A solution to domestic violence

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If men unite against domestic violence, those who practice it will be compelled to change their behaviour for the better By DR MANJULA O’CONNOR Modern neuro understanding of the way the brain works is that the need for control is the ability to purposefully direct and suppress change. We all like to feel in control by stopping change. Yet change is the one thing that happens with regular monotony. When one migrates, a job is made redundant, a spouse wants to leave the marriage, a house is to be sold – all these are situations that cause change and induce anxiety and stress. Because change brings uncertainty, an opposite feeling to the safety of certainty, it causes   stress and anxiety.  And if the individual has a pre-existing unrecognized level of insecurity and anxiety at deeper level, the need for control is even greater.

Anxiety is uncomfortable, causes agitation and in extreme circumstances, is a known contributor to suicide.  So it is natural to    avoid anxiety by using defence mechanisms well-defined by Freud and Jung over the centuries. Commonly used mechanisms are aggression, alcohol and control by domination of another person.

Migration breeds isolation and can be a source of much anxiety. One avenue for lowering anxiety is looking for support mechanisms. Women usually are much better at it by seeking meaningful, confiding and supportive relationship from other women. Women seek each other out, but young men may not be able to reach out to others in the same way. Particularly in situations of unemployment, lack of recognition of their education and when sensing a loss of status in society.

In such situations, unfortunately many young men may turn to controlling, dominating and aggressive behaviour towards women, mistaking that for hypermasculine behaviour.  Research suggest that men’s perceptions of other male’s behavioural patterns, be they accurate or not, exert a strong influence on men’s own behaviour towards women. So, this misperception of an acceptable male behaviour pattern as one of disrespect or dominance over women will invite other men to copy such behaviour. On the contrary, behaviour that is concerned with respect, dignity and equality of women when emphasised by cultural opinion-makers and leaders as the acceptable norm for masculine behaviour even when under stress, will have a copying impact.

The murder of a woman in December 2009 in Sydney by her husband shows the degree of rage he felt when he strangled his wife, then slit her throat at least eight times. He was convicted not of murder but manslaughter, because his evidence was he “lost it” after his wife verbally abused him and said she loved another man. The judge said Singh had been an immature young man, far from his family in India, and did not have the personal resources to deal with his deteriorating marriage.

Speaking as a psychiatrist, I believe Singh would have blamed his wife for his misery, instead of seeking to understand his role in their potential marital breakup. Blaming or displacing the source of pain on to her without self-reflection on his contribution would have only exacerbated their marital woes.

The case of Paul McCuskey’s who received a bravery award from the Humane Society shows another aspect of good use of control and abuse of control. His past history was one of extreme physical violence against his partner and then he finds himself saving an elderly lady’s life in the bushfires crisis. Both instances are examples of the exercise of control and dominance. Men who need to control and dominate but don’t have the confidence to compete against others tend to take it out on their female partners. Because she is physically smaller and not threatening.

We all need control. But there is good control and abuse of control. Good control is use of control over one’s life; abuse of control is unfair dominance over others – domestic violence. The abuse of control reflects a deeper layer of insecurity.

How can we use the patriarchal structures of society for the good of all, men and women? The authority figures of the community such as religious leaders and community and political leaders can play more of a useful role in the community by showing their discomfort with cultural myths and norms that equate male strength with control, dominance and physical violence over women. More needs to be done with clear emphasis on respectful behaviour. Most men are dignified and respectful of women, and they need to express their discomfort with the behaviour of men who choose the path of abuse, gender oppression, homicide or suicide.

Their interventions can help to challenge male socialization practices, and teach men to have empathy for victims, which in turn enhances maturity.  Empathy is putting himself in the shoes of the woman and genuinely attempting to understand her thinking and feeling, and    why she would seek love and comfort elsewhere, leading to changing himself accordingly. Male community and religious leaders can be role models and highlight the need for consent in intimate relationships within marriage.  By exposing cultural myths, research has demonstrated success in increasing the percentage of men who engage in behaviour that reduces the incidence of assaults.

This would help men to be better allies to women.  Further, any assistance from religious leaders that encourages seeking help by young men and women from health professionals, particularly their family doctor in the first instance, would be of great assistance. This is not always an easy path, but one that will be an exercise in ‘good control’ over their choices, and will lead to enhanced maturity.

Women need men to become allies and equal partners in the fight against domestic violence and reduce levels of domestic violence that afflict 1 in 3 women currently, which is costing the Australian economy 13 billion dollars every year.


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Dr Manjula O’Connor is a Psychiatrist and Senior Research Fellow CIMH at the University of Melbourne, and Vice  President , Australia India Society of Victoria.