Responding to coercive control in criminal justice domestic violence perpetrator programmes in England and Wales: Conceptual, operational, and methodological complexities
Background to the research and rationale
This paper draws on findings from a wider study on the criminal justice, Building Better relationships (BBR) programme, a cognitive behavioural informed intervention for men convicted of a domestic abuse related offence in England and Wales. I explored why domestic abuse perpetrator programmes (DVPPs) may be less effective in addressing non-violent, coercively controlling behaviours compared to physical and sexually violent acts.
The paper draws on interviews with programme facilitators and one in depth case study with a male programme participant I have called ‘Dale’.
A brief history of the Building Better Relationships programme
BBR was piloted and rolled out across UK probation areas from 2013. Unlike its predecessor, the Integrated Domestic Abuse Programme and the Community Domestic Violence Programmes, BBR was not informed by the Power and Control Wheel (often referred to as the Duluth Model), which describes a range of tactics deployed instrumentally by men to control their female partners for reasons that were motivated by male privilege and maintaining sex inequities. Instead, BBR was re-developed to take a more individualised approach to understanding perpetrator motivations, with the view that not all men who perpetrate domestic abuse do so instrumentally, rather some do so because they lack the skills necessary to manage conflict, as is captured by one of the facilitators in the quote below:
“We’re not so much power and control any more… now it’s more about emotional management, isn’t it? We do get some people that are really instrumental and it’s about manipulation, but we do get some that just, in that moment, blow up…and don’t know how to calm themselves down…in terms of the emotional management side of things and lads that have got no – no real skills, it’s about getting them to understand the skills and getting them to – to learn a different way, that’s very much sort of the focus of BBR. The – the instrumental lads, it’s – it is about manipulation and it is about control, that side of it, for me that’s more about getting them to see consequence.”
BBR in effect de-centred gender and male entitlement as the core reasons for domestic abuse and was re-developed with a renewed focus on emotion management. Emotion management requires men to develop awareness of physiological cues and techniques such as ‘time out’. Once calm, psychological resources such as ‘self-talk’ and developing an awareness of sexist and/or other pro-violent attitudes can be drawn upon to challenge unhelpful thinking and reduce violent conflict.
Addressing thinking deficits and teaching emotion management skills was broadly viewed by all facilitators as useful for participants to learn and use. However, there were a number of concerns raised by them which related to gender and emotional understanding:
- BBR did not always resemble a programme designed to tackle domestic abuse
- It did not seem ‘strong enough’ to address issues such as ‘revenge porn, stalking and harassment’.
- Many men presented with emotional vulnerabilities and other psychological difficulties
- Facilitators did not feel they had the training, skills or time to be responsive to these presented difficulties, exacerbated by working on a ‘conveyor belt’
- Working on a ‘conveyor belt’ meant that some men disclosed difficulties that were not addressed and in the view of facilitators this could impact programme effectiveness
Dale: A case study
Dale was a 49-year-old man from a low socio-economic background and had a history of domestic abuse. Dale had grown up in a home where his father was coercively controlling towards his mother and had singled Dale out for violence amongst his siblings. This had resulted in emotional insecurities and self-loathing that created dependencies in his own intimate relationships.
Dale initially attributed his domestic abuse to one off ‘silly rows’, ‘protecting’ women, or mutual violence. However, over the course of the interviews he admitted to being ‘aggressive and controlling’ and, despite reporting no physical violence, he separated with his partner several times over the course of the programme for being controlling. Dale was aware that this was having a negative effect on his relationships and was therefore confused as to why he behaved in this way:
“I just, I just said, erm, to the lady [facilitator] before I come in here, why is it? – cos this is what I do in my relationships. I’m greatest person in world, I, I am, do you know what I mean, I laugh, joke. Get wi’ ‘em. And then as soon as I get wi’ ‘em I change. Do you know what I mean? I do control”
Based on Dale’s accounts, his coercively controlling behaviour was triggered by fear of abandonment while his justifications for doing so was linked to traditional ideas about masculinity and gendered expectations.
During the course of the programme, Dale attempted (with some success) to use the emotional management and cognitive skills he had been taught and claimed the programme was ‘really working’ and became more open to discussing how his own behaviour was harmful. However, when presented with situations which gave cause for jealousy and fear of being abandoned, without addressing these emotional difficulties, his coercively controlling behaviour resurfaced (questioning his partner, calling her names), resulting in him losing his partner. This reshaped his view of the programme and the reasons for his violence within the relationship. Dale’s defensiveness was topped with feeling let down by the programme, a loss of meaningful employment and social capital due to his incarceration for domestic abuse.
Conclusions and implications
DVPPs need to consider the role that men’s biographies (particularly early childhood experiences) play in their desire to control alongside unequal, traditional and harmful gender norms that some men invest in to justify abuse of their partners.
This re-conceptualisation of coercive control has implications for practice and evaluations of DVPPs:
- Emotion management and cognitive skills are useful techniques for men to learn but on their own are superficial and unlikely to work in the long term without engaging men on an emotional level
- Listening to and understanding the reasons men provide for being coercively controlling opens up possibilities for working with them in more meaningful ways
- Facilitators need (and want) the time, training and support to work with men in meaningful ways
- Criminalisation creates further shame and barriers to change
- Case studies should form part of wider evaluations as these can provide a more nuanced analysis about men’s accounts of change, how reliable these are, and the complexity of this process