When you think about ways to address domestic violence in your community, your immediate thoughts probably focus on Sheltering Wings and the other organizations that serve victims of domestic abuse. The safety, support, and resources we provide are indeed critical in helping victims move on to freedom from fear and abuse.
But if we want to truly free our community from the scourge of domestic abuse, we can’t do it only by tending to the victims. We need to stop it at its source, and that’s the people who are abusers. (Although there are abusers in both genders, in this post, we’re going to focus on men to keep the language from getting in the way of the message we want to convey.)
To eliminate domestic violence, we have to help men who are abusers recognize and admit to behavior that’s unacceptable. Then, we have to guide them to take the intentional steps involved in making different choices.
There is never an excuse or valid justification for domestic abuse. Never. We do know that there are factors that increase the chances that a man may be an abuser, and the most significant is growing up in a home where abuse is present. We all learn a lot from our parents — everything from faith, to how we handle money, to our tastes in food. And, by watching the interactions between our parents (or a parent and their intimate partner), we develop our own expectations for behavior in relationships. If Dad bellows at and belittles Mom every day, a young boy is going to believe that’s the proper way to treat women. If Dad’s anger results in physical violence toward Mom and the kids, the boy learns that hitting or slapping someone is an acceptable way to deal with anger. It can show up in an abusive relationship early as teen dating violence. It’s a vicious cycle, but it’s not an excuse.
To be effective, programs to stop abusive behavior must make abusers examine and challenge their beliefs and attitudes that foster violence. They need to take a deep look at the effect that their abuse has had on their partners, their children, and even themselves. Then they need to learn — and practice — responses that don’t involve controlling or other abusive behavior.
Some communities and courts have tried to achieve change by sending abusers to anger management programs, but that misses a key issue: abuse is all about control, not about anger. Most programs ignore the root causes of abuse and fail to hold the abuser accountable. Nor do they address the safety of his victims.
“Couples counseling” is another flawed approach, because it forces the victim to detail the abuse with the abuser in the room. Either she will be too afraid to speak out, or if she does, she may face more abuse as a punishment.
As a community, we need to stop blaming victims for the abuse they received, and put the blame squarely where it belongs. Protecting women and children, removing them from abusive situations and having a women’s shelter like Sheltering Wings helps, but we’ll never eliminate domestic abuse until we focus on changing the beliefs, attitudes, and actions of abusers.