Leaving an abusive relationship is difficult, particularly when there are compelling reasons to stay. Can the abuser be guided to change their behaviour instead?
It is easy to assume that abusive situations are fairly clean cut, based on what we see in the media and entertainment: the abuser is evil, and the victim has no option but to escape. While this is true in some cases, oftentimes it’s not that straightforward. Family violence is a complex issue because every relationship has a different dynamic and level of risk. Fortunately, for those who don’t wish to end a relationship, there are intervention options that may help to improve the situation, including Men’s Behaviour Change Programs.
A common misconception about family violence is that it is predominantly physical abuse. At the moment there is no fixed definition of family violence, with definitions depending on the context and perspective of researchers or support services using the term (or other terms such as domestic violence, or intimate partner violence). However, the Australian Bureau of Statistics lists behaviours and relationships that form a definition that is used for statistical purposes. As well as physical violence, the behaviours include: sexual, emotional and verbal abuse and intimidation; economic and social deprivation; damage of personal property; and abuse of power. The relationships can be spouse and de facto relationships (which are specific to family violence legislation) but can be further extended to cohabitation, cultural or kinship relationships, foster care relationships and care situations.
Family violence is a public issue that has gained a great deal of media attention in recent years, both in Australia and around the world. After the shocking death of 11 year old Luke Batty at the hands of his father at a Melbourne cricket ground in 2014, Luke’s mother Rosie Batty has advocated for greater public awareness and policy reform, and was awarded Australian of the Year in 2015 for her efforts. Last month, politicians, sportspeople and the public linked arms to participate in the No More campaign, one of several campaigns aiming to increase public awareness of the issue. It seems the movement towards ending this type of violence is gaining more and more momentum as time goes on.
Promoting public awareness is incredibly important when it comes to destigmatising the issue and creating social change. But there can be a disparity between just being aware that abuse happens and accurate perceptions of the day-to-day reality that victims face. For instance, to an outside observer the solution seems simple: the victim needs to leave. This is clearly the case when lives are at immediate risk, but in many cases it is far more complex than that. There are many reasons a victim might stay: leaving might make the victim and any children homeless; there may be cultural reasons complicating the decision; or leaving might put their life at risk more than it would to stay. Perhaps the most influential element keeping victims trapped is the psychological bond developed during the abusive relationship, called the trauma bond. And then there are some milder cases where the couple love each other and the abuse is driven by ignorance or lack of insight, befuddling them both.
In these situations, victims need options other than leaving the relationship. For those who are not in immediate danger and wish to improve their situation, an intervention approach can change the power dynamic and encourage the abuser to gain insight into their controlling or aggressive behaviours. One intervention, which can be voluntary or involuntary (court-ordered), is a Men’s Behaviour Change Program (MBCP, or batterer program in the US). These programs use an interpersonal group environment to educate and counsel abusive men with the goal of changing their controlling behaviours.
Robin Parry, family therapist and author of Opening the Door from Inside: How to Deal with Domestic Violence, writes about ways women can build up their power and autonomy in an abusive relationship, putting them in a better position to make decisions — including whether to stay or leave. She also ran MBCPs for Lifeline Gold Coast for seven years, and gives a facilitator’s perspective. “Men learned from one another in a supportive environment and were able to confront their behaviours and attitudes without fear of accusation or rejection,” said Parry. “They learned hard truths about the way they relate and its destructive effects.”
Facilitators generally work in pairs, one male and one female. They educate the participants about the cyclical nature of abuse, and demonstrate appropriate behaviours through modelling. “Respectful communication was a revelation for them as were their softer feelings that they generally overrode by aggression,” said Parry.
Unfortunately, MBCPs have historically been plagued by little data to evaluate their use. In March last year, the Royal Commission into Family Violence highlighted the role of MBCPs in increasing perpetrator responsibility, but it also stressed the current limitations of these programs. Probably the most significant issue was that, at the time the Royal Commission was published, there wasn’t enough evidence in the Australian context to determine whether MBCPs are effective at decreasing violence and increasing the safety of victims.
But in November last year, a groundbreaking longitudinal study was published by Violence Free Families on the effectiveness of MBCPs. The research was conducted by Professor Emeritus Thea Brown, Dr Catherine Flynn and other members of the Department of Social Work at Monash University. It is the first study of its scale in Australia, covering 300 men and their partners across eight agencies, and following them up for an average of two years after completion. It is also the first study in the world to follow up participants who did not complete their program.
The study assessed the level of violence immediately after the participants ended their program and for the following two years. Overall the results were very positive. Immediately after the program, 70% rated their behaviour as "very much improved." Violence fell by half after program completion across all 15 areas measured, and continued to fall over two years. Of those who were followed up after two years, 65% were violence free or almost violence free.
In surveys taken throughout the study, the participants who had made improvements talked about the program’s role in this. According to the study, these men “found explanations for their violence from the programs that allowed them to reconstruct a new violence-free identity, they found other men in the same position with whom they could share, they found strategies for change and they found facilitators who could guide them through the change”.
John, a recent participant of an MBCP, spoke about his experience. “I was skeptical that group therapy would work as it seemed like a lot of the problems I had were very particular to my situation,” he said. “The irony is that the group sessions subtextually teach you just how common the problems are that you're facing.” For John, the MBCP changed how he responds to situations that triggered him in the past. “When things start to heat up in my mind, I think about what I learned in the program, and it helps me take a step back,” he said. He knows that it was not a quick fix, and that he is responsible for staying mindful of his behaviour using the tools he learnt in the program. “I know now that I have a choice. Maybe most importantly I'm able to remember that there are other ways to get these feelings out than abusive behaviour.”
While feedback about MBCPs is mostly positive, it is important to note they are not a panacea for the problem. In Parry’s experience, some men were more difficult to help and would have needed further treatment. “At the group's end, a number of the men were likely to slip back, especially those who had untreated mental health issues or continued to self-medicate with alcohol or drugs,” she said. The study noted that MBCPs are not a ‘silver bullet’ that stops all men from being violent, but they are a low-cost tool in addressing family violence at a time when there are few tools available. Unfortunately there are barriers, such as lack of coordination between agencies and uncertainty of funding, that stand in the way of their widespread availability.
It may seem perplexing to an outsider that someone wishes to stay in an abusive relationship. In reality, family violence is multifaceted, and it is important that there is a range of options for victims to consider. Services like helplines and refuges provide vital frontline support. For people who wish to continue a relationship, whether as partners or co-parents, it is comforting to know that intervention approaches, such as MBCPs or counselling, can be effective towards increasing safety and insight in relationships. Perhaps if public awareness extended to an understanding of the broad spectrum and complex nature of abusive situations, greater value will be put on these types of programs.
Edited by Ena Music