I returned to my desk this week full of good intentions. Having been attacked recently in the court process, by a firm of lawyers for expressing my views on the issue of fatherhood after separation, I had resolved that I would not comment further on the politics of family separation. I decided that I would, instead, confine my writing to my therapeutic work with alienated children and their families. Several people have suggested to me in recent times, that to be so outspoken on the subject of fatherhood after separation is to somehow compromise my ability to be neutral in the work that I do with families. In practice, nothing could be further from the truth. The foundation stone of my work with families is my understanding of equality and the ways in which I must adjust my delivery to meet the different needs of mothers and fathers. In short, the equal opportunities statement which reads that ‘in order to treat you equally I may have to treat you differently‘ is at play right across my work with families.
My work with family separation is and always has been, undertaken within a framework of gender mainstreaming. That means that I view the experience of separation as an equalities issue because I know that the way in which mothers and fathers are supported in their parenthood after separation is unequal.
I have undertaken several years of work in this field, I have studied the issue, held interviews with mothers and fathers, analysed the legislation and I have published a lengthy report on the issue for Oxfam1. I consider myself therefore, to be well versed in the different ways in which mothers and fathers are advantaged and disadvantaged after family separation. I know that in order to treat mothers and fathers equally, I have to treat them differently and I have to work hard to even up the playing field so that fathers get the same kind of support that mothers can take for granted.
And so I speak up for fathers not only because I know how disadvantaged they are after family separation but because I know that the disadvantage that they face has lead to discrimination on a widespread scale. Discrimination in terms of their access to services, in terms of the funding for those services and in terms of the clear and present danger of their loss of relationships with children and to being blamed for that, just for being a dad.
I was reminded of this all over again this week when I attended an event on domestic violence and family separation. I was also reminded that to keep my mouth shut, when I am faced with the dangerous discriminatory attitudes that abound in this field, would be to render my work with families almost meaningless. I speak because I understand what we are doing to families after separation and most of all because of the damage we are doing to children. This does not make me less impartial, it makes me more effective in my understanding of the blocks and barriers that face mothers and fathers. And it means that my practice with families delivers an equality of opportunity to continue to be mum and dad, an opportunity which parents do not have to fight for through the clouds of my assumptions or stereotypes. This does not mean assuming that dad is good and mum is bad or vice versa, it means understanding the reality of the lives lived by each and the ways in which this affects the choices that they make and the opportunities open to them. This understanding then allows interventions to be planned that are effective and that help parents to overcome barriers to collaboration instead of deepening the divide between them. It is basic equalities work, which, in any other field of practice, race, disability, age etc, would be expected as standard. Mysteriously, it is missing in the field of family separation and with devastating consequences.
Attending the domestic violence event this week I was confronted once again with that reality. Domestic violence, it would seem, is another field in which basic equalities standards are absent. In fact, my attendance at this event lead me to wonder whether, in line with women’s refuges, there was some kind of exemption from having to adhere to equalities law. Certainly the confident way in which flawed statistics, discredited reports and gendered narratives were being bandied around, would suggest that here is a field in which the dominant group feels entirely comfortable with prejudice.
Working as I do, on a daily basis, with mums and dads who are separating, I know that each are capable of unleashing the very worst of human behaviour on each other. Violence at the end of a relationship is not uncommon and is perpetrated by both men and women, many of whom lose their minds as well as their self control as they struggle to separate emotionally as well as physically. False allegations of violence are common too, on both sides of the fence and so the task of working with families in these situations is delicate, requiring deep levels of understanding and sophisticated routes to differentiation and diagnosis.
Not in the world that the women at this event live in it seems. In this world the rules appear to be very simple.
- There is only one framework in which dv should be understood and that is patriarchy and the permission it gives to men to control women.
- Domestic violence is about male perpetrators and female victims
- Men are in need of control and punishment by the state and women are in need of protection.
- women never make false allegations
- one act of violence automatically leads to more.
You can imagine the reaction then to the idea that domestic violence can be differentiated and that it is possible for couples who have been violent to overcome that behaviour and go on to collaborate.
Family separation and domestic violence are issues which go hand in hand and in the work that I do, varying degrees of violence, emotional, mental and physical are often part and parcel of the conflicted landscape that a family inhabits. Sometimes the violence is coercive, that is it is about power and control over someone else, over their choices, their life and their very sense of self. This coercive control is the kind of violence which terrorises someone into being unable to leave a relationship for fear of retribution and it is often the kind of violence that is ongoing after a relationship ends.
Much of the violence that is experienced at the end of a relationship however, is what is called by researchers Kelly and Johnson2 separation instigated violence. Further, there is a developing body of research that demonstrates that intimate partner violence is not just one type of violence but can be differentiated into four different and distinct patterns of violence. These four patterns are Coercive and controlling, Violent Resistance, Situational Couple Violence and Separation Instigated Violence. For those of us working with separated families from a relational and therapeutic perspective, these four categories are instantly recognisable and offer us a more nuanced, better targeted approach to supporting families where conflict and violence are a feature. Just as in my work with alienated children, differentiation between contributing factors, the role of each person and the possibilities for change are an essential part of intervening in troubled families. Getting the treatment route right and ensuring that each person in the family drama is engaged with the process is a tricky but essential task for therapists working with highly conflicted families. Using a differentiation approach to understanding domestic violence is, in my view, a huge step forward in being able to help in such situations.
