The aim of this doctoral thesis was to expand our understanding of how men in treatment for violence against their female partner experience the relationship to their children. We were interested in how men who were in treatment for intimate partner violence created meaning in their role as caregivers in the context of having been violent toward the child’s mother. We wanted to describe a sample of Norwegian men in therapy for violence against their female partner regarding parental mentalizing and known risk-factors associated with unsafe parenting, namely alcohol and substance use, and relational trauma history. Further, we wanted to describe common themes in partner-violent men’s experience of being a father to a young child. A clinical aim of the thesis was to contribute to the improvement of therapeutic interventions for fathers in treatment for intimate partner violence.
We chose a mixed method approach to the data, using descriptive statistics and phenomenological analyses of the semi-structured interview material collected for the present study. In the first analysis we used descriptive statistics. We assessed parental mentalizing, and screened for alcohol and substance use, and single and relational trauma experiences. The main finding was that men in treatment for violence against their female partner scored well beneath the cut-off for adequate parental mentalizing, had elevated alcohol use scores, had high relational trauma scores, and reported that they were average-to-better-than-average parents.
In the second analysis we used a subsample of 14 cases and performed a descriptive phenomenological analysis of the interview material. The results suggest that the men in the sample struggled with understanding their children’s feelings, especially if they were directed against the fathers. They regularly described how they acted in ways that did not acknowledge their children’s subjectivity and agency. They had difficulties using abstract regulatory strategies toward their children and described how much of the affective interplay between them and their children was wordless, and body based. This was described as potentially unsafe as the men expressed that they often did not have control over their aggressive impulses. Further, the participants often found that they were rigid and controlling toward their children but did not see that as problematic and as an asset.
In the third analysis, we described themes that captured the informants’ experience of parenting based on memories of their childhood relationship to their parents. We performed a descriptive phenomenological analysis. We found that the participants’ ideas regarding parenting seemed to be influenced by their childhood experiences of having been cared for. Informants had a clear idea of how they did not want to act as parents and organized their fathering around providing what they had lacked as children, without necessarily regarding their children’s needs in the present. They described how they sought to gain theoretical knowledge on parenting, but that they failed to act caringly toward their children. They disclosed gendered memories of having been cared for, which seemed to affect their ideas of adequate mothering and fathering. While the men in this study explicitly expressed attitudes in favor of gender equality, they also disclosed stereotypical masculinity ideals.
Together, these three studies show that men in treatment for intimate partner violence seemed to have problems with understanding emotional reciprocity in the father-child relationship. These challenges seemed to stem from a lack of safe intersubjective interaction throughout their lives. Traditional gender norms may function as a catalyst that allows men in treatment for IPV to regulate their insecurity in the parenting role. Interventions with this group should assess and enhance the recognition, tolerance and expression of emotions. Psychoeducational measures should not be relied on as a main intervention. Rather, where safety allows, dyadic therapy should be considered more often to help fathers and children reconnect after episodes of intimate partner violence, and to develop safe intersubjective practice.