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'Menergy' Gets at The Root of Relationship Abuse

“We’re all trying to grow in wisdom and we’re trying to have the people in our program see that in us; that we’re not thinking of them as ‘other’ than us, but…

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The men that sit on Carrie Askin’s well worn-in couch often have tears streaming down their faces by the end of their first therapy session, a familiar sensation of emotional release that they had long-forgotten prior to stepping into her office. Whether they be rugged, bearded, furrowed, prickled with stubble, or clean-shaven, the face of the man that morning in the mirror is unrecognizable now as the face of the man who has just allowed himself to cry. These men are crying because of disappointment, an overwhelming sadness, a burdensome guilt tight on their chests, but when Askin asks to identify their emotion, they can only muster up a grumbled, cross-armed:

I’m pissed.

For the past thirty-four years, Menergy has been serving Philadelphia by providing a robust treatment program for abusers and harmful partners (who are mainly men but, though the name is deceptive, can also be women). Training, consultation, group therapy, trauma-focused therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, and independent general therapy are offered, as well as a bilingual version of the treatment program for Spanish-speaking and Latino clients at Maria de los Santos Health Center in North Philadelphia.

The inception of Menergy sprung forth from the idea of getting to the root of relationship abuse, to moving further up the stream of causality, to harbor the potential for a big ripple-down effect, and this begins by treating the person who is doing the hurting.

Askin, and Menergy’s other co-director Tony Lapp, describe abuse and harmful behavior on their official website as: It’s not just physical harm that qualifies, and not only what the law considers "abusive." We consider patterned non-violent behaviors such as suspicious questioning, snooping, criticism, sarcasm, ignoring, yelling, harsh tones, cheating, and name-calling to be abusive. Attempting to control or manipulate a person’s actions with subtle or overt threats, withholding of money or resources, or lying are all abusive behaviors.

Domestic violence and abuse encompasses emotional and verbal toxicity, and Menergy’s co-directors are not the only ones who affirm this. The nation’s leading grassroots movements and organizations have sought to eradicate the myth that domestic violence is only battered wives, because as Lapp stated in our interview, the problem is broad, and it's “serious how not serious the problem is being taken”. According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, “On average, 24 people per minute are victims of rape, physical violence, or stalking by an intimate partner in the United States- more than 12 million women and men over the course of a year. Nearly half of all women and men in the United States have experienced psychological aggression by an intimate partner in their lifetime.”

Askin and Lapp both see their clients as human, and part of making sure that their own clients keep on coming back to Menergy for their treatment is that they accept their humanity, even if their actions towards their family have been less-than-humane. People often try to categorize spousal abusers or harmful boyfriends as monsters, but this type of human erasure is counterintuitive for victims, perpetrators, and people who are trying to discern the line between relationship abuse and acceptable relationship struggles.

'Most of our clients are primarily emotionally abusive, usually with one or two instances of physical abuse. So, we have people who have never put their hands on their partners, but they’re MEAN. You know? They fight mean, they say nasty things, they hold grudges for long periods of time, and who can be unkind, ungenerous, and petty. Now, I’ll stop and say, just like me,' Askin pronounces.

Though it's true that healthy relationships bring about their fair share of disagreements and conflicts, unhealthy power dynamics can seep through easily, as Menergy’s website indicates: Most of what we consider to be abusive is incredibly common. Many people accept the use of harsh language, criticism, lying, and forms of manipulation as normal and inevitable. We hear it all the time. So why bother trying to change that?

That process of change is endeavored first through a deep and meticulous individualized evaluation- typically taking three to four weeks -that serves as the foundation for the therapeutic methods and topics that will be discussed throughout the treatment program. During the evaluation period, Menergy’s clinical staff members are trying to understand things like: How does this person occur in the relationship?, If you’re here because you’ve hurt your partner, then what does your partner experience at home?, and What are you like when your feelings get hurt? The evaluation also serves as an opportunity for therapists to assess the capacity that their clients have for empathy.

Next comes the group therapy sessions, which are made-up of people with similar gender identities and issues, who are willing to acknowledge their injurious behaviors and grow together. It is a safe space where men can connect to each other, which- like crying -has also been repressed by social norms. This, Lapp contends, can be “incredibly freeing” for men who have not been able to soften in the proper ways for most of their lives.

And afterwards, the most advanced level of the program for people who have really changed their behavior at home consists of working on healing the relationship after the abuse. “Once you stop, you are now left with a partner who is hurt, angry, and possibly frightened, and children who don’t quite trust you or feel safe, and that takes a long time to heal," Askin concludes.

