Heterosexual domestic violence

What’s love got to do with it? What all counsellor’s need to know about heterosexual domestic violence – A College of Counselling Webinar with Dr Cathy Bettman

On a Saturday afternoon in late September Dr Cathy Bettman, couples therapist and educator, offered an unapologetically gendered presentation of violence within heterosexual intimate partnerships, the most prevalent, damaging and costly form of “domestic” violence in Australia.

After reassuring the audience that she herself is intensely supportive of men and the predicament of men in Australian society, Cathy established her central thesis that gendered violence is essentially unnecessary; it is the product of a dominant patriarchal discourse rather than a universal and inevitable consequence of intimate interpersonal relationships. This phenomenon is not a consequence of biologically aggressive masculinity, but the result of masculinity’s representation and perpetuation within the discourse of a patriarchal Australian culture “shaping and defining rules for behaviour, and therefore domestic violence” (Bettman, 2009). She looks towards the Semai of central Malaya and the Waorani of Amazonian Ecuador, contrastingly peaceful and warlike peoples respectively, noting that they share cultures in which men are known to anthropologists as never exhibiting violence towards their female domestic partners.

The pre-reading article, presenting Dr Bettman’s PhD research on the topic, offered a male perpetrators cultural discourse that reflected the epitome of an Australian patriarchal discourse easily recognisable to anyone who has spent a minimum of time in the company of “Aussie” men.

Using “The (Duluth) Power and Control Wheel”, Cathy gave a nuanced description of different presentations of male violence from the reactive “pitbull” to the conniving “cobra”. When defining “domestic violence”, amidst the better known “physical, emotional, sexual, financial”, the defining feature of violence in a domestic setting emerged in terms of the “fear or apprehension of violence  as a consequence” leading to a sense of “walking on eggshells” or modifying her behaviour so as to “not upset him”.

Through a number of case studies that highlighted the complexities of circumstance, culture, and culpable behaviour on behalf of both the parties to an intimate relationship, Cathy detailed different ways of working with couple presentations.

First and foremost, she advocates listening to genuinely understand. To be deeply empathetic to both him and her, understanding that whilst he might rightly be labelled “perpetrator” and she “victim”, he has his own story, a comprehensible dominant narrative that informs his behaviour, and his own pain and shame that drives him to perpetrate that behaviour.

Second, ensure safety, her safety must be the priority. When there is a ‘sense’ of the possibility of violence, then speak to the couple separately, first him, then her. Always ask about “the first, the worst, and the most recent” instances of unresolvable conflict between them. What happened? What were the feelings before, during and after for each of them? If safety cannot be ensured, then work with each individual separately.

Be willing to name the violence, be clear about what violence is in their relationship; you may be surprised to find that they are both relieved to hear their dynamic named for what it is.  

Using Lenore Walker’s “Cycle of Violence” can help couples to understand the cycle of violence that they are caught in and to become more aware of their own respective experiences within the cycle, empowering the possibility of change.

When supporting men to challenge their behaviours: don’t make statements, instead ask open questions that reveal their background and experience of relationships and violence, and of social messages and discourses that inform their use of violence as a response to uncertainty.

Support her to believe in herself and her right to a voice, her right to say what she wants to say without fear of violence. 

Once violence is addressed, and she feels empowered to know what is not okay for her, the couple still needs to learn how to resolve the conflicts that will invariably arise in their relationship. For this ongoing work, informed by many years of practice with Relationships Australia, Cathy recommended the work of Dr John Gottman and colleagues.

Overall, this session offered an invaluable piece of the overall puzzle of the violence that occurs with unnerving frequency in Australian domestic relationships and that counsellors are invariably exposed to. 

PACFA Members can look forward to Part 2 of the College of Counselling’s webinar series with a deepening exploration of Children’s experiences of family violence: The most in need, presented by Emma Hodges on International Children’s Day, 7 – 8.30pm, Wednesday 20th November 2019.

During 2020 we continue our series of six webinars on Power and Control with:

  • When family violence and disability intersect: how can counsellors respond?
  • What’s important to know about working with DV/FV in the LGBTIQA community?
  • Elder abuse: When getting old gets dangerous, working with DV/FV in our aging population.
  • Holding a DV/FV lens in the cross-cultural space: what works? 

Bettman, C. (2009). Patriarchy: The predominant discourse and fount of domestic violence.  The Australian and New Zealand Journal of Family Therapy, 30(1), 15-28.

Micah Projects Inc. The Cycle of Violence. Retrieved from www.bdvs.org.au/resource_files/bdvas/IR_5_Cycle-of-violence-factsheet.pdf

Domestic Abuse Intervention Programs. Power and Control Wheel. Retrieved from https://www.theduluthmodel.org/wheels/