The gendered weight of desistance
New research by Lauren Hall (@HallLaurenJay) & Lyndsey Harris (@DrLyndseyHarris) examines the experiences of women who support their male partners on their desistance journeys. The authors conceptualise a new term: Desistance Emotional Work. The paper, “The gendered weight of desistance and understanding the ‘love of a good woman’: Desistance emotional work (DEW)” is published in the current issue of the Probation Journal and is free to download.
The research, based on six in-depth interviews with women in this role had three aims:
- To establish the gaps between desistance policy, research, and practice from gendered, partner perspectives;
- To understand women’s experiences of intimate relationships with desisters;
- To explore the gap between desistance research and practice for female partners, and to align the research findings with the desistance narrative – acknowledging women’s roles as both witnesses and participants in desistance.
The authors start by noting that desistance theory and research has mainly been focused on men and that there has been plenty of attention on how strong relationships (including intimate ones) and social bonds are paramount to successful reintegration and desistance. Outside of criminology, research has explored the disproportionate contributions women make to their relationships in association with levels of psychological distress. Research has shown that the investment of emotion women make in their intimate relationships is often not met equally by their male partner and the toll this takes can negatively impact various life domains including mental health.
The authors highlight the fact that while desistance research has generally promoted the positive impact of intimate relationships on the desistance process, it has not examined the onus that this disproportionately places on the women who provide emotional (and frequently practical and financial) support.
The research discusses a number of different themes which emerged from the interviews.
One of these was the strains of providing support to partners in prison. Women not only spoke of the difficulties of being alone and (often) of having to become a single parent but also of the guilt that they were at liberty in the community instead of being incarcerated – despite the fact that they had not been in any way involved in their partners’ criminal behaviour. They also talked of the shame and stigma they experienced from having a partner in prison.
Some talked of being pressured to take drugs into prison and the emotional pain of cutting themselves off from their partner so as to avoid being drawn into a life of crime themselves.
Many talked of the distress and emotional exhaustion of supporting their partner for many years (typically emotionally, financially & practically) only for them to “relapse” into crime. Women talked of wasting their lives and of feeling a sense of failure for their partners’ decisions and actions. Many of the stories are reminiscent of those of women supporting men trying (and failing) to recover from a dependency on alcohol and/or drugs.
Where men did not relapse, there were other costs of this Desistance Emotional Work including unequal relationships with women investing the majority of their time into supporting their partners at the cost of their social lives, agency and, often, their entire identity.
The authors acknowledge that several of their interviewees also identified strengths and positives in their relationships. They do, however, list the wide range of activities involved in DEW which they say includes:
“emotional work particularly around guilt and hope; caregiving; parenting; practical and financial desistance support such as transport and prison visitation; and identity and agency change.”
The authors conclude by asking probation and other practitioners to consider the ripple-effects of informal support provided by partners and develop awareness of local gender-sensitive supportive
initiatives, such as women’s centres and charities like Partners of Prisoners, which are able to provide holistic support to women supporting men to desist.
Thanks to Nathan McBride for kind permission to use the header image in this post which was previously published on Unsplash.