Simon Collins

Simon Collins is the Herald’s social issues reporter.

Many 'tough' men suppress a caring urge

Abusive men actually want to love and care but do not want to be seen in that way. Photo / Thinkstock
Abusive men actually want to love and care but do not want to be seen in that way. Photo / Thinkstock

An Auckland woman researching the behaviour of abusive men has found many of them want to love and care for their wives and partners but suppress the desire in order to look "tough" in front of other men.

Dr Clare Murphy, a counsellor and life coach, interviewed 16 men in stopping-violence programmes for her doctoral thesis about their childhoods, adult relationships and "their sense of the way the world works".

She found the men actually wanted to love and care for their partners, but suppressed this desire and adopted "rough and tough" tactics because they thought that was how men should behave. One man, Rick, told her: "If you weren't violent, for sure then you were a little bit lacking in the man department." Another said: "You were a bit of a sissy or you were soft if you talked about your emotions."

Dr Murphy said that women's wholeness had been suppressed for centuries, "but I think men's wholeness is suppressed, too.

"For years women were not allowed to be independent and strong and free. But men were not allowed to show a whole wide range of emotions, otherwise they are denigrated and ostracised."

Dr Murphy asked men to imagine a hierarchy of "what it means to be a man in our society", placing things that were most "manlike" at the top of an imaginary triangle and things that were not manlike at the bottom.

She has used the same technique with public and professional audiences and has always found complete agreement on what society expects, even if individual men behave differently.

"They all agree on what should go at the top: men controlling women, men should be tough, men should be physically strong, they should be providers, financially successful, protectors of women, men are superior, men should always be independent and always know what they're talking about, really in control."

Conversely, all men placed "so-called feminine behaviours" at the bottom of the manly scale - "love, care, empathy, seeking help to deal with issues, even seeking help for healthcare."

These attitudes were learned at school and in sports, and were reinforced in pubs and workplaces.

Coaches and parents urged boys to be tough in sports. "You got some parent screaming on the side, 'punch him, punch him, punch him' or 'kick the little so-and-so'," one man told her.

Boys were taught to fight back against bullies. One said: "If a guy six foot two has a go at me, I have to stand and I have to fight."

They also felt that girls admired tough boys. "Girls would traditionally look for a muscular he-man type male," one man said.

Dr Murphy found that men, aged 26 to 60 at the time she interviewed them, brought these "he-man" attitudes into their adult relationships.

If they showed any softness towards their partners, they were taunted by other men with jokes such as, "Who wears the pants?"

One man explained, "It's like owning a new car. Once I've done enough payments, it's mine, I own this, and that's how it's going to be. That's how a lot of males think."

Another said: "I can do what I want but you gotta do what I tell you to. That's the way I'd see 90 per cent of marriages from a man's point of view."

Dr Murphy believes anti-violence campaigns such as "It's not okay" need to be broadened to say it's wrong to control a partner even by non-violent means. Simply understanding social pressures on men may help them change.

"One man who was abusing his partner and was very controlling said he was able to live at the top of the hierarchy, and when he was able to name it he realised that he didn't want to be living in a hierarchical way. He wanted equality with her," she said.

"He had a small son. He said, knowing all the social pressure on him, 'what do I do about raising my son?"'

Dr Murphy sees no simple answer.

"You need a critical mass for things to change, so there's got to be a thousand answers to that question," she said.

"One of the places where change has to come from is the legal system, because some professionals resist taking opportunities to be trained in the dynamics of men's use of power and control over intimate partners.

"Change has to happen in the church, because many church leaders still counsel women victims to listen to and obey their male partners.

"Change has to happen within education systems because this is one of the contexts that has a major influence on boys jockeying for position in the school yard.

"Authenticity and a different set of values is important - a set of values that is about relationship and caring for each other, as opposed to hierarchy and who is better than whom."

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