When husbands are victims of marital abuseWritten by Weslie Onsando
What's inside this article
For professional golfer Lucas Glover, abuse included being verbally attacked by his wife, Krista, for not proceeding to the next round of a golf tournament. Following a 2018 altercation involving Glover and his mother, Krista was arrested and charged with domestic battery. Glover admitted in the police report that this wasn’t a rare occurrence and that his wife would often say things like “You’re such a loser” or “You better win or the kids and I will leave you and you will never see us again.”
College professor Dr. Timothy Golden shares in a 2016 TEDx talk1 that his ex-wife repeatedly criticized and degraded him because of his body weight. He says she would constantly remark on how attractive other men were compared with him and eventually declared celibacy until he “made himself more attractive.”
Ron Mattocks, a former army officer and senior business executive, revealed that his now ex-wife tried to convince him that his anger was the problem in their marriage even though he had no history of anger issues. As he writes2 in “When Men Are Victims of Abuse,” she convinced him that his parents were abusive and to cut ties with them. She often called him a “14-year-old boy trying to get laid” and asked him when he’d ever be a man. She regularly made him endure “several hours of passive-aggressive silence before being forced to talk things out.” His offenses? Hanging pictures up too high, making the bed the wrong way or folding T-shirts poorly. This constant barrage on his person and isolation from everyone else led him to the brink of suicide.
The National Domestic Violence Hotline in the U.S. defines abuse as “a pattern of behaviours used by one partner to maintain power and control over another partner in an intimate relationship.” By this definition, abuse knows no gender and is a weapon effectively wielded by women as well as men. Nonetheless, society often expects men to endure torment without so much as batting an eye. “Be a man” is shorthand for, “Toughen up. Don’t be a wimp or a loser.” This means army officers, business executives, professional athletes, college professors and many other men often silently endure abuse at the hands of their wives – because to speak up would show weakness.
Living with an abusive wife
Men can experience abuse in all its forms – even physical abuse. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “One in seven men report having experienced severe physical violence from an intimate partner in their lifetime.” The National Domestic Violence Hotline reports that 13 per cent of their documented contact comes from male victims. One meta-analysis concluded that abusive “women are slightly more likely than men to use one or more acts of physical aggression and to use such acts more frequently,” while men are more likely to cause injury. Although “intimate partner” statistics are broader than the context of the biblical definition of marriage, these studies indicate that men experience abuse too.
Men can also experience sexual abuse from their wives. A sexually abusive wife may push her husband into sexual situations against his will, such as being recorded or including other partners in their sex life. Sometimes sexual abuse comes in the form of unwanted touch.
Another type of sexual abuse husbands may experience is called Made to Penetrate, defined by the CDC as sexual violence when a victim is “made to, or there was an attempt to make them, sexually penetrate someone without consent as a result of physical force or when the victim is unable to consent due to being too drunk, high or drugged, (e.g., incapacitation, lack of consciousness, or lack of awareness) from their voluntary or involuntary use of alcohol or drugs.”
Psychological (emotional) abuse is cited by one study3 as likely to be “the most pervasive form of relationship maltreatment.” According to the research in this study, 8.3 per cent of men report experiencing emotional abuse in their relationships. The researchers define emotional abuse as abuse that can include “verbal assault, dominance, control, isolation, ridicule or the use of intimate knowledge for degradation.” Verbal assault can manifest as intimidation (“You better win or I’ll leave you”), aggression (cursing, etc.), humiliation (“When will you ever be a man?”) or even silent treatment. Other characteristics of verbal abuse are blaming, criticism, gaslighting and judging.
Tim Sanford, Clinical Director for Counselling Services at Focus on the Family in the U.S., agrees that the research matches his counselling experience. “With [abusive] women, I don’t think you see as much of that huge explosiveness,” he says. “It’s more of this purposeful pick, pick, pick.” He compares the difference between a single abusive event and constant abuse as the difference between being chomped once by a T. rex or a million times by piranhas. Sanford’s conclusion? “Either way you end up dead. So, either way, it’s abusive.”
Why men stay with an abusive wife
Why would a husband put up with this kind of treatment? Counsellors who work with abused men say there are multiple reasons.
Fear of losing status
If a man’s wife is abusive, he may hide it because he doesn’t want to deal with the social fallout of admitting he’s been hurt – especially by a woman. Speaking up about the abuse can cost him the respect of his co-workers or church community. Admitting abuse might feel like admitting to being a victim. In many men’s minds, victims are weak and weakness is not considered a characteristic of manhood. To avoid the loss of “manly” status in society, many husbands choose to continue to suffer.
