William was feeling ashamed and embarrassed. For years he tolerated abuse from his wife and had been too humiliated to tell anyone. Knowing he would not strike back at her, she frequently hit him, threw things at him, physically blocked him from leaving the room, and followed him when he was able to pass her, yelling nasty insults. Sex was used purely as manipulation: if William did what she wanted, he could have sex, and if not, there was no sex for months at a time.
He was so deflated by the abuse that even when he entered therapy he didn’t reveal what was happening. Instead, he minimized her rages as “disagreements” to avoid admitting what was really going on. But one day, after coming in with a fresh red mark on his face and looking visibly shaken by her latest outburst, he disclosed his reality. Just admitting the abuse was relieving but he had a long road ahead to recovery.
All too often, the signs of domestic violence for men are dismissed. The old stereotype of an abuser being a male in a wife-beater top is still alive. But in reality, abusers come from all socioeconomic groups, demographics, cultures, relationship statuses, and genders. As long as the stereotype continues to exist, there will be more opportunities for abusers to take advantage of their victims.
The healing process for William is the same as for anyone struggling with abuse. However, some tweaks needed to be made because stereotypes had made it difficult for even William to accept that he was a victim of domestic violence. Here is what he walked through.
- Call abuse abusive. There are seven major types of abuse: physical, verbal, emotional, mental, sexual, financial, and spiritual. William learned about each type by completing an abuse checklist. This revealed some additional types of abuse such as gaslighting, twisting the truth, and guilt-tripping that he would not have normally considered abusive. Most abusers have a couple of “go-to” methods that they reuse over and over. Knowing what that looks like and calling it by name helped William to declare the behavior as abusive.
- Study the abuser’s behavior. Everyone has weaknesses and vulnerabilities. William’s wife had mastered the art of learning his susceptibility. The reverse needed to happen to keep William’s abuse fog from returning. He looked for signs of defensiveness, aggression, repeated words or phrases, nervous gestures, and emotional reactions in her behavior. Once identified, these became fairly obvious. These became warning signs of upcoming abusive behavior. In the past, William would shrink immediately, now he was able to remain strong.
- Begin with the end in mind. William was asked, “What is the end game? Is it to get away?” in the beginning, he was unable to answer these questions; the abuse fog was too thick. But after several sessions and more abusive moments, he decided he had enough and was going to exit the relationship. He began planning his exit strategy which would take several more months to implement. But just knowing he had enough and was not going to live with his abuser for the rest of his life was comforting.
- Patience is a learned virtue. Even for William, it took time, energy, effort, and strategy to escape from his abuser. His safety had to come first but exiting prematurely could destroy his finances. Depending on the type and amount of abuse, this could be days or even years to get away. In William’s case, it was only a matter of a few additional months. He patiently waited for the right moment and took immediate action when it finally happened.
- Think strategically, not emotionally. William’s wife perfected the win-lose strategy where she always won at the expense of William. Big wins without practice are not likely, similar to the reasoning behind practicing before a sports game. So, William started small with unspoken victories such as silently identifying the abusive behavior and then worked up to the larger wins such as emotionally disconnecting from his abuser and seeing her in a new, less flattering light. While the overall focus is on the long-term goal, short-term successes built his confidence back.
- Quietly emote. The ability to think clearly is much easier if emotions of anxiety, anger, sadness, and fear are released. William was encouraged not to dismiss these emotions because they are very useful in motivating him to change. However, a build-up of unreleased feelings could result in a volcanic explosion similar to his wife’s. This would definitely be used for the worst by her. Instead, he found safe places to let out his emotions like talking to a friend or working out at the gym. Crying is also an excellent way to do this in a very short period of time.
- Peaceably accept the fog. William often relived the moment when the fog was lifted and things became clearer. This can be done daily if needed to remain on task. But when the fog resettled and William slid backward for a moment, he didn’t fight it. Instead, he acknowledged that this was part of the process and was gracious to himself instead of beating himself up for taking a step back. Negative internal dialogue is a waste of energy and effort. Rather, he learned to be thankful for those moments because it reminded him of how far he came in the process.
William learned that he had not done anything shameful or embarrassing. Rather, it was his wife’s abusive behavior that was shameful and embarrassing. He stopped taking responsibility internally and externally for her inappropriate behavior, began calling her abuse abusive, and refused to be treated that way in the future.