Men whose main problem is violence or aggression are the second largest client group at Manscentrum. Victims of their abuse are most often closely related women, and sometimes children. Violence against persons outside the family can happen also. Most violent men get individual counselling. Some are given the opportunity to participate in a specially-designed group therapy program. The form of therapy created at Manscentrum was initially modelled on a few basic theories taken from the Canadian Center for Violence Intervention (CIRV) in Montreal. The method has developed over the years, and can simply be described as therapy with an educational slant. The results are good and recurrences few.
A prerequisite for beginning to change violent behaviour is that the violent man seeks help, and is motivated to, or can be motivated to learn what he needs to avoid violence in the future. The probability that he will seek help increases, of course, if he knows that help is to be found and where he can turn to find it. In general, a violent man seeks help when the consequences of the violence threaten him personally. This occurs, for example, when the woman threatens to leave him or has already left him, when those around him find out because of what has happened, or because the police have become involved. When the man can no longer keep secret or explain away the violence, he can begin to search for something or someone who can help him. In this way there is a possibility that he may be motivated to learn what he needs.
However, if he succeeds in avoiding to take responsibility for his actions, the risk is great that he will go on in life without working on it, and without knowing how he can avoid violence the next time a situation becomes explosive.
For a man who has problems with violence and aggression to be able to have relationships with others without resorting to violence, he must at first have the realization that only he is responsible for his actions, no matter to what provocations he may feel he is subjected. This first step is often difficult for him to take, particularly when he normally thinks that he has no alternative, was forced, was provoked, acted in self-defence, etc. His solutions to the violence usually are based on the idea that the woman, or someone else who he thinks creates problems for him, bears the responsibility and should change herself. After a fight, the realization that he will be the big loser, and that he has to ask for forgiveness and do penance, or risk being punished usually creates the motivation for change. Emphasizing and supporting the man’s taking care of himself can start his urge to change and his creativity. If on the other hand the man’s responsibility for others is emphasized too much, then his usually strong feelings of guilt are strengthened and he becomes even more defensive. To summarize: a man who uses violence to solve conflicts is usually not very interested in trying new ways of thinking, or new patterns of behaviour until he understands that he alone creates the problems whose consequences he is now feeling. When he is no longer blaming others, he has often come a step closer to freedom from violence.
Manscentrum is contacted by men from many different professions and social classes. What they have in common is that they have used violence. Why these particular men have been violent is a difficult question to answer. A common conception is that they themselves have been subjected to violence, but according to more than half the men who have been in group therapy at Manscentrum, they have had no such experiences. Another common hypothesis is that those men are moving in circles where violence is accepted, which is true in certain cases. However, we also meet men who say that they have never before been close to hitting another person. Their violence is in every way against their normal way of behaving towards others. Another theory is that violent men are suffering from an emotional disturbance, which makes them ready to use violence. Some violent men are without a doubt disturbed, but not all men with emotional disturbances are violent.
The best way to end violence seems to be initially to concentrate on what happened, and wait until later to ask questions about why this man became violent. There is a risk, otherwise, that we become too devoted to the factors behind the problem, instead of helping him take responsibility for his actions here and now. It is not always necessary to get to know his personal characteristics and his former experiences to be able to help him find a better alternative than violence to solve conflicts. Some characteristics and behaviour of the men are common, for example, the fear of conflicts. They have often built up an explosive mixture of feelings of inadequacy and expectations of being let down and abandoned. For some men this building up has gone on for their whole lives. For others, it has gone on for a period just before the violence started. The men are very different as persons, but they still describe the course of events leading up to the violence in very similar ways. Their emotional situations can be summed up with the word powerlessness. Therefore, the work is initially not focused on who the men are, but instead first on how these feelings of powerlessness are created. In the beginning another reason for not looking too much into the men’s< different personalities and individual situations is the risk of inhibiting the process of taking responsibility for their actions. They often make excuses for failures, or put the blame on someone or something else, and it may be easy to hide behind childhood conditions, bad parents, bad temper, or the inability to hold their liquor.
Manscentrum’s perspective is that a man who is conscious of his impetuous temper must take responsibility for it himself. As long as he keeps pointing to external factors as an explanation for his actions, he does not have any motivation for taking the responsibility himself. The violence of men against women is very much a complex of emotional problems and, therefore, it is not usually enough to understand how the problems arise in order to make changes. Emotional work is also necessary.