Fear of not being believed
As many women in abusive relationships do, men may wonder who will believe them if they speak up. Societal images of abuse usually portray men as the aggressor. It’s difficult for many to see a man as a victim in his relationship – especially if he’s physically bigger than his spouse. Golden, the professor who shares his emotional abuse story on the TEDx stage1, shared in a separate interview that he recalls calling more than eight different sources for help and none of them had any resources for men. He said one therapist, while laughing, told him that men don’t get abused.
This perspective is only amplified by the media. Men are fair game for slaps, punches and crotch-kicks. Sanford points out that violence against men in the media is played for laughs. “It’s laughable if the woman hits the guy; it’s a joke. But if a guy hits the wife . . . call 911. And so, there is a double standard there.”
Husbands in media are also fair game for ridicule. Many TV shows portray making fun of the husband or calling him names as normal behaviour. Wendy Brown, registered marriage and family therapist, says she sees this in her office, as well. “I get couples who come in and the husband will say, ‘She calls me all of these horribly demeaning names. She curses at me.’” Yet Brown says that this behaviour is not normal or healthy. “To me that’s kind of crossing that line. Then it’s not just nagging you about ‘let’s work on the relationship or clean out the garage’ or whatever it is, it becomes an attack on your [the husband’s] character, your identity.”
Fear of being named the aggressor
Brown points out that husbands in abusive relationships fear being accused of being the abusers if they protect themselves from their wife’s attacks. “There’s that fear of, if I grab her and hold her, then I’m accused of hurting her.”
It’s not unheard of for an abusive wife to call or threaten to call the authorities and report her husband as the abuser. Lucas Glover’s wife called 911 and reported that he and his mother had attacked her, but the police were able to assess the situation and arrested her instead.
Desire to remain married
Brown says that many husbands in abusive relationships love their wives and want to maintain their relationship. They want her to be seen as the wonderful person that people think she is, so they don’t report the abuse or tell anyone. Sanford adds that in some cases where there is a history of previous trauma, husbands may hold on to the relationship because it’s less painful than being alone.
Fear of losing access to children
Statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau show that fathers make up only 19.6 per cent of parents with full custody of their children. There is an upward trend, but historically it’s been more difficult for men to gain full custody of their children. Registered marriage and family therapist Glenn Lutjens points out that many husbands with an abusive wife stay because they believe their children will be safer or they fear they will lose access to them. Abusive wives may use the threat of cutting off the father’s contact with his children as leverage to keep their victim silent.
Misapplication of Scripture
Among Christians, the Bible can be misused to excuse abusive behaviour. Lutjens some people have a “spiritualizing tendency to misunderstand or misinterpret Scripture.” For example, in Matthew 5:39 Jesus advises his listeners, “Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” Lutjens explains that this passage can be misinterpreted to mean accepting abusive behaviour from your spouse but he emphasizes that, in context, that is not what Jesus is talking about.
Because of false Bible teaching, Sanford says some husbands can feel pressure to have a perfect household. He says husbands may be told, “If the marriage falls or breaks or makes it it’s on him because he’s the head of the house.” This can lead to a desire to tough it out even when a situation turns abusive. “All that teaching, he can just take that as ‘I guess that’s what I have to do. This is just my cross to bear,” says Sanford. But abuse is not God’s design for marriage. While every marriage has its trials, counsellors advise husbands in an abusive relationship to seek help.
Disconnection from emotions
Golden speaks about his socialization as a man to “ignore how you feel, even when it hurts.” He cites this as a useful tool on the football field but a much more harmful mentality in real life.
The National Domestic Violence Hotline corroborates his experience by reporting that many men do not report or seek help for their abuse because, “Men are socialized not to express their feelings or see themselves as victims.” Brown adds that this suppression of emotions can lead men to have an internal disconnect between the things that are said or done to them and the emotional impact of those words and actions. Men who experience this disconnection between actions and their emotional impact may be unable to name the harm inflicted on them by their abusive wife. Coupled with the societal expectations of men to be strong, this makes it almost impossible for a man to see himself as a victim of abuse.
Effects of abuse
Domestic abuse has a life-draining effect on the victim, both physically and mentally.
Common effects of abuse on the victim are:
- Harmful coping strategies such as workaholism or substance abuse
- High blood pressure
- Loss of confidence
- Physical injuries; e.g., broken bones
- Low self-worth
- Suicidal thoughts
How to get help
While marriage remains the best and safest context in which men, women and children thrive, it’s important to recognize when things go awry and abuse of anyone, including men, occurs. Maybe you’re wondering if you’re in an abusive relationship and aren’t sure what to do. Consider taking these simple steps to help gain clarity on your situation.
Name what’s happening
Sanford recommends writing down “what is really happening to you in the course of a week or a month.” He also suggests keeping track of the frequency. Is this happening twice a month, twice in 10 minutes or every 10 minutes?
