Last week, a controversial opinion piece was published in Melbourne’s The Age newspaper. Written by a clinical psychologist by the name of Sallee McLaren, it suggested that there is a ’50:50 contribution to the final outcome of violence’ by both men and women in an abusive relationship.
McLaren’s argument was based on the assertion that, by allowing a male partner to get away with minor acts of aggression early on in a relationship, a woman ‘has just trained him’ that this level of abuse is acceptable, and that this then sets the bar for more serious acts of violence.
Eventually, McLaren says, the situation escalates so that ‘before you know it, he is smacking her head into a wall and calling her a “fucking c—.”’
The author suggests that this is a common scenario that she deals with in the course of her work as a clinical psychologist, and that the answer to domestic violence is to train females to be more assertive – to give them ‘enough avenues to real power and authority’ from an early age.
The article was shared widely on social media, where it was panned by men and women alike. A follow-up piece was written by another woman, arguing that making women complicit in family violence situations simply shifts the blame without addressing the real issue.
Which begs the question – who should take responsibility for domestic violence, and what is the best way to prevent it?
A Complex Problem
For an outsider looking in, it can be easy to question why women (or men) fail to walk away from an abusive relationship.
Surely, getting out while you can would be the best option in these situations.
But people who make these types of judgments often struggle to understand the complexities of the situation.
For one, domestic violence does not only include physical violence. In the vast majority of domestic violence situations, physical violence is accompanied by emotional abuse and manipulation, which can begin long before any physical contact.
It can be incredibly difficult for people to identify when emotional abuse is occurring, as it can occur slowly and unexpectedly. Often, it begins with negative comments which are intended to diminish a person’s self-esteem and self-respect – however this can soon develop into controlling behaviour such as withholding money and isolating the person from friends and family.
Once a person’s social support network has deteriorated and they are emotionally vulnerable, they will be more susceptible to physical violence.
The situation can be even more dangerous where a partner has mental health or drug and alcohol issues, which can make them unpredictably aggressive or violent.
And by the time any physical contact begins, the circumstances of the relationship may have drastically changed. The parties may have moved in together; they may have kids. Often one partner will be unemployed while they care for the children – their only source of income and financial security may be their partner. In these circumstances, it can be incredibly difficult to leave an abusive relationship or take any action.
It’s a problem that has been compounded by massive funding cuts to women’s shelters which has already seen many specialist housing services close their doors – effectively leaving women and their kids the option of sleeping out on the streets or returning home to an abusive household.
Perpetrators Should Take Responsibility
The vast majority of the public and experts agree that the responsibility lies with perpetrator of domestic violence.
In one recent news story, a former perpetrator of domestic violence called on other men to take responsibility and seek help.
Jerry Retford described his former marriage as being defined by physical and emotional abuse from the outset, but said that he realised he needed help when he began to witness the destructive impact that his behaviour was having on his children.
He sought help from Relationships Australia, which runs the ‘Taking Responsibility’ course. The course encourages men to take responsibility for their actions, identify alternative ways of dealing with tension, and adopt positive attitudes and relationship skills.
In particular, the course teaches men to identify when they may be trying to justify abusive behaviours – a process known as ‘minimisation.’
Mr Retford suggests that many men engaged in minimisation by arguing that they have not engaged in abusive behaviours because they did not directly physically harm their partners – for instance, by slapping them with an open hand or smashing objects on the wall next to them.
On Sunday night, another violent offender appeared on the “60 Minutes” television program admitting that he physically and mentally abused his former wife. He called upon on other men to think about their conduct and get help before the situation escalates.
What Role Should the Government Play?
Many suggest that the government should take some responsibility to prevent domestic violence.
Women’s groups were disappointed by the Federal Budget delivered by the Treasurer recently, which saw just $16.7 million offered to fund a domestic violence awareness campaign.
This is somewhat ironic considering the Prime Minister himself declared domestic violence a ‘national emergency’ earlier this year.
Meanwhile, community services such as counselling, men’s behaviour programs and community legal centres were not given any consideration.
As mentioned above, one area which is particularly lacking financial backing is housing for those escaping violent relationships. Statistics indicate that last year alone, 423 people were turned away from shelters each night – including women escaping violent situations.
On top of this, 18,631 phone calls to domestic violence hotline 1800RESPECT were unanswered.
These statistics and the limited funding allocated to domestic violence are even more concerning when considered alongside the $1.2 billion allocated to terrorism – which has claimed the lives of 113 Australians between 1978 and 2014.
Women killed due to domestic violence more than once every week – adding up to a total of 3,744 during the same period. Given those figures, one has to question whether the government’s financial priorities are justified.