Violent men seek an alternative ‘til vold’

A team of three psychologists face violence head on

Men who abuse their partners get treatment at a small center in Roskilde to overcome their violent tendencies. 


By Rachael Vasquez

Peer Nielsen balls his hand up tightly and holds it in front of his face.


“I never use the fist,” he says, describing what he often hears from men he sees.


“Okay that’s great,” he drops his fist and shrugs. “But what did you use then?”


Neilson is a psychologist at Alternativ til Vold, or Alternative to Violence, a treatment center for abusive men in Roskilde, a small town outside of Copenhagen. The organization is part of a larger network of centers across northern Europe that got its start as the first center in Europe specifically designed to treat violent men.


Neilson says most of their clients don’t fit the stereotypical picture of an abusive boyfriend or husband.


“Very few [of the men] have a general aggression problem,” he says. “Nobody would think that they would have this problem.”


Neilson says when he first starts talking with a client it can be really hard to get them to speak openly about their violence.


“It’s very shameful for most of the men,” Neilson says. “And when you are ashamed of something you’re automatically being defensive.”


Stine Dalsgaard Jorgensen, another psychologist at the center, says when she starts seeing a client, it’s important to have a clear picture of how he and his partner fight.


“What did you do, how did you do it, what did your partner do, what did she say, did you guys start fighting the day before” she says.


This way, Jorgensen says, she can help the client start to understand how the argument escalates and what triggers his violence.

 Jorgensen and Neilson talk about how to de-escalating when you’re feeling angry: 

Dealing with the other half

Despite being set up primarily to treat men, Jorgensen says Alternative to Violence also treats about a fourth of the men’s partners.


Neilson says the partners come separately and see counselors on their own.


“We don’t want to let them think that we think this is a couple issue,” Neilson says. “This is a personal issue for the man; he’s being violent and he has to do something about that.”


Jorgensen says when they see the partners, they are often very alert and nervous, constantly checking their partner’s mood and trying not to provoke him.


Neilson says treating the partner on her own gives her the opportunity to get over some of the anxiety and psychological damage left over from the violence.


Jorgenson says most of the partners stay with the men throughout the counseling, but some also decide to leave.


The men also may decide to divorce their partner, Neilson says.


“When he stops being violent and all that’s left are the troubles, then he can start seeing her for what kind of person she is,” he says.


Neilson is careful to say that this in no way means she caused or deserved the violence, but that sometimes a client will realize he and his partner weren’t well suited for each other anyways.


“He has used a lot of energy trying to control her and when he stops being violent, some of the men recognize that this is not the partner for me.”


Treatment comes full circle in group therapy

Aside from one-on-one sessions with a psychologist, men at Alternative to Violence also have the option to participate in a group counseling session with other men in the program. Neilson says the group is really helpful in giving the men an opportunity to relate to each other and also to put themselves in their partners’ shoes.


“When one person tells a story the others recognize parts of it and can relate to it,” Neilson says. “Then [they feel] we’re not alone and [ask] what did you do and suggest what might be the feeling behind this.”


Neilson says that for the most of his patients, he can feel some motivation to make a change.


“Even the worst cases you can contact that [motivation’,” he says. “And then there is hope.”