Battered Men: Shame May Keep them Silent

What assumptions do you make when you hear of a man being battered by a woman?

Posted Nov 28, 2017

Traditionally there's been a double standard when it comes to the upbringing of sons versus daughters. If stereotypes are to be believed, sons are “expected” to get into a little bit of trouble and a few scrapes along the path to adulthood. However, mothers also typically impress upon their boys the importance of behaving like gentlemen and treating women well.

Daughters are raised with expectations that they will be “good girls” and avoid “trouble,” however a family or parent defines this throughout their lives. Girls have been watching boys use physical aggression to settle playground conflicts for generations while sweetly sitting on the sideline learning how to use verbal subterfuge, relational control, and social power to jockey for position in the social landscape.

When the movie, Mean Girls, first came out, it was like a light was flipped on to illuminate just how snarky and devious social climbers could be in their teen years —in a comic way, of course. Fast forward a few years later, and a study indicated that truly “mean girls” actually start practicing relational and physical aggression by the time they enter kindergarten. It’s not just sons who are acting out, daughters are flexing their own aggressive muscle.

Statistics Tell the Tale of a Fairly Level Playing Field

The most recent and comprehensive data set (2017) reported that while 32 percent of women have been victims of physical violence by their partners, the number of men who reported having been victims at some point in time was surprisingly close, 28 percent. Go to a pro sports event, look around the stadium, and imagine that every man sitting on one wall of the stadium has been victimized by a partner. Pretty surprising statistic to many of us.

What Happens when a Man is Physically Attacked by a Woman?

This question can have very different answers depending on the man’s sense of right and wrong, respect for others, and geographical locale.

If a man has been taught to never, under any circumstances, strike a woman, he may not react—he might let her batter away or he might seek refuge behind a locked door or a safe space away from the residence.

If the couple lives in a place where men have to have bruises, open wounds, or broken bones before law enforcement takes action against a woman, the victim may also seek safety and let things blow over.

If the man believes one punch or push or kick deserves another, he may respond with violence turning the conflict into a brawl. If either party is under the influence of any illegal substances, there’s no telling how the conflict might turn out. Scary situations can turn into literal “life or death” dramas when illicit substances are involved.

Unfortunately, when a man is the victim, regardless of his reaction, the act of woman-on-man aggression tends to be viewed not only as less serious than its opposite, but also more justified. Men are stereotypically assumed to carry the blame for any physical assault that occurs. We typically don’t imagine that men, the stronger sex, can become victims at the hands of a woman, the weaker gender. “Women don’t use violence to solve their problems, that’s something men do,” is an argument that some stalwart and strict gender dividers believe.

Unfortunately, men are almost equally as likely as women to be assaulted by a partner. Further, men don’t have access to the same level of basic community empathy, sympathy, or support that women typically receive by nature of their gender.

Men don’t report because of the shame associated with being physically attacked by a woman. They don’t report because people are likely to suggest that they “did something to start it” or, likely, “deserved it.” Black eyes, bruises, and other scars might not be believed to be the evidence of a partner assault, but they definitely need to be photographed and documented just as women are advised to do.

So, what can you say or do to help a man in this type of domestic distress?

  1. Implore him to avoid any hint of physical retaliation. Regardless of who hit who first, men are going to be the first ones that are held accountable for any physical conflict between the couple. In one instance, a man who was the victim of an assault by his wife called the police out because he was afraid for his life. When the police arrived, the victim was told that if there were no visible marks from the attack, they couldn’t charge his wife with anything; however, the cop warned him that if his wife said that he’d pushed her, they’d have to take him into custody. While this type of response may be helping to protect women from brutes, it unfairly places men in much more precarious position if they choose to seek external assistance.
  2. Remind him that relationships are not supposed to be spaces of physical violence or fear. That even if this has become his “new normal,” it is not healthy nor is he expected to submissively remain in this type of power dynamic.
  3. Help him recognize his own self-worth—he may not be a perfect partner, he may be accused of letting down his significant other, but that does not warrant being verbally, emotionally, or otherwise abused by his partner. No one deserves abuse.
  4. If children or even pets are involved, he may feel that as a man, his role is to protect and keep his family securely together; walking out with kids or pets might go against everything he believes that “good men” should do. Help him recognize the danger that he and his kids and pets are facing if he chooses not to act.
  5. If he was raised to believe that “real men” don’t take anything off of anybody, shame may play a huge role in keeping him from admitting the abuse or developing an escape plan. Help him see that by hiding the abuse, he is actually giving away his power and not standing up for himself as he should.

And some suggestions for helping yourself, as someone who cares about a man being hurt by a partner:

  • Remind yourself that it takes time for someone to begin to imagine that life could be different—especially when domestic abuse has become the norm. Don’t belittle him for being slower to exit the relationship than you feel that he should.
  • Recognize that he will need to battle the same doubts that women have about leaving abusive relationships. For instance, financial issues are almost always a significant component of the force that keeps even poor partners together. Fear for his safety if his estranged partner tracks him down at work or his new residence. Wanting to leave can quickly turn into needing to leave, but there’s often a large gap between needing to leave and deciding to leave. Offer support as the process unfolds.

Watching someone you love suffer or live in fear of another can be poignantly heartbreaking. Sometimes all we can do is be willing to listen, validate his feelings, and offer support in a way that he can accept at the place where he’s at in his path. It may not seem like a lot, but sometimes that’s all that can be done.

References

Erickson, K. A., Johnson, M., Langille, J. I., & Walsh, Z. (2017). Victim gender, rater attitudes, and rater violence history influence perceptions of intimate partner violence. Violence and Victims, 32, 533-544.

Smith, S.G., Chen, J., Basile, K.C., Gilbert, L.K., Merrick, M.T., Patel, N., Walling, M., & Jain, A. (2017). The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS): 2010-2012 State Report. Atlanta, GA: National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.