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.