The problem of domestic violence has been in the news again, as it seems to be every few months or so. Out come all the stereotypes of battered women suffering at the hands of evil men, along with tasty sound-bite comments from mostly-female spokespeople working at the coal face in vastly underfunded community organisations.
Not all violence is committed by men; women are sometimes violent too. And violence is not the only form of abuse happening behind closed doors in our society: emotional, sexual and spiritual abuse can be equally damaging. Nor is the simplistic innocent-victim/evil-perpetrator model always the full truth. But for the sake of simplicity, let's roll with the stereotype for a moment since it tends to cover the majority of domestic violence cases, and I primarily work with men anyway.
Despite the excellent work done on a shoestring by the various organisations working to prevent domestic violence, the problem of men's violence towards women and children continues to hang around like an offensive odour.
How can this be, when it's in the news so often?
I believe it's because we aren't tackling the root cause of the problem. When domestic violence is in the news, I very rarely hear commentators asking the obvious, basic, underlying question:
Why are men violent?
Which is bizarre, because the question can be answered with one simple word:
Men resort to violence when they are angry. Pretty obvious really. I grew up in a household where anger wasn't handled well, and I've experienced first hand the damage that it can cause. Anger doesn't have to lead to violence, but that tends to be how it goes by default when a man hasn't learned to channel his anger constructively. The anger builds up until the pressure cooker explodes in violence.
But that's not the end of our root cause analysis; it raises the next question:
Why are men angry?
The answer to this is a little more complex, but it's still pretty easy to fathom. Anger is our last-resort response when we feel under threat because we think we won't get our needs met. It's a primal emotion that evolved to motivate us to stand up for ourselves when we feel powerless, and act to make sure that we do get our needs met.
Now as I've said, anger doesn't have to lead to violence; in fact, violence is usually a very poor way of getting our needs met. It generally doesn't work long-term; instead, it pushes away the people who would otherwise be most interested in meeting our needs, and leads to a shame and guilt cycle.
The needs that I saw behind the anger in my family of origin were things:
I suspect these needs are typical of those that remain unmet in men who are violent to their partners and children. Some of these needs may be either physical or emotional in nature. We live in a society that does a fairly good job at teaching men how to meet their physical needs like shelter and food, but most men receive virtually no instruction whatsoever on meeting their emotional needs like connection, significance, respect and intimacy.
Not only are we not taught to express our anger constructively, we're generally not taught how to meet the other emotional needs that cause us to feel frustrated, powerless and angry in the first place. Ultimately, each of us are responsible for meeting our own needs; It's not a woman's responsibility to meet her partners needs. There's been enough blaming the victim on this issue in the past.
In a stereotypical example, a man has a bad day at the office where his need for respect and significance isn't met; but he lacks both the confidence and assertiveness to stand up to his superiors, and the communication skills to express his frustration constructively to other people like his wife... so he goes home and explodes with violence when she doesn't give him the attention he would like because she's stressed out and exhausted from a day at her office, or at home looking after the kids.
If we really want to tackle the root cause of domestic violence, we need to teach men how to meet their own emotional needs. Because our brains are wired for socialisation, many of our emotional needs can only be met in relationship with other people; and again, we receive a very poor education on how to make relationships work. That's why books on How to Talk to Women are so popular with men; but most of these books only scratch the surface or aim purely at how to get a woman into bed with you. They may help empower men to some degree, but that's only part of the solution.
We also need to teach men how to express anger constructively. Anger is a primal human emotion that's a little out of touch with today's world, which generally lacks the significant physical threats that our primitive ancestors faced. But our capacity for anger is wired into our brains, and it's not going away any time soon.
Violence against women and children is never OK. There are no excuses for it. But there are root causes for why it happens, and we can only really deal with the problem by tackling those root causes.
So next time you hear someone on the news demonizing a man for being violent towards a woman, ask yourself the question: Why is he acting like that? Get yourself some education on how to deal with your own anger, develop your communication skills and emotional intelligence, and start spreading the word to men and women out there that there is an escape from the root cause of domestic violence.