Sam Padilla loved his wife Sherrie, and she knew it. The ugly fact of their life was he kept hitting her. First it was a slap in the face, only three months after they were married. But it got worse, and one day when he slugged her he broke her jaw.

Sam, as he admits, "had a drinking problem," spending hours at the bar, and he was jealous. When he finally came home after a night of booze, "I would accuse her of all sorts of things I knew she didn't do."

Their quarrels, says Sherrie, could "go on for several hours. I'd end up with black eyes and bruised ribs." This happened, she says, "sometimes two or three times a month."

Her response at the time, she now says, hardly helped their relationship."I was constantly griping at Sam," a 39-year-old Denver warehouseman who with Sherrie, 28, also manages an apartment building.

"When Sam was at the bar, every 10 minutes I would be calling to say 'Supper's getting cold.' The more I called, the madder he'd get. And I'd be mad too."

Sam already had been divorced from his first wife, whom he says he also had abused. "I grew up in an abusive situation. I just thought it was the right way to handle a woman. You just smack them around."

Sherrie took it for three years, but after the broken jaw she began to fear that "sooner or later he was going to kill me." She left him, taking the two children, going first to a "safe house" -- a home for women like her fleeing abusive husbands -- and then to an apartment of her own.

But "I loved the guy. If there was any chance he could get help. . ."

One day, several months after the separation, "I called him out of the blue." Sam told her, she says, that -- in a large part because of his dismay at her departure -- "he had stopped drinking on his own."

That was an opening for reconciliation. She mentioned to him a new Denver group she had heard about -- one taking what seemed to be the unusual step of trying to help wife-beaters end their pattern of violence. Until recently, these men -- often condemned as brutes but sometimes terribly frightened and ashamed at what they've done -- had few people interested in their side of the problem.

The group was AMEND -- Abusing Men Exploring New Directions. With its motto, "A Slap in the Face Is No Solution," it has, say Sam and Sherrie, brought harmony to the past 17 months of their marriage.

One of about 50 to 60 organizations that have sprung up nationwide to offer counseling and therapy to batterers, AMEND -- like many of them -- is small and financially struggling, relying a great deal on volunteer efforts. One such group is under way in Montgomery County, one started up last Thursday in Prince William County and another is forming in the District of Columbia.

The nation's attention has been drawn to the problem of domestic violence only in recent years, chiefly by the women's movement. As a result, much of the response has been in the form of aid for the victims, including emergency shelters to isolate wives from abusive husbands, counseling and legal aid. An estimated 5 million cases of wife-battering are reported each year.

But, concluded psychologists and other therapists working in the field, helping the victim did not get to the root of the problem. "You're not really going to stop this problem unless you deal with the male," says Redlands, Calif. psychologist Jerry Goffman, a founder of Batterers Anonymous, which in the past year has spread from southern California to a half-dozen states.

"Battering," he says, "is a learned behavior. It can be unlearned."

And, in many cases, says Denver psychologist Robert La Crosse, who has worked with AMEND since its founding, many wives feared the breakup of their homes. Though the women who showed up at emergency shelters were advised: "Honey, you ought to hang that b----- to the nearest tree and leave him," they often (like Sherrie) "didn't want to do that."

In a nationwide study on battered women to be published in March, social worker Albert R. Roberts of the University of New Haven says he found "75 to 90 percent of the women were returning home."

"This is the other side of the battered-women's problem in the community," says John Dillingham of the Washington School of Psychiatry, which provides support services to the now-forming Men to End Spouse Abuse (MESA). In part, MESA's aim is "to mobilize men to prevent battering. Women clearly have identified the problem of victims. Men have to take the responsibility for their side of it."

Wife-beaters, says LaCrosse, cross all racial and economic lines. In the Denver program, "We've had PhDs and ditch diggers. We've had blacks and whites and Mexican-Americans." Their wives may see them as bullies, but outside the home they can be "one of the nicest guys in the world."

Many have witnessed violence or abusiveness in the family as they were growing up -- "their father beating their mother, or they've been abused themselves," Sam, as a Mexican-American child moving into an Italian neighborhood, "had to fight a lot." Fighting became a way of surviving.

Some domestic violence workers say our society fosters violence, which reinforces the wife-beater's tendencies. Violence is seen in ads and on TV. rMen joke among themselves about keeping their wives in line.

