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BCIFV home > Newsletter > 2002 Archives > Winter 2002 articles

Preventing Violence Against Women Through Effective Menís Counselling: The Role of the Helping Relationship

by Dale Trimble, MA

Counselling for men who use violence in relationships began in BC in 1977 due to the frustration expressed by womenís shelter workers about seeing the same women return again and again. My premise is that these programs for men are often effective in preventing future violence. For those who are interested in the research, Jeffrey L. Edleson (1995) provides one of the best analyses of the issues in his brief article "Do Battererís Programs Work?" I base my faith on the effectiveness of our own program (Alternatives to Violence, Vancouver), and on the changes I see in the men Ė especially when confirmed by the women who are their partners. It would be useful to examine which men will benefit from these programs and which will not but that will need to be the subject of another article.

I would like to examine current trends in counselling programs for men who use violence. I am concerned whether these trends will truly be effective in preventing future violence. One trend is the standardization or "manualization" of programs. There is a proliferation of manuals, curricula, modules, books, exercises and videos. They contain valuable exercises and approaches to the work. In BC we have our own homegrown, self-directed workbook for men entitled Moving towards the light: A self-directing manual for men who want to end violence and abuse towards women. Furthermore, our province has developed the Respectful Relationship Program: A Pre-Treatment Program for Men Who Assault Their Partners (2001). Probation officers are being trained to deliver this program. As well, members of the BC Association of Counsellors of Abusive Men (ACAM) are currently working with the Corrections Branch to finalize a "Best Practices" manual for use in menís counselling programs in BC.

While I find very useful material in these manuals, Iím concerned by what has not been examined. There is very little written and little discussion amongst colleagues about the nature of the relationship between the client and the counsellor. There is even less about the qualities of the counsellor which best facilitate the work to help men end violence and establish respect in their relationships with others. Exceptions include the work of Jenkins (1990), Calhoun & McGrath (2000) and Stefanakis (1999).

Why is this? Part of it may be an expression of the information age we live in. As evidenced in our fascination with using computers and the Internet, we are in love with information. In the field of working with assaultive men we want a module or exercise on each aspect of menís lives. I have been asked: "What do you do on jealousy?" or parenting, menís conditioning, pornography, sexuality, sexism, etc.? To carry the computer metaphor further: we tend to see a violent manís attitude of entitlement as if it is a dysfunctional software program that requires removal and subsequent installation of the new and improved "Respectful Relationship Man, Version 1.0." If only the man had the right information.

Secondly, we suffer under what might be called "medicalization". In medicine, the problem or symptoms are isolated and treated with appropriate medication or surgery. In counselling violent men, we make a diagnosis: this is a man who uses power and control with women. Then we prescribe a specific treatment: 16-sessions (the standard in BC) in an assaultive menís program. Iím not saying this is all bad and in many ways itís progress. At least it moves us away from such solutions as coupleís therapy, communications skills, or medication for depression as primary interventions for menís violence. These interventions carried various degrees of risk and ignored the central goal of ending violence and threats of violence. So itís as if we treat the symptom Ė violence Ė and assume we can prescribe a specific antidote while ignoring the "doctor/patient relationship."

What are important qualities in a counsellor who works with assaultive men? How important is the relationship between the counsellor and the client in the goal of ending menís violence? When dealing with the some of the most challenging issues in assaultive menís groups, I believe that curiosity, ability to handle intense emotions in oneself and another, and a commitment to finding health in even those men who seem unreachable, are necessary counsellor qualities.

Letís examine two very familiar challenges in menís work, "resistance" and blaming. We often hear the following refrain at the beginning of a new group: "The system is against men. She hits me and nothing happens. I defend myself and Iím thrown in jail. Why arenít there groups for women?" Here are some of the answers Iíve used and heard other counselors use: "Weíre here to talk about you, not about her." "Maybe she was violent but womenís violence is often in self-defense. What were you doing?" "Weíre not here to talk about the system."

When we argue back, we are implicitly saying, "Iím not willing to hear you. Your anger doesnít have a place here. Your feelings of unfairness donít count." How is this different from the message of power and control that he has been giving his partner? Does the fact that we are saying these things for the right reason make it acceptable? How different is our response from that of the parent who spanks their child "for their own good?"

