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'I took pleasure in making her feel worthless': The psychology of domestic abuse

Aucklanders hold a peace walk in memory of 22-year-old British backpacker Grace Millane, whose body was found in the Waitakere Ranges last December. A 27-year-old man has been charged with her murder.

When Grace Millane was killed last year, there was an outpouring of anger. Many asked, how could this happen in New Zealand? Others asked, why are we surprised?

On a warm spring day in Hamilton, eight men gathered to share a pork curry in the Hamilton suburb of Frankton. Before they ate, Eric, a large man with a soft voice, said a karakia. He introduced the group, who didn’t know each other, but had something in common: each had punched, kicked, near-throttled or violently threatened a woman in their lives.

Glendon, 37, a man with slicked-back, fair hair, volunteered he had been imprisoned seven times for striking his partner; offences, he claimed, that related to alcohol, drugs and “people who take me down the wrong road”. Rua, 30, a thin man wearing a hoodie, half-throttled his partner when she was pregnant with their second child. Adam’s father ran with the Mongrel Mob and raised him to intimidate and cause pain to all he came across. He said, “I never used my fists or boots on my partner, but I took pleasure in making her feel worthless.”

Eric sat silently, while the men shared their stories. Later he said, “I’ve been married 30 years. Half my kids know me as a man who was violent; the other half can’t believe that’s true.” Against the backdrop of shocking stories laid bare over lunch, it was a small beacon of hope.

“I didn’t hate her. I just wanted to show her who was boss.” – Adam

Men’s violence towards women gets people riled up. Last year, when young British tourist Grace Millane was killed, allegedly by a man she didn’t know, there was a collective storm of rage and shame. But, when it was pointed out by many that the vast majority of female homicides in New Zealand are not freak incidents involving strangers but carried out by men the women know – and that this country has one of the highest levels of violence against women among OECD countries – the response was more subdued. “Why?” was the question posed.

Many pointed to poverty; others said drugs and alcohol were to blame. Socialisation, colonisation and even capitalism were said to be contributors. So were physical strength (“I didn’t mean to hurt her”) and testosterone (“I couldn’t stop”). Still others claimed it was simply misogyny. “Women have very little idea of how much men hate them,” wrote Germaine Greer, 40 years ago, in the feminist bestseller The Female Eunuch. What is known is that men’s violence sends thousands of New Zealand women to doctors’ rooms and emergency departments every year. The question – why do men kill, maim or terrorise women? – is more complicated.

When Hamilton community psychologist Dr Neville Robertson was growing up in the 50s and 60s, there was only one way to be a bloke: staunch, rugby-loving and unemotional. “If you were hurt by another kid, you were told not to cry and to fight back. Young men were raised to be in charge. The social tropes were: a ship can have only one captain; someone has to wear the pants. That someone was sure as hell the man.”

Over many years working with men who have abused women and researching domestic violence in his role as a senior lecturer at the University of Waikato, Robertson has seen the “win at all costs” philosophy played out many times. “One of the clearest ways of establishing your masculine credentials is to keep your partner in line. There’s a point where a decision is made, often fuelled by the notion, ‘I’m not going to back down; I’m the one in charge,’ and often accompanied by denigration like ‘stupid bitch’ or a slap. Booze, general stress, poverty; all those things exacerbate it. But, to me, at the heart, is that he wants to be the final arbiter.”

Many studies support his view. British criminologists Rebecca and Russell Dobash, authors of the book When Men Murder Women, spent 10 years interviewing murderers serving life sentences in British prisons and conducted the biggest-ever study of men who kill women. Their research found the majority of women were murdered by jealous, possessive and controlling men. “The real issue is the sense of entitlement in masculine culture that is so prevalent,” they said in an interview with The Guardian newspaper at the completion of their study. “The thread that runs through this is the man’s sense of ownership of the woman and his control over the continuation or cessation of the relationship.”

