At the tail end of 2016 I was fortunate to have a piece published in ‘InsideMAN’
I’ve pasted the piece here for those interested:
Since my divorce in 2004, I have worked on the helpline for Family’s Need Fathers, trained as a counsellor, I have two children now 22 and 18 and a supportive partner and now works part-time as a counsellor in primary care and private practice. I was challenged by my experience working in a domestic violence agency, and I wanted to explore the impact that a gendered view has on men and also wondered if a gender-inclusive view and therapeutic approach could possibly be more effective to help end family violence.
What is the Duluth Model?
This model of domestic violence (DV) was developed by the late Ellen Pence and Michael Paymer in Duluth Minnesota in the early 1980’s the idea is based on the feminist theory of patriarchy, that men feel entitled to control and dominate women and intentionally use violence and coercion. (1) The idea is to coordinate the responses of the police, courts and community based organisations to end violence against women, hold ‘batterers’ responsible and put them through a Non-violence or perpetrator group program (2). It was revolutionary for its time and as Ellen Pence says it reduced reported incidence of DV by 50%. (1)The Duluth’s power and control wheel was developed in women’s groups and refuges are central to its theory and gendered view, it is the widest adopted approach in the world.
All is not what it seems
The room was dark but the occupants could just make out the outline of the others, hearing breathing and shuffling as if to indicate each other’s presence. Outside the room a man and a woman’s voices could be heard, quiet at first but getting louder and more agitated. The man said “I’m only f’in asking, am I not allowed!?” The woman replied “It’s not my fault, why do you always start?” Their recriminations got louder and louder as they spoke over each other to create a crescendo of indistinguishable noises, then CRASH! as if something hit against the wall. There was a long silence of anticipation. What would happen next? The door opened to let in a dim light and the two people walked into the room and quietly sat down.
What sounded like a couple arguing was actually a role play between a female group facilitator and myself at a group meeting for male perpetrators, which was run according to the Duluth Model handbook: “Looking at the impact of men’s violence on women and children”. This session was aimed to illustrate how DV impacts on children. But for Greg*, however, one of the men in the group, there was horror on his face as the sounds of the role play had taken him back to his childhood memories and he was reliving the trauma of his own parents’ violence.
Does everyone have a ‘normal’ childhood?
As a counsellor one question I often ask my clients is “what was your childhood like?” supplemented with “and your parents?” nice open questions, and not too directive. Early childhood experiences influence us and set up patterns of behaviour that we replicate or react against; it’s where we learn to have relationships.
How was my childhood? Ordinary and loving, I suppose. My father worked long hours and did shifts. My mother was anxious and would send me and my older sister out to play so we wouldn’t get under her feet. I do remember sitting on the stairs with my sister, listening to my parents arguing and that felt normal. But doesn’t everyone’s childhood seem normal to them?
Luckily my grandparents lived next door but one and their house was somewhere that I felt more accepted and loved My grandfather was a tall gentle man, with a dry sense of humour, hands the size of dinner plates and a dimple in his temple from a stray German bullet from the First World War. My grandmother was short, round and bespectacled, always dressed in a house coat and loved us with hugs and food but she was firm and even my grandfather knew where he stood. They were a loving and affectionate couple to the end and positive role models for me as a child.
Not until my divorce did I have any understanding of domestic violence. I went to a meeting at ‘Families Need Fathers’ (FnF). I told the meeting my wife wanted a divorce and that I believed equal parenting would be best for my children as I’d always been a ‘hands on’ kind of dad but I knew that my soon to be ex-wife didn’t agree. A number of the men warned me to “wait for the accusations of DV!” “There haven’t been any” I replied but they were not wrong and as soon as I applied for shared residence, the accusations of me being violent started.
Skip forward 10 years. I had gained shared residence, volunteered for the FnF helpline and trained as a counsellor, a process that can’t help but change your life.
As a therapist I feel I need to challenge my own prejudices
My divorce and helpline work had given me experience of how men are prejudiced against in the family courts and how an accusation of DV can change the dynamics for fathers but women’s violence or controlling behaviour is often not taken seriously. I had the chance to volunteer at a domestic violence agency as a trainee facilitator and I wanted to challenge those past experiences of my divorce and FnF helpline work, I found the helpline work fulfilling and saw it as helping others as I had been, and was aware of the high suicide rate in this area of work. But I had only experienced one side of DV and thought a broader perspective would help me as a professional counsellor and I wanted to understand more about why I had been treated as though I was a danger to my wife and children without evidence.
