Very little research has focused directly on the characteristics of violent men as fathers (Perel and Peled, 2008). The Freedom from Fear campaign is one of the few attempts to directly ask the men what is going to impact on their behaviour. Much of the other research highlights a dismal and problematic picture that is largely judgmental and focused on their deficiencies. These fathers were found to be rigid and authoritative (Bancroft & Silverman, 2002), uninvolved in their children’s lives, negligent of their basic needs (including those thwarted by the violence; Holden & Ritchie, 1991; Sterenberg et al., 1994), self-absorbed and possessive of the child (Ayoub, Grace, Paradise, & Newberger, 1991), manipulative (Bancroft & Silverman, 2002; Vock, Elliot, & Spironello, 1997), and physically punitive but not physically affectionate (Holden & Ritchie, 1991).
A more complex picture of violent men as fathers was portrayed by Fox and her colleagues (Fox & Benson, 2004; Fox, Sayers, & Bruce, 2001). A qualitative study on the fathering of eight men who participated in batterers groups (Fox et al., 2001) found that the men expressed feelings of guilt, shame, remorse, and responsibility regarding the damage they caused as fathers and wished to fix it. The authors point at the potential contribution of the men’s fathering role to their sense of self, which in turn may lead to a less defensive inspection of their abusive behaviors. In a second study, based on a U.S. national households’ survey, the researchers found partial support for both competing hypotheses (Fox & Benson, 2004). Fathering done by men who had recently used violence, was found to differ from that of non-violent men. For example, they were found to engage more in punitive behaviors and less often in positive parenting behaviors than nonviolent men. However, they also were indistinguishable from non-violent men in other aspects of their fathering, such as in the amount of time they spent with their children or in their monitoring standards and actions. The researchers concluded their report with a call for policy makers not to rely solely on one of the hypotheses.
Few attempts have been made so far to describe the experience of fathering for men who have used violence and their perceptions.
Attention to safety
It is not appropriate toprovide men who use violence with an opportunity to voice their experiences, while the harm they have inflicted on their partners and children remains unspoken. Perel and Peled (2008) chose to relate to the violent men as simultaneously vulnerable and harmful. We openly defined the research participants as men who use violence, and Perel and Peled (2008) only interviewed men who acknowledged being abusive toward their partners. Furthermore, they used their feminist viewpoint throughout the analysis, the writing up and the discussion of the findings, to shed light on the violence and its harmful effects. Concurrently, they made an effort to minimize potential negative effects of the research on the participants. First, they avoided a one-dimensional focus on problems and weaknesses by identifying existing strengths. Second, they attempted to ease the emotional burden that accompanies such interviews by adopting a warm, empathic, respectful, and appreciative attitude toward the interviewees, and by avoiding criticism as much as possible. Finally, consent to participation in the research was voluntary and fully informed.
Building on the generative perspective, the study identified how positive attitudes lie at the core of the men’s perceptions of fathering in general and of their own fathering in particular. They view fathering as one of the most important domains of life, if not the most important, and themselves as good fathers. This is a significant motivation of behaviour change and is already used in a variety of programs. Narrative approaches such as the Men and Family Centre at Lismore use this as a central point of engagement.
Tension of change
The generative approach focuses on the unspoken tension within many men of yearning to be a good dad and the individual challenge and impact that this has on their children:
“to live for your child”
“to give your kids everything and be the best possible dad”
“to be a good dad”
and the tension of
exposing the children to violence
how domestic violence impacts on the their children
being the controller
being an absent dad
“You live for your children”
Fathering appears to have given meaning and purpose to the lives of many of the interviewees. The totality and intensity of their feelings is revealed through their descriptions of the significance of fatherhood and explains their commitment to their children and to their role as fathers:
My children are my life. The bottom line is the children. I live for the children. Everything is for the children (Gidon)
Overall, the violent men Perel and Peled (2008) interviewed presented themselves as good fathers. The images of “the good father” they constructed seemed to combine their ideal perception of fathering and of themselves, and the reality of their lives.
“To give him everything and be the best possible dad”
Throughout the interviews, we noticed various ways the men used to construct their image as good fathers. These included providing material needs, protection, education, and creating a warm connection with the children. In the spirit of traditional conceptions of fathering, the breadwinner or provider roles took precedence over the other attributes of good fathering.
Our interviewees’ desire to be “good fathers” was overshadowed by internal and external limitations and difficulties. These included the influence of their childhood on their fathering, the limitations the fathers attributed to themselves, the child’s exposure to violence, and co-parenting. Often they saw how they were fathered as abusive and a negative impact. The following DVD demonstrates the alternative response to family violence that many men have when they focus on its impact on children. Permission has been given to use this video.
