The only way violent men can change is if they want to
By Hayley Gleeson, illustrations by Rocco Fazzari
It's just past seven on a brisk Wednesday night in Lilydale, in Melbourne's outer east, and about a dozen men have filed into a classroom-like meeting room at Anglicare, and taken their seats in a wide circle.
They are preparing to talk about the ways they've hurt and abused their partners and, most importantly, to try to work out how — and if — they can change.
To kick off this week's group — one of 20 sessions each man will attend as part of the men's behaviour change program, if they don't drop out — they've been asked by one of the facilitators to share with the others what they hope to get out of it.
"I want to learn how to manage my anger so I can see my kids again," says a 30-something man in a grey hoodie, who's been mandated to attend by child protection.
He pulls his folded arms tighter into his chest: "I am also realising how I want to interact with my ex-wife, and not let her push my buttons. It's good to be aware of my boundaries, to recognise my own triggers."
Another man of about 40, who's maybe 10 weeks in, shifts in his seat. "Before I came here, I had real trouble seeing emotional abuse as violence," he says softly. "This group must be working," he smiles, "because the other day my boss said to me, 'You're a different man'."
One participant in high-vis and steel-capped work boots has been listening intently, his hands clasped behind his head, his legs stretched out in front of him. It's his first night, he explains, and he's "happy" to be here.
"I have some control issues, and I came here voluntarily," he says, though he'll later share that there's an intervention order against him, and he currently can't see his kids or wife, from whom he's been separated for a while.
"It was always my way," he continues. "I was the head of the house. I work an 80-hour week, minimum — massive hours — and that probably brought the monster out of me. I feel like, because I'm the money-earner, I [am entitled to] control the house. But I'm here to learn that it's not just about me."
'When I clench my teeth it's time to stop'
It's rare for a journalist to be given access to a group like this, partly because allowing in any observer, let alone one who plans to expose its inner workings, is an administrative nightmare. Each participant has had to consent to ABC News being present over the next few weeks on the condition that identities will be strictly protected.
And until recently, men's behaviour change programs were hardly discussed outside the circles of those who attended or ran them: they have typically been hived off from mainstream domestic violence services and operated in a siloed, ad hoc fashion.
For this reason, they have been poorly understood, and questions about their effectiveness linger.
"We always err on the side of being less optimistic [that these programs work], partly because this is about people's lives and safety," said Jacqui Watt, chief executive of No To Violence, the peak body for agencies working with men to end family violence.
Meanwhile, a common refrain from domestic violence survivors and their counsellors is that women should leave abusive male partners as soon as it's safe to do so because, even if they apologise or promise otherwise, they more than likely won't change. And many men don't.
"We know that men who have long histories of violence against multiple partners ... who might have been in and out of prison, and who have a very strong sense of narcissism and a low capacity for empathy usually don't benefit from these programs," said Rodney Vlais, a research and policy consultant with almost 20 years' experience working with men's behaviour change programs.
But sometimes they do work. And the need to find out how has grown increasingly urgent.
With anger swelling in the community over a recent spate of murders of women and children — and mounting calls for men to "take responsibility" for the violence and authorities to hold perpetrators to account — advocates say it's time to invite the public in.
"People ... need to understand what's happening in these groups," Ms Watt said. "I think more people are realising that if we don't work with men, we're never going to change anything."
The more pressing question, though, is not simply what changes violent men, but what shifts minds and attitudes towards women in the broader society?
Ultimately, it seems, the potential "success" of behaviour change programs hinges not on the individual men sitting through them every week, but on the wider community's willingness to embrace a deep and deliberate cultural change — one that experts warn could take generations.
"You can go to a two-hour [behaviour change] session and have as many 'breakthroughs' as you like," said Elena Campbell, who runs a program of family violence research projects at the Centre for Innovative Justice at RMIT University.
"But then you'll walk out and all the messages about masculinity and your role [as a male] in society are reinforced as soon as you get on the bus or turn on the TV. If you've still got a violence-supporting peer group," Ms Campbell said, "then any progress you've made ... in that isolated bubble is potentially going to be undone."
In the interim, however, many participants are reporting life-changing experiences: from coming to terms with the fact that their behaviour is legally considered "violence", to learning strategies for managing emotions, to understanding how their upbringing may have influenced their family.
"For me, I want to leave this course the sort of person my daughters want to associate with, and call their father," says one man in the Lilydale group, towards the end of the evening.