Our experience is that almost all men consider it wrong to beat a woman. This is something learned early in life, and men who break this rule are looked down upon. Even violent men usually share this opinion irrespective of what excuses, denials and defences they show. They judge themselves harshly on the inside, and their different strategies of defence aim at avoiding their own judgment, as well as the judgment of others. Therefore, it generally requires a combination of courage, factors which force him, and firm human support before a violent man dares to look at himself in the mirror.
An important step in this work is to illustrate the process that leads to a man breaking his own rules and hitting his woman. As mentioned before, this can be done by, e.g., letting him describe the course of events before and accompanying the violence. This often makes it possible for him to understand what happened, and makes it easier for him to see his part in the problems. It is important to illustrate for him how he himself laid the groundwork for failure.
A common denominator for most violent men is that they often behave impulsively without thinking. There is no time to consider the alternatives, or to even see them. They do not check to see if they have understood the situation correctly, and the result is that they often react from their imaginations, instead of the reality of the situation. When you assume you know the intentions of others, risky misapprehensions arise which are strongly influenced by the fears of not being good enough, of being let down, etc. Some men are exaggeratedly accommodating. They would rather say yes, than no, and they seem to act from the idea ”if she gets what she wants, she will be pleased and happy.” If the man’s good intentions and loving benevolence do not bring the desired effect, there is a risk that he will try to do more and more ”to please her,” etc. The risk is that his efforts and intentions, because of lack of communication, will be misunderstood by the woman, so that he does not get the positive response he is aiming to get. He winds up in a vicious cycle of increased activity and failure. This is not an unusual process, and it can lead a normally calm, balanced and self-confident man to lose the belief in himself, and in that powerlessness to become destructive. Another component of the process is that the fear of catastrophe emerges earlier and earlier because he starts recognizing the sequence of events. He knows how it will end, and he does not see any alternatives. The fear and the feeling of powerlessness increases, and the periods between violent moments tend to shorten.
Usually fear is the driving force behind the course of events that end with violent actions. Those who participate want to prevent the threats from becoming reality. The escape is usually about getting away from confronting feelings of inadequacy, being abandoned, losing control of their feelings, appearing weak, etc. When the man does not get away, the situation becomes more and more threatening. The desperation and the powerlessness increase, and his maneuvers to save the situation become more and more out of control. The course of actions escalates out of proportion to the trifle that provoked it. A common parallel is when one chooses to lie impulsively, and due to fear of exposure one becomes entangled in more lies until one has to answer to not one, but many lies. Afterwards one might say it would have been better to tell the truth in the first place, daring to handle the initial trouble of which one was afraid.
Sulking, criticism, strong emotional outbursts of anger and crying by the woman, bring feelings of stress and being threatened to many men. We can describe some different strategies men use to avoid confrontation in the face of these negative reactions; Apparently, the most common is to try to be as accommodating as possible. Some men, and some women, live all their lives this way. They are often extremely service-oriented or willing, to take responsibility, but can react aggressively when they are not met by the expected gratitude, or when they in other ways feel that they failed to achieve what they had hoped for, in spite of their sacrifices. Another strategy is to strike out at everyone and everything who makes active the fear of not being good enough. It is all about stopping their own panic, and to take control of the outside threat.
Some men are regarded as dual personalities by the women. Initially, the men lavish roses and presents, seeming to be very charming and considerate. They then change (the anxiety of not being good enough is awakened), and some show totally opposite sides of themselves, for example, becoming controlling and oppressive. The women have difficulty taking this unpleasant and violent side seriously, ”But he seemed like such a nice man!”
In some relationships the problems intensify when the woman tries to reach out to the man to find out where he stands, what he thinks, etc. The man does not stand up to her. He feels threatened and tries to escape, or to get around things all the time. The more pressure she puts on him, the more he steps back. The man’s fear of conflict puts him in situations where he feels pressed into a corner. The violence can be seen as his attempt to stop what he feels are verbal attacks from the woman, but also as an expression of the panic and powerlessness he feels. Some men carry experiences from old wrongs and injuries which can be awakened in the relationship (this, of course, can also apply to the woman). When the emotional content of the meeting between the man and the woman is influenced by the past, it can be hard to understand what is happening. Though this is true for most human relationships that do not lead to violence, misapprehensions and difficulties in understanding each other are almost always found in connection with violence, and it is very important to try to solve them.
