Pitfalls and challenges in work with men...

by Rob Hall

...who use violence against their partners
by Rob Hall



It has become fashionable for people to present their work in ways that don’t claim expert status. I must admit that makes writing this much easier as I do not feel like an expert despite working in the field since 1980. There is also a school of thought that says it is very important to outline, make clear and transparent, how central themes of work are derived. Others can then critique these themes and make their own decisions about the underlying values and the application of the themes to their practice.

In my work with men who have abused women, I have four central themes: safety, responsibility, accountability, and respect (Colley et al 1997). I did not develop these themes by myself. Neither was my exploration of their meaning and applicability to practice an isolated one. However, the way these themes have developed in my work and life, and the way they support and weave connections with each other, is the background to the work I do with men who have abused. This paper is an exploration of my relationship with these themes, and the dilemmas they raise.

It is intriguing to reflect that, like many graduates, my first position as a social worker was dealing with abuse and family violence. However, the postgraduate course work did not explore the dilemmas or complexity of the issues faced by most social workers in the field. I found I was in a position where my qualification did not equip me to deal with issues of abuse and power.

In the 1970s a number of South Australian women had drawn attention to the fact that women were more at risk of abuse and assault from the men they were married to, or lived with, rather than from strangers. They demanded that the community place real value on the safety of women in their own homes (Women's Information Switchboard 1980). Women started providing specialist services for women, in health, the home and workplace, and these services were aimed at addressing issues safety. They asserted that the community should fund these gender specific services, and they started to have some success. At this time women had very little reason to trust men working in the field of abuse, and good reason to fear that tentative gains in community funding would easily be eroded or withdrawn.

When I first started to work in the area of “domestic violence”, I was aware of the contribution feminist thought had made to my life and relationships. Other men and women, and myself, believed that feminist approaches could assist both men and women. We worked and consulted with each other to deal with the complexities involved in working with men’s violence towards women. The dilemmas we faced have not lost their relevance, although the politics may appear to have changed. This paper explores these dilemmas and the principles that have been helpful in dealing with them.

I first began to consider the principle of responsibility in 1980 when I worked at the Crisis Care Unit, a 24 hour call out counselling service. This service was established with the support of the South Australian police, partly in the hope that it would help them to respond better to “domestics”. The story, in common circulation at that time, was that the police were tired of revisiting the same houses in an attempt to try to “settle domestic disturbances”. Although the issue was about the safety and protection of women, the police did not regard “domestics” as “real” police work. They hoped that counselling would solve the problem. Crisis Care focussed its intervention on helping women to “escape”. By doing so, the Unit and the community had clearly started to make the safety of women and children a priority, and developed a deep respect for the work and role of women’s shelters.

Men, however, were rarely charged with assault, and at that time there was no legal protection through restraint or domestic violence orders. The Crisis Care workers believed their only role was to help women and children to get to a safe place where others understood what they were going through. Shelters were the only focus of intervention.

A group of Crisis Care workers eventually decided to examine the issues being raised by their clients. It is not surprising that this group was comprised mostly of women workers. It became clear that the women subjected to abuse were being left to carry the burden for all family members. They were taken to safe houses with security screens on every window. They were asked to relocate their children into new schools and even expected to work out solutions to end their partner’s violence. No one asked, or even expected men to take responsibility for their abusive behaviour toward their families. There were no legal or social sanctions for men who abused and no services that might expect or assist these men to take responsibility for their actions.

We faced several challenges at the Crisis Care service in 1980. How could we provide services for men that assisted them to take responsibility for abusive actions without
threatening funding for women and women’s services,
compromising the safety of women and children,
or providing a soft option to the criminal justice system?

This challenge led to the commencement of work with men conducted in consultation with women’s services and which attempted to be accountable and not an alternative to the criminal justice system.

We soon discovered pitfalls in these early services for men. Some of these came from workers holding an extremely narrow view of responsibility, which did not extend far beyond requiring men to face the legal consequences of their action.

Such a limited view of responsibility did not help the men appreciate the full nature, meaning and consequences of their abusive actions. It did not challenge the common but unhelpful stand of minimisation, such as “I did it. I’m sorry. Why can’t you forgive and forget?” A working definition of responsibility needed to be broad enough to include the man facing the fact that he had abused the people that he claimed he loved most. We began to face the practical challenge of finding a way to help men take full responsibility for their violence and abuse.

Having come fresh from a lecturing environment and familiar with feminist ideals, I had a strong, self-righteous propensity to lecture the men I was counselling. I would argue strongly for the man to address his abuse, only to find that he would argue equally strongly to justify or minimise his actions. In addressing this issue Alan Jenkins (1990) used the term “invitation” to illustrate a process by which men might be invited to take up arguments for responsibility, respect and for non-abusive ways of being a man. This more comprehensive understanding of responsibility, incorporating practices as well as objectives, led to furthering an understanding of how the man might take full responsibility for his violence and abuse.

