The classic domestic abuse scenario is a husband beating his wife. I think almost all of society gets that and understands it’s wrong. Then you have husbands that are emotionally and psychologically abusive: people are still struggling to accept this as a form of domestic violence, but more and more are understanding this is a severely devastating problem for a wife. But today we are going to cover the least well known and least understood situation: the abusive wife. As it turns out, women are capable of the same mindset and actions that abusive men are capable of.
How Common Are Male Victims of Abuse?
It turns out this is a difficult question to answer as abuse towards men is underreported and underbelieved (yes, I just invented a new word there: what I mean is that when a man reports abuse he is not as likely to be believed as a woman reporting the same).
What do we know about the stats? A research study from 2008[i] found that 19% of reported domestic violence cases involved a male victim. Another study from 2010[ii] found that for every 1000 people in the American population, 3.8 women and 1.3 men will be victims of partner abuse each year, making female victims of abuse roughly three times more common than male.
However, these stats do not give the whole story. Western society is still fairly patriarchal in the sense that men are assumed to be in a position of power over women in most contexts, including marriage. This means that abuse is normally thought of as an abuse of that power, inflicted by men upon women. The idea that a woman could physically or emotionally abuse a man does not fit with this worldview that the man is the powerful head of the house[iii].
This means that men will very rarely admit to being victims of abuse, for fear of humiliation, being labeled as cowardly and weak, or not being taken seriously. The fact that very few men admit to being abuse victims leads much of society to think that it does not happen, making it even harder for male victims to be taken seriously[iv].
Many Reactions Are Unhelpful
In addition to being a hidden, shame-inducing problem, men who do come forward about abuse from their wives are often ignored, disbelieved or even suspected of abuse themselves when they do come forward. Since much of society views abuse through a patriarchal lens, the idea of male victims is inconceivable.
This means that for male victims, their family and friends may not believe the abuse is really happening, or downplay how serious it is. This can also happen when men take their allegations to social services or to the police. Research from 2004[v] found that 35% of abused men were ignored by the police and 21% were arrested themselves, since the police assumed the wife must have been attacked herself and acted in self-defense.
With this issue of under-reporting and disbelief in mind, a large study from 2014[vi] reviewed over 200 studies and concluded that abusive wives may in fact be just as common as abusive husbands.
What Does Female-Perpetrated Abuse Look Like?
Abuse directed at men can take many forms and is in most ways very similar to abuse directed at women. A study from 2004[vii] interviewed 100 abused husbands and found all the different types of abuse were present:
- Physical abuse: men reported being kicked, threatened with weapons, burned or scalded, stabbed, and other forms of violence
- Emotional and psychological: verbal abuse, belittling, threats and aggression
- Social: controlling where the husband goes, not letting him see other people or not letting him interact with the children
- Economic: denying access to food/money etc
Since abuse is largely the same regardless of gender, all the mind games, manipulation and control issues that apply to abusive husbands also apply to abusive wives. Psychological impact on abused men is also similar to its effect on women, but with an added component of shame at being a victim of something that is normally thought of as only happening to women, and the added isolation of it being much harder to get help[viii].
Resources for Abused Husbands
One of the first steps that is so helpful in a situation like this is for a person who thinks they may be experiencing abuse is to educate themselves. Our complimentary bonus guide this week is a collection of resources to help with just that: understanding what’s really going on, how to navigate your way out of it, finding the right kind of support. You can get this for free on our Patreon page — normally reserved for patrons but it’s complementary with this episode.
What Men in Abusive Marriages Can Do
Deal With Denial
The first barrier abused men have to face is their own refusal to accept the situation, due to the shame of being labeled as an abused man[ix]. Men may also find it harder to view their own experiences as “abuse” since abuse is mostly talked about in regards to women. Educating yourself about the realities of abuse and coming to terms with the reality of the situation is an important first step[x].
Police Action Is a Risk
As noted above, police are often predisposed to take the woman’s side in cases of abuse, assuming that violence against husbands must be an act of self-defense[xi]. A study into this from 2016[xii] interviewed abused men about their experiences of the criminal justice system and found that most men felt there was a “guilty until proven innocent” mentality in their interactions with police.