Often wife-beaters have learned no other way to express their anger than to strike out. They are "stuffers," says LaCrosse. "They'll stuff their anger until they can't hold it anymore and it explodes." That explosion comes not in front of their boss, but "with somebody safe -- and that's their wife."

Much of their problem stems from a macho image they feel they must live up to. Men don't cry, they say, and try to hide any tender emotions.

Often, says LaCrosse, these men "are very socially isolated and lonely. They have a difficult time getting intimate with people. Their total focus is on their wives as a sole source of comfort. There's no place outside the home for them to go to for warmth" -- for, as he says, "the fuzzies."

When the anger builds, the explosion may come over the most minor of squabbles, like "who didn't put the top back on the toothpaste." Wives tell LaCrosse, "I was just standing there and he decked me."

While feminists may quarrel with him, LaCrosse believes wives do play a role in the situation. In an argument, they know their husbands' weaknesses -- "where the buttons are -- and they occasionally push them."

The wives, too, often "are very traditional women who feel they must be very dependent on men. These ladies don't fight back." And like their husbands, "they have difficulties getting close to people."

As long as the wife puts up with it, he says, the couple may go through a constantly repeating "cycle of violence":

The tension builds until the male explodes. He then plunges into a period of "shame and guilt," which leads to a period of "hearts and flowers." That's when the wife gets, says LaCrosse, "the boxes of candy, the new car. He says, 'I'll do the dishes.' And the sex is great."

These men, says LaCrosse, do love their wives "very, very much. Hitting somebody is not a sign of indifference. It means you're very involved with them."

AMEND's program -- and that of such other groups as EMERGE in Boston and the Abused Persons Program Community Crisis Center in Bethesda -- is patterned loosely on the self-help counseling networks of Alcoholics Anonymous and Gamblers Anonymous. Men who share the same problem talk it out at weekly meetings with each other, usually under the direction of a therapist.

"A guy has to learn something about himself," says Sam Padilla, who believes the most significant thing he gained from AMEND was his "self-confidence, my esteem." Soon after Sam began attending Amend, Sherrie organized many of the wives into Regroup, a self-help group of their own to keep pace with their husband's development.

Another major part of the program, he says, is learning how "to control your anger without hitting your wife." Sam and Sherrie "still get in little arguments," he says, but "if it gets too heated, one of us calls 'Time out.'" They tell each other, "You shut up, and I shut up."

Adds Sam: "She'll go talk to one of her friends. I'll go play pool." AMEND members have tended to become friends who can air their anger among each other. When he and Sherrie's "nerves are cool and we're kind of calm, we'll sit down and talk and find out what happened."

Motivation is a big factor for bringing about any change in a wife-beater, and that's where many of these groups differ. AMEND accepts only men who have made their own commitment to join, though, as LaCrosse says, "No man has come into our group and stayed unless goosed into it by a woman." Other organizations see court-ordered referrals as a stronger motivation because the man must show up regularly for 12 to 18 months.

Funding tends to be scarce for these programs. AMEND operates on a $14,000 grant through the local United Way. But there is some hope. A bill providing $65 million for domestic violence programs that almost made it through Congress last session was reintroduced Wednesday by Reps. George Miller (D-Calif.), Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) and Lindy Boggs (D-La.) And Rep. Mario Biaggi (D-N.Y.) introduced a similar bill last month.

Still, the budget-cutting mood in Washington and the Senate's new conservatives lead some supporters to conclude that "the door has swung shut for domestic violence legislation." On a national level, the Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Domestic Violence is helping develop three films on male batterers.

As it is, AMEND reaches only a small portion of that city's wife-beaters.

Tim Robertson, AMEND's coordinator, estimates there are 3,000 battering cases in the Denver area, but less than 200 men have gone through their program. Of that figure, they consider 80 percent are now ex-beaters.

"The hardest thing," says Sam, who now serves on AMEND's board of directors, "is to confess to yourself: 'Jeez, I beat my wife. What can I do about it?' I sat in the group about three weeks before I admitted it."

What Sam and Sherrie learned they are passing on to their children. When one of them needs disciplining, instead of a spanking, says Sam, "we take away something like a bicycle for a week. There's no hitting or violence in our family at all."