Working with men who have experienced family violence

Working as a telephone counsellor, a portion of the work I do is responding to referrals for men who have experienced forms of family violence from a family member or partner. Quite often, I’m asked what this work looks like and how it’s different from the work I do with men who have chosen to use forms of family violence themselves. I’ve often asked myself these same questions. The more I learn about the needs of particular client groups, the safety risks and the support needed to increase safety, the more I’ve found that there are strong common threads in the counselling support and safety planning frameworks that I use when engaging with men in all contexts of family violence. Here’s a few things I’ve learned from working with men referred to us after experiencing family violence; the variety of contexts they present in and what support they need.

In what situations do men experience family violence?

To understand the needs of men who experience family violence it’s useful to understand the relationship context and the types of behaviours being used.

The majority of men referred to our service as victims of family violence have experienced this in the context of non-intimate relationships, such as from their parents, adult children, siblings or other family members. Some examples of what this may look like:

An elderly man’s 35 year old son returns to reside in the family home after struggling with drug use and unemployment. The client may want to be supportive of his son, but is also fearful of his son’s escalating aggressive and threatening behaviour.

A young man whose ongoing conflict with his stepfather escalates to a loud, intimidating verbal argument. The young man’s mother calls police to intervene.

A man receives death threats and intimidating messages from his partner’s ex-husband.

A man engages in a physical fight with his sibling. Another family member then contacts police.

Less than half of the men referred to our service as victims in family violence incidents experience this violence from an intimate partner in both heterosexual and same sex relationships. Of those who do, it can be from current partners, ex-partners and separated co-parents. Some examples of what this may look like:

A man has a verbal argument with his heterosexual partner. Their kids witness. Neighbours overhear and call police.

A man has separated from his partner and there are ongoing verbal arguments over parenting plans for their children and property settlements.

-A man whose same-sex partner’s ongoing controlling behaviour has escalated to physical violence. He is reluctant to ask for help from their mutual friends and isn’t sure what to do.

Most of the referrals we receive for men who have experienced family violence are for verbal conflicts. More than half of the referrals for non-intimate family members and nearly three-quarters of those for intimate relationships fall into this category. Incidents involving physical violence account for around one in five of the non-intimate referrals and less than one in six referrals of men experiencing violence from a current or former partner.

What does support look like?

When engaging with any client at the Men’s Referral Service on the telephone, we aim to invite men to work toward a safer outcome for themselves and their families and link them in with appropriate services to continue this support where required. Some examples of what this might look like:

Counselling

It sounds obvious, but fundamental active listening and counselling skills underpin all the work we do. Hearing and acknowledging a client’s experience of any situation he is in helps us to develop rapport, identify key issues and make it easier to reach a shared understanding of what the next steps for him could be.

What needs to change?

With any level of conflict, it’s useful to focus the call on identifying what a safe, desirable outcome might look like and what needs to change to work towards it.  Discussing what needs to change  often leads to exploring what is in the client’s control to change, what they are responsible for and what they are not. An elderly parent may feel responsible for keeping their abusive son or daughter out of legal trouble and may be reluctant to alert police or agree to a protection order. A father may continue to both use and experience abuse with his child’s mother, and be firmly focused on changing her behaviour rather than his own. These perspectives can get in the way of the outcome a man may want. By supportively challenging these narratives we can help the man to make choices that will work toward a safer outcome. By acknowledging what a safe outcome for all family members looks like, and focusing on what choices the man can make that will contribute towards it, often a man can map out his own safety plan. Regardless if I’m working with someone experiencing family violence, using family violence, or both, I’ve found this supportive safety planning discussion is often the framework that helps a caller work toward a safer outcome for all involved.

Exploring support options

Some of the men I engage with can benefit from expanding their support network to include both formal and informal supports as part of their safety planning. This can vary substantially depending on the context and needs of the client. Some examples of what this may look like include:

Exploring what supports the client already has but may not realise; friends, family members, counsellors, GPs etc.

– Mediation services to assist with conflict resolution, parenting plans and property settlement after separation

– Legal advice and support around civil protection orders

– Counselling

– Support for co-presenting issues such as drugs & alcohol or mental health

In my experience, it is rare that I’m unable to provide a suitable referral to compliment a man’s safety plan, once he has been able to reflect on what support he needs. However, for the vast majority of clients who are referred to us as having experienced family violence, a discussion focussed on safety and an invitation for them to contact us in the future can be the extent to which they are willing to engage.

Safety as a focus

When engaging any man through any of our services, the primary focus is on safety; safety of the man we are engaging with, his partner, kids and other family members. In this sense, focusing on identifying him as a ‘victim’ or a ‘perpetrator’ does not help us address safety concerns for all involved, or working toward changes that would increase safety. Many of the men I’ve spoken with who have been referred as having experienced family violence have had prior contact with police due to their own use of family violence, at times even with court orders taken out against them to protect their family members or ex/partners. Knowing this, it is irresponsible and potentially dangerous if we, as a support service focused on safety, engage with these men in safety planning around their experience of family violence without also exploring their choice of behaviours which impact the safety of their kids, partners or family members. This is where a focus on safer outcomes, rather than identifying a client as a ‘victim’ or a ‘perpetrator’. The more I do this work the more I find that this focus enables me to provide the most appropriate support, regardless of what a client’s situation may be.