Following the ABC’s investigation on the issue, family violence dynamics within religious communities has been the focus of much public discussion. Working as a family violence counsellor, speaking daily with hundreds of men who use a range of abusive behaviours toward partners and family members, I’ve seen some distinct parallels between the clients I work with and the experiences of women who have endured family violence within the church. Likewise, the variety of responses from faith leaders on the issues reflects how those in leadership positions contribute to the culture of how their community addresses family violence, consciously or otherwise. While there have been unfortunate examples of how the church can perpetuate and collude with abusive behaviours, there has also been shining examples of leadership from faith leaders that show how we can all play a role in addressing family violence individually, structurally and culturally.
A perfect storm of entitlement
A common theme I hear when speaking with many men, who use abusive behaviour toward their partner or family members, is an underlying sense of entitlement to behave this way. I work with men who want to change their use of abusive behaviours, but this can be a challenging when there are often competing narratives in the man’s life that are inviting him to feel justified, excused or validated by his use of violence, power and control. When working with men who use family violence I frequently hear adopted narratives about being ‘the man of the house’; that it’s their role to ‘protect’ their partner, to do paid work and ultimately be in control of family decision making and finances. It’s even easier to see how these beliefs and attitudes inform a sense of entitlement when we flip these assumptions on their head; they imply their partner can’t protect themselves, should do unpaid work, and is ultimately not in control of family decisions. Consciously or not, when such beliefs and values underpin gender roles, and ways of behaving, abusive and controlling behaviour goes unnoticed; it’s his ‘normal’. Beliefs around gender roles in relationships are taught and reinforced by many aspects of our cultures and social contexts, and for religious people, the church is a major influence in this.
Where religion and gender intersect
Working as a family violence counsellor, it quickly becomes evident that family violence exists across all socioeconomic demographics, ethnicities and religions. It exists in all of our communities. While family violence is not specific or exclusive to religious contexts, the church can certainly be an avenue for influencing gendered imbalances of power in relationships, as well as an excuse drawn on to justify abuse within them. The relevance of organised religion to the broader population is a separate discussion to the fact that, for a portion of the population, specific churches and faith leaders hold enormous influence on their beliefs, relationships and lives. Consciously or not, those in leadership and influential positions, such as church leaders, influence how family violence is acknowledged and addressed within their communities. As reported by the ABC, faith leaders can potentially reinforce gendered norms that contribute to imbalances of power in relationships that lead to family violence being used. Faith leaders can potentially collude with violence supportive narratives of men who use abusive, controlling behaviour toward their partner and/or family. They can be dismissive or isolating in their responses to those disclosing they have experienced abuse. They can perpetuate family violence by failing to address it at all, or by framing discussions about its existence within the church as an attack on the church itself.
The church as an agent of change
In stark contrast, the responses of Anglican Priest, Michael Jensen, and religious leader/researcher, Steven Tracy, demonstrate leadership in addressing family violence within their communities and working toward change. In his commentary on the ABC’s article on family violence within the church, Steven Tracey summed it up beautifully when he said “God help us if we cry ‘persecution’ if we are held accountable for our hurtful failures.” It suggests they are acknowledging the existence of family violence within their communities and listening to those impacted by it. That they are putting aside their own defensiveness, taking responsibility for their position of influence to hear and address these issues not only with individual community members, but structurally within their church and it’s cultural influences over beliefs that contribute to gender inequity. That they show a willingness to be vulnerable, to challenge their own attitudes, to be open to acknowledge mistakes they have made. That they are striving to understand how to be part of the solution, not further contribute to the problem. That they are showing leadership on how to address an issue that impacts us all. Religious, secular or otherwise, these examples of leadership are ones that we can all draw from.
The NTV Conference Takeaways Report highlights the key themes raised at the National Working with Men to Tackle Family Violence Conference, 14-15 February 2017.
