Domestic violence: enough is enough

The world of the domestic violence sector is never very easy to navigate, especially if one does not adhere to the strict orthodoxy of violence as a patriarchal act of power and control.  Deviation from this political ideology can render one vulnerable to criticism and personal as well as professional attack, as Erin Pizzey, founder of the world’s first Refuge for women experiencing violence knows only too well.  As more women however, come out and discuss whether feminist ideology serves the family well or not, Diane Abbot, being one of those high profile women who has already done so in her interview last year with the Guardian, the arguments around gender and violence and the relationship between, are starting to look a little bit threadbare.

Gender symmetry is an argument which causes the debate around family violence to be split down the middle into whether women suffer more than men and whether men or women suffer in the same way.  Gender symmetry, which is discussed by academics such as Murray Straus, suggest that far from being an issue which can be set within a feminist analysis of  patriarchal power and control ( men have the power and control and violence is simply the enactment of that), violence is an issue which affects nearly as many men as it does women and the route to treating the problem is to recognise that.

Recent days have seen the launch of the Mankind Inititiative’s video on how people react differently when they witness violence enacted by a man against a woman to when they witness violence enacted by a woman towards a man.  This neat little video, which has now been viewed worldwide more than six million times, captures the way in which our reactions differ when a man is being attacked by a woman.  Watching the video it is clear to see that those people witnessing it are uncomfortable but that they express this discomfort by laughing, being amused and that some people adopt a ‘you go girl’ attitude which underpins the idea that if a women is attacking a man he must somehow have provoked it.  This video has prompted wide ranging reactions, from Ally Fogg in the Guardian who comments upon the way in which Women’s Aid, the largest organisation in the UK supporting female victims has done its utmost to damn the video,  to the challenges to its authenticity highlighted by spanish researchers who wish to see all of the footage to make sure it is not staged.

All of which is, for me, somehow, beside the point because the arguments about violence in the home, have, as far as I am concerned, nothing to do with political ideologies such as women’s rights or men’s rights and never have had really.  This binary argument, in which the two sides representating women and men simply slug it out around statistics and the different ways in which these can be interpreted, simply looks to me, pretty much like the kind of behaviours that those of us working with violence in the home are trying to help people to confront and change. In my view, violent behaviours are a sign of psychological problems and should be treated as such, protecting people from harm being the first step to a triage approach in which violence as an issue is separated out into understandable and therefore treatable strands of behaviours which are categorised in terms of risk to self and others.

This approach is, of course an anathema to Polly Neate, CEO of Women’s Aid who, when being interviewed about the Mankind video suggests that men are far more likely to be the perpetrators of violence in the home and uses a bewildering array of statistics to uphold her stance.  Ally Fogg, in his recent article in the Guardian in response to this, criticises Neate for the statistics she relies upon and shows them to be misleading and in some places, simply false.  This is all well and good, but what does it tell us about violence in the home?  Well, not very much really, other than women’s groups contend that it is largely men who perpetrate it and men’s advocates contend that men are also victims of it at the hands of women. But if we spend all of our time however listening to the ‘he said/she said’ argument, are we not missing the real issue, which is the way in which violence as a behaviour used within the home can harm and even kill adults and children and that violence, as a rage reaction, is a sign that one or sometimes both people using violence are missing something in their psychology?

To examine the issue of violence in the home, it is perhaps important to look first at what we mean by violence in the home or family violence as it is called in other countries.  Family violence, in the view of some, can be broken down into categories and differentiated according to the risk that the violence poses to other people.  In the UK, we have adopted the notion of controlling and coercive violence as a way of describing what used to known as battering, a term which has largely fallen out of use.  Battered wives was a term which became widely known and recognised in the days when Erin Pizzey set up the first refuge in the early seventies, offering a safe place as well as support for those who experienced violence within the home.  Far from approaching the issue from a women’s rights perspective however, Pizzey understood that violent relationships are not all the same, that controlling patterns of behaviours occur on both sides of relationships and that finding ways of resolving the problem of revolving door relationships in which women leave and return to violent men several times, is far more complex than applying feminist education to the problem.