Brothers against DV
Working with the tensions
“The absent father”
The men in Perel and Peled’s (2008) research spoke extensively about their childhood during the interviews, presenting a complex and multifaceted picture, and stressing their relationships with their fathers. In most cases, their childhoods seemed to have left them with residues and deficiencies they had to deal with in the process of becoming fathers. Few interviewees perceived their childhood, and especially the image they had of their fathers, as a source of inspiration and strength for them as parents.
“Exposing the child to violence”
It is widely recognised that exposure of the children to violence casts a heavy shadow over the fathering of men who abuse their partners. The fathers, Perel and Peled (2008) interviewed, expressed diverse attitudes toward this issue. Some, who have completed an intensive domestic violence program, perceived the exposure and its harmful impact as severe and disturbing:
I was less than a good father, I would call it a bad father, because it passes on a kind of trauma to the child (Beny)
All the blows, he saw all these things, all the shouting, all the quarrels, all these not nice things. He absorbed it. Listen, this child is already soaked to the skin, excuse me, in this shit, and it’s not appropriate (Zev)
The presence of many fathers in their children’s lives has become one-dimensional as a result of the frequent exercise of power and control. By becoming “the controller”— the ruler, educator, or punisher—some fathers h greatly impair their ability to maintain a close and intimate relationship with their children. The control over the children can be seen in daily life in the home or as part of an attempt to educate, shape, and influence the child’s character, as Zev described it:
“Don’t do this! Don’t do that! Do this! Do that! Take off your sandals, put them where they belong, don’t open the fridge, wash your hands, flush the toilet after you pee . . .don’t answer back, listen to what you are told” (Zev)
Control-based fathering is likely to resort to violence. The fathers’ views regarding the use of violence were diverse. All the fathers, without exception, felt that talking was the best way to educate children. Whereas some rejected the use of any violence whatsoever, others justified it in cases where attempts to talk did not succeed. Some even admitted that they used “light” violence from time to time, using the termsflick and a slap on the behind, but none described the use of severe and uncontrolled violence.
The “breadwinning fathers” spent most of their time at work, absent from the home, resulting in the gradual diminution of other spheres of connection and commitment to their children. The men’s commitment to “provide” at all costs was fostered by the objective need to sustain the family, but also by the significance they attributed to the breadwinner role as a central aspect of the good father”:
“The residual father”
The fathers saw their partner as significantly constricting their parenting by leaving them little functioning space free of her dominating parental presence. Some of them accepted this as the natural order:
“I speak to them, and beyond that, my wife is more involved with the children than I am. My wife is the house-mother, I feel that she is like my mother, I feel that I am also like a child, what they feel I also feel. . . . We aren’t together, she’s at my side and I’m at hers, but there is no joint parenting with regard to the children, regarding the children’s education. I intervene only when they ask me” (Eyal)
The most significant role that their partner left to them, in their view, was the exercise of authority and power. Some fathers felt, however, that the mother forced this role on them and turned them into “the commander” or “the devil,” thereby constricting them and harming the quality of their relationship with the children.
In summary, we found that the fathers experienced processes of constriction of their presence and involvement in their children’s lives. These involved limiting themselves to the breadwinner role, basing their paternal presence on authority and power, and functioning in the shadow of the mother’s dominance.
Unanimously, these processes left the fathers with a strong yearning for connection with their children.
The father who yearns to connect
The yearning for a close and warm relationship with the children was displayed in many of Perel and Peled’s (2008) interviews. This yearning, often unattainable, played a central role in the drama of the interviewees’ fathering. The drama was intensified by the clash between the men’s image of “the good father” who maintains a warm relationship with his children and the processes of tension as described above.
Summary of the Findings
Perel and Peled’s (2008) findings tell the story of fathering of men who were violent toward their partners. The men’s basic attitude toward fathering was positive: Fathering was perceived as being of the utmost importance, the men devoted considerable efforts to being a “good father” as they perceived it, and they felt that they were indeed good fathers. Their aspirations, however, were undermined by internal and external forces, which included:
their own childhoods
their personal limitations
the children’s exposure to violence
and the experience of co-parenting.
The men perceived these forces, independently and jointly, as constricting their fatherhood. They reduced their involvement and presence in their children’s lives and focused their fathering on providing the traditional breadwinner and disciplinarian roles.
Despite the tension and possibly as a reaction to it, many fathers were left with a strong yearning for a closer and warmer relationship with their children. In an overall review of their fathering experience, the men could be located on a continuum extending from feelings of failure and missed opportunities to a sense of growth and improvement as part of a wider change process to cease using violence.