"I've learnt that fighting [with my partner] didn't make me happy ... my self-esteem is heaps better — 12 months ago situations at home would have been an absolute shit fight; cups would have been flying across the room and we wouldn't have spoken to each other for two days. But now I know that when I clench my teeth it's time to stop or change."
So what does change look like?
Men's behaviour change programs first emerged in Australia in the mid-1980s to help participants — most of whom enrolled voluntarily — acknowledge their violence and learn strategies to stop it. But since then they have become increasingly connected with the justice system, with more men being referred by police and courts.
The trend is evident particularly in Victoria, where the number of men participating either by choice or by court order has surged since the Royal Commission into Family Violence, which in 2016 recommended substantial boosts in funding for behaviour change programs, among other reforms.
In the past three years, the number of government-funded places in community-based programs in that state has more than doubled to 4,000, while the number of places in Corrections-run groups has increased by 1,529 per cent to 733. The number of places available to Victoria's specialist family violence courts — which can mandate men to attend — has also increased by 48 per cent, from 339 in 2015 to 502 in 2018.
But the programs remain hugely controversial. This is partly because many social workers disapprove of assisting perpetrators, but also because there is a lack of longitudinal research on their effectiveness.
As Professor James Ogloff, the director of the Centre for Forensic Behavioural Science at Swinburne University, told the Royal Commission:
"There are some studies which show success, some studies that don't show success, and people have been critical ... about the fact that you are asking to do too much [in behaviour change programs] with too little ... we are looking at people whose behaviour is entrenched sometimes over a lifetime."
The biggest challenge with answering the question, 'Do men's behaviour change programs work?' is that we always look at them in isolation from everything else that is going on in a perpetrator's life, says Elena Campbell.
"It's very difficult to ascribe any shift [in behaviour] that might occur to a program because at the same time he's possibly also a respondent to an intervention order, or there might be criminal charges, or family law or child protection matters."
There's also the question of how program success should be measured(does stopping some but not all violence constitute success? If so, for whom?) and the fact that, as most experts working with perpetrators will stress, they're not exclusively about helping men.
"The purpose of these groups is not actually about changing him," said Jacqui Watt. "If he comes out of a group and has been able to change his behaviour, and is able to feel better about himself and is therefore able to be a better person in his relationship and the world, great. But the purpose of these groups is first and foremost about the safety of women and children."
For example, if during the course of her partner's involvement in a behaviour change program, a woman decides change might not be possible, and develops the agency and confidence to leave him, Ms Watt said, "That's a result".
Programs must be part of an 'integrated system'
A couple of studies provide some insight, though. One, called Project Mirabal, is widely cited by practitioners in Australia as the most robust evidence for program effectiveness to date.
The UK research, published in 2015 by Durham and London Metropolitan universities, found "remarkable results", according to its authors: men who completed behaviour change programs significantly reduced their physical and sexual violence, while women reported fewer assaults and injuries after program completion.
And in 2016, a study of more than 300 violent men and their partners also yielded "optimistic" findings. The research, funded by Violence Free Families and conducted by Monash University, tracked men who had completed behaviour change programs in Australia for two years.
It found the majority changed in the short and long term, with the greatest improvements including reductions in physical abuse, criticising partners for sexual matters, and making partners feel afraid. Unexpectedly, it also found men who were court-ordered to attend a behaviour change program showed greater improvements than those who were not.
"It was surprising, because I ... would think that men who came voluntarily would be more motivated to do well," the study's lead author, Emeritus Professor Thea Brown, told ABC News. "What we think, but we don't know ... is that men who were court ordered got a bigger service and more support."
Still, the lack of proof has until recently deterred governments from funding programs sufficiently to achieve the outcomes they were designed to.
Unlike in the United States, where they were first developed, in Australia we tend to treat behaviour change programs as a "silver bullet", Ms Campbell said. "We've lost sight of the fact that these programs were actually set up to be part of an integrated system where a range of organisations" — police, courts, child protection, mental health — "are working together to hold someone to account for their behaviour."
This is slowly changing, though, at least in Victoria, where the government has committed to exploring how to better connect programs with other key services and, crucially, the justice system.
"If we invest more heavily in a model that is supported by scrutiny and accountability from the justice system," Ms Campbell said, "then we absolutely maximise our chances of having an effect, building on the evidence base, and keeping more victim-survivors safe."
According to Donna Chung, a professor of social work and social policy at Curtin University, programs are most suited to men "who decide they need to make a change and have a willingness to improve".
