Power, Privilege and Defensiveness: The Blind Spots In How We Understand Family Violence

Over the last five years as a family violence counsellor, I’ve had a lot of conversations about violence. I’ve had hundreds of conversations with men who use all forms of violence toward partners or family members; many who want to change and many who don’t think they need to change. Outside of this, I’ve heard countless conversations about family violence and issues that surround it. I’ve heard conversations with other practitioners, amongst friends, family and acquaintances, in the media, in politics and online. Across all these conversations, I’ve noticed it’s quite easy to all agree on some things; that violence is bad and that violent behaviour should stop. Even those who have used violent behaviour toward their partners or family frequently tell me they are against violence. It gets trickier when we start to discuss the range of behaviours that are violent and the impacts these behaviours have on others. Likewise, our differences in understanding reveal themselves when discussing the social and cultural forces that perpetuate family violence.

What became apparent to me when I started doing this work, is that it’s not just supporting individual men to change their violent and controlling behaviour. It’s also supporting these individual men to unpack their learned beliefs, attitudes and perceived identities that perpetuate such abusive behaviour. Without the skills to understand how our identities are socially and culturally constructed, it is hard to question the toxic aspects that drive gendered violence. Such blind spots not only perpetuate abusive behaviour in relationships, but also our ways of understanding such behaviour that may unintentionally reinforce it. In an effort to understand my own blind spots, here are some reflections on how I’ve observed them being revealed in clients, public discussions and within the community sector.

Blind spots of men who use family violence

I’ve spoken to hundreds of men who use a range of behaviours in their intimate and family relationships that are abusive, controlling and violent. It’s common for there to be confusion and defensiveness around their behaviour being considered violent; I’m frequently told by clients that they are not violent people, that they aren’t like that. As discussed in a previous blog taking responsibility for your choice of behaviours and empathising with how it impacts others, is a huge step toward change and working toward happier, safer relationships.

However, quite often in these conversations men can struggle with how this fits with their attitudes and beliefs around their role as a man in a heterosexual relationship. They may struggle to empathise with how their partner feels controlled if they believe it is normal for them to be in control of decisions, to be the ‘breadwinner’ and control finances, to assume a woman partner’s role is to perform unpaid child care and housekeeping work. They may consider it reasonable to use verbal or physical intimidation and abuse as means to have the final say or to shut down a conversation. At times when speaking with men who have used violence they will talk about remorse they feel for hurting their loved ones due to this being in breach of their perceived gender role as a ‘protector’, while failing to see the link between this belief that subordinates every other family member and their choice to use abusive, controlling behaviour toward them. Similarly, even if a mutual argument occurs, unchecked power imbalances may also lead to his confusion in regard to why his partner is feeling unsafe or fearful of them. Such blind spots around aspects of our learned gender roles in relationships not only perpetuate power imbalances, but can also get in the way of changing abusive behaviours. Working toward safer, happier relationships with the men I work with not only involves a man stopping his choices of violent behaviour, but also him having tools to unpack the gendered attitudes and beliefs that create imbalances of power and can inform choices of abusive behaviour.

Blind spots in public discussions on family violence

After having hundreds of conversations with men who use family violence, I can’t help but notice when similar blind spots in understanding are echoed throughout public discussions around family violence and the gendered norms that reinforce it. The concept of it being unacceptable for men to hit women is common in many aspects of Australian culture, and is reinforced by statements such as “real men don’t hit women” as expressed by our current prime minister.  Men I work with who have used a range of abusive, controlling behaviours toward their partners frequently use such a narrative to minimise the severity or be dismissive of the impact of their behaviour by stating they would “never hit a woman”, even when other forms of physical violence is present. While well intentioned, the ‘real men don’t hit women’ paradigm has been criticised as reinforcing gender roles as men being dominant ‘protectors’ while simultaneously ignoring the range of violent, controlling behaviours that the men I work with use.

Another example is the common defensive response of ‘not all men are violent’ when a discussion around the gendered dynamics of men’s use of family violence occurs. Insecurities aside, the ‘not all men’ paradigm attempts to frame family violence as existing within individual men who are using physical violence, and states that there are men who do not, therefore cancelling out the need to talk about gender and gendered violence more broadly. Ironically, the ‘not all men’ are violent argument contributes to men’s continued use of family violence by attempting to shut down conversations around the different forms of socially constructed gender roles that perpetuate it.

These are just a couple of examples of how public discourse can reinforce violence supporting attitudes and beliefs. Likewise, some defensive responses toward public discussion of family violence can often emulate the defensive responses of men who use family violence. Having the ability to discuss how certain aspects of our learned gender identities can reinforce choices of abusive behaviour makes it a lot easier to work toward changing them.

Blind spots in practitioners and advocates who work towards changing men’s family violence

As a practitioner working with men to challenge ideas around aspects of masculinities that reinforce violent behaviour, it is not a giant leap to acknowledge how these same social and cultural forces impact our own beliefs, attitudes and identities. As a male identified counsellor, I carry my own perceived norms and gender identity into the work, along with my own blind spots around how these may impact my personal and professional relationships. As a counsellor inviting clients to challenge their perceived norms of gender roles which  perpetuate family violence, it is important to extend such a critique to my own experience of masculinities. When working with men who have used all forms of family violence it is common for them to tell me “but I’m not a violent guy. I’m a good guy”. This same polarisation of the issue of violence that gets in the way of men changing can be an easy paradigm to slip into myself as a practitioner; to view men’s family violence as an individual issue of my clients, and the trope “I’m not like that, I’m a good guy”. Even some attempts at advocating against men’s family violence will invite me to pledge I am not a violent guy without unpacking what this means on a day-to-day basis. As practitioners, it’s important to strive to be understanding and reflexive of how we construct, How the cultures we move through inform our attitudes, beliefs and identities. By doing so, we can strive to avoid reinforcing the gendered norms in our cultures that inform men’s use of family violence. We will be better placed to invite men to challenge their attitudes, beliefs and behaviours, which commonly get in the way of respectful relationships.