In fact the application of feminist education to the problem of family violence appears to me, when one looks at the evidence, to have spectacularly failed in terms of preventing and treating those who are impacted by it. Worse than that, it seems to me when we look at the ways in which feminist ideology has been applied to the issue of family violence, that there has been one outcome and one outcome only and that is the removal of men from the lives of children on a widespread and systematic basis.  Is this a treatment plan or is it simply the extermination of fatherhood which is the ‘unintended consequence’ of the feminist strategy to ‘treat’ domestic violence.  Whatever it is, it seems to me that it is not working but is, instead, leading to more conflict and not less between men and women  and more and not less conflict between the organisations representing the needs of women and men who experience family violence.

It is time then for a return to Pizzey’s original approach and a move beyond the current binary paradigm of men as perpetrators and women as victims or men as victims and women as perpetrator arguments which are put forth by the domestic violence lobby groups.  Family violence is not a binary issue, it is not a gender issue and it is not simply an issue which affects adults, it affects children too.  In short, violence in the home is about the family, the whole of the family not one adult and the children and the way in which the whole of the family interacts and deals with the conflicts which erupt in it.

The return to a time when family violence was considered in this way means listening again to what Erin Pizzey has to say and drawing upon her experience in supporting those affected.  It means understanding the psychological pattern of trauma which causes violence to erupt and the ways in which this can be treated.  It also means listening and working with the relationship between men and women, not simply upholding the rights of one and condemning the worth of the other. It means removing too, the lens through which we deliver treatement routes to families where violence is an issue, ditching the punitive and vengeful approach of the Duleth Model and the Freedom Programme and recognising them for what they are, tools by which to educate women in the political ideology which is feminism and tools by which to control the behaviours of men.  This approach, which is freely applied to families up and down the land, offers women the excuses they need to take control over men and children and maintain it, regardless of whether they are the victim or the perpetrator.  This crude approach does nothing to resolve generational trauma, nothing to educate people on how to change behaviours and ignores completely, the way in which violent relationships are just that, relationships. Not, as the feminists would have it, the enactment of patriarchal power invested solely in men who wield that without conscience if they are not somehow controlled or prevented from doing so.

Family violence continues to be a problem in our country and across the world and feminism has not controlled it, treated it or prevented it.  All feminism has done is increasingly set the bar for what constitutes violence, lower and lower and lower, until we have reached a point where anything and everything, it seems to me, could be construed as violence. Even the very fact of wanting to remain involved in your child’s life could, if the mother decided it was so, be considered an act of controlling violence.  It is nonsensical, it is fantastical and it is as far away from interrupting the generational cycle of violence in the home that it is possible to get.

With the rise in knowledge worldwide about the impact of early relationships upon the developing brain and the understanding we have about the plasticity of the brain and its ability to learn new behaviours, it is time now for a new approach to family violence, one which is hopeful and which is inclusive and supportive rather than damning and discriminatory.  Most of all it is time to break away from the binary paradigm in which we consider violence and rebuild a way of working with the family which offers support for change, not simply the extermination and removal of one person in order to resolve the problem.

Wherever there are relationships, conflict will arise, it is part of being human.  Where violence in the home is concerned, feminism has not given us the answer and continued fighting in the domestic violence lobby will not either.

As more women begin to understand the failure of feminism in this field, it is time now to move beyond the binary and into a world in which the models we use to support conflicted families do not exclude but include and do not punish but treat and support as well as protect.



  1. I’ve followed your excellent blog for several years now Karen having found it whilst searching for an understanding of parental alienation, and it was interesting to read your view on DV as well, as I suspect these two behaviours are not mutually exclusive in many families when looking at their journey as a whole from pre to post separation.

    I don’t mean to hijack this thread by taking it back to parental alienation, but I am sure there must be parallels between working with DV and working with alienation, so I have a couple of questions which I hope you don’t mind me asking of you or anyone else that joins in.

    You make it quite clear in your last paragraph alone, that when working with conflicted families where DV is present, rather than punishment, a combination of support, protection, and treatment is far more important that should include the whole family.

    As a male having been subjected to DV by a previous partner, then my ex wife, in both cases there were, as you suggest, certainly underlying psychological problems. These seemed to surface at times of frustration as a final method to express themselves, rather than remaining calm and discussing whatever the issue was that was bothering them in a civilised manner.