Ms Chung, who is currently undertaking several national research projects for ANROWS to identify how domestic violence perpetrators are being funnelled into behaviour change programs, and with what impact, said more study is crucial, "Because we suspect, but we don't know, how many men are going into programs, and what happens once they're there."
What do we know, then?
A significant number of men begin behaviour change programs feeling like they're the victim, says Jim Allen, a family violence program manager at Anglicare Victoria with almost three decades of experience. "What is common to men who use violence ... is their minimising of it and its impact on other people ... denying that you've used violence ... blaming somebody else ... or justifying it."
And few participants will find the motivation to attend a program of their own volition — at least not initially. Many enrol because they've been cautioned by police, have breached an intervention order or, as in the case of Melbourne man Andrew Nolch, who vandalised a public memorial for murdered comedian Eurydice Dixon, are mandated by magistrates as part of a community corrections order.
But once they're in the room, facilitators aim to help men understand that using violence is a choice that affects the people around them: They didn't just "snap"; it's not "her fault" for starting it.
For some, this message will fall on deaf ears. For others, it's a revelation.
For Ryan*, a father of two who recently completed a behaviour change program in Melbourne's eastern suburbs, "one of the hardest things" about the 20-week course was having to confront the fact that his behaviour towards his partner fit the definition of domestic abuse.
"For me, before the program, violence was hitting a woman — or shaking or punching," he told ABC News at the halfway mark. "I've never touched my wife, or my children, and never would. Even to this day, if the facilitator says, 'Can you talk about an incident of family violence', I still cringe because ... I'm ashamed of it."
A softly-spoken man who works in a professional role in the CBD, Ryan enrolled after months of simmering tension in his marriage boiled over.
He and his wife had been fighting constantly about chores, parenting and their stressful living arrangements at the time, and had been seeing counsellors separately when, one night, as they were trying to get the kids into bed, a heated argument quickly escalated.
"I swore at her ... I called her a f***ing c***," he said. "I could tell she was hurt straight away. She told me to get out, which I did ... [but] even then I probably didn't appreciate what I had done."
Taking his psychologist's advice to sign up for a program was the first of many challenges, and the beginning of months of sitting in shame.
"In my first week I sat next to a guy who had more earrings than I've had hot dinners and I thought, 'My goodness, I don't belong here' — and I honestly believed it," Ryan said. "I thought ... 'I am not court ordered [unlike many of the other participants in his group], I can just leave' ... I didn't think I had to change my behaviour."
To be fair, each two-hour session involves difficult, emotionally-charged work that leaves many men feeling exposed.
"A lot of them are trying to renegotiate how to be a man," said Jeff Lucas, one of the program facilitators for the Anglicare group in Lilydale. "They've got old values that have been passed on to them by their fathers. Some will say, 'But I'm not as bad as dad was', but their behaviour is still bad."
Many have also experienced domestic abuse themselves, perhaps as kids, he adds, "And now they use violence against their partners as a form of control."
Ideally, though, they'll discover in the first few weeks of the program — if they hadn't already — that their violence is not just harmful to their partner and children, but also leaves them feeling miserable.
"Some participants can seem completely disengaged," Mr Lucas said. "But others hold really high hopes that they can change, and feel better in themselves."
'You've gotta be the bloke'
"I was drinking too much, and treating my partner with contempt, absolute contempt," says Gavin*, who's sitting on one of five red chairs that have been placed up the front of the room in Lilydale.
"She would say to me, 'You're as bad as your dad', but I'd just laugh it off because I hadn't hit her or tried to kill her. Back then I tried to hide my anger," he continues, "but there was lots of yelling and put-downs — I threw my lunchbox across the house when I got home."
Gavin's group mates watch on as he moves between chairs, using each to detail his recollection of an egregious incident of family violence, how it made him feel, what impacts it had on the people around him and, in hindsight, what he could have done differently.
On this particular occasion, he says, he'd arrived home late after a big week away for work, and his wife — who'd been "nagging" him to go to counselling and address his alcohol addiction — was upset that he'd been out drinking when he should have been home hours ago, to help with their children.
"I told her to go get f****d, went back down the pub and came back two days later," Gavin explains. "I was scared. If I'm honest, I didn't want to show weakness by admitting my problems — you've gotta be the bloke. But I was angry, starting to lose control, and scared."
A key focus of men's behaviour change programs is to help men examine the influence of common stereotypes of masculinity.
