The beginning of one man’s journey
It’s August 2019 and Carl is really upset. “I just found out my sister’s husband has been abusing her, badly. Physical. They’re splitting up. I didn’t know just how bad it was all this time. I mean, they have teenagers. I want so bad to go down there, to Dunedin, put him in my boot, and take him for a long drive.”
Carl* is 40 and has a history of violent verbal behaviour. His problem is that he gets angry really fast and lashes out verbally. He’s been verbally abusive to people in his life for decades. You can see how this is possible straight away talking to him as he’s telling his story. He starts talking faster and faster as he tells his history about Emma, his ex partner, and the protection order she eventually took out against him in June 2018 following a visit he made to see his daughters in Auckland, where they live with Emma. His hand gestures become larger and start involving his whole arm. His voice gets louder and his language becomes more colourful.
Carl says he was often stressed out with life and took it out on others. “I just got really, really frustrated. My energy skyrockets when I’m triggered, then I start getting hot. I lash out with words, really angry words and I call people terrible names.”
The mandate of the protection order meant Carl had to take part in an educative program based around behaviour change. At home in Nelson he was referred to SVS Living Safe, a Nelson-based family violence specialist with programmes to help individuals and families achieve long-term violence-free lives.
“I didn’t want to go, didn’t want to be there at all. I found it really hard at first because you had to talk. Men don’t talk about these things, especially with other men. I don’t have much male contact in my life to talk things through. I have a lot of women in my life, my kids are girls, I have a lot of ex partners. I have mates, but we don’t talk about these things.”
But once he started talking, Carl clearly felt the need to continue. Although he was required to attend between two and 15 weekly sessions, he ended up going for 23 weeks. Once a week he met with SVS Living Safe Clinician Mark Banks at the organisation’s Nelson office for an hour where the two men developed such a good rapport that Carl kept coming back. Once his mandated agreement was fulfilled, he decided on his own to keep going to Mark for another eight weeks.
Every Thursday Mark and Carl talked about Carl’s history and his daily struggles. Carl says he felt at first “they wanted me to change and I resisted that.” But he started appreciating the new things he was learning every week talking with Mark.
Mark says Carl’s path with SVS could have been very different if it wasn’t for a response Carl gave to his first intake visit with SVS. Through one question, Carl indicated he was open to learning and open to understanding how others perceived his behaviour. That led Mark down a path to help Carl widen his lens on the world.
At one point Carl experienced a significant breakthrough. “He realised that what he thought was common knowledge was really more subjective and very different for each individual. I directed our work towards helping Carl see what it might be like for the other person during his interactions with them. This helps people develop empathy and a wider lens through which they see their world.”
“I had been really, really ignorant,” Carl says. “My counselling at SVS taught me that I was ignorant and I was arrogant because I thought people were stupid. Everyone around me was stupid, but not me. Yeah, it’s an arrogant thing to say, I know, but that was how I felt because people would not react to me the way I wanted them to, so I thought they were stupid. Mark taught me that’s a really negative thing because other people just react differently to things than I do.”
Mark showed Carl how his misinterpretation of people’s reactions to him triggered his anger and walked him through different personality types and how each type is distinct and each type reacts differently to events, emotions, and actions.
“After every session with Mark, I’d go home and talk to my current partner, Kirsty, about my session and what I learned,” Carl says. “I’d tell her what Mark taught me about my behaviour and my responses, and she’d say that she understood what Mark was saying, she’d seen the same things in me herself. I never had someone point out my behaviour that way.”
Kirsty and Carl now practice this routine all the time. Together, they have become a good check on each other at the end of tough days. If something triggers Carl, Kirsty talks to him about it and they use what he’s learned in his SVS sessions with Mark to talk it through, without escalating his emotional responses.
“For the last year, she’s been supportive and giving and acknowledges my shortcomings, but also wants to help me be better.”
Many studies show that violent behaviour, whether physical or verbal, is often born from previous trauma. SVS Living Safe operates under a philosophy that people don’t just become violent one day, they learn this behaviour either from others or as a coping mechanism to previous trauma. In order to stop the cycle of violent behaviour, you have to deal with this trauma, and this means working with perpetrators of violence to help them, not just their victims.
After trust was established between Mark and Carl, Carl began to open up about his childhood trauma and the two men discussed how the trauma affected Carl’s emotional struggles throughout his life.
Mark says, “It takes a lot of courage to come back to talk to us each week, even for clients who are required to be here. We teach our clients that they can deal with trauma and move forward. If I can talk with them and connect and empathise with them, then they understand what that means. They see how they can and should treat others with the same empathy.”
In July 2019, Carl walked into SVS Living Safe’s Nelson office to get a brochure for the partner of one of Kirsty’s friends.
“Kirsty told me he was abusing her. I never talked to him about it, I don’t know the guy much, I just heard from Kirsty because she obviously was talking with her friend, trying to help her. I thought I would sit down with the guy over a beer.
“He vented a bit about the relationship. I didn’t push it. But the day after we met at the pub, I put the brochure I got from SVS Living Safe into his letterbox. I haven’t said anything to him yet, we didn’t talk about any details. I just wanted him to have information in case he was feeling like he needed help. I worried he might take it the wrong way, but he’s still talking to me so that’s a good sign.”
As for Carl’s sister whose marriage is just ending over decades-long abuse by her husband, Carl says he’s not going to “take him for a long drive.” Instead, he’s being more thoughtful about the situation.
“Yeah, I wanted to put the guy in the boot real bad. In the past, I would jump right in and just do it. But now I sleep on things. I know that I can’t fix their lives, they have to do that. I told a mate of mine about the situation and he texted me: ‘You know now you’ve got a good thing [with Kirsty] going in your life, why would you want to f*&% it up?’ He’s so right.
“So I drove down to Dunedin to see my sister. Then I talked to my brother in law and all I said was that I was there for him if he needed to talk.”
Yes, Carl still gets emotional when he talks, but he doesn’t get angry and violent the way he used to. He still uses his whole body when he speaks, but now he understands why people are responding to him in certain ways, something he didn’t know before. Mostly, those responses are better and more normal, not so angry and triggering, which has helped him see that his behaviour changes are working for him.
“I know what triggers me. I know how to respond so that I stay healthy and in check. I’m not making people angry, and I’m not angry nearly as much anymore.” And some of the most important people in his life have noticed.
Carl’s daughters visit him in Nelson a few times a year during summer and school holidays and he maintains a solid relationship with him.
“I told my girls that I’m changing my life for them, I want them to see me go through this so they can be proud of me. I don’t want them to do what I did in the past, I want them to be strong and not get rolled around in life. They’ve grown a lot recently and, now that they’re older, they see and hear and know more.
“I love my kids more than anything and I miss them, but they have said to me they can tell that I’m happy, much happier.”
SVS Living Safe General Manager Dee Cresswell says Carl’s story is an example of the need for us to pay attention to perpetrators and their experience as much as we do with victims. It’s the only way we’re going to change things for good.
“We have to work toward real change and that involves helping the perpetrator of the violence understand how the violence is occurring and then deal with that in a very deep way, because it doesn’t just happen. People aren’t born violent, they learn how to be violent. And that perpetrator is always going to be someone’s father or ex-partner. Those relationships need to be healthy for life.”
*All names and some places have been changed to protect identities except for SVS Living Safe staff.