Right off the bat: we’re going to be talking about abusive relationships. This is a subject that can be touchy for some people, so proceed with all caution.
So with all that said:
I write a lot about men behaving badly. In fact, I’m regularly accused – with some accuracy – of being much harder on men than I am on women. This is because, frankly, I want men to be better. I want masculinity to be something positive, not something toxic that mistakes violence for power, anger for strength, sex for value.
Sometimes that means talking about things men are doing wrong, so they can recognize it and do better.
Sometimes it means teaching men how to help themselves… even when the world tells them that they can’t.
Which is why I want to talk about a subject we don’t hear much about: when men find themselves trapped in abusive relationships.
In a lot of ways, men are frequently invisible victims of relationship abuse. When we think of abusive relationships, we often default to the idea of a woman as the victim with a man as the perpetrator. Rarely do we imagine men as the victims. To do so is almost comical – literally. The image of the angry housewife – usually fat and unattractive – waiting for at home for her milquetoast husband with curlers in her hair and a rolling pin, ready to dispense retributory violence for some slight, has been around for generations.
But despite the jokes and cartoons about “henpecked husbands”, more men than many would expect are trapped in abusive relationships. It spans the gamut of ages and ethnicities, of sexual orientations and gender identities.
So today I want to shed some light on the subject – as well as talk about how to recognize an abusive relationship and how to leave one.
Male Victims In Abusive Relationships: Understudied, Severely Under-Reported.
In a lot of ways, men are frequently invisible victims of relationship abuse. When we think of abusive relationships, we often default to the idea of a woman as the victim; rarely do we imagine men. But male victims of domestic abuse and abusive relationships are more common than many people think. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control, up to 26% of homosexual men, 29% of straight men and 39% of bisexual men have reported being the victims of domestic violence. Even more men – up to 48% – experienced psychological and emotional abuse at the hands of their partners.
But even these statistics are somewhat in question. It’s incredibly difficult – even more so than with women – to get accurate statistics on how many men have been abused by their partners. In fact, it can be difficult to get men to admit they’re in an abusive relationship in the first place.
Men, after all, are taught that they’re not allowed to be victims… especially by someone perceived as being “weaker” than they are. To be a “man” is to be strong; allowing a woman (or a “fag” – gay men, after all, are automatically seen as weak and “feminine” in traditional masculinity) to hurt you means that you clearly aren’t a man.
And if the abuse is emotional… what, are you letting some names bother you? Letting some woman bully you? Say mean things? Hurt your feelings? What are you, some kind of pussy?
It can be difficult for a man to find someone willing to believe that they’re a victim of abuse. The prevailing image of “man as aggressor” or “men are stronger” leads to the common belief that he’s somehow “earned” his abuse by provoking his abuser. Other times, they fear – with justification – being ignored or mocked for “allowing” their partner to hurt them. In the popular portrayal of the henpecked husband, the man is frequently shown as being a weakling who’s incapable of standing up to his wife and thus “earns” his abuse as punishment for being so weak and unmasculine.
All of this means that authorities are less likely to take reports of domestic violence with a male victim seriously. As is frequently the case with male victims of rape, male victims of domestic abuse are often told it’s “not that bad” or that they “must be ok with it”; after all, they could always defend themselves against the “little lady”, right?
And if the victim happens to be gay, bisexual or trans… well the authorities have frequently shown a lack of interest in getting involved at all.
“Why Doesn’t He Just Leave?”
In any abusive relationship, there will always be people who want to know: why don’t they just leave?
For men the answer to the question is often for the same reasons why women don’t.
To start with, it can be hard enough to admit you’re in an abusive relationship in the first place. Many men internalize the guilt of “letting” themselves be abused; they may believe that they “deserve it” or that they should be able to endure the pain because men are supposed to be able to take it. They may feel that the abuse is because they’ve failed – as a man, as a provider, as a father. They may believe that this is all they can get or that this is what relationships are like.
Sometimes there’s a religious component; that marriage is for life and leaving one’s spouse – no matter how bad things get – is a sin. Leaving one’s spouse would mean also being forced to leave the community – regardless of the circumstances.
