Dr Ronald Schweitzer: Working with men who commit violence against women

Amanda Lyons

28/11/2017 3:46:56 PM

While many GPs may be relatively familiar with the management of people who have experienced family violence, Dr Ronald Schweitzer’s work is on another side of the issue.

Dr Schweitzer emphasises that the violent behaviour is ‘horrible’, rather than the patient themselves.
Dr Schweitzer emphasises that the violent behaviour is ‘horrible’, rather than the patient themselves.

Dr Ronald Schweitzer and social worker Helen Wirtz have run the Men’s Responsibility Group through the MonashLink Community Health Service since 1994, with the goal of helping people who commit violence against women change their behaviour.
The fact the majority of Dr Schweitzer’s patients do not present willingly and have arrived through the courts or as a result of intervention orders can lead to confronting, often-challenging behaviour from within the group.
‘Out of 1000 men, maybe a handful have come because they want to be there,’ Dr Schweitzer told newsGP. ‘When you have a room full of 12 men who are new to these ideas, they are at square one. They’re very much into blaming practices and “What about me?”’
After 10 years, Wirtz and Dr Schweitzer decided to change their treatment format. Instead of running groups as distinct 15-week programs, they began ongoing 20-week groups that men could join at any time. This change has proven to be beneficial for a variety of reasons: men don’t have to wait to join a group and numbers remain fairly stable throughout the program. But there is also another advantage.
‘When you have a group that is ongoing, some of the men who have been there for longer will offer a much more responsible, respectful voice,’ Dr Schweitzer said. ‘They will catch up some of the newer men. Like when new men may refer to their estranged partner as “missus” or “her”, we’ll ask some of the others, “Do you want to explain why we refer to the woman by her first name?”, and they will say, “It’s more respectful, makes her more human”.’
While this dynamic can make the group’s message more acceptable to the newer members, it is can also be beneficial for those who have been in the program longer.
‘They can hear, “Wow, that’s what I was like 10 or 15 weeks ago, but I’ve now moved on”, so they can see some of the change they’ve made,’ Dr Schweitzer said.
One major aspect of Dr Schweitzer and Wirtz’s work is to take a stand against the behaviour, not the person themselves.
‘We don’t say, “You’re a horrible man”, or “You’re awful”,’ Dr Schweitzer said. ‘But we do say, “This behaviour is horrible, it causes a lot of fear, it makes your partner scared, it makes your children scared”.’
For some, that final message is one that can make all the difference.
‘Most of the men who have children will have some concern about the impact their behaviour has on them,’ Dr Schweitzer said.
However, Dr Schweitzer has also come to accept that change will come hard for most in the group – if it comes at all.
‘It’s one thing to say responsible and respectful things in the group, it’s a whole new ball game to actually practise them in real life,’ he said. ‘We’d like to think we get a success rate of somewhere between 30–50%. That would be fantastic.’
‘The one, overriding goal of groups for men who have been abusive is to increase the safety of women and children.’

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Dr George Burkitt   1/12/2017 11:43:31 AM

It was very gratifying to read this article as it is the first that I can ever recall from the RACGP on the subject of working with men who use violence in their relationships. I completely agree that the language used is critically important and the focus must be on changing the unacceptable behaviour and not upon the worth of the man himself. Indeed, many men who use violence already have low self esteem and one of the therapeutic tasks must be to build that up rather than denigrate individuals further.

For over 20 years now, I have had a practice exclusively devoted to counselling and psychotherapy for men, teenage boys and their families. For the first 10 years, I worked in Sydney and since then in Grafton and now Woolgoolga on the NSW mid north coast. Many of my patients present with serious relationship issues including anger and violence and some come to me in the aftermath of the imposition of an apprehended violence order (AVO).

I would be very interested in meeting with other doctors working in this field and sharing ideas and skills. Perhaps a conference or less formal gathering could be arranged. Working in a regional area makes it particularly difficult to meet people with similar interests/passions. As a Fellow of the Australian Society of Psychological Medicine it might be possible to auspice something through that body if there was enough interest.

Last year, I was invited by the ACPM to lead a Masterclass at their first “Unconference” where I presented some of my techniques and these are outlined in an article which was published in a recent Society newsletter. If you are interested I could forward this on to you.

Very best wishes

Dr George Burkitt

Evan Ackermann   1/12/2017 1:12:44 PM

I find this area quite interesting.
For some reason several years ago when I was working rural, a local judge sent me 4 men accused of domestic violence to me for a "mental health" assessment.
In short, 2 were just violent men, but the other two had acted impulsively, which was very out of character for them. Both gave histories of manipulative behaviours from their female partners: issues in there relationship, separation and afterwards as well eg lack of access to children, public shaming, inappropriate accusations AVOs etc etc
One was, in retrospect, emotionally immature and seemed to have been targeted because of his financial position. His career and finances were in tatters when I saw him.
Violence should not be tolerated, but I get the impression there are men out there that are suffering too.
Thanks for sharing your work

Dr Vicky Hillier   1/12/2017 1:21:56 PM

Please forward information published regarding management techniques for men with violence against women

Kylie Fardell   2/12/2017 8:44:13 PM

Thank-you for this interesting article, and also for the thoughtful comments above.

Mai Maddisson   4/02/2018 2:54:59 PM

Congratulations Evan Ackerman.
Having grown up among a culture of domestic violence where it was literally 'everywhere' there is another variable which is being missed. The women being abused are 'too good to be true'!
Those men live with chronic subtle pin-pricking and humiliation, any single event sounding trifling. It is the chronic pinpricks which generate the visible hole in the pin-cushion.
By humiliating the men and endorsing the women involved we are setting up a vicious circle of further abuse perhaps by a less visible means. The men become to feel even more humiliated and the women become more and more accepted for their role in that dyad.
Yes, domestic violence is not fun. I can recall as a youngster walking around the night streets many a time to evade such but the honest management is to address it as a dyadic problem where both parties are equally innocent with zilch negotiation skills.
The kids will now just learn how to be abusive more subtly, not to avoid abuse.