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UBC Reports | Vol. 49 | No. 2 | Feb. 6, 2003

Why Love Hurts

Measuring beliefs of spouse abusers

By Erica Smishek

To believe is to accept as true.

But if what you believe causes you to abuse your partner, would you -- could you -- change your beliefs?

That premise is at the heart of Social Work Prof. Mary Russell’s current work developing a “Relationship Beliefs Scale.” The scale measures beliefs along a respectful-abusive continuum and may help clinicians determine what kind of man is abusive and how to treat him.

“We need some kind of measure to do before and after treatment,” Russell explains. “Are the men changing? Can we measure that change? How can we sustain it?”

The concept goes back about a decade to her studies and clinical practice with men who had been abusive in their relationships. In evaluating group programs that specifically looked at relationship-based interventions, Russell says the way men talked about relationships was crucial.

“It was all about them. They would say things like ‘I was so mad -- that’s why I hit her.’ It was not until they thought about the impact on their partners that we could see relationship changes. For example, someone would say ‘When I moved suddenly, I saw her flinch.’ They were starting to connect, to empathize with their partners instead of just being concerned with themselves.

“Moving from believing that they were central in the relationship to placing greater value on connection within the relationship -- that was critical.”

Russell says while the men didn’t necessarily think they were superior, they thought they should be.

“When the relationship moves toward equality, we have less abuse occur,” she notes.

“The third dimension is the notion of not having any responsibility. Men saw themselves as deserving of care and attention. It was all up to the women. This laid the foundation for potential abuse.”

Supported by a three-year Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada grant, Russell returned to the original interviews conducted during these group programs and separated statements pertaining to beliefs. Three hundred statements were culled to 100 to distinguish people with abusive beliefs versus respectful beliefs. These were given to 15 experienced clinicians for analysis. Eventually 50 statements were used in a test given to 100 men currently in treatment either voluntarily or as part of a court order at the Victoria Family Violence Prevention Society.

“The scale is telling us something,” says Russell, who is halfway through the study. “Men who are abusive do have these particular beliefs. They hold them significantly more than men in the general population. We can also see significant changes in beliefs from before treatment to after treatment. We need to see how they are sustained.”

Russell says the men who are in treatment voluntarily want to maintain relationships or enter into a new relationship and make a go of it.

“We have to instill the same motivation among those who aren’t there voluntarily.”

In addition to clinical applications, Russell said the scale might have potential as a screening tool for marriage counselors assisting relationships where a level of abuse has not been disclosed and might also be of interest for members of the general population having trouble in their relationships.

Russell is also in the “very early stages” of talking to men’s partners to determine if there are complementary beliefs that discourage women from leaving abusive relationships.

“In talking to clinicians, women take full responsibility for these relationships. They think it’s up to them to make it work. They have a real sense of pride in how hard they try. There are a lot of practical reasons why women stay but are there beliefs that they have that contribute?”

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Last reviewed 22-Sep-2006

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