in most cases, is violent trauma from their own childhood. In looking back, he says, “It creates possibilities for reflection and the will for change.”
All eight abusers did share one secret: none of their friends and family knew about the group. And they declined all interview requests from the media. But internally, they learned to challenge each other, nudging them to change, and even bonded as friends. Again, no small feat.
Fang says he actually started preparing four or five years beforehand, but volunteers proved elusive. He remembers putting out calls on Weibo, China’s microblogging platform. Only in 2018 did a seemingly workable plan take shape.
With help from the All-China Women’s Federation to liaise with police and courts, he wanted to choose individuals who had been criminally detained for domestic violence and still wanted to stay married to participate despite their partners having filed for divorce.
But it never took off. Fang says, “They just felt at the time that there was no legal basis to force people to come.”
After trying official channels for years without success, Fang was surprised to find abusers reaching out to his WeChat public account. He guessed that what changed was that all his years of outreach publicity work had moved the needle somewhat. For instance, the worker in his 50s was persuaded to join the group by his daughter, who was one of Fang’s students.
The group disbanded in March 2020 amid the COVID-19 pandemic, but the organizers conducted an outcome assessment with the abusers and their partners, including questions about their perceptions of violence and masculinity. The results showed an improved ability to deal with conflict and emotions, and most group members remained non-violent for the duration of those six months.
In the end, all of them considered it mission accomplished, marriages saved. Fang, on the other hand, hopes they have “shut off violence for good.”
But can a few months of intervention achieve that? “Everyone in our group was a light offender, comparatively speaking, and for them, it is possible,” says Fang. “For severe abusers, though, the best you can do is reduce the intensity and frequency. Not even longer counseling sessions will completely keep the violence at bay.”
In the two years since then, he continues to follow up with the eight men. In the case of the worker in his 50s, his wife told Fang that his first reaction when arguments escalate is not to lash out anymore, but to exercise restraint and walk away.
Long road ahead
If Fang had to pinpoint any regrets, it would be the short time the group had together. “What you’re changing is an adult with decades of life history. Six months or so is too short and the risk of relapse too high. In countries and regions where this kind of practice is common and well-established, group counseling usually takes a year or two,” he says.
When the draft of the Anti-Domestic Violence Law solicited public opinion as early as 2014, Fang had actually proposed a “counseling order” that would require psychological counseling for abusers, but the suggestion was ultimately not adopted.
The main reason, according to feedback from the All-China Women’s Federation, was the dearth of suitable counseling personnel. Another reality check was that, in other countries, abusers pay for the sessions, but many rural offenders in China just cannot afford it.
In 2013, Changzhou City introduced psychological intervention in some criminal cases and later expanded the same to marital cases. They, too, struggled to find suitable counselors.
Judge Wang says: “Counselors need at least Level 2 certification, but there’s just no guarantee. Capabilities differ, and you see counselors who get the client riled up.”
Judging from the impression she got from colleagues, Gu agrees. Across the province and even the country, few psychological counselors could work with abusers. “Not all counselors can do it; they need to be trained in this domain,” says Fang.
He has visited Taiwan before, where the practice is more advanced. There, counties or cities designate specialized agencies. After all, legally mandated counseling for domestic violence is far more complicated than recruiting a few willing individuals in a one-time trial.
Now, Fang’s team offers domestic violence-related counselor training across the country. “We need to be transparent about the kind of counseling techniques adopted. The internationally accepted view now sees domestic violence in the larger context of gender violence, borne of gender inequality and unchecked masculinity, that indulge violent solutions,” he says.
Not all abusers are men, Fang underscores. Female abusers tend to inflict psychological harm — he has been on hotline calls about female abusers who smashed things and burned clothes.
“What we have to do is empower the victim and disempower the abuser,” he says. He describes the psychoanalytic, or family therapy, model that was popular in past decades: it forced both the abuser and the victim to communicate better, splitting the blame 50-50. Looking back now, it often ended up causing secondary harm to the victim.
A decade has passed since Fang first received a call from an abuser. Have the circumstances around domestic violence improved? Fang is cautious: “It’s basically the same — even the same as a century ago. People are still nurtured by a patriarchal culture and dominant masculinity.”
Wang likens the work they are doing now to a seedling. “For our generation and those born in the 1980s and 1990s, things are better than two or three decades ago when it comes to getting physical during a marital argument. That is social and educational progress,” she says.
“That’s why we talk about family, family teachings, and family values. When adults are non-violent in their spousal interactions or child rearing, then their children will be non-violent toward their own partners and children in the future. It’s a generational social project.”
Reporter: Wei Xiaohan.
In China, the China White Ribbon Volunteer group can be reached at 4000-110-391. Victims of domestic violence can contact the official hotline at 12338 or NGO-sponsored services like the Avon-Equality helpline at 151-1790-5157.
A version of this article originally appeared in White Night Workshop. It has been translated and edited for brevity and clarity, and published with permission.
Translator: Katherine Tse; Editors: Zhi Yu and Apurva.
(Header image: Gary Waters/Ikon Images/VCG, reedited by Sixth Tone)