Domestic Violence: A Dilemma for the Heart and the Head!

By Alan A Mooney

Generally speaking the response to domestic violence tends to be pragmatic. Violent behaviour is reported and various agencies including Gardai, health boards and doctors and courts become involved. This is an entirely correct and proper response, since violence, whatever its origin or whatever excuse is offered for it, is unacceptable, whether it is violence upon a woman, a child or a man and whether the perpetrator is a woman, a child or a man.

Violence may be classed as a gender issue in the current climate of experience and awareness of gender inequality and perceived power relations favouring men. Violence, whether domestic or otherwise cannot be classed as a feminist issue only since it is a live issue for both men and women. That is not to deny the right of feminists to take a stand which seeks to overcome whatever prejudices and reifications of behaviour are seen to be extant and destructive in society’s politics and structures. It is not only a crime to beat a woman, it is a crime to beat a child or a man – whether the batterer is a man or a woman.

There is a real danger, however, that in naming violence as a gender issue too tightly, the truth will be lost. Violence is more correctly a human issue and needs to be addressed in this broader context as well as in the context of the structure of power relations in culture and society.

It may be true that domestic violence is a crime that is committed primarily by men against women and children and since this is experienced to be the case most of the time it needs to be addressed in particular ways. The Cork Domestic Violence Project attempts to do this and this article will outline the structure of the project in due course. This writer, however, would like the project to be renamed the Cork Male Domestic Violence Project to identify its specific purpose of working with men who are perpetrators of violence. The reason for this lies in the earlier statement that violence is a human issue in its proper context and not simply a gender issue. In future years it may be found necessary to institute a programme called the Female Domestic Violence Project to help women overcome their violence.

This writer does not intend to open this discussion but simply to state the possibility of its emergence since it would be logically and factually reasonable to state that violence is not the prerogative of men only. Perhaps women through their own organisation and consciousness raising endeavours will bring this issue to the forefront of cultural consciousness in their own time and in their own way. It is not for the present writer to dictate the direction or motivation of women.

Being pragmatic is a very comforting place to be since it means one can hold the high moral ground and that can be reassuring.   It can also mean that others can respond to the simplicity of right and wrong statements or positions. Being pragmatic can also be a reasonable starting point. In the issue of Male Domestic Violence it may be eminently reasonable to say to a perpetrator that his behaviour is outrageous and unacceptable and that we as a society require him to change whether he wants to or not. It is equally reasonable for us to say to him that if he does not respond to our requirement we will deal with him with all the force of the law. This writer entirely agrees with this principle.

The Cork Domestic Violence Project operates out of this principle.[1] Its goals are, to quote from their manifesto submitted to government:

(1)   to protect women and children from physical violence.

(2)   to learn about how violent men operate and to use this awareness to protect women and children.

(3)   to set up a domestic violence programme that protects women, holds men accountable, offers an avenue for rehabilitation for men and offers support and education/counselling services for women.

(4)   to create a context within which men can see the futility of physical violence and can learn to adopt alternative behaviours.

(5)   to participate in increasing awareness about violence in the home.

The present writer agrees with the aims of the project in their stated sense. A behavioural approach is clearly indicated in the case of male domestic violence since something must be clone in the instances that are brought to attention as quickly as possible. It is also paramount that research about and recognition and awareness of violence in the home be highlighted so that it will be more often reported and perhaps will also be remedied.

The Cork Domestic Violence Project believes the following about why men are violent towards their partners:

(a)  The gains in power and control in being violent outweigh the costs to the man in terms of social and other sanctions.

(b)  Men can choose to be violent toward their partner because of the absence of any rigorous or consistent social sanctions.

(c)  Men utilise a set of socially reinforced belief systems that give them permission to use violence if and when their power and control feels under threat.

(d)  They have learned all of the above.

O’Connor goes on to say that “Individual men … require a combination of sanctions, confrontation, challenge and encouragement in order to change. They usually need to acquire a set of cognitive-behavioural skills and strategies in order to help effect a process of personal change.'[2]

This approach is directly cognitive-behavioural and does not seek at this stage to look at any systemic solutions to the problem except in holding that the presence of the problem is due to the broad cultural systemic idea laid out in the first two beliefs stated above.

One of the weaknesses of the project as outlined by the developers themselves is the absence of appropriate follow-up services. It is this writer’s opinion that one of the appropriate follow-up services could and indeed should include access to psychotherapy that focuses on the psycho-kinaesthetic dimension of the person. That is to say, once the offender has been ‘retrained’ in the cognitive-behavioural model, it will be necessary then to look at the underlying psycho/emotional patterns that gave rise to the behaviour and which are not specifically and directly addressed in the project’s manifesto. Since this kind of service is generally not available under the patronage of the Department of Health or Justice since psychotherapy is not a medical discipline and therefore not covered by health board, VHI or tax refunds, it can be expensive to those who require it.

