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Taking Responsibility: the barriers we put up that get in the way of the relationships we want

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.