Perel and Peled (2008) findings support the view that fathers find it difficult to realize their image of ideal fathering. This frustrating struggle is compounded by the confused social expectations of fathers and by the critical approach toward men in general (Lewis & O’Brien, 1987; Lupton & Barclay, 1997; Snary, 1993). In particular, the findings demonstrate the role of the violence in further hindering and disrupting the fathering experience. The violence sets off a process of constriction, accompanied by feelings of frustration and yearning, through the father’s controlling and violent presence in the home; by accelerating separation, divorce, or disconnection from the home; and by further damaging the adult relationship. The quality of the adult relationship is a major factor affecting the quality of fathering. Fathers tend to withdraw from their children when in conflict with the mother.
This confusion seems to be particularly acute among violent fathers. Research suggests that men who are violent toward their partners lack differentiation in the feeling of their identity, in that they feel distant both from their “masculinity” and from their “femininity” (La Violette, Barnett, & Miller, 1994; Tolman & Bennet, 1990).
The yearning of men who use violence and their connection to their children
The traditional literature on the fathering of men who use violence questions their parenting capacities as well as their rights. The desire of these men to continue to maintain contact with their children in the context of divorce is mentioned but is seen as manipulation aimed to maintain control over the woman and the children’s lives (e.g., Bancroft & Silverman, 2002; Harne & Radford, 1994). Perel and Peled (2008) believe this claim deserves a re-examination in light of their findings.
The men Perel and Peled (2008) interviewed, experienced unfulfilled yearning for warm and involved relationships with their children, unrelated to divorce proceedings. Such yearning for connection could be an expression of the need to control the woman and the children, but it could also arise from the gap between a desired close and warm connection with one’s children and the reality of a remote and constricted relationship.
Support for the latter view can be found in descriptions of violent men as characterized by a yearning for intimacy (e.g., Dutton & Browning, 1988; Vaselle-Augenstein & Ehrlich, 1992; Yassour-Borochowitz, 2000). Denzin (1984) described the vicious cycle violent men create when they try to achieve intimacy and closeness with their partner by using violence, only to find themselves further rejected by their victims. Furthermore, the experience of yearning for a closer, warmer relationship with one’s children seems to be shared by many fathers, regardless of violent history (e.g., Daly, 1993; Gerson, 1997; Lewis & O’Brien, 1987; Lupton & Barclay, 1997; Snary, 1993).
Applications for interventions with men who use violence
Very few structured interventions with violent men as fathers have been documented (Fall, Howard, & Ford, 1999; Mathews, 1995; Pence, Hardesty, Steil, Soderberg, & Ottman, 1991), and conspicuous by their absence are any considerations of fathering as an intervention focus (e.g., Adams, 1988; Hague, 1993;Hansen & Harway, 1993; Stordeur & Stille, 1989).
Perel and Peled (2008) believe that under certain conditions, and if it is their wish, these men who use violence deserve a chance to repair their damaged parenting. A possible tentative conclusion from Perel and Peled (2008) findings is that allowing men an in-depth exploration what it means to be a good father may also facilitate change in other domains of intervention with them by providing access into inner worlds otherwise cordoned off from other. Such an assumption echoes a growing inclination among fatherhood scholars to view it as an important dimension of adult emotional development, particularly in relation to one’s capacity for engaging in intimate relationships (Hawkins, Christiansen, & Sargent, 1993; Palkovitz, 2002; Roy, 2006; King, 2005). This is balanced with the primary focus on maintaining safety and avoiding the possibility of the men misusing the intervention to strengthen their control over their family (Peled, 2000).
On the basis of our findings, Perel and Peled (2008) carefully propose several guidelines for intervention with violent men as fathers (see also Peled & Perel, 2007). Because qualitative research supports transference of findings rather than their generalization, Perel and Peled (2008) ask practitioners to examine the appropriateness of their findings and suggestions for the particular context in which they operate.
The flawed and abusive parenting of men who are violent toward their partners poses a challenge to anyone wishing to intervene with them. At the same time, Perel and Peled (2008) believe that intervention will be effective only if it is based on respect and empathy to their experiences and views, in line with the “generative fathering” approach (Hawkins & Dollahite, 1997). Perel and Peled (2008) suggest regarding these men as simultaneously harmful and vulnerable. This implies condemnation of the harm they cause to the children and striving to put a stop to it, while being attentive to their distress and providing them with support.
Finally, men need to acknowledge and take responsibility for their abusive behaviour, as well as make significant progress in stopping it, before entering fathering intervention. Offering parenting intervention to violent men prior to a successful completion of intervention directed at the violent behaviour could strengthen denial of the violence by seeming to reframe their problem as that of deficient parenting.
