Friday, December 28, 2018

Moving Toward a Respectful New Year (Part Three)

This is the third article expanding on respectful and healthy relationship behavior. Who will be up for the New Year  challenge of practicing all of these behavior for the month of January and beyond? (link to part one and part two)

21) Be Inclusive: Human beings often fall into the trap of dismissing others, sometimes due to a sense of personal superiority, but often due to not caring or listening to other people. In a relationship, dismissive behavior adds up over time with increasingly hurtful results. The counter to being dismissive is choosing to be actively inclusive of others. Making other people matter and caring about their thoughts, opinions, and emotions. With an intimate partner, this would mean to include that person in your life by sharing your successes and challenges, bringing that person into your world, even if it is mundane - and showing respect and care by including their experiences, stories, and life in your own through listening. This may mean inviting a conversation, becoming an active source of support, or making plans alongside your partner.

22) Be Open and Transparent: It's easy to be unconscious of manipulative and controlling behavior toward a partner. All it takes is selective information sharing (so-called white lies, withholding information, or lying by omission), yessing another person or being insincere (lying by assent), or of course blatantly saying or doing things to get a specific advantage (outright commission of lies or manipulation of information). Many people easily miss the build up of such patterns, and become manipulative for all the "right" reasons, even if for self-protection. But since it builds over time, it can dismantle a relationship once someone sees through that manipulation. It takes direct open communication about problems, challenges, and seemingly boring details to be transparent in how you work with your intimate partner. Your partner needs to have a sense that your motives are respectful and healthy, that those reasons for your choices are not based in coming out on top, but on working alongside. Since manipulation often takes a certain amount of personal mindfulness and reflection, it's easy to feel open and transparent while at the same time choosing behavior which alienates other people. Consider places in your life where you keep things secret - do such secrets ultimately benefit you at the expense of your partner? Are those personal things you do not speak about keep a barrier up in your relationship? Are there ways of dismantling even the small things to improve your ability to communicate and grow with your partner?

23) Let Time Run Its Course: Sometimes it seems very important to make a decision quickly, and pressure others to agree or join with you in a decision. This sort of pressure can wear others down, and make them feel less validated in their own decision making process. Not all decisions or situations are equally imperative, so balancing priorities and knowing when an immediate choice is necessary and when there is time to allow patience and discussion can help to make a partnership feel like a true collaboration. There are situations where an individual wants to make a quick decision to avoid pain or due to fear about outcomes - and in such cases allowing time can be important for other reasons. If decision making is about avoidance, then patience may instead lead to growing discussion and cooperation. If being right or winning a conflict is the priority, such motives are a trap that cause damage to a relationship. If your partner feels pressured to make a decision, and makes one out of that pressure, such a decision may be paired with regret and self-blame. Or it could be paired with anger and blaming you for pressuring. Sure, in some cases, particularly if someone is unsure or paralyzed in decision making, they might feel better about making a decision, but that is where it is important to know what is going on for your partner (and yourself) in decision making and to understand where your patience, or need to develop more patience, is important.

24) Remember the Value of Your Relationship: How do you add value to your partner's life? How does your partner add value to your life? These are critical questions to ask, and to understand the answer. In them, you can consider places you can improve (to add more value), and places to appreciate and validate your partner. I argue that this is a very important part of creating an amicable relationship with an ex-partner as well. Often men in my classes who have a child with their ex-partner speak to her faults and problems and their ability to co-parent suffers greatly as a result. Having neutral self-talk may involve the ability to remember why you chose your partner to begin with, and the positive characteristics that you had valued, and maybe even still value. Conflict can easily grow when there is discontent and a growing negative self-talk about your partner, and being conscious of value helps to keep that discontent from growing into contempt. It can also keep you humble if you have been working on awareness of your faults in addition to remembering the strengths that your partner appreciates in you.

25) Acknowledge Your Partner's Humanity: As human beings, we have any number of faults, make mistakes pretty regularly, and are self-oriented at times to the point of missing opportunities to validate and care for others. The ancient truism of "remove the plank in your own eye before addressing the sliver in someone else's" holds very true to this humanity. If you can recognize your own faults, and keep your partner's faults with several grains of salt, you can more easily navigate conflict by seeing where that humanity might be getting in the way on either side. Any of the items on this list can be challenging because they require a certain amount of personal choice and discipline. Your partner may not practice this (or any other of these things) but that does not mean you cannot. Sometimes a simple thing such as noticing your partner's exhaustion, understanding life experiences that are overwhelming your partner, or realizing you have made similar mistakes can lead to more understanding in conflict resolution.

26) Connect With Support Beyond Your Partner: It's important to choose wisely when investing in a relationship for many reasons, one of them being that it's natural that you will spend a lot of time together. When you connect with another person in a committed way, and as a relationship grows and evolves over time, you inherently will depend on support from your partner. This support might be emotional, but it may also be about sharing resources, time, and responsibilities. This does not mean all your support should come from one person. It is important to have others in your life, whether it be friends, family, or even coworkers who can offer feedback and emotional support. It's just as important to encourage your partner to foster such relationships and support. Being wise about your support system is also critical - it's no good to have people supporting you who give you hurtful ideas or selfish options to solving problems. Nor is it good to have people who fail to call you on your bullshit. Who is in your life outside of your partner who is there for you, and how do they demonstrate support for you?

27) Handle Tough Decisions Together: Not all decisions need to be made jointly in a relationship, but at the same time it's important to know your partner well enough to understand when that person wants to be involved in a decision. What are the tough decisions you face, and how do you get input on them from your partner? How do you work together as parents, and how do you work separately? Parenting is a useful example because of course you cannot make all decisions jointly, at the same time you need to be open and transparent about the decisions you do make so you do not override or counter your partner's choices. Even in decisions that may be more personal, having your partner's thoughts and input can lead to greater intimacy and validation.

28) Be Assertive: Know what you want and need, and know how to communicate those things. Often it's a trap to merely communicate what you do not like, do not want, or do not need - and use those things as attacks. Productively working toward goals and options will go much better when negotiating and compromising, and making decisions that do not end up as an expense to your partner are also important. Being passive and awaiting an outcome leads to less personal investment and makes it easy to later become aggressive about an outcome you had no investment in to begin with. Aggressively making choices to meet your needs or wants can easily steamroll over your partner and build resentment. Actively communicating and working together to prioritize, understand the difference between wants and needs, and set realistic and measurable goals are all traits that are a part of acting assertively.

29) Understand Respect: As a term, respect can be hard to define. Sometimes the examples given are things like "I respected my father, because if I didn't, there'd be hell to pay," but in such examples respect is confused with fear. If someone equates being respected to being obeyed or feared, they may pursue destructive and hurtful behavior in their relationships with others. Another common, but ultimately faulty example is, "to get respect, you have to earn it," but such ideas are more similar to defining authority. Rising in an hierarchy such as within a work environment may involve earning position, but if someone believes they have the right to control others or that they have earned such a right, then they may not be open to influence or negotiation which can again be destructive to relationships. Understanding respect as a concept involves understanding how you listen to others and show a certain amount of caring for them. The ability and willingness to listen to other's thoughts, emotions, and opinions demonstrates to others that you respect them. Alternatively, the ability to understand and listen to your own needs and gain them in a dignified way is what self-respect is all about. Developing respect in a relationship helps to strengthen and grow bonds between you, and is critical to having value in another person.

30) Balance Intimacy: Intimacy is no one thing, but involves layers of connection. Physical intimacy is definitely about sexual attraction and behavior, but it is even more than that. Passion about being with someone, enjoying physical (non-sexual) touch, these things and more are what make up physical intimacy and such things evolve throughout an intimate partner relationship. Emotional intimacy is about closeness to someone, knowing what they like and dislike, reciprocity of action and need, secrets shared and secrets kept, and overall knowledge of that person's life and history. Mental intimacy makes up commitment - how you bind yourself to another person by finances, marriage, having children, living together, making goals for the future, or other intimately binding behavior. Spiritual intimacy is about shared values and morals, both knowing your own and navigating your partner's, and appreciating their differences. All of these layers of intimacy are best developed equally, although it is natural for one to grow faster than another, and when that happens being aware of places that need to be developed further as a part of an ongoing and evolving relationship.

31) Be Mindful of How Others Experience You: Decent actors spend time in front of a mirror watching and practicing their emotional responses so they can best portray different situations and characters. Since communication is largely nonverbal, there are a multitude of gestures, vocal tones, and faces we make that others pick up on without our knowing it. Humans are sensing beings, as much as we put greater emphasis on thinking we all have the ability to feel that something is off, to know when tension is high, and to even determine danger or well being. It is an important skill to know how others may experience you at any given time, but particularly during conflict. If someone feels threatened by you, you can deny being threatening but that does not negate the other person's experiences of you or the reasons they felt that way. Within relationships, it is important to consistently listen to your partner's experiences of you so that you can learn more about yourself through their descriptions and their perspectives. Just like an actor practicing various responses, you can train yourself to become aware of how you act, and the "vibes" you give off when you are upset. Managing your responses is a big part of contributing to a relationship in a respectful and healthy manner.