"It is well accepted that many men's choices to use violence is a part of ... asserting a style of masculinity that gives them control and power," said Rodney Vlais. Using violence, he said, "enables them to assert their will ... rather than be in a much more vulnerable space of partnership and care."
For Ryan, one of the most significant moments of his program was when he realised his attitudes to gender roles had been shaping his treatment of his wife. The "penny dropped", he said, while watching his group facilitators act out a role play in which the male facilitator shouted loudly at — and stalked menacingly around — his female colleague.
"He started kicking things and saying, 'Why isn't the effing house tidy and why haven't you cooked me dinner?' And even though I don't say it in that manner, I've hinted at those things to my wife [who's a stay at home mum]. I was trying to tell myself it was just a role play, but it made me really uncomfortable ... and it dawned on me how unreasonable [my behaviour] was."
As a result, he said, the "power structure" in his home had changed.
"A few weeks ago, it was me at the top of the hierarchy, then there was my wife, then my children ... I'd even make jokes about being 'the king of the castle'. But I've realised during the program that children need to see their parents as equals ... So I guess I'm trying to teach [my kids] that."
We won't address violence by 'changing one perp at a time'
But stereotypes of masculinity can also be a barrier to men seeking help. A recent study of 23 men attending behaviour change programs in Australia found there was a "significant reluctance" to engage even among men already attending a program because they felt they had been "labelled" by society as inherently violent and incapable of change.
One participant commented that he believed society was "anti-men" and that men were "painted as these violent people". "You're already singled out and put into this pile over here as being — just because you're a bloke, you're a violent person if you're in a relationship," the participant said. "So you just sit in that space and go, well I just wont speak to anybody."
So what happens when the program ends? Perhaps one of the biggest challenges for men is maintaining any "change" once the 20 weeks are up — which research suggests is more likely if they have ongoing support from a range of services, or perhaps repeat the course. Some also struggle to renegotiate personal relationships.
In wrapping up the 'chair exercise' at Lilydale, for instance, Gavin spoke confidently about his progress over the past few weeks he'd been seeing a psychologist and attending the program. But then he caught himself: "I worry that if I stop coming to these groups I'll fall back into the same old habits again, very quickly," he said. "I'm not fixed, not by a long shot."
He also suggested that his work colleagues didn't seem to be "coping" with the change in his demeanour, and had been ribbing him about it. "They're used to me being aggressive," he said.
Any change in self-identity can be tricky for participants to navigate outside the group environment, says Jim Allen. "Here's a man saying, 'I'm not the guy I used to be anymore, I don't need to behave like that macho idiot' — but it's new to him ... and to feel comfortable about that change can take time."
Some men, he added, "work out that they don't catch up with some of their old mates as much because they're not good influences."
But for Rodney Vlais, it also highlights one of the greatest obstacles to stamping out men's violence.
"How do we connect the work happening in men's behaviour change programs to the broader work happening in society that all men need to do? We're not going to address violence against women by changing one perpetrator at a time," Mr Vlais said.
"The question for me is, how do we shift the thinking from [the misconception] that only a few monsters in society perpetrate violence, to understanding that it's all men's responsibility to change the culture [that allows it to flourish]? You can't just start a program in the community without getting the rest of the community involved."
Some in the community, though, reject the idea that men who assault and abuse their partners should be supported at all.
One domestic violence worker, who has worked in women's shelters in NSW for nearly five decades, said the notion of men's behaviour change programs was "outrageous" and that "men who hit women should be sent to prison", not support groups.
This has been a common response to programs since they emerged in Australia, says Elena Campbell. Women's family violence services have been campaigning for more funding, often unsuccessfully, for decades, she said.
"And they see the most extreme cases of abuse, so it would be incredibly difficult to set that experience aside." But an attitudinal and cultural shift among women's services — like that which she said has been occurring in Victoria — is crucial to the success of behaviour change programs going forward.
"It's about understanding that you can actually do two seemingly opposing things at the same time," Ms Campbell said. "And unless you address the problem at its source, you're never going to fix it."
Others, still, recoil from campaigns urging "all men" to take responsibility for violence against women.
In June, the rape and murder of the young comedian Eurydice Dixon triggered a protracted debate about gendered abuse. After police urged people to "take responsibility" for their safety, women fired back that they shouldn't have to. Many said they were tired of being on constant guard, furious that they were "again" being told to change their behaviour to protect against men's.
In this response, says Jacqui Watt, lies the ultimate challenge for men's behaviour change programs: "How do we have a conversation about [men's violence] without people getting defensive?"
