Ever wanted to change a behavior or habit in your own life? Most of us have tried. And failed. Or, we made modest gains at best. Here’s my story of a small change that made a big difference. Just over two years ago, I decided, at the ripe old age of 55, that it was time to begin exercising. Some of the excuses I had used over the years included:
- I can’t possibly work that into my morning routine;
- The children need me to be home when they first wake up;
- What would I do if I ran into a student or faculty member I knew while I was working out?
- Gym membership costs too much—that money is needed for other things;
- I am too old, and too worn out, to change now.
It all began one sunny day when we were on sabbatical in Florida. Away from the Canadian east coast winter, with a more flexible schedule, and with our girls now grown, I had simply run out of excuses.
So I started. It was a long and slow process. Many months passed before there was evidence of much change. But I kept it up. A week turned into a month. A month turned into a season and before long I had established some new habits, and new ways of thinking about exercise and acting on those thoughts. Over time, I lost a bit of weight and reduced the size I wore. Friends noticed the change and encouraged me on. But, for me, the eureka moment came when I realized about four weeks into my new routine that I can do this! I could see that it would be good for me and probably good too for those around me. While change is always difficult, it is easier if: (1) you want to change your ways; (2) someone shows you how to change your ways; and (3) you are reinforced by others as they see small changes take hold. So how does this home-grown story of modest change relate to my research program?
For over twenty-five years I have been studying domestic violence and more recently the stories of men who batter. With my colleague Barbara Fisher-Townsend, I have attempted to understand how men who abuse their intimate partners tell their own stories—the downward vortex into abusive acts, contact with the criminal justice system and batterer intervention programs, and for some the journey towards changed thinking and changed behavior.
Safety for those who have been abused and changed behavior for those who act abusively: these are the goals of intervention. A highly functioning coordinated community response, like HomeFront in Calgary, is a wonderful model. But there are many others too across the United States and Canada.
So what helps change to happen in the life of a man who has battered his intimate partner? Ongoing accountability is one of the biggest factors to account for why some abusive men change, a little, or a lot.
It works a little like my story of beginning to exercise. First, the men who are abusive must want to change. Next, someone shows you how to change. Then, you are reinforced by others as they see small changes take hold.
Social workers are in the business of trying to help people change. Many of their clients don’t believe change is possible, or desirable. While there is clearly a role for law enforcement and the criminal justice system, real change rarely occurs without a coordinated community response that identifies something that needs to be changed followed by strategies to make it possible.
In a world that often glorifies violence in sports, in the movies, and in everyday living, I think that those whose life work involves trying to help people become less violent and less controlling of others should be honored and appreciated. For the month of March, I suggest that we remember the important role that social workers play in our communities—paving the way for change.
Headline image credit: Bicycles. CC0 via Pixabay.