I realize that my story probably sounds like another sad tale of a marriage gone wrong, not an example of the emotional variant of domestic abuse—especially since I am a man. Even I feel squeamish referring to it as such. This is largely because I know some knuckle-dragger will raise his scornful unibrow before then calling me a pussy, while a squad of hardcore feminists simultaneously overanalyze my words in search of irrefutable evidence that I am, in fact, the heinous Man-Bear-Pig of South Park. Both of these reactions typify the reasons behind men’s reluctance to see themselves as victims of domestic abuse in any form—emotional or physical.
“There is a false stigma for men suggesting they are less than masculine if they admit [to being abused],” says Dr. Claudia Cornell, founder of WomenAbusingMen.org and author of the upcoming book The Secret Lives of Abused Men and the Women Who Abuse Them. Dr. Cornell also points to another restraining factor for men which centers on a perceived risk that such a disclosure would be dismissed coming from the man and more than likely would be turned against him, leading to false allegations and possibly even an arrest—a situation referred to as “victim blaming.”
This mentality of automatically assuming men are to blame in domestic abuse cases has become entrenched in society’s collective mindset, despite evidence to the contrary. As of 2010, over 250 academic studies have determined females are as aggressive as males, while research dating back to the 1970s has indicated a steady rise in the number of abusive women. In 2003 a Bureau of Justice Statistics Crime Data Brief reported that men accounted for 15 percent of the victims who reported intimate partner violence (IPV), a number that equated to an occurrence every 37.8 seconds. This, in addition to BBC Radio’s 2009 documentary, Boys Don’t Cry, which stated that 20 percent of men had been victims of some form of domestic abuse. In all of these cases, experts believe that statistics are much higher.
So why have these and similar findings failed to gain broader attention? For one, it’s difficult to argue that abusive women are just as prevalent and vicious as abusive men. Furthermore, it appears our society is averse to considering anything different, given the assertion made in a 2007 study published in the International Journal of Men’s Health, which concluded that “prevailing patriarchal conception of intimate partner violence led to a systematic reluctance to study women who psychologically and physically abuse their male partners.” Put another way, society as a whole is covering its ears and going “La la la” at suggestions that women are perpetrators of domestic abuse.
“The courts are prepared to believe—indeed, expect—that a man will be emotionally abusive to a woman, but not so the other way around,” says Anne Mitchell, a California attorney who started DadsRights.org and is author of the book Surviving Divorce and Custody Issues: The Single Father’s Guide. “Women are perceived as soft, nurturing, and in need of protection from angry, aggressive men.” First responders, she says, are trained to handle domestic violence calls by separating the couple, which typically means arresting the male regardless of fault. Mitchell cites a client who, despite his bloodied face, was hauled off to jail. His infant child was left with its mother, the same coked-out woman who had attacked him.
Stories of the court’s blatant gender bias and ambivalence toward abusive wives are rampant. In one case, a Toronto judge laughed at a husband who claimed to be the victim of domestic abuse. I interviewed another gentlemen who recounted his nightmare of emotional abuse inflicted by his chronically cheating wife. Thinking the ordeal over after agreeing to her terms for a divorce that required no spousal or child support, he moved on, only to then be notified, 13 years later, that his ex had secretly finagled the system, sticking him with roughly $1.7 million in back support. Ten years of unsuccessful petitioning and now in his 60s, he knows he’ll never be able to pay this off in his lifetime. And the daughter he was supporting? Not his.
But what drives these tendencies in women? Answers range from learned behavior growing up, to mental instability. In When She Was Bad, Women and the Myth of Innocence, author Patricia Pearson referred to a study in which researchers found that children beaten by their fathers tended to grow up and become victims, regardless of their gender. Conversely, children of both sexes who were abused by the mother were more likely to become the victimizers. Logically speaking, such a finding implies that abusive women could be, overall, more destructive than men in the sense they are actually producing more abusers.
Being a victim of these cycles is something John Wilder understands. Abused as a boy by his father, John later became the victim of two emotionally abusive wives. “I felt powerless … [and] they used it as an emotional club to beat me.” John recognized the pattern despite being ignored by eight different marriage councilors. Today, John has a graduate degree in clinical psychology and works as a relationship coach.
John’s situation also illustrates another problematic issue: the lack of professional understanding and resources particularly in cases of emotional abuse, which, unlike the physical form, is hard to spot. “It’s very fuzzy,” contends Mitchell. “Abuse is in the eye of the recipient, [and] for this reason, proving emotional abuse is very difficult—more so if the victim is a male.”
However, signs of emotional abuse can be determined. In their book, It’s Not Okay Anymore, Greg Enns and Jan Black ask:
- Does your wife criticize, embarrass, or humiliate you in front of others, including friends or family?
- Does she insist that things you want for yourself are selfish and wrong?
- Does your wife or girlfriend withhold affection or sex to “punish” you?
- Does she intimidate you or make you feel like you have to “walk on eggshells” to keep the peace?
- Has your wife prevented you from taking a job, or kept you from going to school/college? Has your wife forced you through manipulation, coercion, or intimidation to quit a job you had?
- Does your wife minimize or deny her abusive treatment of you, or make “jokes” about how she treats you? Does she blame you for her abusive behaviors?
- Does she treat you as if you are her personal servant or slave?
- Does your wife criticize or belittle your beliefs, or tell you that your faith is wrong?
- Does your wife restrict or limit your contact with your family or friends, or make you leave social gatherings because she says so?
- If you have children together, does she threaten you’ll never be able to see your children if you leave or divorce her?
And there’s more, according to Dr. Cornell’s WomenAbusingMen.org, where abusive women are broken down into two categories: “abusive controllers” and “abusive consumers.” Per the site’s information, women who are “controllers” seek to dominate a man’s entire being in order to manage him as an extension of themselves. For these women, a man’s compliance is love.
Meanwhile, “abusive consumers” measure love by what a man can give them. These women gain access to everything a man has, turning him into a tool to be used on all levels as a means for obtaining a certain lifestyle. The site goes on to mention that some women can exhibit behavioral tendencies listed in both categories.
For me, I didn’t recognize my ex-wife’s emotional abusiveness until after experiencing the healthy relationship I now enjoy in my current marriage. Still, I feel somewhat unmanly claiming to be a victim, even though I can’t fold laundry, clean the kitchen, or make the bed without it churning up the memories and emotions associated with being berated by my ex. Ultimately, however, I’ve moved on—and consider myself lucky.
Other stories in this special package: