The gendered weight of desistance | HMA

The gendered weight of desistance

The question of who does the social and emotional heaving lifting in relationships is a central question to the gender question. It is in my view that this is a key issue that maintains abusive practice, as well as gender imbalance.  

I was excited to see the research paper by Lauren Hall and Lyndsey Harris, who have examined the experiences of women who support their male partners on their desistance journeys. The authors conceptualise a new term: Desistance Emotional Work. The paper;  “The gendered weight of desistance and understanding the ‘love of a good woman’: Desistance emotional work (DEW)”

Hall and Harris explore the hidden nature of gendered support, which is often rendered invisible in the research where we often talk about the person desisting (often male). It is generally argued that desistance is around three intersecting aspects: the motivation to live life differently, the skills to live life differently, and the conditions to support changes made. It got me thinking about much of the work around desistance replicating gender disadvantage. 


As Hall and Harris argue:  

“Given the established inequity in women’s contributions of emotional work in their relationships comparatively to men’s, and the potential for experiencing a partner’s incarceration to impact upon the gendered roles which the couple enact (Black, 2010), it is important to consider how the desistance process may further impact the level of emotional work undertaken by women partners of male desisters. Desistance may exacerbate gendered relational inequalities and emotional work through its heteronormative expectations of women in relationships with male partners to provide resources in support of the desistance process.” 


Men as a group tend to have a much small number of friends and supporters to call upon. Women, on the other hand, have more extensive networks. It is, therefore, not surprising that men will rely more on their female partners (in the case of heterosexual relationships, we don’t have data on same-sex relationships). As noted, this can have an isolating impact on the women involved. 

When I read this paper, I began considering the issue from the perspective of family violence. It would be a short stretch to postulate that jealousy would quickly emerge around the female partner’s outside activities and friendships. This could escalate into further isolation and limitation of the female partner. We know that many men who are doing prison time have high anxiety about their partner’s behaviour on the outside. True relational equality is not to replicate this anxiety when they walk out the prison gate. 


We know support is critically important for the maintenance of change. Perhaps it is time to unburden women from this heavy lifting and encourage men to seek out other men for support. When men can level the playing field and engage in social and emotional lifting within their relationships, we will have solid change.

Published on Wednesday, August 17th, 2022, under Family violence, What Ken thinks

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