- She threw her cell phone at my head.
- She cussed me out for not loading the dishwasher correctly.
- She read my text messages to make sure I didn’t say anything that would make her look bad.
Name the emotional impact of your wife’s actions
How are your wife’s actions affecting your internal state? Do you feel powerless? Ashamed? Scared? Isolated? Rejected? Lutjens says that understanding the emotional impact of your wife’s actions is a crucial step in determining if you’re experiencing abuse. “If it’s just about what’s taking place and you’re not exploring, ‘OK, what’s my emotion in this?’ it’s just a factual account,” he says. It’s easy to brush off a list of offences as “not a big deal” or “not anything to whine about,” but Lutjens stresses the importance of exploring the emotional impact of those actions. Remind yourself that your feelings matter in your marriage. Ask yourself without judgment or condemnation, How does this make me feel? or What am I feeling in this moment?
A feelings wheel is an effective tool to help you name your emotions. Remember that while we all hurt our spouses sometimes, abuse is a pattern of harmful behaviour used to control and manipulate. If your wife is purposefully and habitually causing you physical or emotional harm, you need to address the issue.
Lutjens advises that the only way to experience a change in your relationship is to speak up about what’s not working. “There are so many things that stay as secrets,” he says. “That’s when they fester. They just stay the same. They don’t change.”
Find a safe space to give voice to what you’re experiencing. A trusted friend, family member or church leader may be a good place to start. Lutjens suggests speaking to a good Christian counsellor: “Counselling is the opportunity to give voice to what your experiences are and to know what you feel.” Focus on the Family Canada offers a free one-time phone counselling consultation which is a first step toward that process. It may seem difficult to find the right person to share with, but pray that God will guide you to someone who is empathetic and wise.
Formulate a strategy to bring you and your children to safety. Healing for you and your spouse may require a time of separation. A healing separation is time to evaluate and change dysfunctional patterns and behaviours in your marriage. (If you feel you’re in imminent danger, call 911 or find a full list of helplines and shelters across Canada at EndingViolenceCanada.org.) You may need to seek support from family, friends or your church community.
While many domestic abuse resources cater to women, there are a growing number of organizations with resources for men in abusive relationships. Focus on the Family Canada offers a free, one-time phone counselling consultation and can connect you with a counsellor in your area. Additionally, here are some places and resources (not faith-based) that can provide help:
Lean on God
In Psalm 27:1 David clings to God as his “light and salvation.” He asks, “Whom shall I fear?” Sometimes fear can keep us from experiencing God’s salvation and deliverance, but the Bible says God is our refuge and “very present help” in times of trouble (Psalm 46:1). If you’re in an abusive relationship, draw from the Lord’s strength. Seek godly counsel to help bring you out of the darkness of an abusive relationship and into the light of health and wholeness
How to help an abuse victim
If a man talks to you about his abusive wife, affirm his openness and courage in speaking up about the abuse. Counsellors say it’s important to validate the fact that harmful behaviour is taking place and acknowledge its impact. One of the key reasons men don’t speak up is a fear that they won’t be believed or that they will be ridiculed. Provide a safe and non-judgmental space for them to share and process their experience.
Use statements such as, “It makes perfect sense that you feel devalued by that” or “It’s not OK for her to hit you.”
You may also ask clarifying questions to help the victim connect the harmful behaviour to their emotions. Ask questions such as, “What was that like for you when . . . ?” or “How did that make you feel when . . . ?”
As the professor who shared his story of abuse in a TEDx talk1 says, it’s important for men and the people around them to be aware of abuse against men. Golden was able to start his journey to healing when he finally found a men’s group at a small church where he could share his feelings. He discovered he “was far from being the only one who experienced what he had been experiencing for so long.” He ends his talk with this call to action, “I hope that as a result of something I’ve said tonight someone, some man, somewhere, somehow, some way will cease to suffer in silence because someone has listened in a way that has allowed them to be touched by the story . . . the story of the men, or man in your life.”
If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, we encourage you to contact our care and counselling team at 1.800.661.9800. Our office hours are Monday to Friday, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. PT.
Weslie Onsando is a twin mom and content producer for Focus on the Family.
1 Dr. Timothy Golden, “Suffering in Silence: The Emotional Abuse of Men,” TEDxWallaWallaUniversity, June 10, 2016.
2 Ron Mattocks, "When Men Are the Victims of Abuse," The Good Men Project, March 10, 2011.
3 Günnur Karakurt and Kristin E. Silver, “Emotional abuse in intimate relationships: The role of gender and age,” National Library of Medicine, Violence Vict. 28(5), December 31, 2013.
© 2021 Focus on the Family. All rights reserved. Used with permission. Originally published at focusonthefamily.com.
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