Men in gay or bisexual relationships often have their orientation used against them. They may fear leaving because their partner could threaten to out them to coworkers or family. If the victim is young or inexperienced, the abuser may keep them around by telling him that leaving would be tantamount to admitting that same-sex relationships are inherently “deviant”. The abuser may have convinced their partner that they can’t leave because the authorities would never believe a gay man anyway.
Men may stay because they’re afraid of reprisals if they do try to leave. Often, when a victim of abuse tries to leave, the abuse will intensify, to punish them for trying to leave. While women are much less likely to stalk or murder a romantic partner than men are, it can happen and can be a valid fear. Similarly, gay men can find themselves at risk of a partner threatening their lives or stalking them if they leave.
Some may stay because they fear being accused of being the abuser rather than the victim. Many abusers are skilled manipulators and don’t hesitate to cast themselves as the victim and their partner as the real villain in the piece.
Other times, men may not leave because they fear for the safety of others. Many people stay in abusive relationships because they have no way of leaving without taking a beloved pet with them; the abusive partner may threaten them or take out their anger on the innocents they were forced to leave behind.
It gets even more complicated if there are children involved. Many men stay because they feel that they’re shielding their children from the abuse; if they left, then the abusive partner might turn their anger on the kids instead. Still more fear losing custody or contact with their children – obtaining custody can be difficult and there are no guarantees that even if he could gain custody that he could afford to raise them alone.
And – most perniciously – they may not be able to afford to leave. When you’ve been with someone for a long time, the odds are good that your finances are tightly entangled with theirs and it can be difficult to separate them enough to make a clean getaway. Other times, the abuser may restrict the victim’s finances in order to control them and prevent them from leaving.
If you’re not financially independent – and in this economy, many of us aren’t – then leaving an abusive relationship can mean finding yourself out in the world without anywhere to turn. There are very few resources out there for male victims of domestic abuse. Many domestic abuse hotlines are set up with women in mind and aren’t trained or prepared to handle issues involving male or LGBT victims of abuse. Similarly, the vast majority of shelters for victims of abuse are exclusively for women, leaving men who flee abusive relationships with few places to turn.
Signs Of An Abusive Relationship
It can be difficult for men to recognize when they’re in an abusive relationship. We tend to think of “abuse” as physical violence – slapping, kicking or striking one’s partner, throwing them into walls and the like. But not every abusive relationship is quite so obvious – especially when the victim is a man.
Emotional abuse is the most common form of abusive relationships – and it’s often hard to detect because it is so rarely overt. An abuser may:
- Insult you or humiliate you, especially in front of your friends and colleagues
- Belittle you, minimize your accomplishments and repeatedly tell you that you’re worthless or a failure
- Tell you that their abusive behavior is your fault
- Constantly accuse you of being unfaithful or require you to “prove” you’re not cheating on them
- Keep constant tabs on you, demanding that you check in with them regularly. They may also monitor where you go and with whom
- Isolate you from your friends and family
- Accuse your friends and family of lying in order to “drive you apart”
- Restrict your access to money or finances
- Use or deny sex and intimacy as a form of control
- Snoop through your emails, texts, instant messages, phone calls and social media profiles
- Hide your keys or your phone to keep you from seeking out help
- Use false accusations (or the threat of accusations) of abuse to keep you in line
On average, men are larger and stronger than women – as a result, female abusers are less likely to physically abuse a male partner. This doesn’t mean that she won’t. Because of the size and strength difference, women who are physically abusive are more likely to threaten with a weapon like a knife or a household object. Other times they may strike their victims while they sleep or are incapacitated or catch them by surprise. They may throw things, especially breakables like dishes and glassware.
