Men’s Behavior Change work – a report from the No To Violence conference
Last week I attended an Australasian conference on men’s behavior change. It was held in Melbourne by No To Violence, the peak body for Men’s Behavior Change work in Victoria, Australia. There were people from all over Australia, a large delegation from New Zealand, and a few from other places (Ireland, Scotland and South America). The experience gave me insight into the state of play in men’s behavior change work in this area of the world.
It was the first time I had ever been to a domestic violence event or training where there were equal numbers of men and women. I guess this indicates that male practitioners are taking a largish role in men’s behavior change work. One could be quite cynical about this and say “Where were the men all these years when women (feminist women) were working to bring change? Why are the men showing up now, when they did not pull many oars before? How much male ego is involved here?” But it is also possible to say, “At last men are taking this issue seriously, and at least in the ranks of professionals there is equal involvement of both sexes, and it’s good that men are involved in men’s behavior change work, as domestic violence is EVERYONE’S business. And maybe male abusers need male role models to show them how to be honorable men, rather than bullying men.”
Here are some of the things I learned:
New Zealand is leading the way. New Zealand is about two decades ahead of Australia in the way it is responding to domestic violence and behavior change work with abusers. The New Zealand delegation were acknowledged as leaders in the field by the people attending the conference. There seem to be several reasons for the advanced state of play in N.Z., including the fact that N.Z .is a truly multi-cultural society where the Maori (indigenous) culture has been truly embraced by the whites, and they are all creatively collaborating for social change; they have a national government but no state governments that can bicker with the national government over who controls and pays for what; and they have a small population – less than the population of the city of Melbourne – so service providers can network and cooperate more closely and there is more continuity of care.
When I mentioned to a couple of Kiwis (New Zealanders) that I felt a bit disgruntled that this was the first and only domestic violence event I’d been to that had equal numbers of men and women, the Kiwi man said, “That’s the kind of comment we used to hear 20 years ago in New Zealand.”
Comparisons with the UK and the US. I asked a man from Scotland what the domestic violence sector was like in the UK and how it compared to Australia. He said the criminal justice legislation for domestic violence was tougher in the UK than in Australia, and that difference has led to different practices and emphases in the way professionals are doing behavior change work. He also said he thought that the USA was not as advanced as either the UK or Australia (let alone New Zealand) in men’s behavior change work. Here in Australia, at least the professionals are sharing and developing more effective ways of doing men’s behavior change programs; but at conferences he’d attended in the US there appeared to be a stand-off between people who use the Duluth (cognitive behavioural psycho-education) Model, and people who use psychotherapeutic approaches. He said the two camps would go to the same conferences but sit at different tables from each other and not eat with each other.
Christian involvement was minimal. Apart from myself, I think there was only one other person at the conference who openly identified as Christian, and he made it clear he was a very liberal Christian. Of course, there may have been individuals there who work for secular organisations who are privately Christians but are not overtly discussing their faith in the workplace. I told the two main organisers of the conference that I was a conservative Christian and asked if there were any other attendees who were expressly Christian in their work, and they were not aware of any.
Avoidance of moral language. I heard a speaker who was expressly presenting a ‘non-moral’ approach, which I thought was rather amusing because he merely replaced moral language with ethical language. (What’s the difference? I hear you asking.) Basically he argued that any moral stance is ineffective in men’s behavior change because shaming perpetrators only makes them strengthen their defences and resist change, but an ethical stance is more effective because when a practitioner/therapist takes an ethical stance, this tends to evoke more life-enhancing ethical choices in men who have used abuse. It sounded to me like scrupulously bending over backwards to avoid using words like Right and Wrong, Good and Bad, and employing elaborate philosophical circumlocution to arrive at euphemisms like ‘life-enhancing’ and ‘life-destroying’ instead. Hmm. But I will give credit where it is due, and for all his fancy philosophical footwork, this man’s approach did sound like it could certainly be effective with some abusers.
Things that seem to be working.
Partner contact is vital; and it always prioritizes the safety of women and children. When men’s behaviour change programs are run under the NTV guidelines, one professional on the Program Team is responsible for making contact with each male participant’s victim, whether or not she is living with the perpetrator or has any intention of continuing or renewing her relationship with him. Victims are free to discuss their concerns with the partner-contact professional, or to decline involvement if they wish. In some locations they can also take part in a victims’ support group that the partner-contact person facilitates. Any information that the woman tells the partner-contact professional is NOT passed back to the male participants in the behaviour change group. But if, for example, Jane tells the partner-contact person “Bob called me a whore when he picked up the kids last Tuesday,” this information is passed to the professionals who facilitate the men’s group, and they can work the topic of sexually derogatory language into the men’s group curriculum, without giving away that Bob had used that language to Jane last Tuesday.
A blend of therapy and psycho-education. Most practitioners here are seeing their work with men as a combination of therapy and psycho-education.
Practitioners spoke about the fine line between responsible therapy and therapeutic abuse. In the past, most therapeutic practice with abusive men has been based on confrontation, which can involve a kind of benevolent bullying that is ‘justified’ in the service of a noble cause: – telling the man what to be, to prevent him from using abuse in the future. However, telling men ‘what to be’ does not produce much real change. And when we shame men, we invite them to tell us less, rather than more.
I heard one practitioner talking about a kind of narrative therapy approach that has been adapted for men who have used violence and abuse against their families. The practitioner would know the details of specific acts of abuse that the man had done to his family, this knowledge having come partly via the police and justice system who dealt with the man, partly from what the victim may have had imparted to the partner-contact person, and partly from what the perpetrator himself admits when asked to describe exactly what he did to his partner. … Believe it or not, most perpetrators, when asked directly in these groups, will give pretty accurate accounts of what they did to their partner in the last or most serious incidents of abuse. I guess than when the men know that the professionals know what the allegations were in court, they can see that outright denial won’t get them very far, and the other men in the group won’t buy it either.