Working as a family violence telephone operator I speak with hundreds of men from many different relationship and life contexts. When I speak to men that have chosen to behave in a way that causes problems for their family and relationships, the theme of ‘responsibility’ commonly comes out of our conversations. It sounds simple, that we are responsible for our own behaviour. However, accepting responsibility can be a big challenge if we have chosen to behave in a way that physically or emotionally hurts someone, especially those closest to us. It’s common to encounter self-imposed barriers to owning our choices of behaviour that we’re ashamed of. However, for many men I’ve spoken to who want to work toward safer, happier relationships with their partner or kids, challenging themselves to take responsibility for their own behaviour is an important first step. Here’s some common barriers I’ve noticed and learned from myself:
“I just snapped”- thinking your emotions control your behaviour
An all too common barrier to change can be the perception that our behaviour is out of our control at times. Many men I work with are reluctant to describe choices of violent behaviour they have made, instead using language that suggests a lack of responsibility; “I just snapped, just lost it”. When probed as to what this actually looks like, often there’s a description of emotions such as anger, frustration, stress (when probed further; vulnerability, inadequacy). Often violent incidents are described as an overwhelming situation that escalated out of their control, rather than a difficult emotional experience and a choice of abusive behaviour in response to that situation. This narrative is reinforced for men in public. For example when you hear a footballer talk about choosing to punch an opponent as “an emotional response, bit of a brain fade”, or someone describing a choice to drive dangerously as “road rage”. As convenient and seductive as this excuse is, it becomes dangerous when you consider that difficult emotions are part of life and certainly part of any lengthy relationship. For many men I’ve worked with, letting down this barrier and accepting that they are in control of how they behave when they experience difficult emotions, has made it easier for them to explore respectful choices of behaviour that contribute to happier relationships and families.
“My buttons were pushed” – thinking other people control your behaviour
If we are reluctant to own our choice of behaviour, it’s common we attribute this responsibility to someone else. Often the men I work with tell me their partner “provoked me” or “pushed my buttons”, automatically shifting blame onto their partner for the violence they used. Often when this is unpacked in conversation, men I work with can reflect that it was indeed difficult emotions, rather than what they previously perceived as provocation. They’re subsequently able to describe different ways they could have chosen to behave in response to these difficult emotions. When I ask men I work with what needs to change to move toward safer & more respectful relationships, it’s common for them to focus on what they believe their partner is doing wrong when conflict arises. The irony of trying to control someone else’s behaviour rather than take responsibility for their own doesn’t end there, as for many men it’s maintaining this grip on control that contributes to their difficult emotional state and relationship problems to begin with. For men I speak with who want to change their use of violent behaviour a big step is letting go of the notion that anyone else can be responsible for it. Once they focus on their own choices of behaviour, it becomes much easier to explore strategies for responding to difficult emotions and choosing behaviour that contributes to respectful, loving relationships.
“I’d had a bit to drink” – thinking alcohol controls your behaviour
At times, men I speak with describe being alcohol affected at the time of using different forms of family violence, and attribute any behaviour to this. Quite often I’ve spoken to men highly remorseful for how they have behaved but very resistant to taking any responsibility for it. They claim that alcohol took control of their behaviour and that for them to change, it’s as simple as them stopping drinking. While choosing to reduce intake of alcohol can be a useful part of a safety strategy, for some men I’ve worked with it doesn’t address the entire issue. Upon reflection, many men talk about several other incidents in which their partner felt controlled, intimidated or unsafe due to their behaviour though during these times, they had not been alcohol affected. Some go on to reflect that while alcohol affected, they have never been abusive to anyone other than their partner. These reflections can often suggest a pattern of behaviour that they are choosing to use specifically for their partner. While alcohol can contribute to problems in their relationship, it’s not likely the cause. For most men I talk to who want to change their behaviour and improve their relationships, it’s important they acknowledge their choice of behaviours in addition to any substance use issues.
“Can’t I defend myself?” – trying to justify your behaviour
At times, a barrier to taking responsibility for some men I engage with is a perception that a choice to use abusive behaviour is justified as a form of ‘self-defence’, when in reality, it’s not. The concept of self-defence, that your physical safety is under threat and there is no other option than to respond with violence, starts to get a little blurry when you unpack the situation men I work with describe. Often when we discuss scenarios where these men have used violence, they describe no concern or fear for their immediate safety or physical-wellbeing. Similarly, upon reflection, they can describe numerous other choices in how they could have responded to the scenario that could have diffused any potential danger, such as leaving or calling police. Upon reflection, many men describe feeling angry and choosing to use violence, rather than a last resort choice to defend themselves. For many of these men I’ve worked with, challenging these perceptions of self-defence and taking responsibility for their choices of behaviour has made it easier for them to respond to conflict in ways that keep themselves and others safer.
