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When confronted with a physically beaten and/or psychologically intimidated female victim of DV, part of me feels as angry and outraged as the next
person. Ridicule, sarcasm, swearing, yelling, threatening, controlling, blackmailing, put-downs, stand-over tactics and other forms of control and
intimidation can easily be as abusive as physical violence in their psychological and physiological effects on the victim. I believe in holding the
perpetrator responsible and supporting the victim to take any action necessary to preserve and protect their own safety and sanity and if necessary
their childrens’. I also believe that it may be quite appropriate to involve the police and legal system in tackling DV with regard to the obtaining of
Apprehended Domestic Violence Orders and having the perpetrator charged with an offence. A woman is entitled to use the legal system as a way of
resisting violence and abuse as well as a way of asserting her own rights to personal safety and physical and emotional boundaries.
Women have spent more than a century fighting against sex discrimination and demanding their rights to be treated as equals. Many would say that
there is still a long way to go. Feminists have rightly linked DV as closely related to historic male dominance, (physically, socially, economically and
politically), and manifesting as behaviours concerned with maintaining and exerting power and control. From my own experience in working with many
perpetrators, I believe that entrenched, chauvinistic, and sexist attitudes are generally an underpinning factor in cases of DV. My own father’s
attitudes to my mother (which were often demeaning and abusive) no doubt reflected generations of the way men had regarded and treated women in
his own family. At the same time it is important to acknowledge that there are also men who suffer psychological and sometime physical abuse from
their partner. Abuse is abuse and causes suffering wherever, whenever and to whoever it occurs. Most of us have been guilty at some time of being
at least verbally abusive and hopefully we have felt regret and apologised. However this is not the same as systematic abuse which is prolonged and
justified by the perpetrator. There is no doubt that entrenched, sexist, attitudes are present in a significant percentage of the male population of
Australia (witness its occasional emergence in State and Federal Parliaments). Some of the best indicators available to date about the levels of
violence against women in Australia are from the 1996 ABS publication Women's Safety Survey and the more recent ABS Personal Safety Survey
2005 that surveyed both men and women. The surveys asked women about their experiences of violence and found that: 5.8 per cent of women had
experienced violence in the 12 month period preceding the survey in 2005 compared with 7.1 per cent in 1996. (Based on these statistics alone, in
NSW alone this could amount to over 100,000 women.) The 2005 survey also showed that of those women who were physically assaulted in the 12
months prior to the survey, 38 per cent were physically assaulted by their male current or previous partner.*
It is an unfortunate fact that in Australia (as elsewhere), there are a large number of homes in which domestic abuse occurs. Along with it there is
often abuse of alcohol although this cannot be said to always be the case, nor be a primary cause of it. While it is a mistake to stereotype ‘men’, it is
a reality that the majority of domestic abuse or violence is perpetrated by men especially in its most severe forms. Therefore for the purposes of this
article I shall focus on the man as perpetrator, while I would also like to point out that I would use the same broad approach in working with
dysfunctional behaviour in women. I acknowledge that for some people, the notion of working with perpetrators is repugnant, if not unethical. In the
past such work has often been ad hoc and poorly evaluated. However I believe that it is important to approach the issue both at preventative (social,
educational, government, media etc), primary (when it happens) and tertiary (after the event) levels. Perhaps some people cannot and will not
change, but I do not believe that they should be denied the opportunity to do so.
Changing the patterns
All relationships are characterised by patterns or systems. They may be positive ones where each partner takes responsibility and cares for themself
whilst being able also to love and care for their partner through listening and sharing, engaging in joint activities and promoting affection, interest,
concern and admiration. When positive patterns dominate, conflict is generally handled well, with suitable apologies, repair and rebuilding. Then
there are negative patterns. One partner may feel they do all the work in the relationship in terms of maintaining closeness. One may feel
unappreciated and unloved. One may act as rescuer, the other victim. Both may distance themselves and end up living parallel lives where there is a
token togetherness without much communication. When negative patterns dominate, conflict is more likely to not get handled well and it may become
explosive and damaging to both parties. Growing up in a family with significant negative patterns often puts the child and the subsequent adult at a
disadvantage. The victim may unconsciously seek out the rescuer and vice versa. The point with regard to DV is that each partner has to take
responsibility for their own patterns which is often extremely difficult. Both partners will often project their feelings and needs onto the other and
blame them for the problems in the relationship. Blame is a useful way of maintaining anger, self righteousness and avoiding taking responsibility.
While some blame is obviously accurate, it does not generally help the situation. The question for both is, “what do I need to do in order to look after
myself (and my relationship)?”
