Working with Men Experiencing Intimate Partner Violence: A Restorative Justice Perspective

Without a doubt, domestic violence can be experienced by males and females alike, regardless of socio-economic status. Domestic violence refers to household members’ acts of commission or omission resulting in abuse, neglect, or other forms of maltreatment that impede individuals’ healthy development[1]. Therefore, it is an established fact that domestic violence causes harm. From a restorative justice perspective, harm is considered a violation of people and relationships[2]. Restorative justice is “fundamentally concerned with restoring social relationships, with establishing or re-establishing social equality in relationships; relationships in which each person’s rights to equal dignity, concern, and respect are satisfied”[3]. Since intimate partner violence involves power dynamics, an approach based on the restorative justice lens has the potential to address harm and promote healing as it centres on relationships.

Relationships are complex and dynamic. Therefore, it is important to establish that identifying as either perpetrators or victims can be a false dichotomy. More often than not, there is no clear perpetrator and victim in intimate partner violence. According to Johnson[4], there are four types of violence in relationships: intimate terrorism, violence resistance, situational couple violence, and mutual violent control. With the exception of intimate terrorism where one partner uses violence to control the other, the other forms of violence may not have easily identifiable perpetrator and victim. Either party may be provoked into the use of violence. In his research, Johnson discovered that situational couple violence is the most common type of violence in intimate relationships. In situational couple violence, conflicts between partners can escalate into violence where the violent episodes may be a singular event or chronic. Often, the conflicts trigger strong emotional responses resulting in violence as the involved parties feel hurt. Beyond the hurt feeling are needs unmet. These fundamental needs are security (emotional or physical), competency, autonomy, and belongingness[5]. Men experiencing violence find their needs threatened, that they are not good enough for their partners, and unloved by them.

When one’s needs are threatened, one can experience shame. The concept of shame is the central idea that underpins restorative justice. It is based on Tomkins’ concept of nine affects[6]. These nine affects are categorised into positive and negative affects, with shame classified as a negative affect. Shame draws individuals away from people, things or events that interest and delight them; it is a painful tension experienced within where the individual desires to seek fulfilment but at the same time, feels unworthy[7].

From a restorative justice perspective, the key assumptions when working with men experiencing violence are:

(1) People are innately wired to connect[8].
(2) Healing is a process and is individualised.
(3) Shame impedes relationships[9].
(4) Change happens with and through relationships.
(5) Voice and agency are universal human needs[10].

Based on the key assumptions, the author established a practice framework for journeying with men experiencing violence to promote healing and growth. This framework draws upon the principles to guide restorative practice by the Lutheran Community Care Services[11]. Called the PEACE framework, it desires to bring peace to these men through recognising their worth so that they embrace their vulnerabilities, own their feelings, and embody a positive sense of self despite the challenges they are going through.

P – PACING
It is critical to recognise that healing is a process and not an event. When working with males experiencing violence, it is important to provide safe spaces for them to talk through their experiences. It is not easy for these men to tell their stories. They are concerned that they are not being believed. Even when believed that they do experience violence, there is also a concern that they would be judged. Pacing is also needed with regard to the men’s readiness to address the harm and hurt with their partners. They need to feel psychologically safe to talk about the violence with their partners. Finally, pacing involves identifying the men’s areas of influence to let them feel worthy. For example, one male who experienced violence from his spouse chose to strengthen his relationship with his children since his wife was not willing to work on their marital relationship yet. Having a good relationship with his children gave him pride and met his need for belongingness.

E – EQUITY-MINDED
Recognising that each individual deserves rights to equal dignity, concern, and respect, there is a need to be mindful of the context when working with men experiencing violence. This involves making resources and help accessible to these men. As the legal recourse for family violence is provided under the Woman’s Charter, there often is an assumption that men are perpetrators; they are unlikely to be victims of family violence. Also, the men’s groups are often catered to men using violence, rather than men experiencing violence. Therefore, it is important to widen the community of support of these men to meet their needs.