    If I had reported either for assault, and had the police taken it seriously, I doubt very much that punishing these women would have changed their behaviour, as in reality it would have been treating the symptom and not the cause.

    I appreciate that in many cases there may also be a need for the behaviour of other people in the family, or the relationship, to change, in order to help the perpetrator change, but ultimately, for the perpetrator to change and stop their abusive behaviour, does the start point for that have to be that they want to change?

    Its just that from my own perspective, I have heard people working in the domestic abuse arena saying that it is impossible to make any progress and achieve a positive outcome working with a perpetrator, and their victim, unless very early on in the process the perpetrator is able to acknowledge that their violent behaviour is wrong and they WANT to change it.

    Looking at the possible parallels between this and families where parental alienation is present, and if I have understood your definition between the two types then what I am going to ask would be in respect of hybrid alienation. In that situation, again, there may be a need for the behaviour of other members of the family to change as well, particularly the targetted parent, but when you work with conflicted families where alienation is the primary problem, is it the same as I am led to believe it is with DV?

    By that, what I mean is that if the alienating parent will not acknowledge that their children being alienated from the other parent is not healthy for them, and if they refuse to accept that they need to change their own behaviour to prevent that happening, and are basically in complete denial, does it completely scupper any attempt to work with that family and restore relationships between the children and the targetted parent?

    I have already experienced first hand the ignorance of the various authorities towards men as victims of DV, yet still been astounded by some of the comments left after the Mankind advert on Youtube. My next question, but again going back to the possible parallels between DV and parental alienation, is thus about ignorance.

    I suspect I am not alone in what I heard from the recently appointed Cafcass Guardian and solicitor in my own case. They claimed to have many decades of experience between them of dealing with cases that might involve an element of parental alienation, and as a consequence also claimed to have read the relevant research, be well versed with the issues surrounding alienation and potential treatment of it, both legally and psychologically.

    For this question you might need to put modesty to one side if you answer Karen. Should I, and any other parents that have encountered professionals claiming to be similarly familiar with the issue of parental alienation, be worried if when asked those professionals have never heard of you Karen?

    Okay, I think that was actually a rhetorical question, because I know I came across you very early in my own quest for information and views on parental alienation, and I think it would be quite difficult not to come across you, whether directly or via some other route, for example your endorsement on the book by Thomas Moore. Surely, if those professionals are as familiar with the subject as they make out, they would have come across you too?

    Apologies for bringing parental alienation into a discussion about domestic violence, but as I said at the start, certainly in my own personal experience the two issues have not been mutually exclusive, and the difficulties of getting acceptance from the professionals that either have occurred within my family has been equally difficult, hence I am interested on your thoughts on both issues, and the possible parallels, many thanks.



    1. Hi J,

      I think there are a lot of similarities between the models of work with dv and the models of work with PA that I read about and offer in our own practice. The major similarity is that of differentiation and ensuring that the cause of the problem is matched with an effective treatment route.

      In terms of similarities around violence issues and PA, I think there are similarities in the psychology of parents who deliberately alienate, there are also psychological issues in the way in which hybrid or non conscious alienation is often accompanied by rage behaviours which children witness.

      In terms of alignment, children can be forced into alignment if they are witness to rage behaviours in a parent who is, for example, enraged that she is being left and who then erupts into violent grief which she directs at the parent who is leaving. This can lead to children being too terrified to continue their relationship with the other parent who is seen as the cause of this and therefore someone who is forbidden in the psychological landscape.

      I don’t know how many family court professionals know about my work, judging by the number of enquiries we get I think many are but I also think that they can be a law unto themselves and think they have all the answers. The truth is there are many answers and it is not really within the skill set of family court professionals to have the answers to very difficult scenarios. Sometimes my work can be interrupted by family court professionals and social workers who think they know better than we do how to treat a family where alienation is present, managing the dynamics caused by professionals is one of the layers of work we have to undertake when we are working with families.

      We work best when we are able to work with families without the interference of other professionals and we have had some excellent outcomes in families where we have been allowed to get on with it. In others, the needs and beliefs of the professionals have got in the way and have caused either the stalling of programmes of work or significant shifts in the wrong direction.

