March 4, 2020
Men’s violence against women demands a proper explanation. We can do better than ‘men are driven to it.’
How do we predict men’s violence towards women?
Typically, the discussion around men’s violence centres around social factors such as respect for women, men’s entitlement, responses by law enforcement and media reporting. That discussion is helpful, in that, it provides the broader context in which violence is enabled.
However, that discussion does not predict individual cases of risk. Almost half of marriages in Australia end in separation or divorce, often without issues of control or violence. So how can we predict who will be at risk? How can we, as citizens, look out for each other?
Consider two individual men. One has a strong sense of identity, or to use a technical phrase, strong ego formation. This means he has a well-developed sense of who he is- as an independent, stand-on-your-own two feet, individual. And because he is clear on his identity, he can see the line in the sand where his personality stops, and the next person’s personality begins.
With these clear boundaries there is room in the relationship to accommodate both people’s different opinions and personality traits. Just as good fences make good neighbours, in healthy relationships two people can disagree without needing to change or control each other. They can live and let live. In such healthy relationships intimacy can be defined as sharing who you are with another person. Not possessing the other person.
Compare this to a man whose sense of self is less established, or unstable, or enmeshed. Without the same boundaries he views his partner as an extension of himself, and so he needs her to behave like an extension of himself. Any displays of independence, real or imagined, are experienced as defiance or abandonment. So he clings, controls and dominates. What appears as toxic masculinity is really toxic insecurity.
On the plus side, knowing this helps us to look out for each other.
Do you know a woman who used to enjoy catching up with family or friends, but in her current relationship she no longer seems free to? That’s a red flag.
Is she free to make her own plans or spend her own money, or does she need permission first? Does she keep small issues from her partner as if to avoid rocking the boat? Is she peppered with calls or texts, as if someone is keeping tabs? Is she cautious with social media as if her devices are being monitored?
These signs of control are helpful in predicting the risk of violence, which escalates upon leaving, or preparing to leave the relationship. In contrast, simply saying ‘men are driven to violence’ has little or no predictive value. It does not flag individual cases of risk. It’s also a slur against the vast majority of good men, most of whom could be driven and driven, while never in a million years reaching some final destination where they harm their own children or partner.
Moreover, the ‘driven’ narrative promotes a toxic victimhood in men. In 25 years as a psychologist I have never seen anyone’s mental wellbeing improve because they were encouraged to ‘play the victim’. Every time we say ‘poor me’ we rehash hurtful events, like playing a video over and over in our mind. Except that every time we replay those events our own actions become more righteous, while the other person is more at fault. Men’s advocates (and armchair therapists) who encourage men, already in pain, to embrace a sense of victimhood instead of personal agency, do harm.
So, what’s the message to men? Whenever we are in pain a good start is always your own GP, or the various men’s helplines.
But if you are up for some tough love, here it is.
If your relationship is ending, that’s painful. It’s a form of grief. There are no shortcuts. It is going to hurt for some time. But remember this. Before you entered that relationship, you were a complete, stand-on-your-own two feet grown up; and you remain one coming out the other end. It’s time to re-connect with that sense of yourself as a complete person, however tenuous that feels right now. You are enough. Then, you put on your big boy pants, you take the lessons from that relationship, and you move on with the next chapter of your life. You get to share who you are, again.
And just as you are a complete person with a new chapter ahead of you, so too are your partner and your kids. Remember the boundaries. They too are their own people, with their own lives ahead. They were never actually a part of you or yours to use in a game of control.
Mensline Australia is a professional telephone and online support and information service. Available 24 hours. Call 1300 78 99 78.
18800RESPECT Call 1800 737 732 is a national sexual assault, family and domestic violence line. Available 24 hours.
Kids Help Line is a free, private and confidential, telephone and online counselling service specifically for young people aged between 5 and 25 in Australia. Call 1800 551 800.