Promoting the Safety of Women and Children While Working with Perpetrators of Domestic Violence

by Brían McCormack

Working with men who perpetrate domestic violence, I am proposing here, should only be conducted where structures are in place promoting the safety of women and children.  I will outline below our current procedures, policies and practice and share how we are contributing to eradicating the widespread terrorising and abusing of women in their own homes by their intimate partners.

We work with these abusive and violent men but always with their families in mind.  Our overall aim is promoting the safety of women and children (MOVE Ireland Mission Statement, 2002).  In MOVE Limerick (a local organisation affiliated to MOVE Ireland) my colleagues and I see ‘engaging with men’ (Colm Kiely’s main thrust in his article) who perpetrate domestic violence as one of a series of structures in running programmes with men who are abusive at home.   We wish to ensure that the men’s controlling, manipulative and abusive behaviour at home is comprehensively exposed, challenged and ultimately stops.

As Respect in England assure us:

‘high quality perpetrator programmes and associated women’s services that adhere to Respect’s standards and principles have a significant part to play in increasing the safety of women and children experiencing domestic violence’ (2004, p.9).

The development of these structures has arisen for us both by engaging with the men, as Colm Kiely usefully describes, and through working with other agencies.  Most importantly by taking on board the views and experiences of  the men’s partners, what they are going though, we have come to a clear understanding of the dynamics of domestic violence.  The feelings and hurts of women, who are experiencing these men’s violent (now criminal) behaviour, guide our work.

I am aware that there are dangers and pitfalls (see also Respect, 2004) in working with men who are abusive and violent in their intimate relationships (just as there are dangers in working with the women who are victims of this abuse).  Men may ‘use’ the programme to be more hurtful and intimidating at home.  Beginning the programme they almost certainly will be dishonest if not lying, when sharing in the group how they behave at home.  Also, for many years I am aware that many women do not wish to leave their partner/husband and break up the family – they just want the violence and abusiveness to stop (………..).  We must work with the men, but as safely as possible.


Engaging Men is essential.  Whatever their actions in order to work with them we must build up safety, openness and trust.   I very much appreciate Colm Kiely’s understanding of the internal struggles of men who abuse their partners, of

‘how emotionally isolated they were, disclosing their belief that, if they discussed their fears, anxieties and sadness they felt over their violent actions, they believed that others would see them as weak and think less of them’  (Inside Out, Spring 2006).

Patiently I establish engagement.  Their isolation is demonstrated for me in their not coming to their first appointment and in their anxiety about joining a group.  For many men it is foreign and alien to get in contact with their emotions. But articulating their feelings is essential in holding them accountable for their abusiveness and violence in their intimate relationships.  Successfully engaging these men is necessary in order to meaningfully contract them to do the work.  Hiding their fears, anxieties and sadness the men deny having battered, minimise their role and blame their partners.  Moving away from these negative reactions is required, so that the men begin to take responsibility for terrorising and abusing their partners.

Right from the onset of our work with men who abuse and often terrorise their partners we offer support and information about the programme to their  partners/ex-partners through our female colleagues in Adapt House, a women’s refuge and support services in Limerick.  This Partner Contact work is a cornerstone of our work to promote the safety of women and children. Reaching out and supporting these women we consider an integral part of, and complimentary activity to our work.  We consider that it is dangerous not to do this and usually increase the risks for their partners (Respect, 2004, p.8).  The man is less likely to manipulatively misinform his partner/ex-partner, it may be the first time the woman has an offer of support (being successfully isolated by her abusive partner), and she may for the first time begin to think clearly about her situation.  The facilitators, in meetings with the partner contact, hear about what the men are really like at home.

It is my experience that most abused women do not contact services and seek help; those that do are often severed battered physically and/or emotionally when they find support.  In light of the almost certainly that the men who abusive their intimate partners will be dishonest and avoid taking responsibility for their actions we need to hear the woman’s experience of his behaviour.  We explicitly tell the man that his partner/ex will be contacted and carefully protect the woman’s confidentiality in doing this.  It is my experience that not all men will change (see Dobash & Dobash); some do not want to, they will not change (see Debonnaire).  It is important for women to know that

‘perpetrator programmes are worth doing because they are successful in changing the behaviour of some men’ [my italics] (Respect, 2004, p.8).

Through Mixed Gender facilitation, as per Respect principles – where a man and a woman together facilitate the programme – we oblige the men to talk about their behaviour in the presence of a woman.  The facilitator’s role models working as a team, supporting and negotiating together.  Potential areas of collusion with the men are minimised.  Some men resist, other protest and still other refuse to talk about their behaviour in front of a woman.  This attitude – often part of their control issues – we refuse to accept in any way.  Also breaches of the contract are addressed by both facilitators; the offending man is required to be accountable to both a man and a woman – usually for the first time in their lives.