I’m aware how violent some men can be and the impact that their behaviour has on others. I specifically remember one older male client who was recovering from another familiar round of binge drinking but this time with a new suicide attempt. Out of the blue he broke down in floods of tears and started talking about his childhood, remembering his “beautiful mother” being beaten and thrown naked into the snow by his father, an incident which had plagued him for 60 years. I saw this as setting the seeds of his own violent co-dependent behaviour with his wife, alcohol problems and own self-harm.
The ‘perpetrator’ group
The men were from diverse backgrounds and ethnicities. Some reminded me of the people I had met at FnF meetings or helpline callers, as they were struggling to maintain relationships with their children and having to attend the group as part of ongoing court procedures. Some were violent, or in co-dependant violent relationships, it was discussed in the group. Others complained there had not been violence (but then it’s not always about violence) and were not sure why they had to attend the group, and when it was discussed about men’s violent or controlling behaviour said there hasn’t been anything like that.
Each man had to attend 24 two-and-a-half hour sessions. Groups were run by at least one male and one female facilitator and each session was based around an exercise from the Duluth handbook. There were about ten men in the group I attended.
At the start of each week’s session, we all had to check in and even the facilitators had to say if they had been violent or abusive to their partners that week. This check in process sometimes took a while if several men recounted incidents in detail.
One week a chap recounted a long story about a fight with his partner, which ended up with her smashing up his plasma TV. The couple’s children were there and got involved in the argument and I wondered what it was like for those children and what future they would have? The man wanted to also talk about his partner’s violence but he was accused by the lead facilitator of minimising the impact of his own actions. It is a central part of the Duluth model that men should take responsibility for their violence, and women’s violence is only seen in response to men’s violence. This one sided view did leave me feeling uncomfortable as it didn’t fit with my experience but at the time I was there to learn and gain experience.
Another chap had trouble seeing his daughter on Saturday afternoons because his partner would put obstacles in the way, like parties or family were visiting, a story I was used to hearing on the helpline. As part of their remit the agency wrote court reports on how the men were progressing in the group sessions. He said he had been to court and he was angry that the report had shown him in a bad light. He was getting frustrated and angry he seemed to be thwarted at every turn but for a moment I was aware he was getting upset when he spoke about his daughter wanting to see him too. This seemed to reveal a more vulnerable side which was never acknowledged or discussed. I wondered if he had to hide it because he was constantly being criticised, you don’t reveal vulnerability’s if it’s not safe to do so, his default position was to use aggression if he felt vulnerable, which had got him where he was.
There were some success stories. One chap had come to the end of his 24 weeks of compulsory attendance and seemed to have a real sense of achievement and remorse. He said he was ashamed of holding his partner against the wall by her throat, and he was pleased and it was clear to see in his face he was proud how far he had come in understanding and starting to atone for his actions. He said “I didn’t realise it was domestic violence to hold my wife’s arms by her side”. I was also surprised and wondered if it indicated she too had learnt to respond with violence and indicated a co-dependent relationship learnt from their childhood to respond aggressively.
I enjoyed going to the group, I felt I was helping the men turn their lives around, and a couple of the younger men responded in a positive way towards me as an older male. I did struggle with the Duluth model’s rigid and stereotypically gendered view of DV and if the funding for that group hadn’t finished I would have found it hard to continue to work there. Yes I did also feel embarrassed to be a man because of the violence that some men had enacted, but I was also embarrassed with the way that some of the facilitators responded to men’s disclosures behind their backs, we were there to help them, these behaviours doesn’t happen in a vacuum. The agency’s assessments forms included the title “Mr Perpetrator” where a man’s name was to go, and the male and female assessment forms were different and didn’t question the woman’s behaviour, they were titled ‘Ms Survivor’. A gendered assumption of who were perpetrators and victims.
As a member of a professional body, working under ethical guidelines, I have to wonder if there are ethical considerations of treating men and women differently based on a gendered assumptions. I personally know of men who have been referred to ‘perpetrator’ programs despite their partners having been violent and abusive. With the recent example of the case of Sharon Edwards long term abuse and murder of her husband we are aware that DV does not have such a simple explanation.
