04 Aug One-dimensional view of domestic violence perpetrators can harm survivors
It can be easy to demonize domestic violence perpetrators. Anyone who has worked with survivors of coercive control can attest to the pain and suffering abusers inflict on their family members. Horror and hatred are normal and common feelings toward people who harm others. It’s human to be angry or feel disgusted when seeing news, reports, or evidence of their violence. From those feelings, it is a short hop to label perpetrators as one-dimensional monsters who only deserve punishment or exile from the family and community.
At the same time, the survivors we are working with may be expressing their love and desire for connection with the very same person who has perpetrated harm against them. For those working to keep a survivor safe or engaging in child protection efforts, a survivor’s statement of “I still love him” often elicits a raft of judgments and worries. These can range from blaming her for failing-to-protect to the armchair diagnosis of trauma bonding. Often the assumption is that if she still loves him, she is unwilling or unable to protect herself or her children. In the minds of many, her continuing love automatically brands her as the problem, especially when it comes to child safety.
When her statements of love crash up against a professional one-dimensional view of the perpetrator, the survivor is often the loser. Her love becomes evidence of her poor judgment and her “denial.” From there, it is a short step to the survivor’s choices and behaviors, not the perpetrator’s, becoming the focus of interventions with family. This easily paves the way for child removal when the context is a child protection case.
So, what’s the problem?
The problem is that continuing feelings of love do not automatically mean a survivor cannot keep themselves and their children safe. Feelings of love may have no relationship to the protective capacities of a survivor or their willingness and ability to keep themselves and their children safe. (How many people express love for a parent who abused them but would never leave their children alone with them?) Her feelings of love are no reason to blame her for the perpetrator’s choices to harm the children. Nor are they reasons to turn our attention away from intervening with the perpetrator.
The real problems are:
- When professionals and others think a survivor must stop loving an abusive partner.
- When we cannot acknowledge the complexity of a survivor’s feelings and still maintain a focus on partnering with her and intervening with the perpetrator.]
- When we start forcing survivors to adopt our one-dimensional view of perpetrators when we should be aligning ourselves more with her complex feelings about her situation.
In this way, it’s the professional’s inability to “walk and chew gum’ at the same time. Put another way, acknowledging her love while still partnering with her is the problem.
One-dimensional views of perpetrators and associated judgments of survivors’ feelings are an injustice to the complex reality and dangers faced by survivors and their children. The simplistic view means missing critical opportunities to support survivors as they sort through the complex reality of co-parenting with a person using coercive control and violence. We may also miss opportunities to help children understand the conflicting and confusing feelings they have about their parents.
A survivor may enjoy a perpetrator’s sense of humor, share his cultural values, or appreciate his role as a father to their children. She may feel connected to the person that he used to be–someone who treated her lovingly. She may feel his importance in the life of children, and their love for him is reflected in her continuing expression of his importance to her.
Ultimately, he’s not a stranger who assaulted her but someone who she shares memories, values, and children with. He is someone she once chose and who chose her. He’s her partner and the father of her children. These are two of the most important roles a person can fill in our lives. He may play a critical day-to-day role in the family, such as coaching little league sports, maintaining cars and the house, helping with homework, and cooking dinner. This is an important part of the survivor and children’s experience of him.
Being an ally to survivors and their children requires us to understand and value her experiences, priorities, and point of view on the perpetrator.
FAILURE TO LISTEN
When we fail to listen to survivors’ complex feelings and perspectives, we can fail at Partnering with survivors. The Safe & Together Model approach to Partnering requires us to do six things:
- Be clear in how we identify the perpetrator as the source of the harm to the children.
- Focus on gathering information from the survivor about the perpetrator’s pattern of behavior
- Learn about her protective efforts
- Validate her strengths as a parent and her acts of resistance to the abuse
- Document accurately what we learn
- Collaboratively plan with her to increase safety and well-being for herself and her children.
One-dimensional views of perpetrators can interfere with each of these steps. It leads to simplistic and ineffective assessments, interventions, and documentation. Judgment of a survivor for continuing love for the domestic violence perpetrator may prevent a professional from identifying her protective efforts. This also prevents you from validating them back to her — a key step in partnering.
These one-dimensional views of perpetrators may ignore the personal or cultural value a survivor places on marriage, relationships, family, and forgiveness. Failing to understand and appreciate the complexity of a survivor’s experience can result in missed opportunities to Partner. It leads to incomplete and potentially inaccurate assessments and documentation that may reflect narratives of victim blaming. This turns our attention away from the perpetrator as a parent, further endangering survivors and children.
Multi-Dimensional Perspectives Strengthen Partnerships with Survivors
Compare these two practices:
Version 1: A social worker says to a survivor: “The fact you said you still love him after what he did to you and to the children means you lack insight into the harm the domestic violence is causing. You cannot be trusted to keep your children safe.”
Compare this to Version 2: The social worker says to the same survivor: “Your love for him isn’t a problem. It doesn’t make you or your children unsafe. It’s his behavior and choices that are the problem. He’s creating the harm and is the reason we are involved in your family. I know you’ve told me you want him to stop hurting you and the children and that you want more help around the house and to go back to work. This all makes sense to me. We just want to work with you to help you and your children be safe, so I want to hear from you what will make the situation better.”
Which version would you want to be on the receiving end?
The second version models Partnering by aligning with the survivor’s complex feelings about the perpetrator while still keeping a focus on safety and well-being. Holding a multi-dimensional view of perpetrators is a fundamental part of meaningful partnerships with survivors and effective interventions for the family. Multi-dimensional perspectives equip us to provide appropriate and relevant interventions. It gives room to understand the complex realities survivors must navigate and the strategies they use to navigate those realities.
The Model’s approach to Partnering helps professionals align with the lived experience of survivors. Dogmatic adherence to the one-dimensional views of perpetrators as monsters can interfere with collaboration with survivors. Affirming for survivors that the perpetrator is the source of the harm to children, not her choices or love, is the foundational step of Partnering. This prevents us from falling into victim blaming and failure to protect thinking, and it assists us in keeping the focus on the perpetrator as parent. The ability to see domestic violence perpetrators as multi-dimensional is part of the foundation for positive interactions with domestic violence survivors. When we acknowledge a survivor’s love for her partner and her right to safety, we create constructive partnerships with domestic violence survivors.
Dive deeper into learning about Partnering through our foundational e-course “Partnering with Survivors”
Participants in our practice-based CORE training learn about Partnering alongside other skills for working families impacted by domestic violence perpetrators. Take the Virtual CORE now! Talk to your Safe & Together Institute Regional Manager about live in-person or live remote CORE for groups.
Download our free “Friends and Family Ally Guide.” It is used by professionals, families, and friends to increase their ability to Partner with someone experiencing coercive control
Listen to our Partnered with Survivor podcast episode on “4 Ways the Concept of Trauma Bonding Works Against Survivors”
David Mandel, MA, LPC, has 30+ years of experience in the domestic violence field as an international trainer and consultant. His work strives to improve systems’ response to domestic violence and child maltreatment. He developed the Safe & Together Model to improve case practice and cross-system collaboration in domestic violence cases involving children. He has written and co-written journal articles on batterers’ perceptions of their children’s exposure to domestic violence, domestic violence case reading tools, and the intersection of domestic violence and child welfare practice. David’s full bio is available here.