A – ATTUNEMENT
To facilitate the healing process, it is critical to connect with males experiencing violence. Connect by providing ‘voice space’ to allow these men to share their stories to understand what happened, what matters, and who matter to them. It is through such conversations that the men feel understood and make sense and meaning of their experience to help them to work through their sense of shame. One male experiencing violence shared that he valued responsibility, that a husband needs to be committed to provide a sense of security for his wife. Therefore, he chose to stay with his wife despite having to endure her bouts of violent behaviour towards him. What he needed was support from others to help him stay true to his value.

C – COMPASSION
Compassion is about recognising and honouring complexity and ambiguity in one’s circumstance. As mentioned, relationships are complex. Men experiencing violence can feel stuck in their situation. For some of them, despite the hurt, they still value their marriage. There can also be fear of the unknown or possible loss when they leave abusive relationships. They fear that a divorce may let them lose their children to their spouses through custody. Compassion allows for no judgement and prescription of solutions. Compassion is about acknowledging and validating their feelings and thoughts through empathy. At the same time, it is important to facilitate self-compassion in these men so that they can also care for themselves.

E – EMPOWERING EXPERIENCE
An empowering experience is to allow the men experiencing violence to have voice and agency. This means that they are given the space and opportunity to talk about their experience, needs and wants. Agency refers to the autonomy to have a say on what they need. These men ought to be given options to make their choice in what helps in their healing journey. Such can let them feel a sense of control. Restorative justice provides for voice and agency to address harm caused by violence through restorative dialogue between the affected parties, peace-making circle within a community of care or witnessing circles to promote mutual empathy, shared expectations, and accountability, as well as support for change and healing.

In conclusion, the PEACE framework seeks to address harm caused by violence through honouring the value of human dignity and worth of affected parties. It promotes voice, agency, and connectedness to work through the shame experienced by males experiencing violence. It is when shame is addressed that healing can take place. ⬛


1 Barnett, O., Miller-Perrin, C., and Perrin, R. Family Violence Across the Lifespan: An Introduction. 3rd Edition. USA: SAGE Publications. 2011
2 Zehr, H. A Little Book of Restorative Justice. USA: Good Books. 2015
3 Llewellyn, J., and Howse, R. Restorative Justice – A Conceptual Framework. Prepared for the Law Commission of Canada. 1998. p. 1. Retrieved from: https://dalspace.library.dal.ca
4 Johnson, M. A Typology of Domestic Violence. USA: Northeastern University Press. 2008
5 Russell, C. You Can’t Know What a Community Needs Until You Know What They Have. Presentation for Forever Manchester, Community Foundation. 2011. Retrieved from: https://www.slideshare.net/nurture1/cormac-russell-forever-manchester
6 Tomkins, S. Affect, Imagery, Consciousness: The Complete Edition. New York: Springer Publishing Company. 2008
7 Nathanson, D. L. Shame and Pride: Affect, Sex and the Birth of the Self. USA: W. W. Norton & Company Ltd. 1992
8 Pranis, K. Restorative values. In: Johnstone, G., and Van Ness, D. W. (eds.) Handbook of Restorative Justice. UK: Willan Publishing. 2007
9 Tomkins, S. Affect, Imagery, Consciousness: The Complete Edition. New York: Springer Publishing Company. 2008
10 Bailie, J. A Science of Human Dignity: Belonging, Voice and Agency as Universal Human Needs. IIRP Presidential Paper Series, 1. 2019. pp. 1-16
111 Lutheran Community Care Services. Principles to Guide Restorative Practice. [unpublished]. 2020

 


Kek Seow Ling is a social work practitioner with Lutheran Community Care Services (LCCS) in Singapore. She believes that restorative practice is a way of being and has helped to establish a set of restorative practice principles to guide practice and organisational culture. Building on her experiences in the field, she designed a training curriculum for Family Group Decision Making (FGDM) to promote a relational practice that respects family power and leadership.

Seow Ling had also brought restorative practice into the domestic violence arena in Singapore in recent years. She initiated the Bridge to Hope Project with her team to facilitate healing and restoration for persons experiencing domestic violence, through restorative processes. She desires to provide persons experiencing violence a different experience, one of safety, care and empowerment when addressing violence.

In her pursuit to make restorative practice mainstream in social services, she is actively involved in implementation, supervision, training and research regarding these two intersecting fields. Her current research seeks to understand the impact of restorative practices on one’s relational capacity.

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