Expressing that view at the domestic violence event however was a bit like telling flat earth people that the world is round. Gasps of disbelief greeted the idea that violence could be something that both people engaged in and the idea that a woman who has been in a violent situation with a man could actually recover and even, dare I say it, go on to co-parent with him after separation was horrifying to many. In this world, where all women are victims, the notion of co-parenting appears to be both distasteful and unbelievable and any women collaborating after violence is only doing so because she is afraid not to. This world that these women inhabit is like none that I have ever encountered other than in a Mary Daly treatise. All men and therefore fathers are risky and all women who are separated are in need of educating and defending. It is a terrifyingly politically correct world which has silenced debate for too long and which has, in my view, ended too many children’s relationships with their fathers.
After the discredited 29 child homicides report had been cited as evidence that contact between children and their fathers was dangerous, and several delegates asserted vehemently that women would never make false allegations of domestic violence I gave up all attempts at debate. This is not a field in which anyone is interested in equalities, it is not even a field where anyone is interested in debating whether or not there are enough spaces for the most invisible groups within the overall whole experiencing domestic violence. This world that these women inhabit, is about creating and perpetuating the notion that all violence is the same, all men are dangerous and all women are potential victims. It is about silencing discussion, terrorising those who disagree and about rigid political correctness in which those who do not conform are viewed as colluding with the ‘perpetrator’.
I left the event feeling again that the world in which I live must run parallel to this universe that these women inhabit. My work with family separation, in which I encounter mothers and fathers on a daily basis, shows me that domestic violence is something that is experienced by many and abhorred by most. There are parents involved in violent struggle who want help to change their behaviours and those who are involved in one off violent events that do not repeat themselves. All of those people, in this other world, are victim and perpetrator and the relationship between them should end immediately. As one delegate said in a voice that vibrated with indignation, ‘if he hits her once, how will she know that he won’t do it again.’ The inference being that any kind of analysis of why this happens is simply a waste of time. It is as if the people that they are talking about are text book characters who must conform to a stereotyped idea and if they do not, well presumably that is not an option because viewed through the lens of this kind of analysis, all men are what these women say they are simply by virtue of the fact that they are men.
The world of these women is very clearly delineated into good and bad and one strike and you’re out is is the mantra they chant. Set against an analysis of a patriarchal society in which all men are advantaged and all women disadvantaged, women cannot lose and men cannot win. Their argument would be, I imagine, that this evens up the playing field for women, my argument is that far from evening up the playing field they are actually tipping it further because by assuming that all violence is the same they are using up valuable resources that should be directed at those people suffering coercive violence, those who are really in need of urgent help.
Differentiation of domestic violence allows us to consider the ways in which strong triage and signposting services can get help to those who are in the most vulnerable positions. Helping these women and men, through funding refuge services and educating them and supporting them to rebuild their lives away from violent partners is essential. Accurate differentiation allows this to happen, blanket assumptions that all family violence is the same does not. Neither does the blind belief that women never make false allegations of domestic violence during the process of separation and beyond. Working as I do, through the passage of family separation with many families over twenty years, I witness the ways in which false allegations are part of the toolbox of separating couples. I also witness the ways in which stereotyped thinking, often supported by the domestic violence ‘industry’ training that goes on around the country, ruins relationships between fathers and their children. In several cases where mothers have been the violent partner, I have witnessed the father being arrested and charged with violence or subjected to a non molestation order. I have given evidence to social service teams about violent mothers, only to find that their assumption is that the father is the real cause because domestic violence is, in one team leaders words, ‘perpetrated by men not women and any violence by mothers, well that’s not really domestic violence is it?’
Well actually yes, it is. And the notion that all violent mothers are only violent because of a man somewhere in the background is to move responsibility from women back to men. Given that the home office3 domestic violence figures break down into 60% women and 40% male victims, that’s a whole lot of women who are being excused their behaviour (as well as a whole lot of men who are not getting the services that they need).
And so, my work with equalities and family separation continues and it looks like I am not going to give up speaking up about this subject any time soon. That I am currently speaking about the disadvantage that fathers suffer in the way in which services are ranged against them and assumption, stereotypes and downright lies prevent them from getting the support that they need, is not something that I am going to apologise for. Neither am I going to let my voice be silenced by the accusation that I am somehow not being impartial for speaking the truth, especially when I know that my practice with families delivers the kind of equality of opportunity that brings better outcomes for children.
The field of family separation and domestic violence is heavily gendered and is peppered with assumptions that men are dangerous and/or unreliable and that women are victims and/or angels who never behave badly. The truth is that men and women are dangerous and unreliable and victims and angels and they both can behave badly and they both can behave well. The problem is that many agencies assume the worst about men and the best about women and expect every person to fit that framework. Its wrong, its discriminatory and at its worst, it produces generation after generation of children who have fragile relationships with their fathers.
Therefore, when the landscape that surrounds the separated family is threaded through with the same kind of equalities based practice that is standard in the field of race and disability, then I will shut up and go about my business quietly. And when fatherhood is respected and is not judged, labelled, lied about and ruined by the kind of blind adherence to a narrative that I witnessed this week, then my voice will no longer be needed and I will be silent on the matter.
Until then, expect more of the same.
1Woodall K – See Both Sides – A guide to gender equality in family separation – Oxfam 2001
2Kelly J and Johnstone M –Differentiation between types of partner violence and implications for interventions – Wiley Online 2008
3Men make up 40% (two in five) of the victims of domestic abuse.
Tables 3.01 and 3.05 of the British Crime Survey report: Home Office Statistical Bulletin 02/09 – Homicides, Firearm Offences and Intimate Violence 2007/08 (published 22nd January 2009).
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