      We are about to start an education programme for Solicitors practices in London and we are also about to start an information and education programme online for interested people as part of our revamp of this site. Just as soon as the book is finished and ready for publication these new strands of work will be online and available to give to family court professionals.

      I also have an article in the latest edition of Seen and Heard which is a journal for social workers and family court professionals, I will post a link as soon as it is live.



      1. Thank you for your comments Karen and for circulating my friend’s song/video, very much appreciated.

        I had suspected there could be some similarities both between DV and PA behaviours and the treatments of them, and it is both interesting and useful to have an insight into your views on that.

        It might be me not reading/thinking deeply enough into what you have said in response to my comments, but I’m not sure what you thought of what the professionals working with DV have told me. That is, in cases where the perpetrator refuses to accept that they have issues that need resolving, and therefore have no intention to to anything about it, and the parallel to parents that exhibit similar behaviours towards parental alienation.

        Regards the latter in particular, even in the work you do with families, for it to be successful does that parent, well in fact both parents, have to want it to be successful and be willing to change their behaviour, and if not, no matter how tragic it may be for the children involved, are there times when you simply have to accept that there is nothing that can be done to resolve the situation for them unless or until the parents are prepared to engage properly with you?


  2. By way of an apology for asking so many questions in my initial post, this one is completely on topic. The link is to a video on Youtube which features a song written and sung by a good friend who is a survivor of domestic violence……called Curled Up….the words are poignant and illustrate that it is not necessarily always that easy to just walk away from an abusive relationship when you love someone.

    Apologies on his behalf for the actual visuals…which he had to borrow from other DV videos as he did not have time to shoot his own….but actually they seem to fit rather well.

    Please feel free to share…..its not quite up to the 6+ million views of the Mankind Initiative ad yet…..but his aim is the same….simply to raise awareness of DV


    1. Don’t apologise J, thank you for sharing, I will also post it up so that it gets circulated around my reader list. K


  3. I too liked the mankind video. If a picture is worth a thousand words then surely this video is equivalent to a tome. There are of course many different messages conveyed by the behaviours not only of the two main characters but by the various onlookers. This short piece has the makings of a modern day Shakespearean tragedy.

    Not least it defines our attitudes toward one another. This glimpse of domestic violence in full public view, in what I presume is a western cultural setting shows how we view the aberrant behaviours of men and women differently. Perhaps it explains why “Institutionally” we disapprove of male violence more than we do of women’s.

    Throughout history men have always shouldered the responsibility of protecting women from threats. It may be the vested interest in his child that he hopes she will bear that causes him to think this way, or any number of deep seated reasons. It is because the woman will bear the child that she is the one ultimately requiring the security and protection of the happy and expectant father. He has a vested interest in her welfare by virtue of her being the one to enable his ancestry to continue even after his death.

    If mankind were to do another video in one hundred years or even a thousand years time nothing will have changed, because of this unique relationship between man and woman.

    However, if we look at violence as a phenomenon generated by anger and manage to deal with that anger in a professional manner there is hope. For every incident of domestic violence there are at least two people involved, sometimes more. Victims are telling us they are powerless to do anything to stop it and the instigators of violence are telling us of the frustrations they feel when their partner won’t perform the tasks or behaviours they expect of them.

    One of the saddest elements of domestic violence is that our children witness it. Not the considered parenting approach of conflict resolution, but the destructive and selfish approach of continued opposition expressed in angry gesticulations and violent misbehaviours.
    When your partner is violent, whether they are male or female, they are trying to express profound feelings of discontent. Their behaviour tends to be spontaneous often involuntary. What triggers this behaviour? Playing victim in the video which shows you displaying a lack of engagement whilst you are attacked you may feel a sense of powerlessness and innocence; frustratingly unable to stop the assault. You may feel you are completely innocent. But ask yourself this. If you were not there would there be any violence? Our passivity can be a trigger to the violent behaviour of our attacker.

    Working in the context of persons with educational disabilities with individuals who are often prone to violence it is possible to use the way we behave to improve their behaviour. If you consider yourself to be the victim of domestic violence, male or female, it is possible to reduce or even eliminate violent acts against you by the way in which you behave.