The criminal justice system still faces an enormous challenge in facilitating men taking full responsibility for abusive behaviour. Too often, men who wish to take full responsibility and face the consequences of their actions find themselves in conflict with their own lawyers, who believe that they are working for the best interests of their clients by encouraging the man to deny, minimise or excuse his behaviour. They see it as their responsibility, in an adversarial system, to refute the evidence of the prosecution or to argue mitigating circumstances. I have had a number of clients argue for honesty and struggle to find ways to give their lawyers instruction that they want to plead guilty.

A challenge for the criminal justice system is to adopt criteria for sentencing which relate to a definition of responsibility that encompasses more than just attending counselling. It would be helpful for the court to take less interest in mitigation of responsibility, and more interest in an assessment of the extent to which the man is taking responsibility for the abuse he perpetrated.

In helping men to undertake a journey of facing responsibility, we must negotiate the pitfall of only “joining with” them rather than assisting them to face responsibility. If my attempts to be respectful and encouraging of the man do not include inviting him to challenge his irresponsible ideas and practices, then I fail to promote responsibility. Furthermore, I must watch the language that I use and avoid talking about his partner in objectifying terms, such as referring to her as “she” rather than using her name. This helps to ensure that partners are always regarded as a real person in our conversations.

The principle of accountability, as developed by Waldergrave and Tamasses (1993), has helped in facing the challenge of making this work truly respectful of women’s and children’s experiences. It is a principle that provides helpful guidance in exploring a common pitfall for experienced counsellors, that of helping a man with the issue of facing up. An example counsellors have shared with me is of a man in a group who gives a responsible and remorseful account of an abusive incident. The man’s affect seems appropriate to his story of the incident. The counsellor believes he should appreciate what the man is doing, praise him and encourage him in setting an example for the others in the group. At the same time, it is easy to fail to give due consideration to what the abuse had meant for his partner and children and privilege his experience over their’s. Invariably the counsellor who contacted his partner would learn he would have a lot more facing up to do. His remorseful account is just the beginning of the more detailed exploration into understanding the extent and effects of the abuse upon his partner and children. The challenge was, and still is, how do we establish practices that hold our work accountable to the experiences of women and children who have been subjected to abuse?

Accountability practices have considerable impact on the nature of the work. To illustrate this, I will relate a set of circumstances in a men’s group that I ran at the time this idea was first being explored. Letters were sent out to women partners informing them of the man’s attendance at the group. We attempted to get first-hand experience of how these letters might be received through a consultation with a group of women survivors and activists known as WOWSafe (Women of the West for Safe Families). One of these women had received our letter. She explained that she was disappointed, angry and found the letter extremely intrusive when she first received it. On reading the letter more closely, she realised that she knew one of the leaders running the group and decided to contact him. She made it very clear that she had not been in a relationship with this man for at least two years. This kind of feedback made a major difference to our work with the man and the way in which we talked with him about his view of the relationship.

Accountability practices have major benefits for the safety of women and children. For example, a men’s group worker who made contact with a woman partner discovered that she had been beaten by her partner after a group meeting. The worker was then able to put her in contact with women’s services who found a safe place at a secret location. The significance of safety should never be overlooked.

The women of WOW-Safe drew attention to a potential difficulty when men attend therapy or a men’s group. The men’s partners may develop unrealistic hopes based on his attendance alone that this time he will change. These hopes can override their own judgements and lead them to stop paying attention to their own experience of their partner’s behaviour. Women may then make judgements about staying in relationships longer than is safe. Accountability to women’s experience requires that the men’s group worker must be realistic about the influence of men’s groups and not overstate their effectiveness.

So, how do we access the experience of women and children without
implying that they are responsible for men’s abusive behaviour,
or that they have any responsibility for changing or monitoring his behaviour,
or compromising their safety or well-being?

Another pitfall with established men’s programs stems from the failure to provide adequate resources. Holding the work accountable in this situation is difficult to say the least, as lack of time and staff usually results in programs having little time to take into account women’s experience. Accountability practices require men’s group leaders to make contact with women partners (where appropriate) and to make contact with broader women’s services so that the work is held transparent and open to ongoing critique and development. Accountability practices are fundamental for maintaining the relevance of this work in challenging a society that promotes men’s power over women.

How do we hold the programs and work with men accountable in partnership with women’s services?
Partnership requires those working with men and those in women’s working together for the same common goal. The South Australian Standards for Working with Men (1997) and the Stopping Violence Groups handbook (1997) are examples of successful collaboration between those working with men who have abused, women working with women and women activists (Women In the North and WOWSafe).