If genuine follow-up at this level of awareness is going to happen, then it is imperative that such agencies look at their commitment to the issue of male domestic violence and to the whole picture’. It is not only a behavioural/cultural/political problem. It is ultimately a psycho-dynamic problem. Unless the psycho-dynamic aspect is attended to, it may be discovered in follow-up studies that there has been little real effect generated by focusing on and working with the symptoms alone.

Violence is unacceptable and requires a firm and unambiguous response. The Cork Domestic Violence Project is clear on this and its programme is designed to avoid collusion with any man who is partaking in the project. The focus is entirely on the behaviour of the violent man – to get him to change his behaviour and to understand that he does not have to be violent. He is offered the opportunity during the course to:

– Identify goals to reach a non-violent life-style.

– Identify what behaviours are abusive and what each member’s pattern of abuse has been.

– Explore the intents of abusive behaviour and the belief system that supports those behaviours.

– Understand the connection of painful and negative feelings to beliefs about men and women’s roles.

– Identify the function and extent of members’ minimising, denying or blaming.

– Explore fully the impact of violent and abusive behaviours on partners, children and group members.

– Learn new behaviours by using role-plays to practise using time­outs and positive self-talk, negotiating with partners, letting go of the need to win/control and communicate honestly.

So, why are men violent toward their wives or partners? The typical responses to this question is to list a number of characteristics that people relate to the use of violence. These include factors such as alcohol and drug abuse, poor impulse control, low self-esteem, abusive upbringing, problems handling anger, relationship difficulties. The behavioural approach understands that these characteristics and others inform us of the nature of the stress experienced by these men, “they do not inform us as to why their wives become the targets of their violence.” [3]

O’Connor is concerned that ‘as long as the factors listed above are seen as acceptable explanations for men’s violence, then our models of intervention will ignore the social context which allows the crime to occur’. He goes on later in his paper to suggest that in working with violence and abuse, we are at the outer limits of the competence of psychotherapy – ‘it is naive to think that just because it appears in our agencies it implies we are the best ones equipped to work with it’.’

Dealing with the more subtle aspects of the psycho-emotional history of a violent man may be difficult but it is not in this writer’s opinion outside the competence of an integrative psychotherapy. It may be very important to clearly identity and repudiate violent behaviour and excuses for violent behaviour, at the same time, it is not enough simply to apply a training in behaviour modification in the hope it will cause a fundamental shift in perspective. There may well be an emotional realisation as a result of consistent and correct confrontation, however, this does not imply or guarantee that the individual has come to a new place of self-esteem or personal belief in and ownership of his emotional life. He may merely by following the rules as laid down by an external authority. There is no guarantee that these rules are any more effective than any other prohibitive sanction.

From an integrative perspective, it is important to take a more complete view of the person which does include such fuzzy and unpredictable areas as family background and questions of interjected disrupters of self-esteem, from an integrative perspective it is possible to consider that cognitive-behavioural approaches are necessary as a first stage intervention that may indeed take time and that it is not enough to leave it at that. There may very possibly be a need for family therapy or individual integrative psychotherapy once the intellectual hurdle of recognising there are alternatives to violence has been successfully negotiated.

The Department of Education in its guidelines on the subject of bullying indicates that pupils involved in bullying behaviour need assistance on an ongoing basis. For those low in self esteem, opportunities should be developed to increase feelings of self-esteem. Both victims and bullies may need counselling and opportunities to participate in activities designed to raise their self-esteem and to develop their friendship and social skills, whenever this is needed.

The issue is not whether we choose a pro-masculinist or a pro-feminist stance but rather that we choose to bravely look at the structures of politics, culture and society that give rise to the issues of power relations that present themselves and force us into the role of victim or oppressor. This is a much more complex and politically hazardous approach since it can offer no predictable or guaranteed outcome. Since it cannot offer this it is less likely to be acceptable to anyone with an immediate need for satisfaction. It is not as simple as it may seem to label the issue of violence, even domestic violence, as a gender issue. That would be a cheap shot at both men and women.


1 O’Connor, C  1996. Integrating Feminist and Psychological-Systemic Approaches in Working with men Who Are Violent Toward Their Partner, in Feedback. Family Therapy Association of Ireland Journal.  Vol. 6 Nr. 1 p.18-21

2 ibid. p. 19

3 ibid, p. 19 (italics, original text)

4 ibid. p. 21