    Not enough time to go into here but, like always, many solutions lie within the concept of empathy. Acknowledgement of another’s feelings and attitudes is a skill well worth consideration. “Listening skills” as used by the Samaritans have been developed almost to an art form. I think Karen may tell us more about how to cope with domestic violence and how it affects the family, especially children. I am sure her solutions will provide us with new skills we never realised we had.

    Kind regards


    1. I am learning myself more about rage behaviours and violence and how there is an optimum time to teach children to manage rage and what the neuroscience tells us. It seems like insanity, when I set this learning against the Duleth Model and the Freedom programme, that we are still using this kind of shaming and blaming and that we do not use a more sophisticated approach to what clearly are psychological issues. I will write more on this in weeks to come. K


  4. Thanks as ever, Karen, for your recent blogs eloquently pointing out that most high conflict family situations are not as black and white as the black and white feelings and approaches would like them to be. And pointing out that black and white approaches, including courts and punishment, don’t really tackle the problems effectively.

    By coincidence this week Erica Flegg of Ahimsa (Safer Families) in Plymouth was up in Scotland presenting a day workshop. I was there, but the event was for a more closed audience (than I would have liked it to have been). She and Calvin Bell have developed a service for families on the edge of losing their children because of the parent’s domestic violence / abusive relationship. They work with the parents mostly, not the children.

    A lot of what Erica said and handed out showed the limitations of the radical feminist gender biased approach that is so wide-spread and assumed. Their approach is very practical and clear and written down and constructive – based on what other agencies require and what the parents also want but especially motivated because they don’t want to lose their children to other carers.

    I can’t find their material online though. The Ahimsa website is here:

    I wish their more detailed stuff was more widely available, but I can also understand the risks of being too public about one’s principles and views when you are trying to attract a service clientele … saying “the wrong thing” will instantly put off some funders.

    I’ve suggested and wish that there could be a higher profiled alliance / campaign between you / these rare voices and services – even if you may also have your differences too – the ones with less black and white thinking. So often we all seem to (have to) operate in isolation and increasingly with cut back funding. With the huge high profile exception of yourself, Karen, it seems that careful guerrilla methods may be necessary and work best.

    Or maybe, Karen, you already know of and have a quiet alliance going with others who broadly share the same framework?

    Best wishes

    Nick Child
    Family Therapist, Edinburgh


    1. Hi Nick, we are starting to build up a network of people who are interested in the issue of violence in families and working with it from a different perspective. There are some excellent people in the country doing some really interesting work, Sue Parker Hall being one of them and her book Anger, Rage and Relationship was a real eye opener for me in terms of therapeutic support to families where violence is an issue. I think we just have to keep on building, talking and knitting together different strands of work which will bring about change. K


  5. Hi Karen

    Ally Fogg here. May or may not surprise you,but I very largely agree with pretty much all of this. I have written extensively on understanding the psychological roots of violence. This piece was a few years ago, but still relevant:

    I think it is coming from a very similar standpoint.

    (Just as a minor point of fact, I do write regularly for the Guardian but the piece you link to above was only on my blog)


    1. Thanks Ally, will link through to your comment piece too, I am of course aware of the work you are doing, glad to hear we share the same approach. I am working with Erin Pizzey at the moment, we are looking at how we can bring about her original thinking and, (in my view), therapeutic genius, into a place where we can combine it with all of the new developments in neuroscience and link it up to the emerging movements for change in the way we support families. It’s a big ask but having worked in the field of equalities and family separation for over two decades, I know we have to do something different if we are ever to bring about the change that our children so badly need. Glad to talk, keep up the wonderful work that you do, things feel as if they are starting to knit together now, exciting and interesting times ahead. K


  6. Statistics are really just for politicians who think that people are easily hoodwinked. There is only value in considering statistics if you are also considering a number of other variables and probabilites. In this case, I suspect that the majority of men who’ve experienced this kind of suffering will not even think of telling anyone, not even their closest friend. Why bother, if the reaction is going to be the kind that we see in that video. It’s just embarrassing and shameful.


    1. Statistics have become a tool for those who, for whatever reason, are more intent on exclusion than inclusion.


  7. Karen, just reading Daphne Patai’s book Heterophobia at the minute. I can certainly see some parallels between the DV industry and sexual harassment industry. Her analysis is reactionary but perhaps understandably in the climate within universities at that time. Any other suggestions for interesting research?



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