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Making a change: A domestic abuse perpetrator’s story

As well as support for victims of domestic abuse there is also help available for perpetrators willing to take responsibility for aggressive, controlling or violent behaviours.  Perpetrators who come forward for help are given the opportunity to learn non-abusive ways of behaving within a relationship. 

As with victims of domestic abuse, there is no such thing as a typical perpetrator – they may be male or female, in heterosexual or same-sex relationships.

Although there is support available a change can only be made if the perpetrator takes responsibility for what has happened and faces up to the fact that abusive behaviour is about control.

To successfully change they must:

Face the truth – it’s about their behaviour, not their partner, drugs, alcohol or stress

Understand their anger and desire to control

Make a choice – they can choose to be abusive and they can choose not to be

Seek help from professionals

Accept that their partner has a right to live without being dominated and controlled.

Here are the stories of two people who have reached out for help to change abusive behaviour.

Emily* is in her 40s and has been involved in a number of relationships where she has engaged in abusive behaviour, she talks about the roots of the problem and the help she is receiving:

“I witnessed it (DA) between my parents as a child. I was physically abused by my parents and shown that hitting is the way to deal with feelings of anger, pain, shame, guilt & fear. In society many films show women aggressing males as dignified, especially from the 1950’s.

As I got older and had my own relationships I would often cause physical damage to my partner, and myself, with the police being called and me being arrested on a number of occasions.

Throughout my twenties I didn’t see my behaviour as unusual, or a problem. But in my thirties I began to feel shame and guilt and began to engage with anger management courses. Now in my mid-forties I am paying for 1:1 therapy sessions to get to the root of the problem.

My friends did try to step in, although they were only really aware of the damage I caused myself as my partners would never speak out about the violence towards them, so that secret was kept safe.

When I heard the term ‘domestic abuse’ in relation to my behaviour I initially felt surprised and ashamed but quickly went into the victim role myself blaming partners.

My advice to anyone who is a perpetrator in domestic violence is to realise that the feelings of mistrust, fear, jealousy and rejection are progressive and escalate over time. It always gets worse and can’t be controlled by will power alone. You need professional help. I tried generic counselling and anger management, did courses on mindfulness and found faith, and while useful didn’t change my behaviour. I was a qualified care professional but still used aggression in relationships. I have since worked with a specialist programmes (RSVP) and am in therapy looking at childhood trauma.

I’m not in a relationship at the moment, so it’s hard to tell whether the work I’ve done has put a stop to the behaviour, or if I was in a relationship the triggers would be there again.

John* is in his late 20s, and has been verbally, emotionally and physically abusive to partners. He talks about his experiences:

The pattern of abuse in my relationships started right back when I was 17, with my first serious girlfriend. Looking back, I was very insecure and this showed itself through jealously and spiteful behaviour.  I was able to justify it to myself by saying she ‘deserved it’ because I’d heard rumours that she’d been unfaithful.

In my last relationship it escalated to physical abuse, and I scared myself.  When I heard the term ‘domestic abuse’ to describe what had been happening I felt sick to the stomach. I still do now whenever it is mentioned. I think it will haunt me forever. I witnessed my father being physically abusive towards my mother, and I didn’t want to be the same as him, yet here I am with the same label.

To the outside world there was nothing wrong with our relationship.  My partner and I would hide it from friends and family, particularly in social settings. I was ashamed, and she was ashamed and fearful. Our relationship in private was in a bubble I guess. I witnessed the same with mum and dad, the public face of happy families was contrasting to nightly occurrence of my siblings and I hiding under the duvet whilst the sound of shouting and pots and pans being thrown down stairs. Then silence. It was never talked about afterwards.

It would have been difficult for family or friends to have spotted any signs as I wasn’t overtly abusive in public, unless I was drunk or on drugs. However, I was highly strung at times, and would be “snappy” with friend and family. My drug and alcohol use also escalated over the years. I guess they could have asked themselves the question “how is his behaviour in relationships, if he’s like this with us?”

My mother did question me a couple of times, as she had been in an abusive relationship and possibly noticed similar behaviours. But I shut out all my friends and family eventually, as I didn’t want to talk about it, or even recognise my behaviour as abusive. I was ashamed, but wouldn’t have admitted it to anyone.

It sounds strange, but the prison sentence I received for the last incident was the best thing that happened. I made several changes whilst inside, such as stopping my spiralling drug and alcohol use and start to look at my behaviours in and out of relationships. I also started to gain some insight into the effects of domestic abuse on my children, and didn’t want them to have the same childhood as I had.

In my experience domestic abuse comes from somewhere, so first of all be honest with yourself and someone you trust about your insecurities. Addressing the past has been a key thing for me, exposing the root cause of controlling behaviours. For me, not being able to let go of something was a warning sign. Secondly, be aware that unless you do address it early on, the chances are high of the abuse escalating in seriousness, or frequency.

*Names have been changed. 

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