But physical abuse doesn’t just include overt violence. Other forms of physical abuse can include:
- Physically isolating or abandoning you
- Restricting access to medication you need
- Preventing you from sleeping
- Intimidating you through threats to others including pets
- Pinching, spitting on and slapping you
- Driving in a threatening manner, including speeding or threatening to run off the road or into obstacles
It’s important to note that rape is also a frequent tool for abuse in relationships. Men – gay, bi and straight – can be raped by their partners. This doesn’t just mean being forcibly penetrated – being forced into sex against your will is still rape. Just because you have an erection doesn’t mean that you “really want it” and being coerced or abused doesn’t mean that you won’t get an erection. In fact, many abusers will use the presence of an erection as proof that this is what you “really want”, regardless of whether you consent or not, just as they might use a woman’s vaginal lubrication as “proof” that she wants it.
What Can You Do When You’re In An Abusive Relationship?
The first and most important part of leaving an abusive relationship is to realize this fact:
This Is NOT Your Fault.
Repeat this to yourself over and over again. It is not your fault that you’re being abused. You did not cause this, you do not deserve this and this is not because you can or should do “better”. You are being abused. You are not a failure. You are not weak. And – importantly – you are not alone.
If at all possible – leave. Get out of the house, go somewhere safe and find a place where you can stay. If you can’t leave or you’re staying to protect children, siblings or pets, call the police.
Whatever you do, do not retaliate against your abuser. I can’t emphasize this enough – fighting back or using force to escape will only make things worse. This will allow your abuser – especially if she’s a woman – to claim that they’re the victim. As a result, the odds are much higher that you will be the one arrested or forced to leave if the police get called.
If you’re in an abusive relationship, then one thing you want to do is to document the abuse – especially if it’s physical. Keep a journal of your abuse; record all instances of abusive behavior, with dates, times and as much detail as possible. If there are witnesses, try to include their names and contact information. If at all possible, get video or photographic evidence, especially documenting any injuries. If at all possible, get a doctor to document them and keep copies of all records.
Important: medical personnel are not likely to ask a man if he’s being abused or is a victim of domestic abuse and are thus less likely to photograph or document your injuries. It’s on you to make sure that photographic records are taken.
Equally important: keep this evidence safe. If at all possible, you want to have multiple copies, especially if you can stash them out of the house and in a place where your abuser can’t easily access them. This may be with a friend or in a privately rented safety deposit box. If you’re keeping digital records, consider offsite digital storage like a private Dropbox account or other cloud-storage solutions. Be sure to password protect any and all files as well as your storage solutions. To make doubly sure of your security and safety, you may only want to access these files from computers outside your home. Many abusers will go through their victims’ computers, social media profiles and email to keep track of them; using outside computers makes it harder for them to track the websites and programs you’ve been accessing.
Prep a go-bag if possible – keep an emergency stash of cash, a cellphone, your ID (driver’s license and passport) and copies of your evidence of abuse stashed somewhere safe, preferably at a trusted friend’s house. You may have to leave without warning or time to prepare.
Whether you leave or stay, call a domestic abuse hotline for advice and help. They can help you find resources for filing restraining orders, obtaining counseling and many other issues involved in escaping and recovering from abusive relationships.
When you do leave, it’s important to get support whether that support is your family, friends or a domestic abuse support group. You want to surround yourself with people who are going to love, comfort and support you and help you recover. It can also be incredibly helpful to get counseling to help overcome the pain, guilt and shame that result from being in an abusive relationship. If you can’t afford traditional therapy, I have a list of low-cost (or even free) therapy and counseling options here.
And again: it is not your fault.
Resources For Victims of Domestic Abuse:
The National Domestic Abuse Hotline: 1-800-799-7233
Domestic Abuse Helpline for Men and Women: 1-888-743-5754
Love Is Respect.Org: 1-866-331-9474
The National Domestic Abuse Hotline, StopRelationshipAbuse.org, Love Is Respect and RAINN have a number of links and phone numbers with information for people suffering in abusive relationships, including resources specifically for LGBTQ issues.
If you have other resources for male victims of domestic abuse or abusive relationships – especially ones for gay or trans men and non-US based groups – please share them in the comments.
(Please Note: I am not including the ManKind Initiative or links to the group because – frankly – I’ve seen enough to make me mistrust them.)