“It wasn’t that bad”- not thinking about how others experience your behaviour
With all this focus on our own choices of behaviour and whether or not they are in our control or justified, quite often the experience of those impacted by violence can be dismissed. That is the experience of past or current intimate partners, or that of children exposed to these dynamics between their parents. These experiences are woven through all the above barriers to taking responsibility. Many men I’ve worked with struggle to empathise and acknowledge how their behaviour impacts their partners, kids or family members. It’s quite common for the use of abusive and violent behaviour to be minimised as being “blown out of proportion, I didn’t mean to, they’re over reacting”, even in instances where police have been called to intervene and those affected have expressed fear. It can be challenging to listen to and acknowledge how someone has experienced your behaviour if you have hurt them or made them feel unsafe or scared. However, for most men I work with, this can be a big turning point in moving toward happier and more respectful relationships. This involves not just reflecting on individual instances of abusive behaviour, but acknowledging the impact of how patterns of these behaviours can have a cumulative effect on their partners & family members, causing them to feel controlled or fearful. Likewise, the acknowledgement of how this dynamic between parents impacts children, regardless of if they witness abusive behaviour first hand, can be a huge step in working toward a safer home environment for them to grow up in. The barriers I’ve mentioned start to make less sense for the men I work with once they can empathise with how their partners and kids experience their behaviour. When men begin to take responsibility for their choices of behaviour and these barriers are easier to overcome.
For the past few years I’ve worked as a family violence telephone operator, speaking with hundreds of men from all walks of life who have used many different forms of abusive, controlling behaviours toward partners or family. After hundreds of calls, hearing these men unpack their stories, there are common themes that undeniably rise up from attitudes, beliefs and language used in the narratives told. The more I do this work the more I see these themes echoed throughout all areas of life and, for me personally, can see important lessons I can learn from to work towards happier, more respectful relationships. Here’s a few of them:
1. I’m always in control of what I say and do, regardless of how I feel.
A huge barrier to change for men changing their abusive behaviour is first being able to take responsibility for it. It’s common to hear men excuse any form of violent behaviour by suggesting it was out of their control, that they “just lost it… my buttons were pushed, I got angry and I just exploded.” This excuse suggests that the feeling of difficult emotions and the use of abusive behaviour are one in the same, however almost always there are examples where the same man has felt angry at their boss but not yelled at them, has felt frustrated at police for giving him a speeding fine and not hit them, etc. I’ve learned that we always have a choice of whether to use a form of abusive behaviour, or not to. I’ve learned that this choice is always in our control no matter how angry we feel or how much we think someone has provoked us.
2. There is no stereotypical “violent man”, and thinking this makes things worse.
Lots of people have their own idea of what kind of man uses family violence; an aggressive personality, a bad guy, someone from a lower socio-economic demographic that probably has an alcohol or drug use issue. Much public discussion and even some attempts at anti family violence campaigning can reinforce these ideas of a ‘violent man’ who needs to be stopped. However, these stereotypes are shattered when you start working and talking with men who use forms of family violence.
I’ve spoken to men from all walks of life – some who say they love their partner, that their family is the most important thing in their lives and that they are well respected members of the community. Ironically, one of the common themes among many men who choose to use violence is that they also hold some form of this ‘violent man’ stereotype in their minds, and it’s not them. I’ve heard so many men insist that they are “a nice guy… not a violent person… not a bad guy” as a way of avoiding discussing responsibility for their own behaviour. If taking responsibility for your choice to use violence is on the same side of the coin as accepting this mythical identity of a ‘violent man’ as your own, then this is a huge barrier to change. I’ve learned not to buy in to these stereotypes and always focus on what I say and do, not who I think I am.