I hope this discussion of healthy and respectful relationship behavior has been helpful! Please feel free to comment below, or send me an email if you have any questions. You can use the pamphlet in the link below if you think it would be useful for your work, and if you do please maintain credit to me (which is in a box on the pamphlet itself).


Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Moving Toward a Respectful New Year (Part Two)

Continuing the list of respectful and healthy relationship behavior, this article highlights specific attitudes, behavior, and approaches to a relationship that can work on improving an intimate partner relationship. As in the previous article, a copy of the full list is at the end.

11. Give the Benefit Of the Doubt: Occasionally, an intimate partner does something that might initially seem designed to hurt you, or at the very least be a decision that violates an agreement or personal request. While it is possible this could be true, contempt is built up by having negative assumptions about other's motives and behavior. To maintain respect and health, it can be important to have an initial impulse to consider that your partner's behavior may not be about you, or may not be what it seems. You are in this way providing a sense of doubt about an attack on you, and allowing space for that person to provide their perspective, motive, or information before deciding how to respond. If your partner truly intended to hurt you, then you can respond by setting limits or potentially recognizing that this behavior is unacceptable and ending the relationship. In essence, a partnership is about defending the other person by being supportive and not assuming the worst until it is clear the worst is the reality. When choosing battering behavior, motives often dwell in the realm of negative assumptions and attacks, as well as a pattern of building contempt. To work toward repair, someone who has been abusive needs to begin choosing to walk back contempt and instead find ways to defend their partner, if the relationship has not been too broken to continue. In a healthy and respectful relationship, benefit of the doubt is often a default based on value for an intimate partner and a desire to defend them and support their decisions, even if they are different from ones you might have chosen.

12. Discuss Your Values and Meaning in Life: We all have long held and developed beliefs about both the rules we have in how to live life, but also what we value and care about. While it can be challenging to identify, we also have a certain understanding of what makes life meaningful which can include goals to accomplish, patterns of behavior to maintain, and connections that are most important. These are important conversations to have with a partner, and helps to develop emotional intimacy - a knowledge of another person that develops closeness. It can also help in building commitment, as we tend to grow closer to people who have similar values and goals in life. It can be a trap to only identify things we do not like, what we dislike about other's behavior. Values are about what you want - and how you want things to progress. Within a relationship, what shared goals to you have together, and do you have the same plans on how to achieve them? There can be trepidation about sharing such deep information, as it creates vulnerability - and often when someone avoids being vulnerable they also avoid becoming closer to others, which can make it easier to hurt and choose destructive behavior. It is much more difficult to hurt people who have similar values and goals, and having such overlaps in life also create unity and a sense of togetherness that foster health and mutual respect.

13. Be Okay With Not Having Complete Agreement: Building intimacy, particularly emotional intimacy, often means sharing your opinions, thoughts, and emotions - and in turn listening and caring about your partner's. As two separate people, there are going to be differences, and sometimes it's less about a difference and more about a different flavor or shape of the same thing. There are definitely differences that a deal breakers (see non-negotiables with #6 on the previous list), but there are also differences that enrich a relationship by creating strategies and approaches to situations that vary, and offer variable solutions. Knowing the differences between you is important, so you can listen and respect those boundaries (#2, on previous list), but also so you do not find incompatibilities with every potential partner. Some people get stuck in wanting a "perfect mate" and miss out on the reality that no such thing exists. When I do relationship histories as an activity with individuals in my classes, I find that the things that are listed as initial attractions to a partner can also in the end become specific reasons for disliking or finding problems with the other person. I think in part this happens because people learn more authentically about each other as they grow together, and initial traits end up either being a smaller part of themselves than portrayed, but sometimes people anchor these experiences and think they will never change and miss honoring differences and evolution within and outside of a relationship. You have to be able to appreciate differences, and be okay with disagreements that may never have a specific or satisfying resolution, but can help you understand your partner and acknowledge how such differences contribute to, instead of taking away from your relationship.

14. Make Time to Be With Your Partner: Life happens, at times in ways that create overwhelming schedules and difficult to manage recreational time. While it is important to have "alone time" (see #16 to follow), regardless of schedules it is important to make your time with your partner a priority in some fashion. For people in long distance relationships, this may mean phone calls or video chats, even online gaming. For those living together it may mean planning a "date night" or scheduling specific relationship time. Some may call on breaks or lunches at work, others may bond over social media. At the start of the relationship, there is usually a certain degree of physical passion that drives individuals to strive for time to be together. Over time, that needs to remain even if the specific methods need to change. If you work to find excuses to avoid your partner, that begins a slippery slope to not wanting to be together at all - so knowing what you wish to foster and build becomes important to the health of your relationship.

15. Learn and Talk About Your Partner's Hobbies: Everyone has things they really enjoy doing. It's not uncommon for intimate partners to develop a relationship around shared likes, including activities and hobbies. However, there will always be things your partner enjoys that you do not. What do you know about your partner's hobbies, how do you support them in that hobby, and how do you become involved with that hobby when your partner wants you to? I've heard several men in my groups complain about their partners, and things they enjoy that they mock openly. Often there is a nature of the mocking that involves a focus on financial expenditures - but very little appreciation for their partner's enjoyment or understanding why their partner may enjoy a certain activity. Learning about your partner's hobby also allows you to learn more about your partner. Showing interest in something you are not particularly interested in demonstrates caring and appreciation, and such attitudes and behavior foster health and respect. Being open to influence and learning to share time and space over activities you do not choose personally can be a window into negotiating and compromising over more challenging topics.

16. Encourage Space: While appreciating differences and learning about aspects of your partner's hobbies that are different from your own, it's also important to have a part of your life separate from your partner. Doing everything together, and always being in each other's business can become stifling. Making time for yourself is an important part of healthy self-care (#5 on previous part of list), and gives you something to later share about your life with your partner. Encouraging your partner to spend time with friends separately from you also fosters a sense of trust and care that are important to maintain.

17. Be Aware of Your Irritating and Alienating Behavior: As human beings, we are all irritating in our own ways. Often these irritating behavior are unconscious patterns and habits we have developed over time and have little or nothing to do with our partner. Easy ones to consider are biting nails, yawning loudly, physical tics, but there are several others that might be linked to attitudes or responses to certain situations. Often these things don't irritate us, personally, so we don't even think about them - but our partner might notice and dislike them fully. There's no way to completely eliminate all irritating behavior, particularly because in relationships over time each partner learns to accept such irritations either by considering them as part of who you are, or giving up when trying to stop those behavior. Sometimes in relationships, attempts to stop irritating behavior are like a grain of sand in a oyster, slowly building over time - but the result isn't a pearl but rather dissatisfaction, anger, and even in some cases the end of a relationship. It is important to know how you irritate your partner - what are small things that you recognize in yourself that you can work to minimize or stop, or at the very least choose to not do them around your partner? Related to this are various alienating behavior, and sometimes they are one in the same. We all do things that subtly (and sometimes obviously) push others away. A very common alienating behavior is avoidance, and avoiding conversations, situations, or others quickly builds into controlling or other hurtful behavior. In my classes, when I more broadly address hurtful behavior beyond violence, I talk about the "pyramid of harm" (an alternative to the Power and Control Wheels, this is an aspect of the Emerge Curriculum). When doing so I speak about the category of sexually harmful behavior in a relationship and how it builds. One of the irritating and alienating sexual behaviors I discuss is choosing not to talk about sex, or avoiding such discussions altogether. When you take something like the sexual aspect of your relationship, and do not talk about what is working and what is not, ways of improving it, what your desires are, what you do not like, then over time it creates a minefield in your relationship that must be navigated carefully - or ignored altogether and just build into other sexually hurtful behavior toward yourself and your partner. People who avoid conflict can do the same to emotional, mental, and spiritual aspects of their relationship, and taking personal responsibility for your irritating and alienating behavior can help to keep things like this from building up over time.

