5 lessons learned from speaking with men who use family violence

For the past few years I’ve worked as a family violence telephone operator, speaking with hundreds of men from all walks of life who have used many different forms of abusive, controlling behaviours toward partners or family. After hundreds of calls, hearing these men unpack their stories, there are common themes that undeniably rise up from attitudes, beliefs and language used in the narratives told. The more I do this work the more I see these themes echoed throughout all areas of life and, for me personally, can see important lessons I can learn from to work towards happier, more respectful relationships. Here’s a few of them:

       1. I’m always in control of what I say and do, regardless of how I feel.

A huge barrier to change for men changing their abusive behaviour is first being able to take responsibility for it. It’s common to hear men excuse any form of violent behaviour by suggesting it was out of their control, that they “just lost it… my buttons were pushed, I got angry and I just exploded.” This excuse suggests that the feeling of difficult emotions and the use of abusive behaviour are one in the same, however almost always there are examples where the same man has felt angry at their boss but not yelled at them, has felt frustrated at police for giving him a speeding fine and not hit them, etc. I’ve learned that we always have a choice of whether to use a form of abusive behaviour, or not to. I’ve learned that this choice is always in our control no matter how angry we feel or how much we think someone has provoked us.

       2. There is no stereotypical “violent man”, and thinking this makes things worse.

Lots of people have their own idea of what kind of man uses family violence; an aggressive personality, a bad guy, someone from a lower socio-economic demographic that probably has an alcohol or drug use issue. Much public discussion and even some attempts at anti family violence campaigning can reinforce these ideas of a ‘violent man’ who needs to be stopped. However, these stereotypes are shattered when you start working and talking with men who use forms of family violence.

I’ve spoken to men from all walks of life – some who say they love their partner, that their family is the most important thing in their lives and that they are well respected members of the community. Ironically, one of the common themes among many men who choose to use violence is that they also hold some form of this ‘violent man’ stereotype in their minds, and it’s not them. I’ve heard so many men insist that they are “a nice guy… not a violent person… not a bad guy” as a way of avoiding discussing responsibility for their own behaviour. If taking responsibility for your choice to use violence is on the same side of the coin as accepting this mythical identity of a ‘violent man’ as your own, then this is a huge barrier to change. I’ve learned not to buy in to these stereotypes and always focus on what I say and do, not who I think I am.

       3. There is more than one ‘right’.

I overheard a colleague speaking with a client who was describing an argument he had had with his partner. In this argument, the client insisted he was right about whatever relationship issue had come up and was baffled and furious that his partner couldn’t accept this. In an effort to support this client, my colleague offered an analogy. He asked the client to imagine that he and his partner were sitting opposite each other, with a mug on top of a table between them. “From where you’re sitting, the handle is on the right-hand side, but from your partner’s perspective the handle is on the left”.  Immediately this example softened the client, he was able to reflect that his experience of the relationship issue was exactly that, his experience.

Furthermore, he was able to reflect that he had been so busy attempting to dictate his own point of view, he hadn’t listened to or acknowledged how his partner saw things. I’ve taken this conceptual mug and placed it on many tables in my own life, finding it a useful tool to invite my own empathy for others and diffuse conflict.

       4. The difference between being assertive and being aggressive.

Over the years of speaking with men there is a common theme of dealing with difficult emotions when arguing by behaving aggressively (using abusive language, raising voice, physical intimidation or violence) or passively (shutting down, being sarcastic, avoiding discussing how you feel). For many men I speak with it’s either one or the other; they are passive for some time then quickly jump to aggressive behaviour. In both instances their behaviour is quite damaging to their relationship and is disrespectful to their partners, themselves or any other family members who may be witness.

Learning to be assertive in how you communicate, to discuss and express how you feel in a respectful and safe way, can not only help avoid damaging relationships but can also help resolve conflict and improve relationships. I’ve learned to continually try to build on my own assertive communication skills.

        5. Being a man can mean so many different things, and they don’t all fit with a happy relationship/family.

Many men who I’ve spoken to hold lots of different ideas of who they are and what they want in their life and relationships. They might vaguely believe their role as a man is to be in control, to be aggressive in getting what they want and don’t show emotion. They might have ideas of what their role as a father and husband is, to be “head of the house”, in control of finances and unconditionally respected. They might also talk about wanting a happy family, to “be a team” with their partner and want their kids to grow up in a loving environment. Sometimes it doesn’t take long to uncover that these ideas a man holds don’t all fit together, that certain rigid ideas around gender roles aren’t always supportive of functional, respectful relationships.

For many men, unpacking and reevaluating some of these perceived attributes of what it means to be a man, a partner and a father can make it a lot easier to work toward the sort of relationships and families that they want to have. I’ve learned this takes a lot of strength and courage to be open to challenging some of the dominate narratives around what attributes make up masculine identities, and the benefits in doing so for all men.

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