So taking your issue to the police may not be the solution you’re looking for unfortunately. However a study from 2004[xiii] found that police were more likely to take the issue seriously and arrest the abusive woman if there was clear evidence of serious physical injury, or if the abusive woman became aggressive to the police. If your physical safety is clearly in danger, police are obligated to act, so never be afraid to come forward in this circumstance.
She Needs the Right Help
Abuse perpetrated by women often features the same behaviors as abuse perpetrated by men, and also has the same causes, risk factors and motivations[xiv]. Batterer programs should therefore be equally effective for abusive women as they are for men. Batterer interventions specifically for abusive women are rare, but they do exist. The resources we list in the bonus guide and the agencies you can call should be able to help you find one.
The Right Counselor Will Help
When abused men go to marriage counseling, only 45% of counselors were willing to accept that wife-instigated abuse was taking place. When this was the case, men reported that marriage counseling could be helpful[xv].
So finding a counselor who is aware of and able to deal with abusive women may be beneficial. I’ll plug our team here: we have four therapists on the team and this is an issue that we are familiar with and able to help you whether you’re coming alone as the husband, or as the wife or as a couple.
Specific Resources for Male Victims
Men often gain little benefit from seeking help from conventional domestic abuse resources, since these are catered towards women. However, specific resources for abused men do exist and are found to be very helpful in educating, advising and advocating for abused men[xvi]. Our bonus guide has a list of available resources for North America and similar resources exist around the world.
Hope For Abused Men
Awareness of abuse against women has improved a lot over the last 30 years, and rates of domestic violence against women have decreased in that time. Awareness of abuse against men has lagged behind this, but it slowly growing. Research from 2010[xvii] found that in recent years the rates of women being prosecuted for abuse has doubled, and that more help lines and services are being trained in helping abused men as well as women. So the issue is coming to light: abuse against men is real and can be just as devastating as when it is against women. It is nothing to be ashamed of and is a problem you don’t deserve to live with. So if you think we can help, please reach out.
[i] Christopher F. Barber, “Domestic Violence against Men,” Nursing Standard (Royal College of Nursing (Great Britain): 1987) 22, no. 51 (September 27, 2008): 35–39, https://doi.org/10.7748/ns2008.08.22.51.35.c6644.
[ii] Caroletta A. Shuler, “Male Victims of Intimate Partner Violence in the United States: An Examination of the Review of Literature through the Critical Theoretical Perspective.,” International Journal of Criminal Justice Sciences 5, no. 1 (2010).
[v] Malcolm J. George and David J. Yarwood, Male Domestic Violence Victims Survey 2001: Main Findings (Dewar Research, 2004).
[vi] Mark A Whisman, Lisa Uebelacker, and Lauren Weinstock, Psychopathology and Marital Satisfaction: The Importance of Evaluating Both Partners., vol. 72, 2004, https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-006X.72.5.830.
[vii] George and Yarwood, Male Domestic Violence Victims Survey 2001: Main Findings.
[viii] Jessica McCarrick, Catriona Davis-McCabe, and Sarah Hirst-Winthrop, “Men’s Experiences of the Criminal Justice System Following Female Perpetrated Intimate Partner Violence,” Journal of Family Violence 31, no. 2 (February 1, 2016): 203–13, https://doi.org/10.1007/s10896-015-9749-z.
[ix] Barber, “Domestic Violence against Men.”
[xi] Shuler, “Male Victims of Intimate Partner Violence in the United States: An Examination of the Review of Literature through the Critical Theoretical Perspective.”
[xii] McCarrick, Davis-McCabe, and Hirst-Winthrop, “Men’s Experiences of the Criminal Justice System Following Female Perpetrated Intimate Partner Violence.”
[xiii] George and Yarwood, Male Domestic Violence Victims Survey 2001: Main Findings.
[xiv] Bradon Allan Valgardson, “Intimate Partner Violence: Domestic Violence Service Providers’ Perceptions of Male Victims,” 2014.
[xv] George and Yarwood, Male Domestic Violence Victims Survey 2001: Main Findings.
[xvi] McCarrick, Davis-McCabe, and Hirst-Winthrop, “Men’s Experiences of the Criminal Justice System Following Female Perpetrated Intimate Partner Violence.”
[xvii] Shuler, “Male Victims of Intimate Partner Violence in the United States: An Examination of the Review of Literature through the Critical Theoretical Perspective.”