18. Own Up To Your Mistakes and Harmful Behavior: We all do hurtful and harmful things toward others. Humanizing this is an important dynamic to include during battering intervention classes, because if you instead shame, punish, and dehumanize there is almost no benefit in admitting to harm other than getting a facilitator to leave you alone. I believe it is an important aspect of battering intervention classes to, as a facilitator, openly admit to my mistakes and harm I might inadvertently choose during the classes themselves. For example, once in my class I had a participant who left the group to go to the bathroom. I have had various policies about bathroom use in my classes, and it often has to do with access - if the building has a setup where there is a bathroom right by the room we conduct class, I have no problem with participants using it if they go in and do their thing and come right back. I mention that I don't want them to spend 20 minutes in there doing their morning or evening "constitutional," but I haven't found that to be an issue. So, this man was gone for over twenty minutes - it was long enough to both be noticeable, but also I became concerned he had just left the class entirely. When he came back, I interrupted the topic I was on in the class and took time to directly address him and the group about the bathroom policy and asked him not to spend that long in the bathroom. He balked, taking insult at me calling him out, and I caught my mistake at about the same time. In the moment, I said it was not a huge deal I just needed to make sure everyone understood the policy - which did not decrease his anger, but he did stop talking. After class, I took a moment to ask to speak to him when everyone had left. I told him I recognized that calling him out like that was shaming, was inappropriate, and was not okay for me to do. I told him it would have been better to speak to him after the class, and that in the future I would make sure I did that. Just saying those things led to him changing his demeanor entirely. I asked him if he would mind if I apologized to the entire group the following week, and when he said that was okay - I did so. I think the ability to own up to mistakes allows others to see your humanity, it models behavior you want to see, and in a relationship it is important as a first step to working toward repairs. If you do not identify the problem, how can you possibly work to solve it? I think there are methods in battering intervention classes to have participants authentically describe and discuss their hurtful behavior - but a big part of that has to do with how I elicit that information. Developing emotional and mental intimacy with a partner makes it easier and more real to do such admissions, and acknowledging harms and being able to describe why they were not okay start to create goals on how to change behavior as well.

19. Know What Kind of Support Your Partner Appreciates and Do It as Often as Possible: There are methods of counseling and therapy, particularly those focused on marriage and family, that identify the concept of a "love language." In essence, this idea postulates that we all have specific kinds of ways we express our love of others, and often it is also how we personally want to feel loved. Part of the challenge is that in an intimate partner relationship, there are bound to be differences in how each person feels and expresses love, and by extension, support. If I am a person who feels happy with loving touch (pats on the back, holding hands, running my fingers through my partner's hair), then chances are that I do those things to my partner in my attempt to show appreciation, support, and love. However, perhaps my partner is in a different place in her preference for expressing and feeling loved - maybe she does so through service, such as by making a delicious meal, buying me a present, staying up late to spend time with me if I work late. In such a situation, I might appreciate her gestures, but I might not think of those as being things I should reciprocate if I am focused on physical loving touch to demonstrate love. She, in turn, may feel I do not love or appreciate her if I do not do service behavior for her. This can lead to all kinds of negative and hurtful self-talk, and a growing list of assumptions and hurt feelings. In a relationship it is important to put yourself outside of your own experience and focus on your partner's experience. Many of these categories of health and respect talk about different ways of doing this. In this example, that means you have to know more about how you feel loved - it doesn't mean you stop doing things with your partner that are things you personally like - it means you know you are doing those things as an extension of what you like. In turn you have to listen and be aware of the differences in how your partner feels loved, and then directly do them. Often. This is something you can continue to learn and develop as your relationship evolves.

20. Understand the Difference Between Negotiation and Compromise; Use When Your Plans and Ideas are Different: I ask participants in my class to describe the difference between negotiation and compromise and they often give the same definition. Conflict tactics are important to both be able to practice, but also be able to understand, and in many ways negotiating and compromising are the bread and butter of healthy conflict management. Both need to be used at different times, though, so knowing the difference is good for knowing when one is better than the other. Negotiation is about trading - I think of it like a pendulum that swings my way, then my partner's way. There are situations that come up where there is no way to come to a middle ground, and in such cases you can either agree to disagree, which is unsatisfying and often untenable if a decision has to be made, or you can railroad your partner into your solution or passively give in to your partner and build up resentment as a result. Neither is a good choice, so negotiation is the practice of being open to influence. You directly and authentically choose your partner's decision, with an understanding that in that category of conflict next time you both will try your decision instead. Where this can become messy is if someone negotiates incomparable categories - after all saying you will do a specific chore more often if your partner gives you more sex both starts to consider sex as a chore to be completed, but also means if you do such a trade then the person doing the chore might feel entitled to doing a different chore less often. So negotiation needs to be in the same topic, and needs to be discussed more thoroughly. Parenting decisions are often a category for negotiation if you have different parental instincts or idea on how to deal with your children's mistakes. Compromise, however, is about either coming to a middle ground (where you both do not get 100% of what you want, but you get some), or choosing a third viable option that neither of you had considered during that conflict.

Next article will finish up the remaining ten on the pamphlet and will include one additional so anyone wanting to practice these for the 31 days of January will have their days filled with practicing a different kind of respectful and healthy behavior each day!


Thursday, December 13, 2018

Moving Toward a Respectful New Year (Part One)

There is always a lot of focus on holiday times during November, through to December, and into the new year. Increased anxiety and stress, unmet expectations, ideas about new goals and resolutions, unfocused hope - ultimately a combination of emotions, and sometimes an escalation of harm to self and to others.

Work in domestic violence - whether with victims/survivors, perpetrators, children and families, or all of the above - I believe it is important to directly discuss and address methods of managing and understanding the challenges unique to this time of year. An ongoing aspect of such work involves goal setting. I think it is important to do this with every individual in domestic violence services. I believe in goals that are specific, concrete, desired, measurable, and realistic.

In the small bit of time leading us up to January, it seems appropriate to consider these goals for respect and health in such a way. This article is part one of three discussing specific healthy and respectful tools that may be useful for battering intervention classes, healthy relationship classes, parenting classes, or support groups for victims/survivors. They can also be a reflective challenge for the month of January 2019 - can you consider each of the items on the list, one day at a time, for the entire month?

I will attach a pamphlet I have provided to my individual participants at program intake at the end of each article. If you are interested in using any of the information in these articles, please credit me by name, email, and website and you are free to distribute.


