The Abused Husband: Dealing with Aggression in Relationships

A psychology professor at California State Long Beach has compiled an impressive pile of data—more than 500 studies—suggesting that women are at least as physically aggressive if not more so than men in their intimate relationships.

In a 2008 ABC News “What Would You Do?” segment, actors played out two scenarios in public: a man verbally abusing his female partner, then shaking her and pulling her hair, followed by a woman doing the same to him. In the first instance, several people intervened and stopped the violence, sometimes angrily; in the second, no one did a thing. One female onlooker even pumped her fist happily as she watched the woman slapping her partner. “Good for her,” she later told the interviewer, “I’m sure he deserved it.”

I am not here to minimize male-on-female violence in any way. I know that women are usually more vulnerable than men to inexcusable panoply of verbal, physical, and sexual abuse. But I am here to report a flip side to this horrendous phenomenon—often more subtle and harder to detect—due in part to cultural stereotypes of masculinity and “toughness.” There is often shame and self-loathing felt by men who perceive themselves as “wimpy” (or worse) for not standing up to their partner.

I speak here of some of the men I have treated in my practice, both individually and in groups. Men who are verbally or emotionally abused by their wives or girlfriends are often loathe to see it as abuse and tend to blame themselves for causing it in the first place. Often these guys can’t imagine why their loved one would be so angry with them—unless they had done something to deserve it.

This holds true even when the anger is expressed in extreme ways. (I’m happy to report that I have not yet treated a man who was physically abused by his partner.) One of the people in my sessions several years ago told me, “The fact that my wife is still angry with me means I’m still screwing up.” He felt this way despite the fact that he spent nearly every moment trying (in vain) to please her.  It was hard for him to see any projection on his wife’s part.

Many of these people deal with addictions and compulsive behaviors, often as a way of reducing or soothing unbearably painful feelings of failure, low self-esteem, unworthiness, and other related affects. These men often report that they have “caused” their partners to lash out at them, or that they deserve abuse due to their irresponsible behaviors (and inherent “badness”).

What they often miss is that the partner’s anger—usually due to earlier trauma, such as neglect or abandonment—was at least partly in place to begin with. Intimacy requires safety and trust; rage and fear can be fatal corrosives. It becomes a chicken-and-egg question of which causes which. Both partners’ issues need to be addressed to restore marital health.

Of course, none of the males in my sessions have acted like boy scouts. They too have berated or verbally attacked their partners, watched pornography compulsively, or committed adultery. But—both before and after such desperate measures—they feel as though nothing will abate their partner’s anger.

One such person said to me, “It doesn’t matter whether I’m good or bad to her. She always thinks I’m a piece of shit. So I might as well act like one.” He grew up with a viciously abusive mother and had come to feel as though he somehow deserved such poor treatment.

A survey of people with an addiction to sex by recovery pioneer Patrick Carnes found that 97% experienced emotional abuse in their childhood. The percentage of those physically or sexually abused by their parents was slightly lower, but not by much. These numbers are telling. While this does not excuse or give carte blanche to destructive behavior—addictive or otherwise—it does create a context within which these behaviors germinate.

Our need for meaningful human connection—for being seen, understood, and loved—does not just go away, even when it is inconvenient, unmet, or felt to be undeserving. It is a necessary nutrient of the soul, even when it gets in the way or makes us lose face. It is like a “fault” that deserves judgment and criticism—by our partner or ourselves. How sad when two well-intentioned people fall into a cycle that continues to foster this corrosive lack of “nutrition”—on both sides, no matter who is being blamed.

References:

  1. Carnes, P. (1998). The Making of a Sex Addict. Retrieved from http://www.iitap.com/documents/ARTICLE_The Making of a Sex Addict_PCarnes.pdf
  2. Fiebert, M. (2012, June 1). References Examining Assaults by Women on Their Spouses or Male Partners: An Annotated Bibliography. Retrieved from http://www.csulb.edu/~mfiebert/assault.htm

© Copyright 2011 by By Darren Haber, MA, MFT, therapist in Los Angeles, California. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Eddie Raymond

    June 29th, 2011 at 2:28 PM

    “Very often these guys can’t imagine that their loved one would be so angry with them unless they had done something to deserve it. ”

    And isn’t that how men eventually make abused women feel too? That it must be their fault? They beat them down physically and mentally until their spirit is in tatters. I’m not surprised some women are also capable of such acts. And because it’s a female doesn’t make it any less serious.

  • Deanna

    June 29th, 2011 at 3:12 PM

    It would be hard as a man to admit that he is a victim of violence against him by a female. I know that this has to feel like they are maybe a wimp or something but we all know that there are some mean women out there who do not think anything about doling out this kind of violence. I know they think that they are just taking up for themselves but I think that it is just as cruel afor a woman to beat up on a man as it is for a man to hit on a woman.

  • Francine Rowland

    June 29th, 2011 at 3:35 PM

    See, I feel the watchers who did nothing when the woman was attacking the man would have seen a woman they thought was at the end of her tether. For all they knew he’d hit her before. I’m guessing of course having not seen the show.

