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Understanding men who perpetrate domestic abuse
Kerry Ellis Devitt guest post on the complex pathways to violence in the home: better understanding male domestic abuse perpetration.

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The Complex pathways to violence in the home

This is a guest blog post by Kerry Ellis Devitt (@CJResearch2018), University of Portsmouth.

This post briefly summarises research which took place in 2021, by former Interventions Alliance researchers, Kerry Ellis Devitt, David Coley, Matthew Hockley and Jess Lawrence, and with freelance support from Dr Sarah Lewis. Funded by the Home Office as one of a number of grants awarded through their Domestic Abuse Perpetrator Research Fund 20/21, this study sought to identify who the perpetrators of DA are, and the early signs that may indicate someone is at risk of becoming abusive in future. The following findings are drawn from narrative interviews with 10 adult males, aged 22-53, all of whom were known to the Criminal Justice System (CJS) as perpetrators of DA.

 

Please note: The views reflected in this research are not necessarily those of the Home Office.

How do perpetrators of DA explain their lives and pathways to becoming domestically abusive?

Here we explored participants’ narratives using their own words, and through their own lens of reason. Participants revealed a number of similar early childhood experiences. These were:

  • Parental separation and the break-down of the family(often with dad leaving the family home)
  • Troubles at schoolg. academic, behavioural and developmental issues
  • One-off, traumatic events occurring in adolescenceg. finding a parent after a stroke, finding a parent after a suicide attempt, finding out they were adopted, witnessing someone being killed, and various life-changing medical issues. 

However, though these experiences were common, participants did not directly link them to their later DA perpetration. Other experiences, however, were directly linked, e.g.

  • Abuse and violence in childhood
  • Mental health, including substance misuse (most commonly expressed through narratives of teenage stress, and the subsequent impact on coping in adulthood)
  • Volatility in romantic relationships
  • Problematic beliefs about fatherhood and ‘the roles’ of men and women
  • and Youth and immaturity (most common amongst younger participants, who gave examples of how they changed their DA ways going into adulthood)

Why do DA perpetrators tell the stories they do?

Here we considered how and why participants told the stories they did. In particular, what that might reveal about their sense of identity, their motivations to desist from (or even, to persist in) future DA perpetration, and the relationships they had with the wider CJS. In the telling of their life-stories we noted:

  • Fears of being seen to be victim-blaming and/or failing to take accountability – some told of abuse in childhood, or being in mutually abusive relationships in adulthood. These stories often linked their experiences of being a victim of DA to their perpetration of it, but they struggled to do this without significant discomfort. They often got around this by drawing on the testimony of others who ‘vouched’ for them. E.g.

“…this is why they didn’t like her because they’d witness her act like that towards me, and then pull the victim card. I’m not saying [she’s] a victim, I shouldn’t say it like that, but that’s the way it all… that is how they had phrased it to me.” (Travis)

  • Desire to distance themselves from negative identities. Given the shame and stigma of being labelled as a DA perpetrator, there was a tendency to push away other negative traits, or suggest abusive behaviour was the fault of something else – most often alcohol.

“I mean it’s just the drink and drugs made me a very horrible, violent, nasty person…I do have a heart, I do know what I want to be doing. It’s just that I feel trapped in it, it’s just I need to escape from the person that I become when I’m on this stuff.” (Aaron)

  • We also saw patterns in how participants explained their violence against their partners. Telling stories of DA perpetration created problems in that, stories of men causing hurt and harm to women are rarely received well. As such, participants explained their violence in particular ways, which typically involved justification, mitigation and denial.
  • Finally, we noted multiple desistance narratives – stories which placed participants as reflective, reformed and ready for change. Such stories helped achieve a number of welcome outcomes such as, repairing damaged self-esteem, providing opportunities for redemption, and demonstrating positive future plans. These stories also functioned to protect, especially when it came to the power of Probation, and the wider system, in being able to mark them as still posing a risk. As such, and often despite other issues and complaints, participants tended to promote their compliance and positivity towards the systems that held them so as to have a better chance of reuniting with their partners.

“And if my probation officer, if the social worker, if they’re all happy after I’ve done all this course then there’s nothing to say we can’t get back together. We can do everything through the correct channels which is what I’m hoping to do, which is what I want to do.” (Simon)

 

© Susan Wilkinson

How can the learning from this research be usefully applied in policy and practice?

Points for policy and DA prevention programme development:

 

  • DA programmes should have greater focus on the damaging effects of aggression and violence in the family home, and acrimonious parental separation.
  • DA programmes should also have a greater focus on the role which fathers play in perpetrators’ young lives, and the messages they get about ‘being a man’ from the important men (and women) in their life.
  • Interventions should allow perpetrators the space to explore experiences of being a victim of DA, such that it does not end up becoming a barrier to acknowledging and tackling their own abusiveness and violence.
  • DA policy and programmes should consider the role that isolated traumatic events can have in a young person’s psychosocial development. 
  • More work needs to be done on stress management, especially in earlier adolescence. Stress at younger ages can pave the way for substantial problems in adulthood, and become a risk factor for DA when combined with other factors.
  • More education is needed for young people around building and sustaining ‘healthy’ relationships, and preferably before destructive patterns are formed.
  • Educate young people about what DA comprises, what the current legal definitions are, and how it can appear in a relationship. 

Points for practice and practitioners:

  • Don’t let concerns that perpetrators may be justifying or excusing their DA detract from the importance of such accounts being given at all. Stories themselves can be an important part of sense-making and reflexivity. 
  • Male to female domestic violence can threaten masculinity, and therefore may see additional levels of defence as individuals seek to preserve it. 
  • Older perpetrators may struggle more than younger perpetrators when it comes to problematic beliefs about gender roles, in part reflecting the generation they were born in to, and their confusion about what value they have in the family dynamic. 
  • Finally, perpetrators may withhold information, or be more inclined to tell ‘success’ stories which position themselves as reformed, changed and compliant, due to perceived risks about what might happen if they don’t. It is crucial that practitioners working directly with DA perpetrators understand this and encourage perpetrators to talk about these issues without fear of repercussions.

The main report can be found HERE.

For further details on this research, please contact Dr Kerry Ellis Devitt at kerryellisdevitt@gmail.com or through the Interventions Alliance contact page.

 

Thanks to Mika Baumeister for kind permission to use the header image in this post which was previously published on Unsplash.

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