Men’s mental health, my misgivings
All of the sessions I attended were focused on other people — partners, children, people who were not in the room. The sessions seemed to miss the chances to reflect on what was happening for the men. We could have explored the men’s reactions on a personal level, and I felt they didn’t feel listened to. Yes, we need to stop violence, but regardless of who it is against. Counselling theory suggests therapeutic change comes about by having your story heard and your feelings validated, I know this wasn’t therapy but working compassionately is the basic starting point for building positive relationships. The Duluth model website says it does not use shame as a way of changing men but in my view it does at an implicit level. Modern research suggests men who experience or perpetrate DV are at high risk of mental health problems. (3) So rather than constantly accusing men of minimising and not taking responsibility for their actions, it may be more useful to help men reflect on what’s going for them in the moment, to explore the dynamics in their relationships with partners and explore a different ways to be a man.
Unfortunately, the Duluth model isn’t a therapeutic intervention and it has never claimed to be. Its creators aimed to change men’s violent behaviour through psycho-education. Some of the men in the agency group reminded me of naughty boys in detention, being difficult and rebellious and producing a “them and us” situation with the facilitators. The men who wanted to engage with the weekly exercises did anyway, but those who didn’t just went through the motions of attending as required. It seemed as if the boot of coercion and violence was now on the other foot and the aim was to control the men as some had tried to control their partners, to make the men behave in a more socially acceptable ways by coercing and shaming them. This was a condition that some of the men like Greg understood well and it seemed more like retribution than psycho-education. I wasn’t the only facilitator to think that.
At the end of the day
I feel lucky that there was no crash followed by silence when my own parents argued. They heard us on the stairs and came out to tuck us back into bed, embarrassed as much as angry I suspect. Duluth’s view of family life doesn’t fit in with my family experience as a child, my relationships or even my divorce, but I suspect this model based on a gendered paradigm developed from the experience of women from refuges, does not fit into the lives of many men and women, as they are not a representative sample of society and is only a small albeit unpleasant part or relationship difficulties.
Modern, gender inclusive research which comes from a wide range of sources including LGBT relationships (4/ 5) and government statistics demonstrate DV is a spectrum and covers a broad range of relationship dynamics and problems.
We need therapeutic models to help break the cycle of domestic violence, not by shaming men who have been labelled as ‘perpetrators’, but by trying to decrease violent behaviour in both men and women, by helping people understand and change who they are, and how they have learned to be that way, not just focusing on what people do when angry and distressed.
Greg was a violent man and needed help but from his look of horror on his face and his comments he was re-traumatised by our role play. He was as much a victim of his parents’ violence as a perpetrator and he had learnt his patterns of social behaviour well. I didn’t see him again while working there and I wonder what he had experienced that night, it left me with a sense of guilt that he had been harmed and not helped by it. Erin Pizzey, who opened the first women’s shelter in the UK in 1971, said that DV is a generational problem not a gender problem, what I experienced there I can only agree.
Women’s Aid suggest nine out of ten DV victims are women (Neath) (that still leaves a large amount of men with scant dedicated services) but other research suggest one in three victims are men, and still others suggest perpetration rates are equal, even if outcome isn’t. Lesbian and gay relationship have the similar perpetration rates as the heterosexual community and bisexual even higher (4?), so I have to wonder if the 30-year-old gendered theory that supports the Duluth model needs to be revised. Whatever the reality of DV we need affective ethical interventions to cater for all parts of society, so we don’t produce a new generation like Greg or his female equivalent, who’s first reaction to anger and distress is to use control, aggression and violence.
*Names have been changed
Occurrence and impact of negative
behaviour, including domestic violence
and abuse, in men attending UK
primary care health clinics:
a cross-sectional survey
M Hester,1 G Ferrari,2 S K Jones,2 E Williamson,1 L J Bacchus,3 T J Peters,4
Illusion of Inclusion: The Failure of the
Gender Paradigm to Account for Intimate Partner
Violence in LGBT Relationships
Claire Cannon, MA
Frederick Buttell, PhD
Tulane University, New Orleans, Louisiana
Exploring the service and support needs of male,
lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgendered and
black and other minority ethnic victims of domestic
and sexual violence
Report prepared for Home Office
Marianne Hester, Emma Williamson, Linda Regan,
Mark Coulter, Khatidja Chantler, Geetanjali Gangoli,
Rebecca Davenport & Lorraine Green
Published by University of Bristol 2012