  1. Understand Boundaries: Knowing your limits, and recognizing the limits others have in their lives is an infinite task. At any given time, we notice something we appreciate, enjoy, and support - and at other times we notice something we dislike, discourage, and attack. These are the complicated boundaries that bound and weave through our lives and our relationships. Often there is nothing particularly right or wrong about boundaries - much of the time they are simply preferences of life. The challenge comes in when your personal preference conflicts with your partner's, which is where the intersection of conflict and resolution exist. Convincing someone to side or adopt your boundary on a topic is the bread and butter of arguing. It's a simple thing to assume your idea is so commonplace, shared with everyone, it is a bit of a shock to discover your partner doesn't align with you. There are so many shared cultural traditions that we often categorize such boundaries as "common sense." But have you considered that these traditions have a regional component? Ideas and cultural upbringing native to Oregon state might not exactly translate to ideas in North Carolina, and vice versa. It takes self-reflection, mindfulness, and concentrated consciousness to be aware of your rules and values on how to live life. Since so many behavior are default choices developed during childhood for human beings, it's easy to miss slowing down to consider why you think the way you think - when and why you learned different ideas. This is also why during relationships, your knowledge of yourself and your partner are different after one year as compared to after five years of being together. Awareness evolves of both yourself and others - and consciously navigating this space can lead to smoother conflict and the ability to practice the second goal below.
  2. Honor Boundaries: In my classes, I spend a good amount of time discussing how we define words and concepts. I find that while we understand words, we often have a hard time explaining what they mean without using examples or becoming a thesaurus and using like terms, concepts, and words. Honor is one of those words and concepts that I find is difficult to explain for most people. We feel it when it happens, and we can practice it when needed, but going through what it is tends to be more challenging. In order to honor boundaries you have, and honor boundaries your partner has in their life, it stands to reason that you both need to understand boundaries themselves, but also understand what honor is. For me, honor is tied to the ability to see the legitimacy of a perception, and operate in such a manner that you follow the direction of that perception - whether you directly agree or not. It is the courage to respect truth - the truth in you, or the truth in others. An often discussed aspect of honor - honoring your elders - is simply the willingness and ability to follow what an elder asks of you, and often is associated with tradition. With boundaries in relationships, since we all have infinite reasons and examples of rules we place onto ourselves and other's behavior, it is important to honor other's perspectives that may be different from your own. When your partner puts forward a limit, says they want you to do something you do not want to do, or wants to keep you from doing something you want to do - there is a great need to be open to influence to these requests. This does not mean you have to automatically go along with every request, but it does mean you have to consider this request, and demonstrate that you believe their perspective is valid and legitimate. If your partner puts forward a concrete boundary that is about their own personal life, then it becomes increasingly important to practice honor. This also means if you have a boundary of your own, you need to be able to practice asking for what you want or need, and with that be able to navigate disagreement surrounding that request.   
  3. Practice Listening: What is the difference between listening and hearing? This ends up being a good topic of conversation, and I find that people tend to parse it down to listening is akin to attentiveness, whereas hearing is comprehending. In general, I think this is a good operational differentiation - as the two are definitely linked, but separate skills to practice. Dynamics of active listening are good to discuss and teach during battering intervention classes - appropriate eye contact, indicators of listening (such as nodding along), limiting distractions - but those are the superficial ones that are definitely good components, but the deeper listening strategies are just as, if not more important due to them being easily overlooked. How do you summarize someone else's perspective, what they just said to you - and check in to make sure you heard correctly? Where does remembering prior conversations with this person demonstrate your ability to listen and retain information - and how does remembering end up being an indicator of the importance and value you hold for the other person? Noticing is a critical part of listening - it's often not about words, or even tone of voice someone uses - body language and nonverbal communication is a bigger part of our interactions than we can fully appreciate. I think about texting on phones as an example. You can text, "I'm doing fine," and depending on the context of that statement, it can mean everything from a loving response, to a pleasantry that is not very meaningful, to a subtle attack. The person reading that text will put their own present state of mind and interpretation of the body language and meaning into those words - while the person typing it will have their own meaning. With any luck, you'll both be on the same page, and texting has evolved to use of emojis to try and allow more indication of emotional state behind the words used. In direct communication, we often interpret body language and the context of a situation without realizing it. Noticing is a critical part of listening, and paired with checking-in and summarizing can help to avoid a miscommunication.
  4. Argue Respectfully: Participants in my classes sometimes mention that they want to stop arguing with their partner, and are surprised when I respond that isn't realistic, or even helpful. Life is all about conflict, and relationships are especially rife for arguments. Much of that has to do with the individual boundaries we all have, and how they interact (as mentioned in 1, above), which means avoiding conflict will only serve to create distance between partners - not bring them closer together. In fact, many individuals in my classes have partially ended up in a domestic violence intervention class because of patterns of avoidance in their relationship. Realistically, part of being healthy in a relationship involves understanding how to argue with respect. This gets into that same need to define the word, and the concepts behind respect. Within society, many define respect by incorrectly associating the word with authority or fear. How often have you heard someone say "you've got to earn respect," or "I respected my father because if I didn't there'd be hell to pay"? Earning "respect" is about authority - whether it be position, seniority, or station - all of these things are about climbing the ladder of hierarchy. If you have to "respect" someone or pay a consequence of some time, that is better described as "obeying" and failing to obey leads to something fearful or painful. I, instead, speak of respect as involving the ability and willingness to care about someone else's thoughts, opinions, and emotions. If you argue out of respect, you are looking toward a resolution that often involves mutual benefit of some kind - and an excellent tactic is to find the kernel of truth in someone else's perspective. If you find something you agree with, you can expand on it and eventually work together. This can be difficult if someone's perspective is about you, and you are not open to such feedback - but that involves another dynamic of healthy relationships (18 and 31). I challenge some individuals to find a perspective they disagree about with their partner - and defend that perspective. If you can do that, you can often work toward resolution rather than pressing toward winning an argument.
  5. Maintain Your Self-Care Needs: During program intake appointments, I have participants fill out an Adverse Childhood Experiences form, a depression screening tool as well as a mood disorder tool, in addition to other forms that contain risk assessment questions interspersed throughout the paperwork. When I give these papers out, I mention that if you don't take care of yourself, it's nearly impossible to care for anyone else. This is an important aspect of battering intervention, to navigate self-care and make sure it doesn't stray into the realm of selfishness. All human beings have needs and desires, and sometimes the two become conflated. We find something we want, and become convinced we have to have it - sacrificing relationships due to those desires. For many participants, this can come down to the topic of sex within their relationship. Failing to talk about sex leads to situations where an individual may not have sexual desires met - and that can be confused with a need, and justify cheating or other sexually hurtful behavior in a relationship. Beyond sex, I have found many men neglecting their physical health - not seeing a physician for routine health screenings, not taking medication for blood pressure, high cholesterol, or other health issues such as poor diet or not exercising. These self-care neglectful behavior can easily lead to relationship issues because on a whim, an individual with poor self-care can leverage a desire to a need, and use that to manipulate a partner. It is an individually responsible behavior to notice your needs and maintain them both with and beyond the support of a partner. Waiting for a partner to care for you isn't respectful or healthy. Making your needs superior to your partner's also isn't respectful or healthy. There is a need for balance, and both honoring your own and supporting your partner's needs. Maintaining your self-care needs is about introspection and consistency, and needs that involve emotional trauma and pain are incredibly important to recognize and address.
  6. Know Your Non-Negotiables: Rules we each have in how to live life, and define our values by what we think the purpose of life is overall. As a part of those values, we each have varying non-negotiables - boundaries we are unwilling to ever change. Often boundaries can be flexible preferences - say for example I prefer to eat Italian food, but I am open to other ideas about what to eat for dinner. When a participant in one of my classes attempts to blame their abusive or violent behavior on alcohol or drug use, saying it wasn't them, it was the substance - I use a gross example, asking the entire class of men how many drinks it would take for them to sexually abuse a child. Ever man suddenly says, with complete confidence, there aren't enough drinks in the world. The answer to this is that there is a non-negotiable behind not being sexually inappropriate with a child. No condition will make that choice acceptable. This means that assaulting a partner, hurting a partner in some way while intoxicated has nothing to do with the substance, but instead has to do with the ideas in a person's mind about what is okay to do. If someone fantasizes about hurting their partner verbally, or even thinks about responding to a conflict with physical assault - it's not that much of a leap to make that choice directly. In relationships, we have certain boundaries that could make a relationship untenable, completely incompatible. It is important to get to know someone else in several ways before fully committing due to this point. If you know what is not negotiable in your life, you can communicate it directly, and you have a better chance of being able to navigate and learn other's non-negotiables. I often say during classes that it is better to choose a partner by the things that irritate you that you can accept and enjoy as a quirk of their personality as opposed to only choosing partners by the fun you have together. Some conflicts may never be resolved because each person is not willing to change a part of their rules in life.
  7. Show Appreciation as Often as Possible: Demonstrating caring for others is a major component of respect, and the foundation of caring is appreciating. Appreciation is about value, showing someone you value them, and by doing so adding value to their own life. Appreciation can be small gestures of love, gifts and services, expressions verbally or non-verbally, or an ongoing attitude. Ideally, there will be a mix of how you demonstrate appreciation in a relationship, but it takes mindfulness and noticing to fully value your partner.
  8. Learn to Navigate Hard Times With Dignity: Life is full of ups and downs, challenges and successes. When it comes to difficulties, some people are able to be dignified in the face of bad and hard times, while others lack dignity altogether. Dignity is about maintaining a sense of self-respect when challenged. As mentioned in #4 above, respect is caring about someone's thoughts, opinions, and emotions - self-respect is doing that for yourself. It's easy to get wrapped up in struggles and lash out, attack others to try and get out of problems, turn to self-medicating and develop substance abuse issues or other poor self-care quick fixes. Recognizing that things are not going well, but knowing what you need to do to press forward and maintain connection to your values despite experiencing pain is the very essence of dignity. Slipping on individual values due to personal struggles can lead to disconnecting from your partner, hurting that person you may have had great value for, and ultimately hurting yourself as a result.
  9. Share Your Life With Your Partner:  All relationships evolve over time, but occasionally during that evolution the couple becomes so comfortable one or both become bored and stop sharing with each other. Sharing life is definitely about shared experiences, but also about the events that happen in each person's life. Work events, personal successes, hobbies (#15 goes into this more in depth), family interactions, struggles, new learning and education are all examples of categories that individuals evolve and grow separately from their partner - and ideally these experiences are shared between both people. It doesn't necessarily mean your partner is involved in everything, but that you make efforts to talk about and share things with your partner. For example, if one person goes on a work trip and as a part of the trip goes to a delicious restaurant, when back together with his or her partner there's talk about that restaurant and perhaps even efforts to go together at a later date. 
  10. Be Flexible With Chores: Unpleasant tasks are a part of everyday household maintenance, and while people tend to have tasks they are okay with doing no one tends to love doing chores. As part of a respectful and healthy relationship, chores tend to be divided between partners. A part of this distribution hopefully involves some sort of agreed upon distribution, either by quantity of chores or by the weight of the duty itself (perhaps food preparation and meal planning is not the same weight as taking the garbage out to the street). Regardless of this distribution, how do a couple work together to finish all the tasks? If someone is feeling overwhelmed, or runs out of time to complete a task, does the other person fill in or assist? When assisting, does the other person want high praise and exaltation, or does the task as a part of both demonstrating appreciation and being a partner? Throughout life, chores ebb and flow as well as ability and desire to complete certain tasks. Can the chores be renegotiated and redistributed as needed, and is there ongoing discussion about meeting household needs without making such discussion contentious? If someone is failing in their duties, what is the process of arguing respectfully about those needs? These are important questions to both ask and act out of when considering the completion of chores.
So completes the first ten items on the list of Healthy and Respectful Relationship goals. Part two will be published in a few days. Please let me know in the comments if you have any questions about any of these, and please see the attached document which lists 30 of 31 that will be discussed in the weeks to come. I have designed it so if you wanted to use it for your agency, you may edit it to place your details. Please do not remove the box with the history of the document and my contact information, and if you make changes to the listed items, please discuss with me first.


