What do we know about men who abuse?

On the 22nd July 2009 Clayton Weatherston was found guilty of murder Sophie Elliott, his ex-partner. He stabbed her 216 times. What makes a man do the ultimate harm to a woman – murder? What intent sits with a man who smuggles a large knife hidden in a computer bag to an ex-partner’s home? What makes a man not only stab his ex-partner 216 times, but coldly and methodically ensure her radiant beauty is grossly disfigured? These are questions none of us should have to contemplate, but are the very questions we must, in order to understand the issues of intimate partner violence (IPV).

Could Clayton Weatherston as his lawyer forcefully argued, be provoked to commit murder? In order to answer these questions we need to understand something of the pathways into abuse.

When I started working as a social worker in the IPV field back in the early 1980s we had rather simple understandings of why men abused women. All men were seen as much the same in terms of the reasons why they were abusive to other family members. It was argued that violence was simply about the need to gain and maintain power and control within the relationship. This understanding was located within a belief of male privilege. While this explains some of the reasons for violence within intimate relationships, it doesn’t explain it all.

Current research is pointing to the fact that men who are abusive and violent present in a variety of ways. In other words, their pathway to violence can vary hugely, though the outcome of the abusive behaviour may well appear the same. To understand these various pathways helps us target our interventions more successfully. I have been interested in the two high-risk categories (those that are likely to do most harm) of men who engage in IPV.

The first group are men with cobra like tendencies (they strike suddenly without warning), engage in significant game playing and emotional abuse. Research indicates that these men become quiet ahead of severe violence. The most interesting thing about this group is that while outwardly they appear to become aroused, they become quiet on the inside. Their heart rate actually decreases as they become more verbally and physically abusive. They become quite still and focused before attacking their victims at 100 kilometres per hour – they strike swiftly.

They watch and wait. This is about gathering evidence and building reasons to pay the person back. They have been described as cold and calculating. Add to this a real sense of entitlement “my needs always come first” and you get behaviour that is both nasty and contemptuous.

The second group which we are most concerned with are slow to become enraged but once they get aroused they are loath to let go. These men quickly move from one relationship to another, as they are emotionally dependant and what they fear most is abandonment. This fear of abandonment and the desperate need they have to not be abandoned produces jealous rages and attempts to deprive their partners of an independent life. Keeping with the animal metaphors, this group has been described as having pit-bull tendencies – once they grip on they are loath to let go.

These men became very aroused during arguments – they are prone to fits of rage over small things – they are monitoring their partners behaviour constantly and are hypersensitive to any indication of a change in power balance within the relationship. They are capable of chronic and savage brutality towards their partners. For example, social situations are a high risk time, constant phone calls home, checking up on the whereabouts of the person, and so forth.

While we can easily discount Clayton Weatherston’s behaviour as aberrant, it is important to remember that on average twelve women are murdered by their partners every year in New Zealand. This is to say nothing of the harm done to those who live with the daily reality of intimate partner violence.

When we look at the evidence presented in this tragic case (see Chch Press 17/07/09) it is clear that Clayton Weatherston fits much of the first profile. It was reported that he was sitting quietly in Ms Elliott’s bedroom doing nothing, not saying anything prior to the murder. He locks the door. He coldly and methodically and grossly disfigures this young woman. This is not a provoked frenzied attack but a case of payback for being rejected.

There are unfortunately a number of Clayton Weatherstons out in the world. Research would indicate that they account for around 18% of men who engage in intimate partner violence. This should be a warning to parents and partners of these men – they remain highly dangerous without skilled intervention.

Published on Thursday, July 23rd, 2009, under Family violence

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