In the 1980’s men’s workers assumed the notion of men taking responsibility required that this work should only be conducted by men. This notion lead to several pitfalls:
the unique and vital contribution of women and their place in the work tended to be discounted
a critique and feedback by women was not sought and was excluded
women’s experience was not accorded importance or status in the work.

It is important to acknowledge the feminist routes of this work. Some agencies have disregarded the need for an accountable profeminist approach by according greater financial and organisational status to men who work with men who abuse. In this context, women who work with women may find their work taken for granted.

The history of work with men has derived from the approaches and principles developed in the women’s movement. The early pioneering work and struggle by women are too often taken for granted. In South Australia, a number of women’s services, in their initial struggle to fund shelters, found the courage to go the front bars of hotels to ask men for financial help. Front bars were traditionally part of the culture that supported men’s power over women as being a “natural” right.

The notion that work with men is men’s business only lead to a further pitfall whereby the value of women as co-leaders of men’s groups was overlooked. In South Australia a number of women have chosen to be involved with services for men. (Colley 1991) The practice of having women lead groups with men has become increasingly common in South Australia to the extent where its benefits are now believed to be self evident. When two group leaders of different gender relate in ways that are respectful and equitable, the very day to day structure and operation of the group provides a direct and visible challenge to the gendered power imbalances of the dominant culture in our society.

Men, who have participated in such groups, have remarked on the benefits of mixed gender group leadership. These included:
a sense of confidence that the woman’s view would be represented throughout the program
a belief that a woman would be able to ask questions and present viewpoints that were informed by women’s experience
the belief that a woman co-leader would be in touch with the “way we had hurt our partners” and would “help us to look deeper” at the effects of violence upon family members (p58 Stopping Violence Groups 1997)

A co-working relationship may also be reflective of or typify the traditional gender power imbalance. At these times the co-working relationship may present a pitfall. For example, an older, more experienced male leader with a less experienced younger female student co-worker will both need to monitor the potential for a traditional power imbalance to be reflected in their working relationship. There is an anecdote which concerns a young woman in her first men’s group being given the job of organising the teas and coffees and ensuring that the whiteboard was clean and that marking pens were available. Such a relationship does not propose an alternative to dominant culture. It is essential to find a way of working that highlights the complexity of the relationship between the co leaders of different gender without placing expecting women to join in this work or for men to not remain responsible for examining their own gendered ways of working.

The challenge is:
How do we find ways to ensure that the co-leader relationship is one in where the male co-leader is one of partnership which promotes gender accountability and respectful ways of relating between men and women?

The principle of respect has played an important role in informing the work with men. How could I reasonably expect men to adopt respectful ways of relating to others if I did not relate to them with respect?

The challenge is:
How do we maintain a position of respect towards the man we are counselling, without condoning his violence and abuse and remaining accountable to the experience of those he has abused?

I must not lose sight of the impact and hurt that his actions and attitudes have imposed upon his partner and children, despite the high level of distress this knowledge may cause me. My level of distress and outrage increases when the man appears to be preoccupied with self-centred attempts to minimise or discount the experiences of those he has hurt. Despite this I have an obligation to maintain a position where I respect the steps that he is taking towards responsibility and respect. Only then can I assist him to find the courage and motivation to face the shame of what he has done as he begins to appreciate the full meaning and impact of the abuse he has perpetrated.

The challenge in this counselling is:
How do we help him to find that emotional or mental space, which enables him to face the full meaning and impact of his abusive actions? How do we help him to realise the significance of the hurt he has caused to those he loves in a way that enables personal responsibility but avoids minimising and believing self depreciation?

We invite men to consider life goals and intentions for their roles as partners and fathers which may be ethical and honourable. They are invited to consider how much they may have betrayed their own goals and to see themselves as capable of hurting those they love and who have caused real and damaging effects on their partners life. To appreciate this, without a context of honour and self respect through responsibility and facing shame, can invite men into a place where they feel overwhelmed with depression and guilt.

To illustrate the objectives of this challenge, I will describe the process undertaken by a couple who were reconciling after his abuse of her. The man had attended a men’s group and his partner was asking him to understand fully what his violence and abuse had meant to her. She could not trust him nor reconcile until she felt sure that he had a thorough grasp of the meaning and effects of his abuse on her. She believed it was his job to come to these realisations himself, without her involvement. The process and its outcome, however, needed to be accountable to her experience. They jointly agreed on a meeting where he would read out and offer her a statement of realisation that he had previously prepared separately.