Friday, June 29, 2018

The Dearth of Meaning and Escalation of Harm

In my battering intervention classes, I follow the Emerge Model. The curriculum I use includes some from Emerge, but also has several lessons that I have created over the years for various reasons. Emerge tends to use the "Relationship History" with each participant to look at patterns of harm and where things may have gone downhill in a relationship. While I think that is an excellent individual activity, I don't think it works as well for everyone and have a few other options of lessons for those who might benefit from a different sort of introspection.

I will often use an "Empathy Letter" activity for those who are still in their relationship, and want to work to repair and make things better. That activity has places to give feedback on methods of owning up to hurtful behavior, describing motives, understanding impacts, and working on specific repairs. Identifying patterns alone may not help an individual who needs to consider ongoing shifts in how to have conflict and how to identify personal responsibilities to a partner.

For those participants with a very obvious pattern of harm, I use a "Cycle of Harm" that allows an individual to identify a build up of thoughts that promote abusive, violent, and hurtful behavior - and the thinking after that harm that keeps the cycle going. Even though I am not a fan of the Emerge "Role Play" activity, I still do that on occasion to address participants with a "here we go again" sort of conflict history.

However, over the past two weeks I have been working with a man, and for the purposes of this story let's call him Frank. Frank is in his 50s, and his longest relationship was in the early 90s which lasted approximately three and a half years. Most of his relationships last for a few months, and the relationship where he threatened his ex-partner was a total of two months of being together. I knew after hearing his brief description of his relationships that a relationship history wouldn't really work well. Same with an empathy letter as he was not in a relationship to repair. A cycle didn't work because he had different hurtful things he did in different relationships. With all that in mind, I decided to address a thicker topic with him that is hard to encapsulate, but is a powerful activity in its own right: an assignment on boundaries.

Boundaries are an under-addressed topic in battering intervention classes. Sure, we set boundaries as far as class rules, norms, and policies but we don't often take time to look at how participants set their own boundaries or notice them in others. Boundaries are these limits we have in our minds about a variety of things, a multitude of personal rules, thinking on how the world and life in general work. We often address boundaries in fractured ways - discussing masculinity, talking about motives for violence, methods of power and control. Sometimes, we even focus on respectful and healthy boundaries and how to manage conflict without violence or abuse. We just rarely bring it all together to discuss an individual's unique set of ideas that spur their actions in relationships.

I asked Frank to talk briefly about his relationship with his ex-partner where he threatened her. He talked about discovering her cheating on him, and the first time he gave her the benefit of the doubt because they had only been together two weeks, and her contact was with an ex-partner she had children with. The second time he found out, he left her threatening voicemails that he couldn't remember details of but did remember saying something to the effect of "I hope you lose everything you have in life." He also stopped by her house, noticing another man's motorcycle in her driveway. He was charged with stalking and cyberstalking alongside making threats.

His description was a bit vague, but also succinct and with a two month relationship there were more details than I might have thought. In moving the activity forward, I had a brief discussion with the class about what boundaries were. They joined in and provided different angles to the idea of personal rules and limits, which got the ball rolling in the direction I had hoped.

Frank was pretty easy to talk with, and came up with physical boundaries relatively quickly. He knew that he didn't like close talking unless it was something "important" and talked about how one woman he was with would come up and whisper to him and it would irritate him quite a bit. He had some definite dinner rules about not chewing with your mouth open, no smoking or playing with a cell phone at the table. He was fine with chores, and enjoys keeping his house neat, clean, and smelling good, and overall he wants a partner who is independent, works full time, and still is able to keep up with chores. He talked about a woman he never met in person who asked him "would you prefer a woman who worked part-time and kept the house spotless, or a woman who worked full-time but wasn't able to keep up with cleaning." His immediate response was to not consider her as relationship material, but also to shake his head and say that if you can't do both (like he does) then there's something wrong with you.

In the group, this led to some head nodding and agreement with some of the other participants. I don't think this is much more than a declaration of personal preferences. Those sort of boundaries can become problematic if an individual isn't able to notice incompatibility soon into developing a relationship, or holds on to an idea of "training" someone to do what they want. Frank was straightforward of his beliefs, and seemed quite able to keep a relationship from happening if he saw warning signs rising.

His emotional boundaries pointed out a few details that were important for him to know of himself, and know how to communicate in a relationship. He said when he became angry, his "filter turns off." Again, many of the participants nodded, seeing that experience as similar to their own. We discussed briefly how respectful and healthy communication involves the ability to filter negative self-talk, and choose methods of responding to anger without causing pain or fear in another person.

With emotion, however, we also discussed how he felt loved in a relationship. His methods involve giving gifts, helping someone out, and feeling loved when the other person expresses appreciation. Of course, this is a set-up for any number of negative self-talks, and direct as well as indirect harms when another person does not show appreciation just as he might want them to. He categorized his way of showing love as giving gifts, a playful "smack on the ass," giving compliments, and doing "gentlemanly" polite things. In the class we discussed the concept of "love languages" and how we all as human beings have ways we want to be loved, and ways we want to show love to others - and the complexities of interacting with someone who might have different ideas on that topic. How do you negotiate situations where your love language doesn't match?

This is where we got into brain mapping territory, and considerations of selfishness. I asked the group how many thought people, in general, were selfish. Most hands went up quickly. I asked them to identify how they saw selfishness in others. A truck driver said people drive without caring about others, and just being in their own worlds. Another participant said his wife just wanted to go out with her friends and didn't care what he thought about it. Another agreed and said his partner wouldn't do chores but expected him to. They all agreed with the idea of double standards and hypocrisy as selfish.

Then I asked them how they were selfish in their own lives.

They had a harder time with this. I gave some simple examples in my own life, how I ate the last two delicious smoked ribs in the fridge without asking my partner if she wanted them. How I procrastinate and the selfishness behind that. Eventually I got a few examples, but it was harder for some reason. Well, actually it was hard for a very specific reason.

We are all self-oriented. We see the world, hear the world, experience the world through our own minds. We can put ourselves in other's perspectives, sure, but in reality - such empathy is fantasy. I can never inhabit someone else's life, I cannot fully understand other's experiences. I read something recently that discussed how our personal concept of self is unique to us. Every single person we interact with has a concept of us as individuals. Some of those concepts overlap, but by in large, our own self-concept is unique to us and no one outside of yourself will ever fully know what that is. This makes it easy to come up with reasons, excuses, explanations for personal behavior while readily jumping to judge others.

As human beings, we disconnect ourselves from others at the drop of a hat. When our concept of someone conflicts with how another person is acting, we can easily deny their experience, their reasoning, their opinion. We can discount their emotions. We can remove any regard we have for that person in favor of judging what we absolutely know is true because we see it through our perspective.

In relationships, these disconnects can add up. It takes a lot of work to maintain a connection with someone, to actively seek to see and care about their point of view. And when you don't? Controlling behavior, abuse, violence, general harm are easy territories to jump into.

Moving into mental boundaries, Frank talked about how he would get quiet when he was stressed, how he hated it when people assumed he spoke Spanish or thought they knew his heritage. He hated "stupidity," "liars," and "saggy pants." We also discussed boundaries of exciting things, how we express passion for things we love - and for Frank he loves motorcycles, engines and mechanics, and his mom's chocolate pie. How does someone take a subject like "stupidity" and apply it to people and situations? How does someone categorize a "lie" from another person? How does someone communicate how they express stress in their life? We had a discussion about how people responded when hungry. I get loopy, and have a hard time making decisions or engaging in conversation. Others get "hangry" and yet others feel sick. How do you communicate your responses to something as simple as hunger in a relationship, and how do you talk about the PROCESS of your life to explain the CONTENT more accurately? The answer is many people do not, and that is an easy place to again create disconnect and harm.

The real point of this article, however, is on spiritual space and boundaries. But before I get there, a small aside on the other two categories. Discussing sexual boundaries is important - ideas on family planning and children, sexual frequency desires, even overall methods of showing affection beyond sex. All are important to navigate in a relationship in direct and respectful manners. Relational space and boundaries are also very important - how do you see the idea of "partnership" in a relationship? What do you expect of yourself in a relationship, and what do you expect of the person you are with? How could expectations of self and partner lead to that hypocrisy we discussed before? More excellent questions to bring up and have conversations about in battering intervention.

The thing that shocked me the most, but maybe it shouldn't have, is that Frank had no idea what his meaning in life was. Yes, we have as a culture had several things we have popular media over that contemplate the "meaning of life." Monty Python had an entire movie about "The Meaning of Life." Douglas Adams made some hilarious commentary about the answer to "life, the universe, and everything" is 42, but we don't know the proper question. But it's not that much of a mystery, really.

