Unseen Scars, Unheard Voices

The unique challenges faced by male victims of domestic abuse deserve our attention

“When the gates of mockery and abuse are opened, the heart becomes a shock absorber.”

- Ikechukwu Izuakor

It is an unspoken assumption in many regions & cultures, and pervasive in the media, that men are not at risk from domestic abuse. Generally speaking, we perceive women to be less aggressive, less devious, and more committed to their children, and men to be stronger, more ruthless, and less emotionally invested in their children’s lives. Men (unfairly, and again generally) have more control, money, & power in society, so we think any capable man experiencing domestic abuse would not be seriously harmed by it, and should be able to put a stop to it, defend himself from it, and exit the relationship without any outside assistance or resources. Meanwhile, women claiming to be a victim of domestic abuse are generally accepted to be telling the truth; to ask for evidence or to question their story is seen as potentially invalidating, victim-blaming, and unnecessary.

Unfortunately, female abusers do exist, and our unspoken assumptions have created a dynamic where these stereotypes can be exploited by female abusers as a way to maintain control over & punish their victims. False accusations of abuse are themselves a form of abuse, and these false allegations can be used against innocent men to remove them from their homes, deprive them of time with their children, deflect attention away from the female abuser, and aid her in gathering sympathy/support from others as well as in avoiding criticism for leaving a relationship for selfish reasons or committing infidelity. If we fail to recognize that men can also be victims of domestic abuse, the likely result is a loving father being forcibly separated from his children who are then raised primarily by the abuser, further perpetuating the generational curse of abuse if those children raised in a toxic environment become perpetrators or enablers of abuse later in life.

Physical differences in size & strength can be nullified by the refusal of the male to physically engage or defend himself, or by the introduction of a weapon into the equation. Even if an individual never uses physical violence against their partner, long-term verbal, emotional, & psychological abuse inflicts invisible wounds that can cause serious, long-term harm to a person’s self-esteem, sense of identity, & confidence. There are many ways to injure, control, & deprive a person that are not recognized as crimes nor readily perceived as abusive behavior, and female abusers in particular tend to be quite skilled at these covert methods of abuse, manipulating the perceptions of others and inflicting unseen scars upon men whose voices often go unheard when they reach out for help or try to explain their situation.

Many men have not been educated about the possibility that they could be victims of domestic abuse, and do not recognize it as abuse when it is happening to them. There is a tendency to think of abuse as physical violence & to minimize emotional abuse as nothing more than hurt feelings. Men are conditioned to be stoic, to be reserved with their emotions, and not to show weakness or vulnerability. There is often a desire to maintain the image of a successful & thriving relationship and to avoid disclosing personal details to others, allowing the male victim to persist in denying or minimizing their plight; if this persists, it may lead to mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, & PTSD, or problems with drugs and/or alcohol.

Being insulted, disrespected, assaulted, or cheated on by their intimate partner can be incredibly threatening to a man’s self-image, his masculine identity, and his confidence in social situations & at work. He may be reluctant to admit the truth to himself, let alone others, and make attempts to rationalize or make excuses for his spouse’s actions. He might never have been educated about the various forms of abuse or recognize certain behaviors (such as stonewalling, gaslighting, triangulation, or threats to leave or withhold affection) as abusive. He may have endured a slow progression of disrespect leading into unhealthy patterns that over time gradually crossed the line into an abusive relationship, but it all happened so insidiously that he struggles to accept the reality of the situation he now finds himself in, and does not know where to turn.

To people who have never been in an abusive relationship, it can be difficult to understand how it is possible to deny, rationalize, or ignore the abuse, and to choose to stay in the relationship or continue to love their abuser after they have left. Those who have readily understand the truth: rose-colored glasses can be difficult to remove when the reality is shameful, terrifying, & painful. This is why the help of others is so important for abuse victims, both male and female: recognizing certain behaviors as abusive or manipulative is not as straightforward for the one enmeshed in an abusive relationship as it is for the ones on the outside. The closer & more emotionally involved one is in a situation, the more difficult it becomes to analyze it with clarity, logic, & rationality.

Furthermore, as victims become more isolated, they become more & more dependent upon their abuser for affection, closeness, & support, and tolerate more & more abuse to receive it. The same neurological pathways involved in addiction are involved in abusive relationships; it is infinitely more difficult to get over the end of an abusive relationship than a typical break-up for this reason. The abuser becomes the only source of oxytocin, vasopressin, serotonin, dopamine, & other neuropeptides released in response to touch, sex, intimacy, & social bonding, and like a gambler at a roulette table, the uncertain nature of when it will be received compels the one ensnared to seek it with ever-increasing fervor as the frequency & likelihood of receiving it diminishes.