3. There is more than one ‘right’.
I overheard a colleague speaking with a client who was describing an argument he had had with his partner. In this argument, the client insisted he was right about whatever relationship issue had come up and was baffled and furious that his partner couldn’t accept this. In an effort to support this client, my colleague offered an analogy. He asked the client to imagine that he and his partner were sitting opposite each other, with a mug on top of a table between them. “From where you’re sitting, the handle is on the right-hand side, but from your partner’s perspective the handle is on the left”. Immediately this example softened the client, he was able to reflect that his experience of the relationship issue was exactly that, his experience.
Furthermore, he was able to reflect that he had been so busy attempting to dictate his own point of view, he hadn’t listened to or acknowledged how his partner saw things. I’ve taken this conceptual mug and placed it on many tables in my own life, finding it a useful tool to invite my own empathy for others and diffuse conflict.
4. The difference between being assertive and being aggressive.
Over the years of speaking with men there is a common theme of dealing with difficult emotions when arguing by behaving aggressively (using abusive language, raising voice, physical intimidation or violence) or passively (shutting down, being sarcastic, avoiding discussing how you feel). For many men I speak with it’s either one or the other; they are passive for some time then quickly jump to aggressive behaviour. In both instances their behaviour is quite damaging to their relationship and is disrespectful to their partners, themselves or any other family members who may be witness.
Learning to be assertive in how you communicate, to discuss and express how you feel in a respectful and safe way, can not only help avoid damaging relationships but can also help resolve conflict and improve relationships. I’ve learned to continually try to build on my own assertive communication skills.
5. Being a man can mean so many different things, and they don’t all fit with a happy relationship/family.
Many men who I’ve spoken to hold lots of different ideas of who they are and what they want in their life and relationships. They might vaguely believe their role as a man is to be in control, to be aggressive in getting what they want and don’t show emotion. They might have ideas of what their role as a father and husband is, to be “head of the house”, in control of finances and unconditionally respected. They might also talk about wanting a happy family, to “be a team” with their partner and want their kids to grow up in a loving environment. Sometimes it doesn’t take long to uncover that these ideas a man holds don’t all fit together, that certain rigid ideas around gender roles aren’t always supportive of functional, respectful relationships.
For many men, unpacking and reevaluating some of these perceived attributes of what it means to be a man, a partner and a father can make it a lot easier to work toward the sort of relationships and families that they want to have. I’ve learned this takes a lot of strength and courage to be open to challenging some of the dominate narratives around what attributes make up masculine identities, and the benefits in doing so for all men.
Over 250 delegates from the family violence sector met at the National Working with Men to Tackle Family Violence Conference to share practical solutions to ending men’s violence against women and children. Hosted by No To Violence incorporating Men’s Referral Service (NTV/MRS), the four days included interactive workshops, speakers, and panel discussions. Attendees heard a range of prominent advocates, experts and frontline workers in the field such as Rosie Batty, Dr Michael Flood, and David Mandel (Safe & Together Institute).
Bookending the conference, workshops on Monday and Thursday focused on intervention dynamics, technological innovations, men as parents and primary prevention strategies. Each intimate session allowed participants to network, listen and bounce ideas off each other.
The conference proper kicked off on Tuesday with a motivating welcome from NTV/MRS CEO, Jacqui Watt, who asked those in the room and beyond, “to find out what on earth is going on with men.”
With Ms Watt setting a frank agenda for the conference, and a directive to “have the hard conversation about men’s violence”, an expert panel of speakers did just that.
Anti-Family Violence Campaigner, Rosie Batty spoke of the violent men that too often fly under society’s radar because we can’t read the warning signs of violent behaviour. “What does high risk look like to you?” asked Ms Batty. “Suicidal ideation is a high risk flag in my opinion. When men are saying things like ‘I can’t do this anymore’, we need to intervene.
Moorabbin Magistrate, Anne Goldsbrough, agreed more education and training was needed for people in and around the justice system. “All professions — law, police, justice, corrections, medical professions, teachers, counsellors everyone — we must be able to identify family violence behaviour and know how to respond.”
Speaking with gravitas, CEO of Kornar Winmil Yunti Aboriginal Corporation, Craig Rigney underlined the tragic reality that Aboriginal women are 34 times more likely to experience family violence despite being just 1.3% of the population. “Men need a safe place to talk and to be held to account.”
