Putting an end to abuse

Although Statistics Canada’s most recent figures indicate that incidents of spousal violence have remained stable over the past decade, that still means 1.14-million Canadians report having been physically or sexually victimized by their spouses. (Statistics Canada’s definition of “spouse” encompasses marriages and common-law relationships, including same-sex unions, as well as couples who have separated or divorced.) Quebec compares well against the national average—5.3 per cent of “married” Quebecers are victims of domestic violence, compared to 6.2 per cent Canada-wide—but that’s cold comfort for some 242,000 Quebecers who know violence on the homefront.

Founded in 1975, the McGill Domestic Violence Clinic offers help to both survivors and abusers. At the clinic, which is an internship for Master’s level students at the McGill School of Social Work, counsellors give Montrealers the tools to reassemble shattered lives—and to stop the devastating cycle from continuing. Each year, some 250 men and 50 women seek counseling at the clinic. People usually seek the clinic’s services as part of a court-ordered or youth-protection mandate.

Setting clear limits

Counsellors at the clinic use a therapeutic model, developed by clinic director Tom Caplan, called Needs Acquisition and Behaviour Change (Needs ABC). The model is applied to both group and one-on-one counseling.  “Needs ABC helps clients to set appropriate limits in their relationships,” explains Caplan. For women, he says, that means “not rationalizing the behavior that is perpetrated on them, and not accepting inappropriate behavior.” If a woman appears to be in imminent danger, counselors explain the importance of seeking safe haven, even if the woman doesn’t want to ultimately end the relationship. “We want to help the women to understand, especially if they have children, how to set limits to keep everyone safe until the abuser has solved his problem.”

For the men, the focus is on understanding that being angry is okay, but reacting to that anger with abusive behavior is not. “We don’t focus on the violent behavior,” says Caplan. “Instead, we focus on the need. If I start an abuser’s treatment by focusing on the abusive behavior, he’ll think ‘This guy is just like everybody else, he wants to punish me.’ But if I ask what’s going on in his life, and he says, ‘Every time I walk into the house, my wife is on the phone,’ I might say, ‘It sounds like you’re feeling invisible.’ Once you have that connection, I can begin to challenge the behavior. I can then say, ‘If you had to do this all over again what would you do this time?’ It works very well.”

“We do not minimize the seriousness of violence,” stresses Caplan. “We try to join with the perpetrator in order to help him to understand there are more appropriate options. You can’t change behavior without first establishing that trust. If an abuser can understand why they’re acting that way, it makes it easier for them to choose better problem-solving strategies.”