Spirituality, in my experience and belief, is the concept of value. What do I hold dear? Why is my life better because my partner is in it? How do I add value to my partner's life? What are my morals, my ethics? Spirituality, in my experience and belief, is the concept of purpose, of meaning. What am I working towards? What is my contribution to others close to me, to the world as a whole? What purpose keeps me going and feeds my values?

In some people's lives, that answer can be tied to their religious beliefs. Religions have a multitude of tomes on values to ascribe to, rules to follow, rituals to practice. That is of great importance to many, and they structure their lives to constantly work toward specific goals in their relationships with others and community. For some people, their religion is a ritual, but not a value or a purpose. Going to church, synagogue, temple, whatever it might be - that is just a thing you do, not a thing you care about beyond the ritual itself. Others pick specific messages that support their world view and use those messages to convince or browbeat others into philosophical submission or fear. Others frame their lives through personal focus and try to influence others through their behavior.

But to not be able to identify a purpose? It wasn't just Frank. No one in my group of nine participants had an answer to their meaning in life. No one even mentioned their children or families as their purpose, and I was sure there would be at least one person to do that. In the silence following the question, I talked about where meeting a potential partner at a place you volunteer could be a great way to connect to someone with similar values and meaning in life. I got some scoffing at that - who has time to volunteer? I discussed how we always give time for things that have value. We discussed Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World" and the control over society through entertainment and I asked them if they were controlled by entertainment. Many of them agreed. Their excitement in life was over "stuff" and over doing things. Frank said he always knew what he was doing each night because of what television show was on. That was important to him.

It struck me as a bit of an epiphany. Are we, perhaps, not going deep enough in working to address domestic violence? Is there more to hurtful behavior than simply discussing violence? Where is self-respect in our discussions? How do we make health, compromise, caring, regard a part of participant's value systems, or even a part of what gives them purpose in their lives?

I'm not sure I have much in the way of answers here, but I certainly know that if you do not care about anything, if you have no purpose in life, there really aren't many barriers to hurting others, or hurting yourself. If your purpose has been compromised by "value slipping*" then what holds true for you? How do you build up family and relationship in a world dominated by personal perspective and justification at all costs? Where your reasoning is all about whether someone agrees with your world view or not.

I say in classes all the time, this work is never about giving answers - they are more individual to the person, and my answers won't fit others' situations. These classes are about asking the right questions. And with that - are we truly asking all the best questions during battering intervention classes?

Write up of the activity with Frank in class. Pardon my messy handwriting!


*"Value slipping" is a concept of violating a small part of your values and beliefs and after doing so, feeling guilty but moving on and then more easily devaluing other rules in your life. I give examples in group about someone who has a religious belief about not having sex before marriage, yet has sex multiple times before marrying someone. How does such an experience sour other religious messages or rules, and what does that slippery slope look like?

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Report Writing for Battering Intervention Classes

Administrative issues in domestic violence work are topics that are easily seen as dry, boring, and for some even unnecessary if they are doing direct service work. Cultures within agencies and programs are easily ingrained and accepted with little critical thought, sometimes because front line workers have little power to address them, and at other times because workers with very little experience are placed in roles where they do not fully understand the content, let alone the administrative structure. In addition, battering intervention work is easily downplayed in importance and need, with interns gaining responsibility, agencies investing few resources, or the program itself becoming sidelined due to other agency needs. These are all issues which need to be addressed to create an effective program, and report writing is a dynamic which can link to several of these challenges in this work.

When I conduct supervision, I consider administrative issues to be important ones. When discussing clinical challenges, I stress creating balance between process and content. You both need to understand the specific details of individuals in the group and curriculum/educational information (content), and the boundaries of group rules and how individuals make their way through the sessions of the class (process). I have written before that there is a need to know the difference between the model used for intervention (the process of the class, the structure of the rules, the beginning, middle and end experience of the individual participant) and the curriculum used for education (the lesson plans, activities, use of media, structured discussions). The article is going to be focused on methods of reporting on an individual participant in a battering intervention program.

Each program has intake paperwork that gathers background information on incoming participants. While this is not strictly reporting a battering intervention worker will do to outside sources, these documents help inform later reporting, and sometimes help to establish rapport and understanding og the individual participant. The format this takes is sometimes an individual interview, sometimes a group orientation, sometimes a group overview. State guidelines and standards often determine the content requirements, but some of the important aspects include:
  1. Danger/Risk/Lethality assessment: Specific questions on paperwork that give indications of potential lethality are important to include, along with understanding that such assessment is an ongoing process throughout an individual's time in the program, not just during paperwork. It is best to have these questions spread out, rather than in a block, as someone filling out intake paperwork may gloss over extreme questions if they are all together, particularly when they are "yes or no" answers. Most often, these questions come from Jaqueline Campbell's work on Domestic Violence Danger Assessment.
  2. Screening tools: These may vary by program, but I personally like to use the PHQ9, the Mood Disorders Questionnaire, and the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE). I think such items support participants in working toward self-care, and often provide words to experiences that make depression, mental illness, and childhood trauma difficult to talk about and seek help over. This paperwork serves a dual purpose: identifying potential problem areas for individuals, and providing humanization by specifically discussing how domestic violence classes are not just about harm toward others, but also harms toward self. It can demonstrate a layer of care over the individual that can be important in establishing rapport and motivating change.
  3. Description of harms: If done as an individual interview, this might engage a participant prior to group to discuss hurtful behavior. I personally think it is better, as an engagement strategy, to collect basic information without getting into detail unless the participant wants to provide it. I want to know charged crimes (if applicable), general patterns of harm, motives for hurtful behavior, a participant's perception of the situation, and I also consider general attitude as a part of collecting this information. Some programs collect police reports and collaborative information or require it for initial intake appointments. I think these can be useful secondary information and a way to ask specific questions, but can also become distracting toward motivating change and allowing an individual participant to see where they might need to make shifts in their behavior in relationships overall.
  4. Objective data collection: I like to do pre-post collection of information to show overall program efficacy and to determine usefulness of the program and potential for updates and feedback from participants. I use an adapted version of Emerge's Violent and Controlling Behavior Checklist, but I know some programs prefer to use versions of the Power and Control Wheels. I also have a survey that asks for goals, concerns, perceptions of how the class might be useful for the individual, and how a participant describes respect and harm in relationships. I find that comparing the survey and the checklist before entering class, and after finishing provide some insight that is useful for participants, and fascinating for reporting on the program overall.
  5. Intake letter: I avoid doing any assessing of participants until they have attended 6-8 class sessions. I will often say during intakes, "this is the first time I've met you, and I know when I meet someone for the first time, I don't tell them my entire life story. Especially not details of things I am not proud of, or don't want to talk about. I don't expect you to do that with me today, although I am going to collect some background information so I can start learning how I can help you the best I can." This is a part of working to use Motivational Interviewing engagement strategies in the program, and it is best to do so as early as possible. Some states require writing a letter informing the referral source that an individual has entered the program, general information about battering intervention groups, the date and time the individual agreed to start classes, and contact information for the program and group facilitators. I suggest such letters not provide details beyond a general statement that the person is accepted into the program due to admission of hurtful behavior.
I work to communicate that there is no such thing as a domestic violence evaluation. People request them all the time, and the general assumption is that such an evaluation will determine if someone NEEDS the program or not. Whenever I hear this request, it is from an individual who definitely believes they do not need the program, and therefore will be evaluated as such. The reason for this confusion, in my experience, is that mental health treatment and substance abuse counseling both involve an evaluation. These evaluations use psychological tools, drug testing, structured interviews, evaluative guidelines, and diagnostic determination for an individual. From all of these sources of information, a determination is made for the TYPE of treatment an individual will receive. This may include inpatient treatment, individual counseling 1-5 times weekly, group sessions, educational sessions, or a combination of things. The American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) has a breakdown of axes which look at factors within an individual's life which may intersect with substance use, and help to determine what sort of treatment might work best. Battering Intervention does not have any such screening tools, any diagnostic components, guidance on setting criteria, or differentiation of classes necessary, save the state of Colorado (which has a process for domestic violence offenders, but I disagree with several of their foundational research studies they have used to justify separation of participants which are based on general criminal populations, not specific to domestic violence offenders. They also charge a fee for initial intake that is often comparable to a full self-pay mental health evaluation of anywhere from $600-$1500).  

The assessment for battering intervention is simply: is the individual appropriate for the class or not? This means that a report that determines appropriateness needs to be based on factors that make the classes useful for an individual. Complications arise when an individual participant is referred due to non-intimate partner violence, which may count as "domestic violence" but dynamics with parents, children, siblings, roommates, or extended family are much different than intimate partner relationships and are best treated differently.

