The Safety & Repair Approach
Safety and Repair: Creating possibilities for men who abused to participate in primary prevention efforts to address gender based violence
Author: Tod Augusta Scott
Date: June 2023
Programs aimed at men who abuse their partners can contribute to both secondary and primary prevention. Secondary prevention involves stopping the violence and primary prevention includes men repairing the harm with their children so they do not perpetrate abuse in their adult relationships. However, social policy efforts to address gender based violence often consider work with men who have abused their female partners as only secondary prevention. Policy makers often see men’s programs as only focused on stopping men’s violence.
Safety and Repair is a comprehensive approach to addressing gender based violence, encompassing both secondary and primary prevention. The approach addresses secondary prevention by stopping men’s violence against their partners. The approach engages in primary prevention by enabling fathers to repair the harm with their children and their mothers, thus preventing future abuse by the children in their adult relationships. Furthermore, these men can support other fathers to help them avoid perpetrating abuse altogether.
For the past thirty years, I have worked beside women’s advocates in the domestic violence movement. During that time, after stopping their abuse, I’ve seen many men repair harm by becoming sincere participants in the primary prevention of gender based violence. I have seen fathers help interrupt the cycle of intergenerational violence. I have heard fathers renounce their violence in front of their children. I have witnessed men tell their children that they were not to blame for the abuse. Men have acknowledged to their children that they were wrong to blame them and their mothers for the abuse. Fathers have been role models for their children on how to take responsibility and be accountable for bad choices and mistakes. Men have shown their children how repair is possible. Furthermore, these fathers have become role models for their children on how to create respectful and safe relationships with a partner or ex- partner, even after abuse.
While I have become more hopeful about the possibility of men changing over the course of my career, I have been nervous about being hopeful. I recognize some women stay in relationships because they are holding on to a false hope that their partner will change. Some men remain dangerous despite interventions. Because some men do not change, I concluded that it was safer to assume no men would change. Because hope for change was contraindicated in some cases, I smothered the possibility of hope in all cases.
For many years, I thought of programs for men who abuse as only secondary prevention. However, to create an approach that supports secondary prevention of men stopping their abuse and primary prevention through repairing harm to children, I’ve had to challenge my assumptions about men, effective intervention, and my own pessimism about change even being possible. The Safety and Repair approach reflects these changes in my thinking.
The Safety and Repair approach consists of three phrases: 1) Creating safety, 2) Preparing people for repairing harm, and 3) Repairing harm with the person they hurt. The approach’s primary guiding principle is to repair harm without creating more harm. Practitioners work with men and their partners or ex-partners separately until they are both prepared for Phase 3. Only if safety has been established in Phase 1 and they have been prepared to repair harm in Phase 2 do people participate in repairing harm with the person they hurt in Phase 3. At each stage, practitioners challenge ideas that influence men’s choices to abuse and impair their ability to repair harm. Many of the ideas that practitioners challenge result from gender expectations and from men’s own experiences of trauma.
This essay will primarily focus on practitioners working with the men who have abused and not the conversations they have with the partners or ex-partners. While there are often differences in these conversations, the goal is the same: to prepare both people to repair harm without creating more harm before engaging in Phase 3. While the process aims to avoid creating further harm, facing violence in families is still painful for everyone involved. Because the process is challenging and emotionally painful does not mean it’s harmful.
I have primarily worked with men who have abused their female partners or ex-partners, and therefore, this configuration is the example I am using in this essay. Over the years I have used the Safety and Repair approach with those in same sex-relationships and in various cultural contexts. The approach assumes that people are influenced by their social context and at the same time, it does not assume that every individual or relationship in a particular social location is the same. Rather, the approach is responsive to individual people and relationships, while also inquiring about issues related to people’s gender, culture, class or sexual orientation.
Phase 1 and Men’s values
Phase 1 of Safety and Repair is crucial as it lays the foundation for the entire process. By creating safety for men to speak and participate in meaningful conversations, practitioners can invite them to consider their values and what they are about in their relationships with their children and partners. This is often achieved by addressing the influence of gender expectations and any somatic trauma symptoms men may be experiencing.
Men’s values and motivations are often contradictory, and practitioners need to be willing to explore these contradictions and ask men about what is important to them. I was trained to believe men only want power and control over their partners and children. While men may desire power and control, they may also want relationships that are safe, respectful, and fair. As I began to sincerely ask men about what else is important to them and what else they wanted for their children, they began to speak about wanting their children to feel safe and to provide for them so they could succeed in school and other endeavours. Often for the first time, men began to consider what kind of role models they wanted to be for their children.They began to consider what they wanted their children to learn from them about being in an intimate relationship, about how to express anger, about how to resolve conflict. I came to realize that men could both abuse their families and love them at the same time. By exploring these contradictions and helping men articulate their values, practitioners can help them recognize how their abusive behaviours violate their own values and ideals.
Furthermore, by understanding what men want for their children, practitioners can help them recognize the harm that their abuse has caused and how it has impacted their children’s lives. This recognition is crucial for the primary prevention of repairing the harm caused to children so they are less likely to perpetrate abuse as adults.