Read more: No one is immune: The Aunties' Jackie Clark on her abusive marriageHow domestic violence has been normalised in New Zealand | The murder of Helen Meads

Robertson says controls and violence can escalate at pregnancy when a man feels he is no longer the centre of his partner’s world. “Through self-interest and self-centredness, he may try to disrupt the bond between mother and child.” But controls do not always involve physical violence, he says. They also include behaviours not visible to outsiders such as intimidation, threats, emotional and economic abuse. A man might prevent his partner from getting or keeping a job, call her names, chip away at her self-esteem or isolate her from friends and family. Children can be used as weapons, as in, “I’ll tell the courts you’re a bad mother.”

“One day, when I was stressed, my son disobeyed me and I punched him in the head. The next day, I saw him do the same to his sister, so I punched him again.” – Nikora

In 2015, the UK introduced a law enabling charges to be brought where there was evidence of repeated or controlling behaviour within an intimate relationship. Robertson would like to see the same law here. “One of the difficulties with the New Zealand criminal justice system is that it will focus only on this punch or that push, because you’re not allowed to introduce prejudicial evidence about how he has been a bastard the previous day or has been monitoring her phone calls for months.”

But he says the criminal justice system will not solve men’s violence against women. “That will only come through changes in the way boys are raised and the way masculinity is defined. There is a form of hegemonic masculinity which tends to attract all the attention – successful, authoritative, super-provider. We need to chip away at that. The more we can promote diverse ways of being a bloke, the more helpful it will be.”

Darrin Haimona has spent more than three decades working with groups to break the cycle of violence against women. He was the first male facilitator at the Hamilton Abuse Intervention Project, and now advises the government on issues to do with Māori violence. He agrees with Robertson that power and control are at the root of violence against women, and says those beliefs are embedded in the history of a Western culture that condoned it. “Our society was formed around ideas of privilege, violence and use of power. For so many years, women were considered assets of men. They were like chattels. It was legally okay for men to beat them and anyone else who was considered inferior.”

Like Robertson, he believes many men are fearful to be seen as weak. “That says you’re a failure and you don’t meet the standards of being a man. Boys grow up believing real men use force. They model the violent behaviours of their fathers and grandfathers, because they believe violence is the only way to gain and hold control.”

He acknowledges there has been a lot of work done in promoting the rights of women and children, but says there is still an undercurrent that implies, “In some circumstances, I was justified in beating up my partner, because she was out of line or mucking around.”

“The last time I walked out of Springhill Prison, I thought, if I keep going down this road, I’m going to be sent away for a very long time.” – Glendon

“That says the violence is justified because women provoke men. We put the blame on the victim, rather than hold a perpetrator accountable.”

The challenge for New Zealand, he says, is to shift the thinking around what good healthy relationships and positive role models look like. “We’ve identified the problems but we haven’t identified alternative solutions. In Māori-specific values, before Western ideologies and values were adopted, women were seldom abused. They were revered because they could maintain the tribe through birth. Decision-making was different. It didn’t diminish anyone’s mana or integrity. It valued old and young, men and women.”

Haimona says many men who beat or threaten the women in their lives know their relationship is based only on fear and intimidation. But they also know that in having power and control, they have lost what they wanted from a relationship: love, respect and trust. “You’re told you are a loser if you can’t control your children – a poor parent. If you can’t control your partner, you’re told you are weak. This permeates through a relationship, which makes it hard to change.”

In his 22 years with the Corrections Department, clinical psychologist Dr Nick Wilson has seen thousands of violent prisoners. Among them are men who have battered and raped women – or killed them. They come in many shapes and forms, so he is reluctant to nail his colours to the mast on any single cause. “Risk comes from many different areas. What drives crime for John is not necessarily the same for Peter. You can’t have a simplistic approach, which is why, if you looked solely at power and control, typically put out there as the key explanation for violence against women, you miss a whole lot of risk.”

Wilson says there are differences in the ability to be violent – “one can’t put aside that men are physically more capable of violence” – but there are also commonalities for risk across sub-groups including gender and ethnicity.

One is an acceptance of violence as a solution in any situation by men who have antisocial personality traits. “For them, violence is seen as an effective tool per se. In their view, violence works.” The same group also has high impulsivity. “They want rewards; they want them now and they don’t deal well with being told ‘no’.”

