Healing Abuser and Victim

Psychologists at Männerberatung reach out a helping hand to victims of physical and sexual abuse; however they do so not only for them, but for the perpetrators as well

Jonni Brem, clinical and health psychologist and psychotherapist at Männerberatung | Photo: Jonni Brem

One of the first things psychotherapist Jonni Brem learned about domestic violence was that what a man considers violent may be quite different from what is experienced by a woman. So at Vienna’s Männerberatung they always begin by hearing the story from both sides.

Right away, we realize the widely divergent conceptions as to what constitutes “violent behavior,” Jonni Brem reported. But it is also through the close cooperation between perpetrator and victim that this unusual program stands out from others in Austria elsewhere in Europe.

Jonni Brem, clinical and health psychologist as well as a psychotherapist, has been working with Männerberatung MÄB (Men’s Counseling Service Vienna) since 1983. Now director of the organization, his primary concern is supporting the abusers – men who have sexually assaulted or physically battered their wives or partners.

Founded in 1984 as a non-profit association, Männerberatung engages a team of psychologists who offer counseling services to boys, teenagers and men. Some are the aggressors and some the victims, those who have suffered physical or psychological damage as a result of sexual and physical abuse. Further counseling and psychotherapy programs are designed to support male perpetrators in their endeavors to free themselves from a deeply rooted culture of violence.

“This close co-operation between perpetrator and victim stands in stark contrast to other anti-violence-programs that operate in Austria and other European countries. In other words, their work only concentrates on the perpetrator or the victim (respectively). We (Männerberatung) try, in a very concrete and very close relationship, to work with both – perpetrator and victim equally,” Jonni Brem asserted. To do this, the Vienna Anti-Violence Program that focuses on the perpetrators is augmented by the Intervention Center against Violence in the Family (Interventionsstelle gegen Gewalt in der Familie – IST) which advises and supports the victim of violence – the perpetrator’s partner. Both organizations are non-profit associations and are funded by grants on an annual basis.

Working with both perpetrator and victim, albeit at different locations, is central to the success of the program. “The simultaneous counseling of both parties allows us to compare the statements of perpetrator and victim,” says Brem. “It helps us determine behavioral changes in the man’s attitude much more quickly and more clearly.” Changes are revealed through changes in tone during telephone conversations; similarly, things like stalking and threats start to ease off. Gradually, signs of a deeper humanity reemerge.

“The instant a perpetrator starts to feel interest in himself as a human being – as he becomes aware of his abilities, potentials and skills – this is the moment that always fills me with joy,” says Brem.

While Männerberatung has a presence in all nine federal states in Austria, the close collaboration between the MÄB and the IST remains unique, although Graz and Innsbruck are establishing similar cooperation. Delegations from all over Europe have come to observe, and the program has been praised by the EU as a model for other initiatives.

During the initial “clearing” phase, counselors examine a man’s overall suitability for the program, collecting diagnostic data through structured interviews and questionnaires, assessing his mental state, the intensity of his violent behavior and how he deals with anger and rage. Men struggling with drug and/or alcohol problems – particularly those who are highly psychotic or with limited self-awareness and language skills that would constitute a barrier to the therapeutic success – are not accepted.

“Is the man reliable? Can he keep appointments? Can he withstand certain types of questions? Can he join in and actively participate in the group therapy? These are all important questions with respect to ensuring that the man can cope [with the therapy situation],” Brem explained.

The men’s wives or partners, who are the victims of their physical and sexual assault, are invited for a first interview with the IST. Here counselors seek to establish a relationship of trust, and to assess the seriousness of the situation from the victim’s perspective. As a consequence of the interviews, MÄB and IST are in the position to crosscheck the men’s statements as well as exchanging information on the progress.  For most abusers, it will take a training phase of at least eight months including either 30 group or individual therapy. Therapy sessions are held on a weekly basis, lasting two hours and are conducted by a team of two therapists – a woman and a man, providing a role model for more respectful interaction between the two genders.

With time, Brem has been able to identify a number of factors that contribute to the probability of men’s abusive behavior:  One is that abusive men very probably have a history of child abuse in their families.

“A high proportion of abusive men who have been victims themselves in the past,” Brem explains, “and have learned to use and experience violence as a means of enforcement and believe they deserved it.” These men often show low tolerance for frustration, and react with heightened sensitivity to close family members, to their children, wives, and mothers. “These men may feel particularly easily insulted by close family members.” In other words, men who feel offended by their family members may find themselves in a precarious situation and may lack the competencies to react appropriately.

Sexual rejections by the wife may trigger feelings of humiliation and provoke violence instead of discussion. Often, they do not enjoy abusing their families. “Men who abuse with relish, sadistically, and strike out of calculation are fewer in number,” he says.  Rather, they may feel infantilized and completely misinterpret the situational factors, which leave them speechless. Instead, like a child, they use their physical superiority as a means of communication.

During the training-phase the psychotherapist’s responsibility lies in supporting the men in exploring the reasons for their actions. How do these feelings arise? And when? What techniques – “stop- and time-out-strategies” – could help avoid physical or sexual attacks?

One answer to these questions is the use of Psychodrama in group therapy settings. Role-plays offer the opportunity to face painful experiences and help abusive men become better acquainted with the underlying fears that lead to violent behavior. A man’s role as father, husband, breadwinner and shoulder to lean on may become shaky in everyday life and even an intolerable burden. Rigid behavioral codes can lead to tensions – strict rules and beliefs like expectations that children must be quiet or the food that always has to be ready on time. Major issues like alcoholism or inadequate financial resources, or an attitude of “everything is allowed in this family” may, too, trigger violence.

Often this is related to unemployment, leading to feelings of decreased self-worth. A man’s cultural background may also affect their readiness to use violence as a means of expression.

“Certainly cultural predisposition may play a role regarding the tendency toward violence – and sometimes may move in the wrong direction” Brem explained. However, one’s idea of manhood and fathering is crucial, and here, some minorities may have an advantage.

“Men with a migration background have shown very liberal attitudes, particularly in their approach to child rearing. In fact, many of them may be regarded as role models; Austrians are sometimes surprised at how uncomplicated men play and deal with their children.”

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