For the situation to improve he stressed that funding structures needed to change. “Competitive tender models make it virtually impossible for organisations like us to be funded adequately. I have men who’ve left us after a session or two and call up again wanting to come back. They say ‘I’m angry, I need to talk to someone’ but we don’t have the sessions to take them.”
All panellists, despite varying perspectives, agreed that holding violent men to account meant holding all layers of society to account; from individuals, bystanders, to service providers to government. Tellingly, they saw men themselves as crucial advocates for ending men’s violence.
Attention then turned to the state of play in the host state, New South Wales. Acting CEO of Domestic Violence NSW, Sophie Trower, was forthright in her assessment, outlining the fragmented nature of service providers in NSW. She asked the room at one point to “put up your hand if you’d trust another service provider to carry out your work safely and thoroughly after handing it over?” In a room of nearly 250 people, about 10 hands went up.
Just before lunch, Associate Professor in Sociology Dr Michael Flood provided food for thought in his ‘Reframing Masculinity’ presentation, clarifying how we define gender. Gender is perceived as sex but is in fact the social, personal and political aspects of who we are. Sex, not to be confused with gender, is just our biological makeup. Gender has nothing to do with sex – it is merely a social construction that society has created, based on biological reproductive functions, and we see this played out in rigid, antiquated stereotype ideals of the ‘man’ and ‘woman’ explained Dr Flood.
On how we campaign for change, Dr Flood challenged us to unpack what it means to be a ‘real man’. He found both campaigns appealing to what ‘real men’ do or don’t do’ and campaigns that dis-invested in masculinity altogether, both had merit. “Whatever works to create change, let’s go with it” said Dr Flood.
From the theoretical to the personal, Tarang Chawla gave a heartfelt presentation on the human cost of violence. After his younger sister, Nikita, was murdered by her partner in 2015, he challenged men to cut out men’s violence from its roots. “When you hear locker room talk veiled as misogyny speak out. Don’t let it quieten you. Don’t let it dim the fire within.”
The afternoon had delegates breaking into groups to dissect issues around prevention through parenting, male advocacy and empowering indigenous men. Audiences in David Mandel’s session debated whether we should be asking 12 year olds ‘what kind of dad do they want to be?’ while in another room Craig Rigney assured facilitators it was ok not to have all the answers in a Men’s Behaviour Change Program, particularly in programs working with indigenous men. “Don’t assume and always ask” said Mr Rigney.
As day one came to a close, delegates left the Sydney Boulevard Hotel with much to talk about, continuing conversations long into dinner.
The difficult but essential dialogue flowed straight into day two which opened with men’s services professionals discussing the dynamics of working with men. While indigenous facilitator, Alan Thorpe from Dardi Munwurro, said we needed “more training to deal with trauma”, Psychotherapist, Anthony Lekkas from Victoria Aids Council had a different view when it came to working with men in same sex relationships. He questioned if trauma informed strategies were too concerned with therapy and not “partner focused enough.” Mr Lekkas went on to say “regular check-ins with current or ex-partners is the most neglected aspect of men’s behaviour change programs.”
Chair of Men’s Behaviour Change Network NSW, Diane Coleman, delved deeper into the psychology of working with men. “As humans we find it difficult to acknowledge what’s going on in violent relationships. We can’t be beaten by fear. We must stay aware that violence is occurring and is the reality” said Ms Coleman.
Later in the morning, delegates were treated to interactive workshops where they put their ideas to paper on the specific interventions that worked with men. These smaller sessions, gave a platform to voices not yet heard and helped people from different parts of the sector form closer ties.
In the afternoon, Central Queensland University’s Dr Silke Meyer, expanded on David Mandel’s work on engaging men as fathers with powerful research findings. Her study found a high prevalence of victim blaming among male offenders who also had little perception of how their behaviour affected children. Dr Meyer concluded that using fatherhood to help shape a man’s identity lead to a higher motivation for changing violent behaviour.
After two days of shared experiences, education and insight, delegates came together to express their final thoughts on ‘where to from here?’ As representatives from each state and territory lined up to have their say on what more was needed to keep families safe from violence, a common call for a national response to the problem emerged. A unified, consistent and appropriately funded response for organisations to up-skill, collaborate and connect with all sections of society was the consensus.
With renewed determination, delegates headed home to turn talk into action.