When I hear "resistance", anger and blaming, I now seek to follow the principle of "Inviting All of the Man into the Room." Arguing back and overpowering the man by virtue of the counsellorís authority (authority granted through the manís probation order to attend) accomplishes one of two things. He may decide to go along with the counsellor and be agreeable and become a puppet. The risk is that his true values and feelings become unavailable to both himself and to us in the work. This leaves him just as dangerous as when he came in, if not more so, since his true attitude is buried under a correct façade of agreeableness presented to please the counsellor. Or, there is the man who will continue to argue with us. His argument solidifies him more strongly in his position the more often he states it. He stays angry and blaming in the group and that stance becomes his protection against looking deeper. It can also strongly affect the attitude of the other men in the group.

We may feel weíve done our job because we challenged and confronted his lack of responsibility. However, no change has occurred, and it may be less possible than it was before. What do we want more, to hear him state our point of view or to see a change in the manís behaviour for the sake of the safety of his family? When a counsellor is confronted by a hostile and blaming attitude in a man who uses violence with women, it is a rich opportunity. It means that the counsellor is witnessing the very attitude that allows and perpetuates his use of violence.

Rather than the counsellor trying to superficially "correct" the manís attitude or somehow try to implant the "right" attitude, the man can be assisted immediately to begin examining this behavior. Eventually, he can begin to apply it to his life and his relationships with his partner and children. Curious and respectful questions from the counsellor (Jenkins) can assist the counsellor to examine the manís controlling behavior. "Do you want your wife to agree with you because she has chosen to out of respect for you, or because she fears your reaction?" These kinds of questions provide men with tools for self-examination that will assist them to continue their changes outside of the group work. This stands in contrast to the instructional model in which the expert tells the men the right values. To quote the Christian parable, this approach amounts to "teaching men how to fish" rather than giving them a fish that may only feed them for one day.

Exploring values is another avenue of working for change. An exploration of the values men profess forms the foundation for each man to examine his violent behaviour in light of these values. Dr. Stefanakis introduced a series of questions on values into our group work. We have discovered that most men in our groups hold values similar to those of other people: respect, honesty, responsibility, kindness, etc. Men who have done great damage to their family use these very words. When we challenge men to examine their behaviour with their family in light of the values they profess, a sober moment of self-reflection is created in the group room and opportunity for real and lasting change is presented.

When you assist men to uncover their values of decency, you support them in finding that part of them, no matter how hidden, that wants to take a stand against violence. Changes in behaviour can then be based upon a discovery of their own dignity and upon a willingness to face the times they fall short of their self-discovered values of respect.

The first guiding principle in our work is: "the safety of women and children is paramount." A carefully structured curriculum may give a counsellor the feeling that they are doing the right thing. However, when counsellors have the courage to encounter men as they are and assist them to examine their behaviours and values, then I believe we move much closer to making real change Ė change which will prevent menís violence in the future and create safety for their families. b

Dale Trimble is a counsellor who has been working with violent men for 24 years. He provides group, individual and coupleís counselling as well as training and supervision. He can be reached at 604-253-8641 or [email protected]

British Columbia Association of Counsellors of Abusive Men (ACAM). 1-800-360-8315. www.bcacam.bc.ca



Browning, J., Bell, J., & Hamilton, A. (1996). Violence against women in relationships intervention programs for men: Guiding principles for services in British Columbia. Vancouver, BC: Institute Against Family Violence.

Calhoun, A. J., & McGrath, F. The Genesis Group: Narrative therapy with men who use abuse. Paper presented at the National Conference of the British Columbia Association of Counsellors of Abusive Men: Bridging the Gap Across Canada, October 29, 2000.

Edleson, J. (1995). Do batterersí programs work? Domestic Abuse Project Research Update, (7), Summer 1995.

Jenkins, A. Invitations to responsibility. (1990). Adelaide, South Australia: Dulwich Centre Publications.

Stefanakis, H. Caring and compassion when working with offenders of crime and violence. Paper presented at Love and Compassion conference, Vancouver, BC, DATE 2000.

Wood, B., & Robson, J. (2000). Moving towards the light: A self-directing manual for men who want to end violence and abuse towards women. Saskatoon, SK: Changing Men Consulting.