- Many male survivors of domestic abuse stay silent due to shame and embarrassment, and fear of not being believed.
- Male victims of psychological abuse are especially vulnerable to false allegations of domestic violence.
- False claims of domestic violence can put a career and reputation at risk, and harm a parent's relationship with their children and family.
Sean, a well-known figure in his community, recently ended his relationship with his now-ex-wife. When he first tried to leave the relationship, she threatened to keep the children from him, even though she had no grounds to do so. He had thought that all of that had blown over, but found out months later that she was posting online claiming to be a victim of domestic abuse, and filing false allegations against him in an attempt to have him lose his job and his children. Understandably upset, Sean struggled with how to navigate the situation. He spent months trying to avoid his ex, only wanting her to move on, but her behaviors and statements were making this near-impossible, as they lived in a small town. "Everything that she is saying happened, are things that she did to me!" he exclaimed, slumping down on the couch in defeat. "I don't even know what to do. Nobody will ever believe me that she was the true abuser, because I'm a man!" Sean came into therapy embarrassed, hopeless, and unsure how to navigate his situation.
As a therapist who works with survivors of domestic abuse, I have a lot of experience working with men who have been victimized by their caregivers or partners, yet are shamed and embarrassed about speaking out due to society's bias that men cannot be victims of violence or abuse. Much like the case vignette of Sean, many men I work with have experienced false allegations of abuse from an ex-partner in an attempt to ruin their reputation, obtain primary custody of their children, and seek revenge for a relationship in which they felt wronged.
Sean is only one of many people of all genders who have experienced false allegations of abuse, but he represents many who are affected by society's assumption that men cannot be the victims of abuse. And while it may be true that women are more often on the receiving end of physical violence (NCAGV.org), it can be argued that women are equally, if not more, capable of psychological abuse, which includes smear campaigns and reputation destruction, due to the ways in which women are socialized by society.
The intent of psychological abuse is to cause immense harm, and due to their intimate relationship history, a domestic abuser knows the best way to do this. Individuals capable of psychological, or narcissistic, abuse often use their target's weaknesses, such as their mental health history, or their gender, to portray their own victimhood in an attempt to destroy someone they feel wronged them. As individuals with true narcissistic tendencies have a strong tendency to project, they often really do believe they were abused, adding to their credibility in the others' eyes.
Sean struggled with these allegations for years even after they were dropped, fighting with law enforcement and employers to get his records expunged, due to their ability to affect his custody of his children, as well as his position as a public official. Even though his ex-wife could produce no credible evidence that he had abused her in any way, the allegations alone were enough to permanently tarnish his reputation in the community. Sean maintains that the allegations were false. In fact, he reports that he had videos, text messages, and emails that would speak to the contrary. “But I can’t even use that to defend myself, or it will seem like I am trying to fight back with her! It will look like tit for tat,” he said, feeling hopeless about his situation.
Sean’s words echo the pain that many men experience, desperate for a way out of a situation that seems stacked against them. Ultimately, most people make up their mind about who the aggressor is, and no amount of evidence or information can change that. As Sean’s ex was female, she was automatically believed by many in their social circle, and even by many of his professional connections. He struggled to be believed and to defend himself. It was hard enough to defend against her allegations; he felt that coming forward with his own abuse would be next to impossible—and not worth the headache.
How should we react to people who claim abuse falsely? We want to create a world in which we believe all survivors; do their actions challenge that? As we seek to normalize and encourage conversations about survivor’s trauma and abuse experiences, should men be penalized for speaking out about their own experience? Women fought for years to be believed as they reported their experiences of abuse and domestic violence, and to create laws to protect them from further abuse. But what happens when women themselves make false claims of abuse?
While I can not give legal advice, I have a set of recommendations that I give people of all genders experiencing false allegations of abuse:
- Do not try to dispute every claim. Focus on the ones that will directly impact your family and children foremost, and your career second. Everything else, ignore. So what if everyone believes that you were a compulsive gambler? You will not change their perception, so focus on the things that matter. Keep records and documentation of your own experiences—your "proof"—and any and all information that will keep you protected. Trust that the truth will prevail.
- Focus on moving forward without retaliating. Do not try to fight fire with fire. It might feel counterproductive, and it can come across as victim-blaming. This is the only way to decrease the chance of making things worse.
- Spend time on your own healing. Journal, go hiking, travel, seek therapy—generally, focus on things that will take your attention away from the smear campaign you left behind. When they notice that you stop caring, it will usually dissipate.
Survivors of all genders need protection and support, and I am happy that we are having more conversations around this important, difficult, topic.
If you are a victim of domestic violence, call 1-800-799-7233, or go to thehotline.org for further support.
Kolbe, V., & Büttner, A. (2020). Domestic Violence Against Men-Prevalence and Risk Factors. Deutsches Arzteblatt international, 117(31-32), 534–541. https://doi.org/10.3238/arztebl.2020.0534. Accessed 4/28/2022.
National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. Statistics. https://ncadv.org/STATISTICS. Accessed 4/28/2022.