Some of the remarks that follow in Working with Men and Working with Women may variously be applied to both sexes, depending on their own
Working with men
It is usually crisis that brings men to therapy. There may have been police involvement and/or a separation. There may be Apprehended Domestic
Violence Orders in place or charges laid. The shock and grief faced in crisis makes it doubly hard to focus on the underlying problems and it does
take time to both deal with grief and attempt to change behaviour.
As a counsellor and therapist, attempting to work with men who perpetrate DV does involve getting them to examine their own attitudes and beliefs
about power, control and gender. However I believe that to only talk about DV in those terms risks alienating men and also denies them the
opportunity to explore their own life stories and the wounds they generally contain. So I tend to take a three-pronged approach to male perpetrators
which involves focussing on behaviour, thinking and emotions. (The same approach is taken with the occasional female perpetrator.)
With regard to behaviour the issue is one of respect (or lack of it), not only for a partner but also for oneself. My experience of men who are violent or
abusive is that while they may not respect their partner (or women in general), they also lack self respect (though it may take time and a skilled
therapist for them to admit it). Being able to admit and talk about their behaviour is a starting point (and often difficult) for them to be able to
acknowledge the consequence of it both on others and themselves. A sticking point can often be coming to terms with what abuse is. For example
many men will not regard verbal abuse as abuse or violent and they will defend their use of language, tone and yelling as something that they may
also experience from their partner. Getting them to acknowledge how they feel after being yelled at or after they have lost their temper, (generally
hurt and then embarrassed or shameful), is one way to get them to understand that there is no value in being abused or abusing. Along with this
admittance is the need to take responsibility for one’s own actions and do whatever is necessary to contain or eliminate abusive behaviour.
Recognising and remembering the consequences of maintaining abusive behaviour (for self and others) is an important step towards taking
responsibility. Behavioural techniques such as learning ‘time out’, limiting alcohol intake, and learning self soothing and relaxation strategies can be
assistance as an early, band-aid, intervention and an ongoing way of retaining self control and self respect.
In terms of their thinking, this involves getting them to examine their assumptions, attitudes both in broad terms and in detail. How do they think about
themselves, how do they stereotype men and women, how do they perceive themselves and their place in the world, what did they learn from their own
parents, what are their core beliefs about themselves, others and the world and most importantly what do they want? This is a process which
deserves time, attention and detailed examination to uncover the often unconscious patterns (and contradictions) of thinking and beliefs which drive
dysfunctional behaviour. Further work involves learning to think and imagine other perspectives other than one’s own. What might it be like and how
would it feel if they were their partner? This is an important aspect to developing an empathic attitude and awareness of others.
With regard to a perpetrators emotions and feelings there is a tendency (which I also acknowledge) to be angry, dismissive or minimizing. Given the
hurt and psychological damage that is being caused, why should we feel for them? Someone who is abusive will nearly always blame the victim or
others for their behaviour. They often act self righteous and suggest that they are the one we should feel sorry for. They demonstrate a lack of
empathy or feeling for others while suggesting we should ‘feel’ (or sympathise) with them. Given their lack of feeling for their victim, how can they be
entitled to any compassion from us? If we do feel compassion we enter dangerous territory, yet I believe that does not mean we should not engage
with a person on this level. It is vitally important that we do not reinforce or collude with a person’s tendency to blame others or bolster their self
righteousness. Yet at the same time if we do not engage on the basis of respect and show compassion we risk alienating the person further from the
possibility of attaining an authentic and feeling relationship both with themselves and others. As a therapist, an image I sometimes like to think of is a
Tibetan buddha called Manjushri. Manjushri is a buddha who wields a very large and threatening sword – a sword whose purpose is to cut through
ignorance and faulty thinking, but a sword manipulated by a buddha whose very nature is one of wisdom and compassion. We may hate what an
abusive man does to a woman (or indeed anyone who abuses another) but we have to be careful not to hate the human being inside the person.
While men have historically predominated over women in many areas of life and relationship, men have also paid their own price in terms of their own
well-being. Witness the poorly paid manual worker, the man doing two or three jobs to feed the family and pay the rent/mortgage, the man who is a
workaholic, alcoholic, gambler, drug user or who suffers depression, the man who has few or no friends, the man who never knew his own father or
who was abused/treated violently by his own parents. All these factors and more can often be found in the backgrounds of many men who have
become abusers themselves and who often end up alienated from family, wife and children. Acknowledging realities such as these for men who
become abusive is not about making excuses for abusive behaviours. It is about recognising that such men may have been abused themselves as
children and that because of this their own personalities, their thinking, their emotional intelligence has been compromised. An authentic
acknowledgement of their own wounds is necessary for them to become grounded and honest in their relationship with themself and others.