If the man gets help to understand how the problems arise, and the couple attend some conversations together with a focus on how they communicate, the relationship in some cases can move quickly in a positive direction. Usually, however, the road is long and painful. The man has to face what he is afraid of, and start to trust in himself. The woman must get a chance to test his reliability. That violence has occurred does not mean the relationship does not have a chance to survive. All relationships cannot be saved, however, but that should not be the primary objective of the work, either. To get rid of the violence is the main goal.
Treatment in Groups
Since the Fall of 1991, Manscentrum has been arranging group therapy for violent men. The main ideas were adopted from CIRV in Montreal. The method can be described as unstructured group therapy in open groups. By open group we mean that the group is filled with new men as others finish their treatments. Unstructured means that the questions and issues are brought up in the order that they appear in the daily lives of men, and not according to a fixed schedule. The idea is that if a man participates and chooses to influence what is discussed in the therapy room, the willingness to take responsibility for his development increases. If the man feels he is forced to deal with questions that he does not think are the most important, then his commitment declines. Our experience, as well as that of others’, is that most issues relevant in the process of solving these problems are brought up, eventually. It can even start with a question such as ”How was your week?” We have also found that this method creates a feeling that ”it’s about me” in those who participate. This leads to a high level of commitment, and prepares the ground for each man to work seriously on himself.
One of the basic ideas in the Manscentrum model is that a violent man who can manage to avoid violence for about fifteen weeks, and at the same time work with his problem in a group, has taken a firm step towards being able to decide for himself, if violence has a place in his life. This requires, however, that the conversations be focused on learning better alternatives for handling conflicts with the emphasis on each person’s responsibility for his actions. This is ”like attending a course,” according to the participants. Initially, we make an agreement with the man that he must participate in the group once a week forfifteen weeks in a row. He has to agree to the rules of the group in writing. The rules are: Not to use violence, to be sober, not to take one’s life, to be on time, and not to spread information about other members outside the group. If he breaks the rules, he must start again. A relapse into violence means that he starts from session number one irrespective of how many times he has participated. At first, most men are eager to get through the therapy quickly, which creates a positive pressure to ”behave.”
Before he starts in a group the man has to fill out a form with questions about his personal circumstances and what the violence has been like. This creates a picture that can be an unpleasant experience to face for many, but also helps them to take the problems seriously. When it is put on paper, it is not as easy to escape. The way towards a life without violence is seldom straight and simple, and only a few of the men feel ready after just the tenth visit. Most men need more time.
When a man has completed fifteen weeks in a row without interruptions, relapses into violence, etc., he is asked if he is able to handle his problem. He often feels he has taken a step in the right direction, but he is still insecure. He then has to formulate what it is he thinks he needs to improve, and he is encouraged to consider how many more visits he thinks it will take. The message to the man is that now he is the one who knows his needs best, and knows how to take responsibility for them, but that the group is still available for him.
When the man has reached his goal and quits the group, treatment is concluded with an individual evaluation conversation. We go back to the first questionnaire, and ask some of the questions again. A comparison to the previous answers shows how the man’s ability to handle emotional problems and violence has changed. On the initiative of the groups, the men are reunited in their original groups once per year. These reunions are greatly appreciated. The time spent with the group is seen by most men as a unique experience, not only because of the pain they have felt in taking responsibility for their actions, but also because of the sense of community and solidarity they have experienced with other men in the same situation.
These reunions also show how the men’s lives develop. As far as we know, only a few have relapsed into violence. The majority think their lives are better. Most of all their feelings of self-confidence have increased, which, for example, may be reflected in resumed studies and better relationships with women.
The results of learning how to avoid violence can be summed up in the words ”improved quality of life.” More than half the men are still living with the woman they used to abuse. One man wrote this about his new life, ”It’s so nice to live in a family where no one is afraid of me anymore.”
Translation and Copy editing: Maggie Curran, AAG Enterprises firstname.lastname@example.org