"We need men to engage," Ms Watt said. "Not all men" are responsible for the violence of individuals, "but all men can do something about it".
Telling men and boys that they have a "responsibility" to end violence will not always go down well, says Michael Salter, associate professor of criminology at Western Sydney University.
For some men, Mr Salter wrote recently, the call "harks back to a sexist chivalry in which men are duty-bound to protect the "weaker sex" or to "respect" women as paragons of moral purity". (Such attitudes, he added, "only reinforce the gender inequality that drives violence against women".)
For others, "this message generates a sense of guilt or collective shame that they reject with a turn to anti-feminist "men's rights" discourse." (Also: "Guilt and shame are poor motivators for change.")
As for how to "engage" men in the issue, Mr Salter points to a strategy shared with him years ago by an Aboriginal educator working with men's groups, who would start each session by asking, "What kind of father do you want to be? What kind of husband? What kind of man do you want to be?"
"I've seen the hardest, most brutal-looking men reduced to tears in that very moment," the educator explained, "because everybody, I think, wants to be good."
It is by bringing men and boys into the conversation, Mr Salter said — and perhaps showing them how they’ll benefit from ending violence against women — "that we can understand what they want out of their lives, show how violence is an obstacle to achieving those dreams, and find non-violent solutions."
And, amid the defensiveness, there may be signs of change. "We weren't talking about any of this stuff in 2015, so I think that's what's exciting about the current zeitgeist," Ms Watt said.
"I get very excited when I see young people having these kinds of conversations and really challenging some of the [gender] stereotypes that I grew up with. And in twenty or thirty years' time, hopefully we'll have seen some of that change come through."
'I know I'll be a better person'
In the meantime, hundreds of men and their partners every year are pinning their hopes on these programs making a difference.
For some, it might simply be learning a few communication strategies many would take for granted — say, the ability to call 'time out' to prevent an argument from spiralling into a vicious assault.
For others, 20 weeks spent confronting their demons — and supporting other blokes as they do the same — can be enough to re-route their life's trajectory.
"I see life so differently now," says Ryan who, on finishing his behaviour change program, took the White Ribbon Pledge to speak out and act to prevent men's violence against women. He's also considering doing a follow-up course to help him stay "on track".
"I [wish] this was something I could have done back in high school, when I needed it," he says. "But they don't teach you [in school] how to deal with [things like] money, they don't teach you how to deal with emotions and aggression ... there are probably a lot of relationships that are abusive but people just don't know it."
Out in the Lilydale group one evening, the men break halfway through to catch their breath. A few duck outside into the cold to smoke, while others hang around to chat.
One, a 30-something man in jeans and sneakers, explains how he realised a few weeks in to the program that he didn't actually want to stay in his relationship. "It was toxic for both of us," he says. "I wouldn't have thought I'd ever say this, but I'm starting to understand more about my own behaviour, which has been a really great experience for me."
The rest are called back inside, and around they go again, reflecting on what they've learnt in recent weeks.
"I saw myself as the head of the house, the money maker, the rule maker ... and [I've realised] that some of those values were probably very flawed," says one, a bearded man in his late thirties. "Now I guess I'm taking my medicine, to a degree."
Another of about 40 uncrosses his legs: "Before, the most effective way I could hurt my wife was to withdraw and shut down and be passive aggressive. Now she says I tell her how I'm feeling." He pauses, then looks around the room: "I've been surprised at the fact that these guys know more about my personal fears than her — I'll get back to you on why that is."
"This course — time out in particular — has done wonders for our relationship," says a 60-something man in a smart knit sweater. "Six months ago, blow-ups like the one we had this week would have lasted two days. So it's a better way to exist, but there's a lot of consciousness and work involved."
A large man in a polar fleece jumper grips his chair. He's been separated from his wife for months now and, because of the intervention order in place, can only speak to her to organise seeing his children, who have special needs.
"I had dinner with [my kids] last night to celebrate my birthday," he explains. "And at one point one of them said to me, 'Life's boring without you, dad', and [it was so distressing for me], it just about set me off. But now if I get in a situation like that, I know how to cope."
One of the facilitators has been listening carefully, and seems to have identified in his voice a sense of hope. Is he prepared for the possibility that his marriage might not be salvageable, even after all the work he's put in? "I'm definitely more prepared to handle myself," he shoots back. "I think I'll be alright.
"Even if I lose my wife at the end of all this, and mediation fails, I know I'll be a better person."
*Names have been changed for security and privacy reasons.