The dominant domestic violence discourse–which said that men only wanted power and control in their relationships–prevented me from noticing any other desires men have. After abuse occurred, men often felt ashamed. Any indication that men might want something different than the abuse I simply dismissed as a “honeymoon phase” in a cycle of violence. When men made changes to their behaviour or their manner of communicating, their actions were interpreted as manipulative, of both his partner (and the practitioner). I often dismissed men’s expressions of shame over their violence, rather than seeing opportunities to investigate the values a man had that contributed to him feeling ashamed. Further, in retrospect, I notice how my assumptions about men were influenced by traditional ideas about masculinity: assumptions that men don’t feel shame; only care about power and control; and only care about themselves and not their partners and children. By acknowledging and challenging these assumptions, practitioners can create a more open and inclusive space for men to express their values and desires, and work towards repairing harm without perpetuating harmful gender expectations. Again, by noticing men’s values for fair, respectful, and safe relationships with their families, practitioners build a foundation for men to move into Phase 2 to stop abuse and prepare to repair the harm they caused.
Phase 2 and Trauma
Phase 2 of the Safety and Repair approach focuses on the secondary prevention of men stopping abuse and preparing to participate in primary prevention by repairing the harm they caused. I was trained to believe that men only needed to challenge gender expectations to stop their abuse. Over the years, I realized that in order to effectively address domestic violence, I need to challenge not only gender expectations but also the ideas that stem from men’s own experiences of trauma. Often men’s choices to use violence and their inability to repair harm is influenced by ideas that stem from their own experiences of trauma such as racism, homophobia, poverty, and childhood violence (disrupted attachment). Men who have experienced trauma, for example, develop a desire for power and control in their relationships as a way to cope with their feelings of vulnerability, not feeling safe, and lack of control. At the same time, gender expectations serve to reinforce the idea that men should have power and control over others, particularly women. These expectations can mask trauma symptoms as normal masculinity. Therefore, it is important to challenge both gender expectations and ideas that stem from trauma.
Similarly, many men who abuse try to avoid responsibility by blaming others, minimizing the seriousness of the abuse, or denying it. Some have learned to avoid taking responsibility because of childhood experiences of being abused when they were responsible for bad choices or mistakes. These men learned that taking responsibility was unsafe. Similarly, they pretend to themselves and others that they are perfect, they have all the answers, they don’t make bad choices, and so forth. If they are perfect, they will be protected from further abuse. Again, gender expectations mask these trauma symptoms as normal masculinity by asserting men should not make mistakes, and must be able to solve their own problems without asking for help. To give men permission to take responsibility, practitioners need to invite men to confront both gender expectations and ideas that stem from trauma.
I have been reluctant to acknowledge men’s experiences of trauma. I was concerned this acknowledgement might be used to justify and excuse their abuse. I was afraid if I acknowledged men’s own victimization, I couldn’t hold them responsible and accountable for hurting others. Indeed, some men do blame their childhood experiences for their choices to abuse. With the Safety and Repair approach, practitioners are able to interrupt men using experiences of trauma as an excuse, while still focusing on how ideas that stem from such experiences can influence men’s choices to abuse.
The problem of domestic violence needs to be refined beyond simply identifying that most abuse is caused by men. Most men do not abuse their partners and children. I’ve learned over time that there is no single causal factor explaining why some men abuse.
Phase 3 and Repairing harm
Phase 3 of Safety and Repair involves supporting men to participate in primary prevention by repairing the harm with their children, their partners or ex-partners. Practitioners working with women and children help them determine if they want to engage with their partner or ex-partner. Practitioners are not invested in a woman or child communicating with their father or partner. Women are not pressured into such communication. Practitioners challenge gender expectations that insist women be caretakers of men, even when the men have hurt them. Women are empowered to respectfully and safely express their anger over the abuse to the man who hurt them.
The approach prioritizes repairing harm rather than restoring intimate relationships. While an intimate relationship may or may not be restored, the main goal is repairing harm after abuse. Even if an intimate relationship has ended, a woman may still want her ex-partner to participate in repairing the harm he caused–particularly if they remain connected through shared children or they live in the same small community.
Under the right conditions, if people are prepared for Phase 3, communication can safely take place. This communication may happen through counsellors, or in-person. If the men are separated from their partners or ex-partners they may also use letters and video –whatever method can repair harm in a manner that won’t create more harm. Many men continue to live with their partners and children. Sometimes practitioners often support fathers to repair harm with their families on their own, without the practitioners. Sometimes men and their partners or ex-partners want the direct support of practitioners. Often, in cases when one or both have experienced trauma symptoms, they benefit from practitioners’ support in Phase 3.
Participating in such communication can be a very powerful element of the woman’s journey toward safety and repair. Some women, for example, simply want to communicate to their partner or ex-partner that she wants him to respect the boundaries she has established and stay away from her. Women often say respecting the distance will help repair the harm. Women may also want to be the one to initiate whatever contact they have with their former partner.
Unhelpful ideas about gender contribute to people having low expectations of men and their ability to contribute to their family relationships in nurturing and caring ways, especially in ways that might contribute to repair and primary prevention. The dominant domestic violence discourse is influenced by these unhelpful gender ideas and contributed to my own pessimism that men would or could change. My expectations of these men were low. The only narrative I had about the violence was that men wanted power and control and they got it by abusing their families. I thought men, at best, accepted their violence and, at worst, they liked it. I never considered that men who abused would change. Along with many in the domestic violence field, many men who hurt their families also despair that they can’t change.
Over time, I’ve realized I needed to challenge the gender ideas that contributed to my low expectations of these men. Because I didn’t believe they could change, many of them didn’t. For men to change, I needed to raise my expectations of them. I now realize many men can not only stop their violence, many can also participate in primary prevention by repairing the harm with their children, partners and ex-partners. Similarly, it is important for the domestic violence field to raise societal expectations of these men and advocate for social policies that support men’s programs which help these fathers become integral partners in primary prevention efforts to end gender based violence.
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