We have adopted the Change Programme, (Morran & Wilson, Change, Scotland), which goes beyond and further that the various approaches that have arisen over the years that have arisen over the years to understanding and responding to a man’s abusive and violent behaviour at home.   It focuses firstly on power and control issues in the relationship.  These must be tackled first before a man will use positively any anger management skills he acquires.  This programme goes beyond explanations of a) dysfunctions in the relationship, b) the three phase cycle of violence, c) psychological explanations of why men batter women (as Ellen Pence explains, Sligo in July 2006) in assisting men who are violent at home to change.  Cognitive behavioural and Gender models are employed in the sessions to root out and expose a man’s core thinking and beliefs. These deeply held beliefs, of privilege and being right, must be replaced by a man in order to begin wanting a more equal relationship with women.  The four assumptions about violence (Colm Kiely, Inside Out Spring 2006) guide our cognitive behavioural work.

While waiting for a programme to start we work with the men in Holding.   ‘Holding’ perpetrators of domestic violence accountable for their actions and preparing them for the programme has become an integral part of our work.  It is a direct goal of engagement with these men.  In Holding, the men are prepared for the challenging work on the programme and we demand commitment to the programme, the entire programme, being on time, and coming in an alcohol and drug free state (MOVE Contract, 2004).  Men who are abusive in their intimate relationships present many resistances to change.  They also need to realize that their behavioral change is an important part of one’s identity as a person .  On Holding the men agree and sign their contract with MOVE and must attend four consecutive sessions before being assessed and accepted on the programme – again the men are not being allowed to call the shots!

Our programme is not aimed to help men express their feelings and communicate better; neither is it primarily about helping the man acquire anger management skills.  We work with the man to challenge his power and control needs and behaviours.  We do this with Directive Facilitation.   We work with and challenge the man’s behaviours as displayed in the sessions.  These behaviours, more that the man’s chat, echo his partner’s experience of his behaviour at home.

The facilitation team run and direct the sessions, not accepting or tolerating a man’s abusive and/or manipulative behaviour, either in talking about his actions at home or in manner he conducts himself in the session.  Confidentiality over his partner/ex story is well maintained: the facilitators work exclusively with the range of behaviours displayed by a man in any one session.  These direct ways of being are always the most rewarding to work with and cannot be totally denied when challenged.

The man’s thinking and beliefs – variations of ‘I’m right’, ‘I’m the boss’, ‘…… should do it as I say’ etc, etc, give him permission to abuse and terrorise his partner.  Through persistent and confrontative cognitive behavioural work both facilitators firmly support the man to see and take on board how he thinks.  His false thinking is exposed, aiding the man’s adoption of real positive beliefs.  These new core thoughts are reinforced, for the man, by an accumulation of small actions of appreciation and respect  for his partner.

MOVE Ireland has initiated a professional and accredited training for all practitioners, facilitators and partner contact personnel.  Phases one and two are established with three and four to follow soon.  This training for excellence provides skills, experience, competence and attitude training.  Practitioners are being equipped with domestic violence awareness and facilitation skills and a deep understanding of the dynamics of domestic violence in intimate relationships.  Supervision is required for all facilitators and partner contact workers.

It is most important to have Sanctions for the men who break their contract with MOVE and make them accountable.   The men contracted to undertake our programme need to be held responsible to a woman and man together.  In relation to promoting the safety of women and children sanctions must be carried out with full approval of the man’s partner/ex and not providing the man with new excuses to take out his annoyance at home or to blame his partner yet again.

In conclusion, I have related the important work of challenging an abusive man with careful measures in place, promoting safety for the man’s partner at all times.  The kaleidoscope of interactions – the dynamics of domestic violence – must be taken account of when running programmes with perpetrators of domestic violence.  This moving landscape of emotions and actions are sophisticatedly manipulated by a controlling and violent man to his own ends.  Breaking this cycle of abuse and terror must be carried out in full recognition of these dynamics and facilitators need to be fully informed of continuing influencing a man has on his partner – and on his ex- partner during the time he on the programme.

This work is exposing more and more for me, as a man, the patriarchal society in which we all live; this fact many women are all too aware and to a person are negatively impacted upon as they carry on their daily lives.   I now find that being a member of our patriarchal society is difficult for me as a man.  The nature of our controlling society has been slowly highlighted for me while working as a facilitator with male perpetrators of domestic violence. But this work has strongly emphasised to me how women are deprived of equality with men – resulting in an atrocious hardship for many which needs to be changed.

Brían McCormack, M.A. is an anger management trainer and is co-ordinator of MOVE Limerick.


Debonnaire T., 2004, An Evaluation of intervention programmes in Ireland working with abusive men and their partners and ex-partners, Dept. of justice

Dobash, R.E., Dobash, R. P., Cavanagh, K., & Lewis, R. (1996), Research Evaluation of Programmes for Violent Men, The Scottish Office Central Research Unit, Edinburgh

Gondolf E. W. (2002), Batterer Intervention Systems: Issues, Outcomes, and Recommendations, Sage California

Kiely C., Working with Perpetrators of Domestic Violence, Inside Out, Spring 2006

Morran D, & Wilson M. (1997), Men who are Violent to Women, a groupwork manual, Russell House

MOVE Handbook (2006), MOVE Ireland

Pence E. & Paymar M.(1990), Educational Groups for Men who Batter – the Duluth Model   Springer Publishing Company

Statement of Principles and Minimum Standards of Practice for Domestic Violence Perpetrator Programmes and Associated Women’s Services (2004), Respect, UK