Learning not to abuse your partner
The programme that puts abusers at the heart of the solution.
“The reality kicks in: You’re the one that did it, you stand up and accept it, now let’s work out how to change it”
One night a month a group of men meets in the upstairs room of a closed cafe. Their only connection to each other is that they all have a history of committing domestic abuse – and that they’ve each decided voluntarily to do something about it.
It’s a sparsely furnished, brightly lit room with snacks on the table and a whiteboard covered in notes. It has the look of a room that’s not often in use. There only two participants and the facilitator here tonight, it’s a welcoming atmosphere and both men come across as unguarded and self-reflective. It feels weird to be here having this friendly chat, given what we’re talking about.
The men who attend these monthly meetings, known as the ‘relapse prevention group’ have been through a group programme for perpetrators of domestic abuse run by Splitz, a charity offering domestic abuse support services. It’s not a court mandated programme, but it’s looked upon favourably if custody of a child is in question.
The relapse prevention group is something that the men also decided to do of their own volition once the initial programme ended, to support each other and continue reinforcing the positive behaviours they’d learned.
“It just helps remind you,” says James*, one of the group members, who is in his forties. “Otherwise you just go back into your life, and though you don’t necessarily forget about it, you can think ‘oh, I’m fixed now’, and maybe slide back into past behaviours.” He joined to try and save a relationship. They split up before the programme started but he went on it anyway. He says that it wasn’t what he’d been expecting.
“We can save women, but we need to change men”
“I think to a certain degree I went in feeling sorry for myself,” he explains. “Looking for a bit of sympathy, a bit of a pat on the back, a bit of ‘you’re not alone’, agreeing with you.
“But then the reality kicks in: that actually, no, it is your Goddamn fault, you’re the one that did it, you stand up and accept it, now let’s work out how to change it.”
“I just knew that I needed some kind of help with my attitude,” says Paul, another of the men in the group. “There might be the tendency, because you’ve done the initial programme, to think that now you’re perfect and you can go back and conquer everything, and the reality is that you’re probably no closer than you were before. It’s just that now you know your weaknesses.”
The most recent theme they’ve been talking about is emotional abuse and intimidation: what it looks like, the ways the men do it and what the impact of it on their partners.
James says the group needs to pose hard hitting questions to the participants. “Otherwise you’re just there for the sake of it, almost. You need to address what’s really going on so you can make changes.”
These follow-up group sessions are now informing Reprovide, a pilot study that was launched last year to investigate ways of making perpetrator programmes more effective. So far, they’ve recruited 36 perpetrators and about half of their partners or ex partners to the programme.
Facilitators work from a manual designed by researchers and other experts, dealing with different aspects of abusive behaviour, like anger, respect, challenging patriarchal and misogynistic attitudes towards women and teaching participants techniques to deal with anger.
Lead researcher of the Reprovide study, Professor Gene Feder has published several papers on the healthcare response to domestic violence in the UK and abroad. He says that while perpetrator programmes have existed for decades, evidence about their effectiveness remains uncertain. He hope that this study will make future perpetrator programmes more effective.
“We are not that interested in outcomes at the end of a perpetrator programme; what we’re really interested in is how things are a year, two years, five years down the line…” says Feder.
Changes in domestic abuse law
Over recent years, the law has become tougher on domestic abuse, which until 2004 wasn’t a criminal offence. Before then, incidents of abuse would have to be prosecuted as criminal assault, threatening behaviour, sexual assault, threats to kill or criminal damage – and victims only had up to six months to report a crime. Under the new legislation, victims can report the abuse up to two years after. This is an important modification, given that long-term coercion – itself a criminal offence from December 2015 – and intimidation are often integral to perpetrators maintaining control over their partners.
Now, further advancements have been put forward. Under new proposals as part of government’s draft domestic abuse bill consultation, announced in early March, domestic abuse suspects will be banned from contacting victims, consuming alcohol or drugs and may be electronically tagged. The ‘new civil protection’ order is designed to be an early intervention, protecting victims from further abuse from suspects before they get convicted, and breaches will be punishable as a criminal offence.
Why we need perpetrator programmes
“It’s shocking how much effort goes into supporting people who are dealing with the consequences of these problems and how little support there is to stop this problem”
Funding support for perpetrators can seem like a controversial decision, but experts say that these programmes are key to prevention.
Carol Metters is CEO of Bristol domestic abuse charity Next Link, which provides the support for the female victims of the men on the Reprovide programme. She says that it’s not enough to support women experiencing abuse, that abusers’ attitudes need to change.
“We know that if we help a woman to leave a violent partner, the chances are that the violent partner will get another partner and start beating up her. So we have to address men’s attitudes and behaviour,” she says. “We can save women, but we need to change men”.
“If you’ve got a real commitment to tackling domestic abuse – and I would say Bristol has – then you have to be willing to fund this. Domestic abuse costs the public purse millions. It’s an investment to invest in this programme.”
Lisa Furness, who spent a decade volunteering on a WomanKind helpline, says that prevention rather than cure is “a healthier way of dealing with things”.
“The argument is always made that that the victims are the ones that deserve the resources. But I really think that this is putting the cart before the horse”.
“It’s shocking how much effort goes into supporting people who are dealing with the consequences of these problems and how little support there is to stop this problem, at the point where a person is realising that their behaviour is becoming violent and destructive or dangerous,” she says.
Furness once took a call from a man who called the helpline after having lost his temper and “lashed out at” his wife. “Normally – because of funding – the rule would be to apologise, end the call and let them know that there are other lines that are not women only that they could call,” says Furness.
But, she was worried that if she hung up on him – when he was asking for help, admitting he had a problem and couldn’t deal with it on his own – that the next call she got would be from his wife or daughter.
She talked to him and helped him calm down and then tried to find him support, but beyond men’s helpline ManKind and a couple of places offering anger management, there was very little available.
“Any guy that’s got the courage and the self-awareness and the resilience to step forward and say ‘this is happening to me, I’m struggling to control it and I need help’, is inspirational. Very few people get to that stage, and the help needs to be there for them. It just should. It seems absurd that it wouldn’t be.”
Domestic abuse in numbers
113 The number of women were killed by men in England, Wales and Northern Ireland between 1st January 2016 and 31st December 2016
84 The number of perpetrators found guilty of murder in 2016
37 The number of perpetrators who pleaded not guilty to murder in 2016, 28 of them were found guilty of murder.
2 The number of women killed every week by a partner or ex partner in England and Wales
12 The number of murder investigations linked to domestic abuse Avon and Somerset Constabulary is currently working on
10% The percentage of 16-19 year-old women who are affected by domestic abuse every year
6,700 The number of incidents of domestic violence reported in Bristol in 2015/16
3,234 The number of victims who had to face their abuser in court without legal support during the first 9 months of 2017, because of changes to legal aid. Up from 1,309 in the same period in 2012
60% The percentage of referrals to refuges that were turned away in 2016-17
*Names have been changed