    I don’t think anyone would seriously consider that a women could do the same physical damage as a guy and she would really hurt him. I’m not condoning it at all, just thinking aloud and attempting to understand why they stood back. Violence is violence and no guy should have to put up with that any more than a woman should.

    Men are generally physically stronger and larger than women, so I understand some stepping in to halt the man from pushing her around when they saw that scene. Very few women would jump in between a man and a woman because of a guy’s physical strength, plus perhaps in the interests of self-preservation. If he’s big and you’re small, you’d need to be a very brave girl when it’s obvious he doesn’t mind hurting women.

    Me, I’d move out of sight and call the cops quietly rather than get in the middle of them. My conscience wouldn’t let me walk away and do nothing, leaving that woman to whatever fate may befall her.

    The women that was pumping the fist cheering her on…that was wrong. Possibly she was a woman who had experienced domestic violence before herself? I think to be so happy to see that going on, at one time in your life you must have been on the receiving end of it. Just a theory.

  • Jean Dunlap

    June 29th, 2011 at 5:35 PM

    The only time anyone deserves to be punched by their spouse is when they have thrown an unprovoked punch in the first place at you or at the children. It’s wholly justified then in my mind. You would be defending yourself or your children, which is a right and responsibility of any living creature.

  • Kirstyn Garcia

    June 29th, 2011 at 6:32 PM

    Whatever gender you are, violence never resolves anything! Accepting it as a normal aspect of your life isn’t necessary. Call the police, get some professional help for yourself to make your life better and if they won’t change, leave them.

  • Colleen Bradley

    June 29th, 2011 at 7:37 PM

    I don’t know why they insist on calling it domestic violence instead of violence. I feel tagging on the word domestic dilutes the crime. I’ve heard police officer friends talk about attending “a domestic”. They don’t even say violence!

    Which I guess proves my point. It being ‘domestic’ somehow lessens its importance apparently over for example an attack by a stranger or a neighbor. And yet the chances of domestic violence being repeated must be vastly higher than a random attack, so why is it not considered an equal or even more serious crime which puts the victim at greater risk in the court’s eyes? Oh they say it is I know but it isn’t.

    Man or woman, we all need protection and we need crimes of violence between couples as well as strangers to be taken very seriously.

  • Darren Haber

    Darren Haber

    June 29th, 2011 at 9:03 PM

    Good points, all. Thank you for writing. I’m glad to see that there is understanding on both sides of the gender “coin”, so to speak. That gives me hope.

  • Hugh

    June 30th, 2011 at 4:39 AM

    I agree wholeheartedly with Colleen. Why is there are different name for the crime just because it happens between a husband and wife or boyfriend and girlfriend?
    Just because the people know each other and maybe even live together does not lessen the severity of the crime, and it does not mean that it is a resolvable issue either.

  • Darren Haber

    Darren Haber

    June 30th, 2011 at 1:34 PM

    Good point, Hugh (and Colleen). Most homicides occur between people who know each other. Violence happens on a continuum; just b/c it’s called a marital “spat” or “domestic” or whatnot shouldn’t minimize how serious it is. Thanks for writing.

  • Johnty

    June 30th, 2011 at 11:40 PM

    Most people have this idea that it’s not wrong if a woman abuses or insults her partner.It’s like women have an inherent advantage in this department.Also,whenever there’s a spat between partners,a third person would be more inclined to avir the woman.Why?Why are there a million support groups for women to help them with problems in relationship and marriage and other things,and next to nothing for men?Is this what is called GENDER EQUALITY?!!

  • P.T. Moyer

    July 1st, 2011 at 9:09 PM

    It’s disgusting how many think that men are exempt from abuse. A woman has fists, muscle, and can use weapons just as easily as the average male. A woman can stab and beat her husband and the second she gets touched in retaliation, SHE is the one screaming that she’s the victim.

  • Paige W.

    July 1st, 2011 at 9:15 PM

    @P.T. –I can understand a man’s reluctance to report it! If a man accused a woman of domestic abuse, he would be ridiculed I imagine by his peers. It’s not how it’s supposed to be.

    People have a right to be safe, male or female. Your happiness is not guaranteed but your safety is. When you endanger people, you are violating their human rights. I’m ashamed of my gender when they behave like this.

  • Jen Thompson

    July 6th, 2012 at 2:24 PM

    Nearly 20 years as a female counselor, most of my clients men, far too many disclosing horrific abuse by women- verbal, emotional, physical, sexual, financial. Sometimes at the hands of their mothers- society finds that so hard to believe. Raising this as an emerging social issue of concern I have been disappointed at the number of people who minimize. Love your article, men can be incredibly vulnerable & exploited, early origin of neglect & deprivation of care can set them up for that. Need to keep this topic out in the open, the gender bias around this issue is concerning to me. Violence is wrong in any form, we need more gender neutral messages in community to support women who are violent to get help and men who are abused by women to speak up.

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