To achieve these realisations, he was required to revisit all abusive incidents. This required much homework, considering and documenting the times and ways he had hurt her and imagining her experience. He was set questions such as,
“What would it have been like for Jane to live with the level of uncertainty about her safety and to appreciate the threat was from you?
What would your violence and abuse have been saying to Jane about how you see her as a person?.
As a mother what would Jane’s concerns have been for her stepdaughters?
What would your stepdaughters, Sue and Heather have experienced? After your abuse of Jane - their mother? How might Sue and Heather regard boys and men in their lives?.

He worked on these issues over time, shared his understandings and faced further questions which we generated as we worked to understand the impact of the abuse he had chosen to inflict on Jane. He felt ashamed of his behaviour. He felt grief and deep sorrow for the hurt he had caused and for the lasting impact of his violence. Along side these realisations, he appreciated he was moving towards to a position of not tolerating violence and abuse as a way of life. He was adopting practices that were respectful and considerate of others. Through his journey he was becoming the partner and stepfather he wanted to be.

His statement of realisation was only a few pages. However, he had taken no shortcuts in doing the work that was needed to make that statement meaningful. On inviting his partner to witness his statement of realisation, we made it clear that that she could choose the time, manner and place so this was to happen at her pace and in a way that she would feel most comfortable with. We supported her choosing the location, having someone to support her or to decline the invitation if she chose. She chose to continue with the process.

A potential pitfall is faced when couples come together and men take steps to demonstrate their responsibility. Women partners may feel an expectation to forgive and put past abuse behind them. Men may believe that past abuse should be forgotten. This couple remained very clear that, in order for lessons to be learnt and for the relationship to be placed on a new footing, those instances could never be forgotten. They were aware that this was only a small part of an ongoing journey of learning.

Workers face a challenge to find assessment tools that measure and monitor levels of respect, accountability and responsibility throughout this journey.

So the challenge is to:
How do we develop outcome measures and evaluation tools
Which are solution focussed, measuring levels of responsibility and respectful behaviour?
Which can be administered respectfully and collaboratively?
Which assists the man to monitor his own progress toward his goals?
Which highlights new directions or options for further respectful actions?

Alan Jenkins has been working on such a tool that can be used in collaboration with men and the people close to them. The assessment becomes a part of a continuous journey and promotes the discovery of respectful ways of being rather than being simply static form of assessment at the end of counselling (Northern Metropolitan Community Health Service 1997. Pp. 171-199).

A significant pitfall is highlighted in intervention with men who have themselves experienced abuse and injustice. Our acknowledgment of the hurt and injustice they have faced can potentially invite men to abdicate responsibility for their own behaviour. Men who have been abused by their fathers sometimes offer this as causal explanation and excuse for their abuse of their partner and children. However, it is clearly unjust to ignore men’s experience of abuse yet expect them to face up to the effects of abuse they have perpetrated.

The challenge is;
How do we acknowledge a man’s experience of injustice without sacrificing responsibility and appreciation of the injustice that he has perpetrated.

A consideration of the correctional services response to men sentenced for their of violence and abuse, draws attention to the themes of justice and change. A challenge faced in correctional services is:
How do we introduce services that promote responsibility, accountability and respect into a corrections culture which may support hierarchal, competitive and punitive values of dominant masculinity?

There is a resource available to assist in facing this challenge. Many women working in correctional services have ideas on how to meet this challenge based upon their skills, knowledge and experience. These women have been facing this challenge for many years and have discovered ways to work with men that are compassionate and considerate rather than to competitive and winning out at the expense of others.

In conclusion, I want to share my own ongoing personal challenge. This challenge is one I work with constantly. It is;
How can I continue to move this work in a direction of respect, responsibility, accountability and taking account of safety, in partnership with those most affected by this issue?

Some practices I have adopted to meet this challenge include:
Making direct contact with those who have been hurt or their advocates. This requires sensitivity to the fact that this may not be appropriate in that the contact could be too intrusive, the person too young or has no further interest in the matter.
I try to imagine what it might be like for the person who was hurt to hear the conversation I am having with the man; how might they feel about what they are hearing and seeing? How might they regard the way the issues are being dealt with, the way their experiences are being discussed and the direction that the counselling is going?

The longer I do this work and the more people I have contact and consult with, the more I am aware of the challenges and pitfalls. Some of these are caught up as part of a societal response and some come from organisational responses. At times the hardest to deal with, and be aware of, are those that come from the culture of masculinity and are reflected in my own attitudes. I continue to seek out ways to challenge those in myself.

Rob Hall
As submitted then Published as a chapter in Peter Camilleri, Bob Pease (editors) 2001 Working with Men in the Human Services,
Publisher: Allen & Unwin. Crows Nest NSW, Australia

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