Some criteria I use to assess appropriateness include:
  • The participant admits to hurtful behavior in a relationship toward an intimate partner
  • The description of hurtful behavior includes patterns and history in the relationship
  • The participant speaks both about the incident leading to referral and dynamics of harm throughout the relationship (which may include answering "why did things go downhill?")
In general, if someone is referred for a violent, abusive, or coercive controlling incident in an intimate partner relationship they will be appropriate for the class. The assessment looks at willingness to admit to hurtful behavior, and a certain degree of acknowledging patterns of harm. For those who are not referred for intimate partner violence, some additional pieces I consider have to do with the ability of the individual to speak defensively of their intimate partner, admit to hurtful behavior within "normal limits" with an intimate partner (which would include speaking about arguments, selfish and/or controlling behavior that does not stray into abuse or violence), the context of the incident itself, and the interest for the individual in joining the class in general.

For example, one man I saw for an assessment had a fight with his adult daughter over her moving out of the house because she had not followed through with an agreement to stay in treatment. He and his wife agreed with this decision (per his report), and when he spoke about his wife he did so with care and admitted to raising his voice during arguments on occasion, and lying to her about where he was going (specifically related to him coming to the class, because he said she was very stressed about his court involvement). He was assessed as inappropriate because while his incident was perhaps domestic violence related (this point could be argued), his report about his relationship with his wife over the course of 40 years seemed based in overall health and respect, and his contributions to class discussions over six class sessions consistently demonstrated this attitude about her.

Another individual was referred for brandishing a knife toward his adult siblings when they were arguing during him making dinner. He was not in a relationship at the time. While discussing the incident, he admitted to his threatening behavior toward them. He then spoke to a history in his relationships that included direct violence with a former partner, and dismissive neglectful patterns in a more recent relationship. During his sixth class session when doing a long check-in, he said directly that he needed to be in the class as he had learned about ways he had been violent that he never had considered before. The incident bringing him to the class may not have been intimate partner related, but this history and his willingness to look at his patterns made him appropriate. Now in his case, if he had not spoken to a history in his relationships, without collaborative information, it may have been difficult to assess him as appropriate due to the lack of intimate partner relationship history - but such things demonstrate why intake paperwork can be an important part of this process.

When writing an assessment report, I suggest that facilitators take notes when an individual talks about hurtful patterns of behavior. I use the Emerge model of intervention, which means I believe in doing a long check-in at session 6-8 of the program. I ask questions about most recent harms, what the individual considers to be the "worst" hurtful behavior, what the incident was that resulted in referral (if not otherwise disclosed), the history of the relationship currently, prior history of relationships, and specific questions about other physical assaults, sexual harms, affairs, and threats. I also tend to ask "why did your relationship go downhill" as it tends to give a lot of information about the context of the relationship overall. All of these answers given by the individual I capture quotes and detail for use in reporting. The structure of the report includes:

  1. Information on payment and attendance: this includes any financial issues, tardiness, missing classes, and overall administrative compliance with the program. This may mean I include information on an individual's inconsistency, or alternately their ability and willingness to communicate problems they might experience while attending the class. 
  2. Participation: detailing how an individual uses the classes, this can be anywhere from minimal participation noted, excessive or inappropriate participation, or details on how an individual contributes or uses the class appropriately. 
  3. Report of hurtful behavior: I start here by listing information on the referral incident. The challenge in this section is never adding in secondary information a participant might give which places responsibility onto others, justifies hurtful behavior, or exposes other people's personal issues. It is important to think about the reports through the lens of how a victim/survivor might read the report, and how a defense or prosecuting attorney might read the report. If a victim/survivor could read the report and say "those are lies about me," or if a prosecutor or a defense attorney reads the report and thinks "we need to charge the victim/survivor," or "if that is how it happened, we need to dismiss the case," then the report needs to be rewritten. The goal of reports are never to try a case, but rather to provide information on how a participant views themselves and their patterns of harm. If an individual blames, then it is possible to write "Mr. Jones justifies his behavior by focusing on Ms. Jones' behavior" or to simply not include such information at all and focus exclusively on hurtful behavior the participant admits to. This section will also detail patterns and history, and may include other dates and times of harm. It is important to either specifically name times (years and months when available), or if speaking of general patterns to identify a timeframe (in a prior relationship X years ago). Generally speaking about behavior without a time reference could again be used for or against someone in legal negotiations, and is important to differentiate for clarity. I often also include details of cheating, other physical harms, and threats in this section.
  4. Concerns: It is important to note concerns for each individual participant. Sometimes concerns are related to administrative compliance issues, sometimes for behavior issues in the class, sometimes for specific nature of harms in a relationship, sometimes for current behavior in a relationship, sometimes with self-care issues and/or overlaps with mental health or substance abuse issues. Occasionally, I have noted the very real possibility that an individual is feeding me information to coach a report but there may be additional information left out. Noting concerns can be helpful to discuss with a co-facilitator or supervisor.
  5. Recommendations: The most common recommendation is to complete the program, however, if there are secondary issues to be addressed such as parenting, mental health, or substance abuse related needs, then I will note that the individual may benefit from specific care in other areas. As this is not an evaluation report, recommendations are best as suggestions and if needs are apparent, these suggestions are best made for the individual to be evaluated for services by someone else.
There may be state guidelines that outline needs for reports on a monthly, quarterly, or even weekly basis. Often this can be determined by the needs of the referral sources.
  • Weekly reports: I currently do weekly reports on participants via email. These reports are basic attendance and compliance issues, and occasionally I will write a note that summarizes a problem. If weekly reporting is needed, it is best done in a list style. This can create confidentiality issues, and have several logistical challenges as a result. Most of my referrals are from a specific probation department, so I do a list of every class participant, but those not referred by them I use initials instead of names. The challenge with this method of reporting is it tends to lack detail, and problems are not flagged until they are bigger issues.
  • Monthly reports: Overall, I think this is the best method of ongoing reports. It does become cumbersome for facilitators to write reports on every participant, but it structures an individual's process through the program which is useful when behavior builds over time, and can often be protective of program staff's decisions about individual participants. I like to use a section with check-off boxes to simplify the process, and a section with notes to add in information on how a participant is in the classes. Most commonly, the notes section contains a statement such as "Mr. Jones participated appropriately during class sessions," but it allows facilitators an opportunity to communicate information on individual activities, challenges, ongoing issues inside or outside the class, or details on behavior problems.
  • Status updates: These are simple reports, often just listing attendance and payment details. I often do these per request, and they are not specifically scheduled.
  • Letters/information to partner/victim/survivors: State requirements may indicate a need to conduct partner contacts, and occasionally may require a letter to be sent to a participant's partner and/or ex-partner. If this is a practice, it is important to detail the limitations of the group, information on how to get support or advocacy, and contact information for the program specifically. It can be good to provide a pamphlet outlining the program goals, and basic information on domestic violence. 
For completion reports, I mirror the format of the assessment report, including all the sections as listed above. If someone is completing, I will insert additional information on "report of abuse" if additional information came forward during an individual activity, and also tend to expand on participation information to detail how the individual used the groups overall. Concerns may shift based on how facilitators have experienced the individual, and recommendations often include a line such as "if Mr. Jones were to be abusive or violent, he may return to the program," in addition to any overall needs that may have been identified during the course of the program.

Termination reports are also mirrored, but often list information on last attended session, outstanding balance due, content on the reason for termination, and concerns tend to highlight those reasons. Administrative discharges (participant moved, changed programs, is released due to medical issues, is suspending program participation for an agreed upon allowance, etc) need to detail out the reasons for closure, methods of reentry, and also follow the same format overall.

Sometimes, when an individual never attends a class, or drops out before completing an assessment (most common terminations in my experience) I will write a shorter letter outlining the issues leading to termination. I may also draw from intake paperwork to detail some information if it seems necessary to use the entire termination report format.

The most common issue I have seen with program reporting is including impersonal check-off report styles with little to no context, or providing a "certificate" at the end of the program. Often I find that battering intervention workers may not understand how dangerous such practices can be for victims/survivors. Lack of detail in reports can be used against victims/survivors by saying things such as "hey, I finished my program and they loved me there - said I could teach the class - and she hasn't done anything." This is an easy set up, and may lead to court systems making decisions in favor of someone who is abusive, and uses the certificate to further manipulation and control. Check-off style reports without individual details can sometimes contain things such as "good progress/poor progress" which seems to indicate that the facilitators know definite risk and how a participant is using the program. However, a primary characteristic of domestic violence offenders are that they are excellent radars, and great at using those radars to manipulate others. I can never guarantee that even the seemingly most enlightened participant has changed behavior without doing a partner/victim contact and having knowledge of behavior outside of the class. Judging absorption of material is not the place facilitators need to focus - let the individual's behavior speak for itself through quotes, and detail of attitude in the class. After all, participation in class is a mirror into behavior in intimate partner relationships.

