*This is a true story but as I still know people in it, I have changed their names. The story contains NSFW language.
I watched Eric’s head rock back and laugh in perpetual slow motion. I felt sick and each guffaw that peeled out of him only made my stomach clench further. How could this be funny to anyone?
“Your girlfriend’s what? Five foot four… weighs nothing?”
I wanted to scream.
I wanted to shake him.
I was in crisis here, I didn’t know what to do, what to think and he thought the whole thing was a joke. My relationship was devolving into a nightmare; I was dangerously depressed, angry and frightened of my own thought process attached to this entire event. I felt like I was an inch off harming myself or others or both…
…and he thought it was hilarious.
It was a story 18 months in the making. Everything started out normal between Jane and I. We weren’t perfect, but we seemed ok. That was until a few months in when we were at the kitchen table having a disagreement and Jane snapped. We were facing each other in chairs when halfway through my sentence she leapt from her chair, and threw a punch at my face—
…stopping about one inch short of connecting.
Unfortunately as I was sitting in a chair, my attempt at dodging the blow meant awkwardly falling backwards out of the chair so that I ended up on the floor beneath it, looking up at her. I was shocked but still angry and responded as such, “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”
She stood over me. A woman’s diminutive height and weight don’t mean the same thing when you’re on the floor under a chair and they are standing over you.
To my surprise she launched into a diatribe about how grateful I should be that she hadn’t connected, about the different ways in which she wanted to hurt me, to do violence to me and that I deserved it. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. How could she think this was ok?
“You… can’t talk to me like that? You can’t just hit me ‘cause you’re angry! You—”
“What kind of fucking pussy are you? I didn’t hit you.” She looked disgusted at me then swapped to mocking baby tones as if speaking to an infant, “Awww, is the big bad man scared of the widdle girl.”
My face grew hot. I didn’t know how handle this, but my masculinity was sacred. I quickly stammered out a denial, I was fine, nothing wrong here… 100% tough, fearless, protector-provider. Of course, why would I have a problem with this? The punch hadn’t connected. My ending up on the floor was my own fault… after all, even if she had connected, she was “just” a girl… right?
Jane wasn’t done though.
She continued to spew a diatribe of angry attacks all aimed again at whether I was masculine enough to be ‘a real man.’ The strange thing was, if a man had have done the exact same thing to me, I would have stood up and made this a physical thing. But I couldn’t. This was supposed to be my partner, this was a woman and I had been raised to believe that it was my sacred duty to protect women, especially my partner. But what do you do when your partner doesn’t seem to hold the same values for you?
I tried to stammer out a few more words of defence, but my brain was drowning in an emotional conflict I had never faced and didn’t understand. So as the diatribe continued, I did the only thing I could think of.
The next day, she came to my house and apologised. She was sincere and kind in a way she had never been before and it felt wrong to hold it against her. She was under a lot of pressure, her mother was dying of a brain tumor and she just didn’t know how to handle it all. I’d be heartless to not take that into consideration wouldn’t I? So I forgave her and we went back to normal. But over time, normal changed.
Slowly the verbal attacks increased, until being told I was soft, worthless, useless and that no one else would want me, became a daily affair. And if I disagreed, the one-inch-almost-punch would appear, now, supported by instructions (via the follow up verbal abuse) about how I must handle the faux punch.
The punch was “normal”, “a real man” could handle “a strong woman”… and I was a real man wasn’t I? To prove that I was a real man, I couldn’t flinch. I had to prove that I could take the faux punch without batting an eye. Sex and affection became rewards for appropriate behaviour, if I asked for either of these as anything other than a reward it was reinforced over and over again that I was either 1) weak and unmasculine for needing affection or 2) disgusting, sick and perverted for needing sex, even if it had been months since I asked.
Why would anyone stay?
I genuinely loved Jane and was damaged long before I met her. All of her behaviours fed into my existing damage. I was already conditioned to controlling behaviour and emotional toxicity because of my family (emotions are weakness) and religious (sex is sinful) upbringing. Jane merely helped fulfil a pattern of conditioning that had been the norm for most of my life.
Emotional abuse wears down your resistance over time, you lose all your defensive barriers, you develop pitiful self-esteem, and with low self-esteem your abuser’s voice eventually becomes your own negative self-talk and when they speak to tell you that you are worthless, it is already your own opinion that they are now merely reinforcing. You become desperate for validation of any kind and sadly that validation comes most often from your abuser as part of the abusive cycle, when your abuser is on their “good days.”
It was a cycle that had continued until a few days ago, which is why I was sitting here, finally trying to ask Eric for help or advice on what to do.
A few days ago Jane had gotten drunk as I was standing on the edge of a flight of stairs. She’d been having a bad day and her solution to being angry for any reason now was the one-inch almost-punch. I had been well trained by this time, so when the punch came I knew the signs to look for. As was expected of me, I didn’t blink, I didn’t dodge. I was resolute in my masculinity.
But she was drunk, so when she swung this time, she didn’t stop.
Not expecting to actually be hit and doing everything I could to remain still, the punch rocked me… and sent me down the flight of stairs. Which was why Eric was laughing; because apparently, this story is hilarious.
Eric’s grin split his face as he waited expectantly for me to respond.
My guts roiled in despair. The woman I was in love with was also my greatest source of pain, both physically and emotionally. I desperately wanted to weep, but I couldn’t. Real men don’t cry.
I had thought that my friend, someone I trusted, might be able to help me, might be able to tell me what to do. But his reaction merely reinforced my struggle. My inner voice of perpetual negative self-talk grew weight at his reaction. He was right after all, wasn’t he? Sure I’d been punched, sure I’d been sent down a flight of stairs. But I’m a man, and she’s “just” a girl… right? What kind of pathetic wuss breaks under this kind of treatment? I just needed to be stronger, that was all.
I swallowed down the wall of emotions that threatened to drown me and wanly did my best to crack a smile.
“Yeah…” the word came out well-practiced as it had countless times before. Its tone was light and free of the emotional ocean I was struggling to hold at bay.
Nothing wrong here.
I’m a man.
How did this story make you feel? As most of us are unaware of our own genderist attitudes, gender-flip it and imagine it is told by a woman and the aggressor is a man, how does it make you feel now?
It would take me another 18 months to find the courage to leave that relationship. It wasn’t until the abuse became so normal that it started occurring in public that my friends stepped in to help after witnessing it first hand, and even then my first response was to fight to defend my partner’s actions, rather than myself. Until people witnessed what was happening, the most frequent response to the story of my being punched in the face and knocked down a flight of stairs by my partner was laughter and the victim-blaming question “What did you do to make her so angry?”
One in three domestic violence reports are by men. I would suggest, as it is considered unmasculine to admit to being a victim and as abuse is often emotional and not necessarily violent, that the domestic abuse of men is drastically underreported. I personally know several men who have been in situations very similar to mine; none of us have ever come forward. I know this is my first time speaking of it in a public forum instead of to close, trusted friends. Hopefully my willingness to do so now will help someone else make the decision that I couldn’t do on my own, which was leave and more importantly, stay away.
KEY FACTS AND STATS on male domestic violence victims
- At least one in three victims of family violence is male
- One male is a victim of domestic homicide every 10 days
- Almost one in four young people are aware of their mum/stepmum hitting their dad/stepdad
- Male and female victims of reported domestic assault receive very similar numbers and types of injuries
- Males are almost three times less likely to report being a victim of domestic violence to the police
- Post-separation, similar proportions of men and women report experiencing physical violence including threats by their former spouse
- More facts and stats here.