How workers can implement more child focused approaches when working with men and violence issues?
Bring children’s stories into the program – by their experiences of DV and how it affects them. Bring and use the adult’s reflections as a child
Use perspectives of being a child/parent
Pose the question “how would you feel as a child watching domestic violence occur between your parents”?
Explore reflections of their childhood – ask the men to write a letter to their fathers; use discussion about what they missed from their fathers and what they would like as fathers/future fathers
Story telling e.g. the extremes a child will go to, to get love
Focus on men’s strengths, their love for their children
Set up activities groups for fathers and children
Use positive images that are displayed on the fridge
Ask ‘will your child be able to come to you in the hard and difficult times?’
Building cooperation with men
Create a safe environment (for individuals and the group)
Support the development of trust
Use direct language
Use homework to encourage integration with the rest of their life
Avoid asking about feelings, use the sharing of stories and ‘what impact did that have?’
Reframe old patterns or behaviours and look for exceptions
Use goal and boundary setting
Encourage accountability and ownership of the change process
Encourage responsibility – use solution focused approaches
Encourage transparency – reduces suspicion
Use groups to encourage behaviour change
Give permission for men to be honest
Engage the men regarding issues and brainstorm their ideas
Develop new tools to deal with anger – assertive tools
Questions that work with generativity
Statement: I would like to find out about some of your experiences with Sam and what those experiences mean to you.
Can you tell me about the most enjoyable experience you ever had with Sam ? What meaning does that experience have for you now?
Can you tell me about an experience when you felt especially close emotionally to Sam? What meaning does that experience have for you now?
Can you tell me about an experience when you cared for and nurtured Sam? What did you learn about nurturing children from that experience?
Can you tell me about an experience when you felt especially distant emotionally from Sam when he/she needed you to be there for him/her? What meaning does that experience have for you now?
What was the most painful experience you ever had with Sam? What meaning does that experience have for you now?
Are there any particular things that help you to be the kind of father to Sam that he/she needs you to be?
Are there any particular things that prevent you from being the kind of father to Sam that he/she needs you to be?
Can you tell me about any important sacrifices you have made in your life that demonstrate how much you care about Sam?
A story of change
The following story demonstrates the significance of generativity for a father in an intensive father's program.
David is a father who has not had much meaningful contact with his two sons throughout their 12 years of life. Having experienced a great deal of trauma in his younger years, he has a limited ability to socialize or play with his children. His great desire is to be a better father than his father was to him. He finds this difficult as he has survived intense violence all his life and has resorted to violence many times to deal with any conflict in his adult years. During his participation in the group David was enduring an ongoing Court drama with the NSW Department of Community Services, in order to have a meaningful role in the life of his children. The children were being removed from their mother and he was struggling to put a case forward to become their full-time carer. David desperately wanted their life to be better than his own. One of the NEWPIN educational sessions covered a concept outlining the limitations of what we can control, as compared to what we can influence, and letting go of what is outside our control and influence.
David left the group that night enthusiastic about how he could use this idea at his next Court date. The following week he returned to the group a very different man: wearing cleaner clothes, holding his body more erect, taking more pride in his appearance and being much happier. He told the group the story of attending the Court the preceding week. The mother of his children had attempted to engage him in a conflict in the Court grounds by being verbally abusive and aggressive and he had refused to engage with her. He had acknowledged to himself that he could not control her, or what she was saying, so he had walked away. This was an achievement.
When Court was sitting, the mother again attempted to engage him in conflict by staring and mouthing swear words at him. He continued to ignore her. When the Court proceedings were not going his way and inaccurate information about him was being put forward, he did not react as he had in the past - trying to use threats and loud language to control the Court. Rather, he decided to let it go (as best he could) as he could not control it and instead attempted to influence the Court by his ‘good’ behaviour. Although quite proud of himself for the change in his behaviour in a very stressful situation, the best for David was yet to come.
The case was adjourned. Before he left the Court, David approached the Solicitor acting for his children and said, “I know you do not like me and that is OK”. He then added, “I’ve been watching and listening to you and you seem like a good person who has the best interests of my sons at heart. I just want to let you know I appreciate what you are trying to do for my boys”. The solicitor, in a spontaneous gesture, offered David the opportunity to spend a short time with his eldest son. Not having seen his son in over four weeks, David accepted enthusiastically. He spent 20 minutes with his boy which he otherwise would not have had. David was ecstatic at this good fortune. This generous gesture by the solicitor continues to have a positive impact on David’s life as he has experienced the rewards of learning new ways of dealing with conflict.