Other problems involve facilitators not understanding why report writing is an important part of accountability. Yes, it is sometimes an administrative headache, but when the safety of victims/survivors is at risk it is both necessary and ethical to make sure reports are neutral or worse about participants, and that assessment or discharge reports always contain information that describes the participant's hurtful, abusive, violent, and controlling behavior. Some programs, who may have an integrated community coordinated response that involves extensive contact with referral sources in an authentic and working relationship may minimize paperwork due to this. That doesn't mean reporting doesn't happen - it just means the reporting is directed through interpersonal connections, not by paperwork. I prefer the paper trail, regardless, because it CAN potentially be used against an abuser who might evidence increased risk or danger.

For this reason, reports for BIP should be neutral or worse. Remember that "positive" reports might overlook manipulations an individual abuser has worked to use against facilitators. The thinking error of "feeding the change agent what the change agent wants to hear" is particularly challenging in BIP classes, and often can lead facilitators to miss how an individual participant avoids responsibility and accountability in classes, and might be using the class to look good and further harm others.

What are your experiences? Have you worked in agencies with excellent or poor reporting systems, and how did you navigate those spaces? What is your philosophy behind report writing and administrative details of this work?

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Aziz Ansari and Sexual Harms Beyond Assault

Attention continues to rise for inappropriate sexual behavior by male celebrities. This weekend, an article highlighting a sexual encounter between Aziz Ansari and an anonymous woman (Grace) has brought up discussion of consent, sexual pressure and coercion, and where his responsibilities lie within this brief relationship.

A major challenge of celebrity is the illusion of intimacy. Personally, I like Mr. Ansari. I greatly enjoyed "Master of None" and have found his work to be excellent over the years. But his work as an actor, producer, and writer tell me nothing about him personally. My connection to him is passive - I watch him in his shows and feel like I am getting to know him, know who he is, know how he thinks, but it is just one way. He has never met me, knows nothing about me - and the information I have on him is a created image. As with all created images, there is no doubt a certain mirror into his life, but it is necessarily going to be full of inaccuracies.

I believe this is one of the major reasons there seem to be a large amount of blame placed on this anonymous woman, and general backlash against the #metoo movement due to this woman's story. Aziz is a good guy or she should have done A, B, or C! She's treating him unfairly!

This is also a bit like a real life version of the "Cat Person" short story that was recently published in the New Yorker (and my fictionalized response in the man's perspective here). Was this really more about bad sex, a consensual tryst that Grace did not enjoy, that led to her complaining about her experience later?

These are important questions to ask, but maybe we are missing some bigger aspects of this situation. The Atlantic published an article considering some of the current challenges with sexual behavior in relationships, saying, "Sexual mores in the West have changed so rapidly over the past 100 years that by the time you reach 50, intimate accounts of commonplace sexual events of the young seem like science fiction: You understand the vocabulary and the sentence structure, but all of the events take place in outer space."

In this article, I want to take some time to explore these sexual harms that often get lost in discussions - those that are not assault or violence, yet still cause pain and fear in others. 

What are we missing in our dialog with children and teens about sex? How are gender roles fitting into expectations about sex and relationships? A choice to hook-up and have casual sex is not inherently bad or wrong, even if many people (and USA culture) have moral beliefs against this behavior.What I encounter again and again in battering intervention groups is that in the sake of seeking consent, and in having sex as a part of courtship, development of intimacy beyond physical passion is lost.

Many abusers definitely gain consent before engaging in sex, although I question how explicit this consent is. One article defends Mr. Ansari by saying he shouldn't be a mind reader, yet men often accept implicit consent with few or any verbal consents to sex. They have definite understanding of nonverbal cues, but push against those in the knowledge that verbal rejection is hard to give after sex begins. Women feel pressured to consent, and may even fear saying no could lead to violence.

During group discussions, I will outline various kinds of intimacy and where they can fit into development of a relationship. Certainly, the first kind of intimacy guys in my groups go to is sexual. That physical passion I mentioned earlier. That is indeed a type of intimacy, and an important one for health in a relationship. Often what is missing from that analysis of passion, however, is a desire to be with that person, loving touch beyond sex, desire to pleasure your partner, and gaining knowledge of what the other person likes or does not like sexually or within physical touch overall.

Other categories are more difficult to discuss. What about emotional intimacy? The idea of closeness - a shared bond where you know someone's opinions, thoughts, and even their values or morals - can be equally intimate and critical to development of a healthy relationship. The equivalent to a random hook-up with a stranger might be going on a first date and telling that person your most intimate details, such as your worst fears, abuse you experienced in childhood, deeply held political or social beliefs that are controversial - and while some people do this during first meeting someone, the experience of someone dumping so much information at the beginning is often off-putting. Closeness takes time to develop, and takes time to foster in a healthy way.

Psychological intimacy can be considered along with commitment. An alignment of goals, values, and meaning in life. Again, it takes time to grow this aspect of intimacy, and a hook-up equivalent might be meeting someone and telling them that you should get married, pool your finances to buy a house you have chosen for the both of you, have children immediately, or any number of other intimate choices made when relationships become closer.

Emotional and psychological intimacy seem ludicrous to develop so quickly on a first date, yet for some reason we do not have deeper and more critical thinking about quick physical intimacy development. It is a risk - often a dangerous and hurtful risk. Certainly, if someone does not use safe sex, then there is risk of STD or STI or pregnancy. Along with that risk, however, is the truth that you might end up with someone you are not compatible with, or might make choices that coincide with pressuring or controlling someone into having sexual behavior they are not 100% comfortable with. The person you have random sex with might equate that with something much more emotionally or psychologically intimate - and if you are not on the same page your behavior can easily cause harm.

Some of the hangup I am seeing with people defending Mr. Ansari are that he did not sexually assault her, that his behavior was not sexual violence, that she gave consent for their sexual encounter therefore it shouldn't matter. This perspective denies the idea of sexual control, sexual alienation, and sexual irritation - ALL of which there is zero doubt that he is responsible for in his encounter with Grace.

Sexual control is making someone do something they do not want to do sexually, or keeping someone from certain intimacy they want to engage in. There are many forms of sexual control that involve coercion or pressure. Constant asking for sex, trying certain sexual behavior repeatedly and ignoring boundaries set by the other person, not listening to protests (verbal or nonverbal), and yes, not picking up on nonverbal cues, requests, or complaints.

Control is a human experience - we ALL do it, and sexual control can be a very destructive aspect of sexual behavior that we need to be addressing on a more active basis. We need to avoid lumping all sexual harms into violence - because in Mr. Ansari's case, he is being equated to other men who have engaged in sexual assault and violence. Without understanding the difference here, we risk his behavior and other's being dismissed because it clearly does not have the same impact or destruction therefore Grace gets blamed for daring to report this, rather than us realizing that regardless of the level of harm - it is still harm, and it is still destructive!

Sexual alienation and irritation are also very human things. It is where a person does something physically or sexually intimate that their partner becomes irritated by, or something which pushes that person away. One of the biggest alienating factors are not talking about sex, not talking about desire, not developing sexual knowledge of a partner over time. Other irritating/alienating sexual harms can involve things such as flirting that the other person does not like, use of pornography that is not okay with a partner, and blindness to or ignoring of another person's sexual boundaries. Again, some of these are clearly a big part of the incident with Mr. Ansari and Grace.

Defenders of Aziz Ansari lament that this could destroy his career. Attackers say sexual harm is sexual harm and he should be held accountable. When we make this into a binary argument, we miss the point that he needs to be held to account for his behavior that is problematic, and he needs to be aware of the level of power and influence his fame affords him and where that fits into his dating life. Grace describes the "hour or so" in his apartment involving him attempting different sexual behavior, her intermittently engaging and then disengaging and while her internal dialog was clearly confusion and anxiety over his behavior, his internal dialog could have been anything from entitlement of his celebrity status, confirmation bias on when she seemed willing to engage in sexual acts (while ignoring when she was not), and definitely overall entitlement to continue pursuing sex after she verbally and non-verbally expressed her discomfort.

Instead of lumping Mr. Ansari with violent, abusive, and sexually assaultive male celebrities, we should build awareness for the layers of sexual harm, and learn better ways to guide men toward responsibility, accountability, and health in relationships. Instead of being sad that his career is damaged and building anger toward Grace, we should be exploring where we focus on condemning celebrities yet ignore how common these patterns are for everyday men toward women. We need to be taking this opportunity to nuance the different kinds of sexual harm beyond rape and other forms of sexual assault, so we can adequately address their impact, and the intent men have behind them.


*For additional reading on this topic, I suggest reading Nehmat Kaur's "What Should We Expect from Liberal Feminist Men Like Aziz Ansari?" or Karishma Attari's "Aziz Ansari has a long way to go before mastering his own sense of entitlement." or Emma Gray's "On Aziz Ansari And Sex That Feels Violating Even When It's Not Criminal"