Taking responsibility for one’s own behaviour is also about taking responsibility for one’s pattens of thinking and feeling. If a person does not
recognise the negative impact of dysfunction on their own well-being then they are unlikely to feel motivated to change. There is a profound
difference between feeling self righteous (and justifying this through holding onto past hurts and resentment) and deeply feeling, acknowledging and
expressing one’s own pain which offers the potential to recognise, value and empathically identify with our own humanity. In identifying with our own
humanness we can begin to identify with others as equals while still recognising our own vulnerabilities and those of others.
True courage is about facing the reality of fear.
Working with Women
While women are not immune from engaging in abusive behaviour (generally verbal and emotional), they more often become the victim of abuse.
Girls often grow up learning to be accommodators, making-things-right, keeping-things-on-track, don’t rock the boat and are generally more attuned to
relationship dynamics than are men. Women as victims may have been attracted to and seduced by dominant men who make them feel attractive and
special. They may be trying to replace a father figure who never acknowledged them or just be looking for love and affection. They may be wonderful
at being the lover and homemaker, but not be so good at setting their own boundaries and asserting their own needs.
Abuse in any ongoing form becomes toxic, corrosive and is insidiously damaging both to mental and physical health. The victim is generally highly
stressed, often in poor health and even more significantly has often begun to believe that they alone are the problem. If someone tells us we are the
problem enough times, then the repetition alone begins to take root in the unconscious. Increased, prolonged stress and physiological arousal has an
impact on thinking abilities and it is easy for the victim to begin blaming themselves. The stress, the lack of clarity and the self-blame often means the
woman is exhausted, drained and even out of touch with her own feelings. (A perpetrator, only thinking of themselves, will then go on to blame her for
being in that state.)
In working with women as victims, this state of exhaustion and self-blame is the starting point. She needs to be listened to intently, without demands.
She needs to be validated for feeling how she does, whilst challenging any tendency towards self-blame. She needs to be encouraged to look after
herself both physically (eating, sleeping, exercise) and emotionally (get support from friends/extended family/counsellor, start keeping a journal). She
may need education about her legal rights and her options with regard to any safety issues. For someone who is often at their wits end, this of course
takes time and commitment and professional help needs to be caring, sensitive, persistent and ongoing.
Continuing to help the victim will also involve looking at patterns of thoughts, beliefs and feelings and identifying, understanding and separating out the
unhelpful patterns. Often they will be patterns learnt in childhood, meaning that looking at family history and childhood experiences can be critical.
Learning to set boundaries and assert ones own needs comes from being in touch with our thoughts and feelings. When we feel safe in ourself, we
can look after ourself in relationship and decide what sort of relationship we want and how we can achieve one based on give and take and mutual
care and affection.
Carl Webster Dec 2007.
*For a detailed policy article on the incidence and issues of domestic abuse and violence go to http://www.aph.gov.
A personal note
I grew up in with a father who suffered a mental breakdown (most likely a form of bi-polar) in his twenties and who also had a mother who was Victorian
in her outlook and a fundamentalist Christian. I believe my father also inherited a passionate nature from his father (who was also a drinker). On
courting and marrying my mother, he spent considerable time ‘converting’ her to his brand of fundamentalism. He worked hard at controlling how she
looked and who she associated with. Their respective families did not appear to approve of their relationship and relations were distant. He spent 95%
of his time ‘working’ and was rarely at home. He bought presents at birthdays and Christmas and occasionally we went on holiday and out for Sunday
drives. He was generally sexist in his attitude to my mother and I remember several, if not many occasions when he would ridicule her intelligence, her
domestic abilities and pass judgement on her appearance. Sometimes he would reduce her to tears and use this a means of laughing at her. He
would try and get me to laugh with him. He had a cynical and patronising attitude towards my mother, women in general and was also quite racist and
socially intolerant. Interestingly my father had few male friends and while his mother was alive still appeared to be dominated by her and driven by a
desire to obtain her love and approval (which she may have been incapable of truly expressing given she was married to a drinker). In retrospect I
believe he had an underlying anxiety problem which had never been treated. He was also a man of his generation which came out of trial and
adversity. Unfortunately, as my mother commented just before his funeral, "you never really hit it off with your father". I feel sad about that.
Ten session outline of therapy for when there is a serious problem of abuse*
Ten weeks of committed action can make a difference
1. Make a commitment to healing yourself
Put your commitment on paper and tell your partner, family and friends.
(Therapy Includes regular telephone contact and/or one session with partner).
2. Finding your real power and recognising how blame and resentment don’t work
3. Recognising your anger, resentment and blame are ways of trying to protect or avoid
your core hurts.
4. Develop a sense of your core value.
5. Practising the three 'R' s .
THE THREE ‘R’ s
Remember not react (and when you react)
Recognise, experience and take responsibility for your core hurts
Re-establish your connection with your core self and your intention to act from your core value
Thanks to Steven Sosny for his excellent website and writings (eg Love Without Hurt Da Capo 2006)