Withdrawal symptoms such as depression, insomnia, loss of appetite or motivation, & a persistent desire to see or contact the abusive partner are not signs of weakness of willpower or some defect in learning, but rather are measurable, predictable, and typical physiological responses occurring within our brains. Due to our intrinsic neurological craving for these neurohormones, in the absence of a new source of connection or companionship most people will return to their abuser; this is as true for men as it is for women. Someone leaving an abusive relationship needs as many trusted friends around them as possible to alleviate the “crash” of no longer receiving these provide them with a new source of these neurohormones — as well as hope, laughter, & a sympathetic ear. Unfortunately, men tend to have less established social networks, more societal pressure to remain silent, and less options & resources available to them for help.

A very real but significantly overlooked issue in many societies is the experience of men who seek support from social services or contact police when suffering from domestic abuse, which tends to be profoundly negative and often discourages men from seeking help again, thus leaving them feeling trapped & helpless in an abusive relationship. The social shame to seek help is compounded by individuals & organizations that deny the existence of domestic abuse against men or downplay its impact — a form of victim-blaming that is often unrecognized & seldom discussed.

The resources & organizations put in place to help those suffering from domestic abuse exhibit a strong gender bias; in most communities, there are essentially no resources for male victims of domestic abuse. The stigma of admitting to being abused, and the risk of being mocked, dismissed, or accused of being the perpetrator rather than the victim, is very real. It’s a common tactic of female abusers to use the social perceptions & gender biases surrounding abuse to their advantage as another tool of coercion & control and as another barrier to discourage their partner from reaching out for help, causing many of those very resources put in place to help abuse victims to instead become weapons used against them. After a few negative experiences, any man courageous enough to overcome the shame and reach out for help soon recognizes the futility of doing so, leaving many trapped in abusive relationships for years.

In a recent research article (1), two-thirds of men who sought help after suffering intimate partner violence (IPV) reported that domestic violence (DV) services were “not at all helpful” — most were not believed, and were frequently turned away. On average, there were twice as many negative experiences as positive experiences. Nearly all (95.3%) felt that these services were biased against them as males, almost half were accused of being the abuser, one-quarter were given referrals to services intended for the perpetrators of IPV rather than the victims, and 1 in 6 reported being made fun of or mocked. Only 1 out of every 4 reported the experience as positive; 75% of the time, male victims of intimate partner violence reaching out for help to domestic violence hotlines said it was a negative experience for them.

All male victims of IPV overwhelmingly reported negative experiences with the police. One-fourth of the time, calls for help made by male victims of IPV did not even receive a response. Of the remainder, only half the time was the victim’s partner recognized as the abuser, and furthermore, in those 3 out of 8 instances when the call was not simply ignored and the male was recognized as a victim, in 60% of those occurrences the police refused to arrest the perpetrator & told the victim there was nothing they could do. Many times, these negative experiences result in the victims ceasing to reach out for help. In comparison, 95% of females seeking help for IPV from DV services reported them to be helpful, and 100% described their experiences with police as positive.

Negative experiences when seeking help not only further isolate victims and keep them in abusive relationships for a longer period of time but also can themselves be traumatizing. For each incidence of a victim reporting a negative experience when seeking help, the risk of them hitting the cut-off point for PTSD increased by 37%.

The abuse suffered by male victims tends to be more covert, involving less physical violence and more psychological manipulation: intentional, repeated boundary violations specifically targeting their partner’s weaknesses, insecurities, & past emotional wounds, intended to trigger a reaction that lowers others’ perceptions of the victim’s credibility & stability are common abusive tactics of female abusers, as are triangulation & affairs committed (or threatened) with the intention to “punish” or control the victim. Female abusers may resort to physical violence, but more often inflict invisible pain through vicious criticism, isolation, withdrawal of affection, stone-walling, threats of rejection, imprisonment, or parental alienation, or tormenting their partner by flaunting their romantic/sexual activities with other men.

It is a grave disservice to the victims of such abuse to dismiss it as less harmful or less dangerous than physical violence; in the US, the rate of suicide among males has been steadily climbing for the past three decades — a sign of the consequences of failing to value the emotional experiences of men. Domestic abuse can still destroy lives & futures if it takes the form of financial misappropriation or intentionally-deceptive over-spending that leaves the victim’s credit & bank accounts in ruins, or assaults upon their professional reputation, including false allegations, defamation, slander, & words/actions intended to shame or embarrass the victim in front of their clients or colleagues, reduce their productivity, cause them to be late or fail to show up for work or important events, or deprive them of professional opportunities.