The practitioner will hold in mind the knowledge of what the abuser has done to his family, but will not pummel the man with guilt and shame. Rather, the practitioner (he or she) will express curiosity about the man’s life, history and values. This leads to a conversation with the abusive man that often uncovers wounds and trauma from the man’s childhood – for example, the man’s own father may have been an abuser. It is a fine line to walk here, but a skilled practitioner can lead the man to not just a cognitive recognition of his childhood trauma, but a deep emotional body-feeling-remembrance of it, and then the practitioner can get the man to see “The pain and terror and I felt then, as a child, is what I’ve been making my family feel recently!” That is the kernel of empathy. It leads the man to feel shame but not hopelessly so. The practitioner invites the man to sit with this shame he feels, but at the same time invites him to ethically strive to resist violence and the effects of violence. Should the man take up the invitation, he can consider and mentally rehearse better ethical choices he might make in the future, ones that will lead to a life of honorable integrity where he does not abuse others, a kind of slow but steady re-authoring of identity that is the essence of true change.
The point was made that many if not most abusers have been subjected to pretty lousy treatment themselves in the course of their lives, from family-of-origin neglect and abuse, to bullying, incarceration, lack of choices, lack of job satisfaction, added to which is the overall cultural conditioning of boys and men that our society inculcates: always be tough, never let yourself be vulnerable, never talk about your feelings, harden up, don’t cry, take it like a man…
Given the limited choices and poor social and emotional skills that many of these men have had, it is asking almost the impossible of them if we put them through the court system for domestic violence, send them to a Behaviour Change Program, and then expect them to suddenly open up and learn new softer ways of thinking and feeling. The resistance of men in such groups is notorious. Many of them are there under sufferance, having either been ordered there by the court, or having enrolled themselves in the group in a last ditch attempt at getting their relationship back. This is not to criticise the court system for steering men to into such groups, nor is it to criticise the actions of partners who declare the relationship is o.v.e.r. unless the man stops being abusive. The boundaries and consequences that are imposed by the justice system – and by victims of abuse– are excellent ways of responding to abuse. These boundaries and consequences are often necessary preconditions for an abusive man to face up to his problem.
But once an abusive man is in such a group, the professionals who run the group are not going to have much success using a directive and shaming approach. If they are to have any success at all, they will only have it using an invitational rather than a directive approach. Asking the men “What would a man of honor do?” is more likely to produce change than simply telling men how to be. At the same time, depending on the laws and policies in that jurisdiction, the men participating in the program may be subjected to judicial consequences if they fail to attend the program regularly, or if they break conditions of their parole or bail, or breach any court order that has been imposed on them. This is all well and good. The combination of carrot and stick has a lot going for it.
I think that it must take a lot of skill for practitioners to use this invitational, narrative therapy approach while at the same time never forgetting for a moment that these men have used deplorable violence and abuse against their partners. The practitioner must not simply feel sorry for the man, or allow the man’s past to be an excuse for his present – a person who uses violence is always solely responsible for that violence – but the practitioner must not demand or dictate to the man what he should do, because that would be modelling the very style of relationship that the practitioner is inviting the abusive man to relinquish. But all this must be carried on in context which privileges the stories of the victims and survivors.
It is a very fine line. The practitioner must ask himself “How do I position myself in relation to that abusive behavior, AND in relation to the man who used that behavior?” It seems that highly skilled professionals are able to walk this fine line, but I cannot imagine your average pastor being able to walk it. Even most generalist counselors and therapists do not possess these specialised skills, so how could we expect pastors to have them? And Christian counselors who think that all they need is a scriptorium of Bible verse antidotes for every problem under the sun – what hope do they have of getting a handle on this stuff when they only see the abuser, and don’t get the background picture from the justice system and the abuser’s victim?
It seems that this work is best done in the context of a properly structured Men’s Behaviour Change Program where there is a men’s group, with individual therapy as a possible adjunct to the group (to deal with very confidential stuff like a man’s memories of sexual abuse in childhood, or details about the man’s sexual abuse of his wife), AND a partner-contact person, AND the court and police input that provides background information about the men who are participating in the group.
Of course, the invitational approach I’ve described does not guarantee that every abusive man will change. The conference talked a lot about what they called second order change in men: the change that is not just talking the talk, but walking the walk. This is the Holy Grail of men’s behavior change work, and it is only sometimes achieved.
Nevertheless, even if an abusive man doesn’t significantly change as a result of his participation in a men’s behavior change program, the women partners usually report that the program helped them because they felt believed and supported by the partner-contact worker.
I think it’s worth quoting something Jeff S said in another post on this blog:
My therapist used to work with hard-core domestic violence perpetrators. I asked them how many had ever repented. He said he could probably count the number on one hand, and he wasn’t even sure those ended up long term healthy. He said he would never, ever ask a woman to try and reconcile.
I’ll conclude with this scripture passage:
For thus says the LORD to the men of Judah and Jerusalem:
“Break up your fallow ground,
and sow not among thorns.
Circumcise yourselves to the LORD;
remove the foreskin of your hearts,
O men of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem;
lest my wrath go forth like fire,
and burn with none to quench it,
because of the evil of your deeds.”
… “For my people are foolish;
they know me not;
they are stupid children;
they have no understanding.
They are ‘wise’—in doing evil!
But how to do good they know not.”
(Jeremiah 4:3-4, 22 )