6 ways to walk alongside people who commit acts of Family Violence
Thankfully there has been increased focus on the problem of family violence, both inside and outside the church in recent years. Around one in six women will experience family violence at some point in their lives, and one in twenty men 1 . The statistics for Christian families are similar. And while victims of family violence certainly need a great deal more support than they are currently getting, people who are committing the acts of violence are just as needy of support. It takes something pretty messed up for a person to threaten, hit, stalk,manipulate or control another member of their family. And my guess is that those messed up behaviours stem from a somewhat messed up life. While the violence itself deserves clear condemnation, the entirety of the person does not. While still taking all due care to protect and comfort victims, here’s some ways to love and serve the people who commit the acts of violence.
Recognise that violence isn’t the entirety of the person. While we may have fleeting moments of seeing a perpetrator of violence as ‘a total monster,’ they were made in the image of God, and are by no means beyond redemption. Christ died for everyone (2 Cor 5:15), even those who are violent towards their families. So while we talk with people who commit acts of violence, we remember that God loves them and Christ died for them. They’re in need of the gospel.
While violent behaviour is entirely the responsibility of the person exercising it, understanding some of the factors at play can be helpful. Violent behaviour is often a person ‘acting out’ a violent history. The person might have grown up with a violent father, and have no other template for how a father relates to families. Or they may have current or past trauma that prohibits them from acting in a calm and rational manner. They may lack any other conflict resolution skills, and so default to violence to try and end an argument. While these things in no way excuse the behaviour, they help to give richer context. Supporting someone to resolve the underlying issues might mean that violence will decrease.
If someone discloses that they do things they’re not proud of at home, know that the language perpetrators use is likely to be VERY understated. Personal accounts of the same event can sound as varied as this: He says: It was nothing, she was just being emotional. She says: He was threatening to kill me, I was so terrified. He says: Oh, I just gave her a love tap, she knows she deserved it. She says: He pushed me into the window to stop me from getting to the baby. He says: I’m not proud of what I said, but no-one’s perfect. She says: He stood over me and yelled at me that I was stupid and hopeless. It can be helpful to have some clarifying questions ready to go, like: “If I was a fly on the wall at the time you raised your voice to her, what wouldI have seen?” This gives him the opportunity to reflect on events from a slightly more objective perspective, and you’re likely to get a clearer picture of what happened.
Don’t let your desire to help the situation overstep your knowledge and abilities. It’s not all on you to solve everything. You’re helping well by doing what’s within your skill set. You could listen calmly while someone talks about violence in their family, then ask them what support you can help them to get. You could pray for them. You could offer to meet up with him for coffee, ask him if he’s interested in someone helping him out with why he behaves like this. Relationships Australia and other agencies run reputable Taking Responsibility 2 programs for men who are ready to take responsibility for their violent actions. Do what you can, but leave the counselling and relationship mediation to the pros.
Be gentle and kind in all your dealings with everyone involved. Do your best to ensure you don’t replicate violent dynamics when you assist. That is, if you shout abusively at someone to tell them that shouting abusively isn’t ok, you’ve just become a perpetrator yourself. Meeting abusive behaviour with abusive behaviour only perpetuates abuse. Followers of Jesus must meet violence with peace, abuse with respect, and harm with love. Never excuse or overlook the abusive behaviours, but be kind and gentle while you say its not ok. This is a time to role-model speaking the truth in love, with patience, kindness and gentleness.
Follow up. If you become aware of violence happening within a family, don’t just forget about it. Follow up with the person who told you, and regularly see how they’re going. Violence usually increases in severity and frequency over time, so the likelihood that it’s going to all get better is slim. Perpetrators need long-term love, accountability, education, and self-awareness. If a perpetrator gets to the point where they are no longer using violence within their family, believe it or not, that is the time that they need the MOST support. Making a change is easy, maintaining it is hard. To love him well, you might need to walk with him long-term, asking the same accountability questions every week for five years. Yep, every week for five years. That’s a long-standing coffee date.
MensLine is a great resource for anyone interested in more information. Family Violence is a very difficult and complex problem, and no two situations are exactly the same. This ‘general advice’ may be helpful, but please, if you’re apart of a violent family, or you’re supporting someone in a violent family, seek the advice of a reputable counsellor, social worker, or psychologist. *Overwhelmingly, women are on the receiving end of family violence, and men are those exercising the violence. In this article I have referred to genders as such, but equally I acknowledge and stand with victims where the gender pattern differs.
If you are experiencing Domestic Violence and are afraid for your safety, seek help from a trusted friend or counsellor, or call the National Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence Counselling Service on 1800 RESPECT. Visit our Resources page for further help. If you are in danger in your home, please call 000 (if in Australia).
Kylie is a Christian Psychologist whose client demographic includes perpetrators and survivors of Family Violence. Kylie is a graduate of SMBC.