There are undeniable physiological changes that occur in the structure of the brain in response to chronic stress; experiencing psychological abuse diminishes the victim’s ability to feel safe, makes it more difficult to feel connected to & form secure attachments to others, and decreases executive functioning & impulse control. Physical pain & intimate partner rejection are both interpreted as similar, intensely stressful experiences by the brain (2); when one spouse threatens that they will leave or have an affair if the other does not comply with their demands, this is essentially the same as a threat of violence. Psychological victimization is just as likely as physical victimization to lead to depression, PTSD, and alcohol use.

It is undeniably more difficult to recognize the harm of emotional, financial, & psychological abuse than the injuries & effects of physical abuse. Legally, it is more challenging to define, document, & prove, leaving victims with no legal protection. Despite increasing evidence of the serious effects of long-term emotional or psychological abuse, most states & countries do not recognize it as a crime. Perjury & false allegations of abuse are rampant in family law, with some experts estimating that over 90% of the time, when there is believable evidence of providing false information, the courts decline to pursue the matter further, resulting in no real consequences for the offender and thus no disincentivization against deceptive behavior & making false allegations.

Given the choice between either enduring it or risking the loss of 50% (or more) of their time with their children on a legal system that does not recognize their emotions or mental health as resources worthy of consideration or protection, where allegations do not require any evidence in order to inflict serious harm, it is unsurprising that many men see little point in speaking up. Should their abuser accuse them of abuse, the victim is thrown into a situation with little chance of fair treatment, caught between defending themselves (which often comes across as “sinking to their level,” making excuses, or getting defensive) or saying nothing (which is then presumed to be evidence of guilt), and once the police or the courts form an opinion, it can be exceedingly difficult to change and have a profoundly negative effect upon any legal proceedings as well as their personal & professional lives.

For the male victim of abuse, there is little assistance, support, or sympathy to be found from any source. It must be recognized that police & domestic violence services put in place for female abuse victims are not practically useful or helpful for men who are being abused by their intimate partners, and in fact, often become unintentionally complicit in the cycle of control & the perpetuation of further abuse. Whether the solution is better training of existing services or the creation of new services specifically for male victims, changes in societal attitudes to recognize domestic abuse as a crime that can be committed against men as well as women, and increasing awareness of the unique challenges faced by abused men, are vital steps that must happen in order for this problem to receive the attention it deserves.

Our society struggles to accept the male domestic abuse victim. To invalidate a person’s experience based upon their gender is a form of sexism — regardless of their gender. While women (& those whose gender identity challenges conventional modes of thinking) are undeniably disadvantaged by sexist behaviors & attitudes to a greater extent than men; that does not mean it is any less terrible or that its occurrence is justifiable when the victim is a man. Being an advocate for women’s rights does not diminish the rights of men, and acknowledging the existence & experiences of male victims of abuse does not devalue nor detract from the problem of violence & coercive control committed by men against females. To be truly against domestic abuse, one must be willing to confront it & call it out regardless of gender; to do otherwise is to risk the hypocrisy of selectively supporting only those victims whom one finds to be most convenient or comfortable. Furthermore, we must recognize that abuse does not need to be physical to be life-threatening: psychological victimization is at least as strongly related as physical victimization to depression, PTSD, and alcohol use (3), and the risk of suicide among sufferers of PTSD is over 5.3 times that of the general population and nearly 10 times as great when depression is also present. (4) Ultimately, all victims of domestic abuse are deserving of recognition, compassion, & support.

Sources:

  1. Douglas EM, Hines DA. The Helpseeking Experiences of Men Who Sustain Intimate Partner Violence: An Overlooked Population and Implications for Practice. J Fam Violence. 2011;26(6):473–485.
  2. Kross, E. et al. Social rejection shares somatosensory representations with physical pain. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 108 (2011): 6270–6275.
  3. https://domesticviolenceresearch.org/domestic-violence-facts-and-statistics-at-a-glance/
  4. Jaimie L. Gradus, Ping Qin, Alisa K. Lincoln, Matthew Miller, Elizabeth Lawler, Henrik Toft Sørensen, Timothy L. Lash, Posttraumatic Stress Disorder and Completed Suicide, American Journal of Epidemiology, Volume 171, Issue 6, 15 March 2010, Pages 721–727.

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