Askin and Lapp further noted in our interview that they wanted to clarify a huge misconception: The work done at Menergy is not anger management. The people that come to their program do not get into fights at the bar, on the streets, or at work. Where they struggle is in-private. The central issue is not impulse or temper control. The central issue is of people’s understandings of what men and women are supposed to be like, what relationships are supposed to be like, and what home life is supposed to be like.

Other than getting to the root of individual cases of domestic violence by providing therapy for intimate mistreaters, Lapp and Askin have been searching for those aforementioned central issues, the root causes of the problem, and why- if it does not show bruises, if it does not lead to a court order, or follow a messy divorce -physical, emotional, and verbal partner abuse  is not taken as gravely as it should be. They both maintain that the ongoing persistence of virulent gender roles is one enormous factor.

There are fundamental ways that we have messages about what men are supposed to be like, what women are supposed to be like, and those can be brought into relationships. We teach boys at an early age to not express soft feelings, such as sadness, fear, guilt, and loneliness. When you can’t safely express those things, they get turned into something else. And that something else is anger. Askin explains further: “If I think that you hurt my feelings, well, then there’s something that you and I can do about that. We can argue safely. But, if you’re acting like you’re enraged because you don’t know how to properly express disappointment, that always takes you down in a wrong, dark path, that at the very least, makes it difficult to connect with yourself or with your partner.”

The cliché boys will be boys is more insidious than we’d like to admit in a patriarchal society. Boys are constrained by the need to only show aggression and less sissified emotions, boys are taught that they must be dominant, and boys are shown that they work best as punishers. In turn, girls receive codified gender messages that this type of behavior in their spouses, their brothers, their uncles must be accepted, and that the abuse can be smoothed-over by their submission.

I’m really interested in girls receiving the message that being assertive and strong is part of being a woman, and that pushing for things that they’re interested in or that the family’s interested in with their male partners is NOT about nagging or being bossy. It’s actually about being a good partner. - Tony Lapp

But, Lapp also calls out another factor that contributes to the ongoing issue of domestic abuse, a group of persons (again, typically men), who have had “the unfortunate experience of not having had an appropriate exposure to frustration in their life”. What pop culture media has coined man-babies, Lapp calls the men who have been too protected, pampered, and spoiled. Being treated so well since childhood (and later by their female partners, who have been taught to cater to the whims of their men), has not given these men the opportunity or the outlet to deal with frustration in their life. But, adulthood and the fact that women cannot serve as constant-smiling robots whose only role is to subserviently act as the dissipator of worries for men, is a reality that these men are not prepared for. This can cause males to strike-out physically or verbally, or in other words, throw a tantrum instead of adequately and maturely addressing their frustration.

Another significant percentage of the people that Menergy serves have witnessed traumatic events, or have experienced physical trauma. Though Menergy does not work exclusively with men, most of the clients that they have are male, and males- specifically in The United States -have engaged in high-contact sports or risky behavior that have led to brain injuries. Therapists at Menergy are working to find out how compromised neurological function can alter the ways that men interact in relationships and express their emotions.

Lapp, who has worked closely with the Spanish-speaking and Latino treatment program, finds that the group therapy model has been an extraordinary way to study how machismo and close relational-ties emerge in social and relationship dynamics, and how variables such as socioeconomic status, documentation status, and educational background affects the ways that Hispanic and Latino men generally speak about women, and the ways that they consider what it means to be strong. In these sessions, Menergy therapists want to make sure that their group understands that being willing to take on responsibility for one’s actions and acknowledging that they are making mistakes, is a kind of strength that not many people would be willing to harness, and that is very admirable and worthy of respect. Lapp has discovered that this particular clientele is motivated to make it successfully through treatment primarily because of their investment in family:

They [Hispanic and Latino clients] want to be present in the lives of their children, they want to have a partner who they feel connected to, and if a person can get over the hump of willing to reach out for assistance and acknowledging that there is a problem, then the desire for that family connection can be a real motivator to make the needed changes. We’ve seen many of these participants do a lot of thoughtful, interesting things, that have had the potential to really ripple down through their family system, like re-thinking how they want to raise their daughters and their sons, so that they don’t find themselves in the same situation, fifteen years down the line.

Seeking help for a problem, and admitting that the problem cannot be fixed by yourself, is not only a sign of courage, but also a sign of respect and love for your family and for your partner. Menergy is here to serve the Philadelphians who have taken that first brave step.

Menergy’s English-speaking and Spanish-speaking treatment programs will begin to be held at their new headquarters this coming November, at 2000 Hamilton Street in the Art Museum area, so that their facility can be easily accessed through public transportation.

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