Every year, Peter*, a telephone referral worker from the Men’s Referral Service, speaks to hundreds of men who struggle to take responsibility for their behaviour. Here, he breaks down the five key barriers such men put up.
Working as a family violence telephone operator I speak with hundreds of men from many different relationship and life contexts. When I speak to men who have chosen to behave in a way that causes problems for their family and relationships, the theme of ‘responsibility’ commonly comes out of our conversations.
It sounds simple—that we are responsible for our own behaviour. However, accepting responsibility can be a big challenge if we have chosen to behave in a way that physically or emotionally hurts someone, especially those closest to us. It’s common to encounter self-imposed barriers to owning our choices of behaviour that we’re ashamed of.
“I just snapped”—thinking your emotions control your behaviour
Many men I work with are reluctant to describe choices of violent behaviour they have made, instead using language that suggests a lack of responsibility.
When probed as to what this actually looks like, often there’s a description of emotions such as anger, frustration, stress (when probed further: vulnerability, inadequacy). Often violent incidents are described as an overwhelming situation that escalated, rather than a difficult emotional experience.
Letting down this barrier and accepting that they are in control of how they behave when they experience difficult emotions makes it easier for them to explore respectful choices of behaviour that contribute to happier relationships and families.
“My buttons were pushed”—thinking other people control your behaviour
If we’re reluctant to own our choice of behaviour, it’s common we attribute this responsibility to someone else. Often when this is unpacked, men can reflect that it was indeed difficult emotions, rather than what they previously perceived as provocation. They’re subsequently able to describe different ways they could have chosen to behave in response to these difficult emotions.
A big step is letting go of the notion that anyone else can be responsible for their violent behviour. Once they focus on their own choices of behaviour, it becomes much easier to explore strategies for responding to difficult emotions and choosing behaviour that contributes to respectful, loving relationships.
“I’d had a bit to drink”—thinking alcohol controls your behaviour
At times, men I speak to claim that alcohol took control of their behaviour and that for them to change it’s as simple as stopping drinking. While alcohol can contribute to problems in their relationship, it’s not likely the cause.
Most of the men I talk to want to change their behaviour and improve their relationships; it’s important they acknowledge their choice of behaviours in addition to any substance use issues.
“Can’t I defend myself?”—trying to justify your behaviour
The concept that your physical safety is under threat and there is no other option than to respond with violence starts to get a little blurry when you unpack the situation. Often when we discuss scenarios where these men have used violence, they describe no concern or fear for their immediate safety or physical wellbeing.
For many of these men, challenging these perceptions of self-defence and taking responsibility for their choices of behaviour has made it easier for them to respond to conflict in ways that keep themselves and others safer.
“It wasn’t that bad”—not thinking about how others experience your behaviour
It can be challenging to listen to and acknowledge how someone has experienced your behaviour if you have hurt them or made them feel unsafe or scared. However, this can be a big turning point in moving toward happier and more respectful relationships.
This involves not just reflecting on individual instances of abusive behaviour, but acknowledging how patterns of these behaviours can have a cumulative effect on their partners and family members, causing them to feel controlled or fearful.
The barriers I’ve mentioned start to make less sense for the men I work with once they can empathise with how their partners and kids experience their behaviour. When men begin to take responsibility for their choices of behaviour these barriers are easier to overcome.
*Not real name.
You can contact Men’s Referral Service on 1300 766 491.