Can men who use abusive practices really change?

Can men who are abusive really change?

Don has been struggling with abusive behaviour all of his life. He was adopted at birth into a family who treated him badly.In this family he saw and experienced it all. His biological parent went onto to have other children. These they kept. You can imagine the narrative about his life that Don has carried. Rejection (or perceived rejection) is his trigger to abusive practices.

Sonny lived in a family which can best be described as emotionally barren. His mother had an active drug problem and a string of men friends. His experience when a new man came on the scene was that he was relegated to second place. At those times he acted out. He was then punished by his mother and often her new boyfriend. He learnt not to trust women. In his adult relationships he doesn’t allow himself to be vulnerable.

Two men, two stories. For all of the men I have worked with each has a narrative to explain how come they are in the position they are. Each has a myriad of things to overcome. Can these men change there abusive practices?

This is a question that I am often asked. Having worked in the field of family violence intervention for the past thirty years people kind of expect i might have an opinion on he matter. My answer is: “It depends”. This answer does not satisfy anyone really. It certainly wouldn’t satisfy me without further explanation.

The question of whether men can change their use of abusive practices needs to be stated in a much clearer way. A much better question is “What interventions work with who?” Other questions that we can ask alongside of this question include, “What is the nature of the intervention/program and who is this intervention/program effective for?” You and I both know that not all intervention/programs are effective for all participants. I don’t know about your experience but I have learnt over the years some men do surprisingly well in interventions/programs while others fail to engage. With a third group we may even be escalating risk by teaching more sophisticated skills of abuse.

We know that some men presenting at interventions/programs have many more issues to overcome than others. Don and Sonny are both examples of this complexity. Obviously the more complex the persons background in terms of trauma and own victimisation, the more challenging it is to get a result. If we were to develop a brief summary of the key predictors, then the following would fall out:

  1. Violence in family of origin – most of us would recognise that if a man both saw abuse and was abused in his family of origin, then the chances of being abusive as an adult increase markedly. Have a look at this fantastic clip: Children see, children do. I don’t know about you but I am often staggered by the experience of many of the many who I work with. In a study I carried out of 366 attending a stopping violence program, 60% of the men stated they witnessed abuse between their parents, 21% saw beatings with weapons, 48% slapping, 75% emotional abuse (swearing, yelling, put-downs), 60% sulking, 48% sarcasm, walking out, ignoring, 48% sarcasm, 45% alcohol and drug use.
  2. Low education and income – while not a causal factor, compounded stress of low income is a contributing marker for abusive behaviour.  It is interesting the current debate around an underclass within the New Zealand context and how this translates into more risk. In my experience we often have a whole range of factors that come together to create what some might call the perfect storm. In the context of violence of course, the perfect combination.
  3. Active alcohol abuse issues – alcohol is highly associated with abusive acts in both public and private places. Ask any police officer their experience of attending family violence incidents on a Friday and Saturday night. Alcohol is certainly a disinhibitor for behaviour.
  4. Personality disorders – we know that there is a group of men who are emotionally dependant and what they fear most is abandonment. This fear of abandonment exhibits in jealous rages and attempts to deprive their partners of an independent life. Holt discusses the future blog, but suffice to say this stage, that we do worry about this group in terms of high risk behaviour post separation.
  5. Anti-social personality  – while I am not a great fan of labelling we do know where there are antisocial attitudes and beliefs, the risk of public violence is high.
  6. Child abuse – it is now widely recognised that where there is abuse towards children and towards animals is a significant marker for family violence. Half of men who have been identified as being abusive to their partners have also abused a child. Attitudes that support abusive practices don’t get turned off to other family members.
  7. Behavioural deficits – some men just don’t possess the fundamental skills of relating to others. We are not talking about rehabilitation (gaining back something lost) but habilitation – building the base for new skills in the first place. I will talk in a blog in a couple of weeks about the ideas of social competence as a marker for social engagement in group interventions.
  8. Generalised aggression  – I don’t know about your experience, but mine is that when men are publicly violent, then the chances of private violence increases markedly. If a man is prepared to ignore sanctions around behaviour in the public sphere, then it is likely the private behaviour has little chance of being different. A sense of entitlement along with a tendency to be hedonistic and impulsive, makes for an interesting combination.

We have come a long way in our thinking regarding the idea of matching interventions to the type of abusive practice that men present with. With careful case formulation we can identify and match this to the intervention approach. We are then able to get a much better response and can answer the question, “Can men who use abusive practices change?” in the affirmative.

What do you think?  Love to hear your comments.

Published on Thursday, February 16th, 2012, under Family violence, What Ken thinks

2 Responses to “Can men who use abusive practices really change?”

  1. Joan says:

    Unfortunately my recent and ongoing experience has led me to believe they cannot change. There is some type of genetic trigger that can’t be fixed in the abusive man I have been married to for 6 and a half years and by the grace of God he was arrested and I was able to file for divorce. I hope to survive and become stronger and use my experience to help others.

    • Ken McMaster says:

      It is not always easy moving away from living with someone who is abusive. I agree that some men are just not ready to take that hard look at themselves, own their behaviour, then make the necessary changes to be safe with others. However many men do unhook themselves from adhering to gendered scripts about an abusive masculinity so there is always hope.

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