Another common trait is social-skill deficits, which can also relate to personality types. “They might be psychopathic or there might be a range of personality patterns that mean they don’t have skills, or they don’t see the need to use those skills.”

“They always have choices.” – Eric

A third is negative attitudes towards women – “the misogynistic part” – which may be modelled from generation to generation. “You’re not only modelling violence, but – in relation to women – you are also modelling that you have a right to treat [women] differently.”

Wilson says substance abuse is frequently blamed but can be a convenient or available excuse. “Crime is like a piece of Swiss cheese: all the holes have to line up. You can pay a lot of attention to the final piece of the puzzle and fail to recognise that substance abuse just provided an opportunity. For example, substance abuse may precede violence and mean it is more likely to happen that day, but it does not explain violence patterns over time. If you have a man who is already angry because of his personality or his stable belief system, substance abuse could just be the trigger.”

He concedes macro factors – such as changing society’s attitudes towards violence – will make a difference over time. “But there is a generation out there that has already formed beliefs and violent patterns of behaviour. They are not necessarily open to changing. When those individuals commit a crime, we need to detect and convict them, but also manage risk through targeted long-term treatments.

“If you’re dealing with people whose personality characteristics support their violence, you’re not going to change that in the short term through treatment of one issue, because their risk is supported by so many factors.

“If you treat just one factor, you rely on that one issue to explain and manage their risk (‘I’m only violent because I have a substance abuse problem’). Very rarely have I found someone is only violent because they are under the influence. You can’t assume he is safe, just because he’s not drinking. That would be a very fragile safety.”

At their lunch in Hamilton, the men have cleared their plates and praised the cook, who is part of the group. All of them have committed to a future without violence. “I’ve realised that my relationship was based on fear,” says Rua, who is due to appear in court the next day on an assault charge. “She only stayed with me, because she didn’t want another hiding.” He wraps up on a tearful note. “I’m sorry. I really want to get back with her.” The others nod. Sharing their stories helps build trust.

“You have to create an atmosphere where they feel comfortable to talk about their stuff,” Eric says later. “A key to success is to get them to a place where they make the right choices. They always have choices.”

Stats of shame

More than half of New Zealand women are likely to experience psychological and emotional violence in their intimate relationships, a study involving nearly 3000 women found. The survey, done by Auckland University’s School of Population Health in 2003 and reported in 2011, found 46% of women reported having been insulted or made to feel bad about themselves in intimate relationships, while 30% said they’d been belittled or humiliated in front of others and 26% said their partner had done things deliberately to scare or intimidate them.

Data from the same study, published in 2010, shows that Māori and Pasifika women are over-represented, and European and Asian groups are under-represented in intimate partner violence, and the incidence of violence increased as socio-economic status reduced. There is little data available as to whether women in the “leafy suburbs” are more likely to be exposed to psychological than physical violence.

However, a paper published in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health, based on research from the Youth 2000 series of surveys, showed more than 60% of high school students from the wealthiest families, who got on with their parents and had low exposure to physical violence, reported witnessing emotional violence. A similar proportion of teens from the poorest homes reported witnessing emotional violence, and were three times more likely to witness physical violence.

A regularly cited 2004 paper by Spanish researcher Maria Pico-Alfonso, from the University of Valencia, found the psychological component of intimate partner violence was the strongest predictor of post-traumatic stress disorder. Further data from the NZ Violence Against Women study shows that, amongst women who have experienced violence, the experience of recent emotional violence enhances the likelihood of suicidal thoughts.

This article was first published as part of a feature on domestic violence in the April 2019 issue of North & South. 

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Crisisline: 0800 REFUGE or 0800 733 843

Phone Women's Refuge Crisisline toll free from anywhere in New Zealand for information, advice and support about domestic violence as well as help in a crisis. Available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The 0800 Family Violence Information Line (0800 456 450) provides self-help information and connects people to services where appropriate. It is available seven days a week, from 9am to 11pm, with an after-hours message redirecting callers in the case of an emergency.