Abusive relationships are a serious issue that affect people of all genders, but men often face additional barriers.
“That’s abuse. You’re being abused,” I said halfway through a session with a client.
My client, a competent and successful man who’d come to me for help with his communication issues with his partner, sat back in his chair.
“Really?” he said. He ran his fingers through his hair and bowed his head. “That’s what I always kind of thought, but…I don’t know if I could have ever said that aloud.”
“Really,” I said. “Everything you’ve described as happening when you and your partner fight is verbal and emotional abuse. Which is never okay.”
This client is one of several I’ve worked with over the years who, as a man, has been surprised to realize that he’s actually a victim.
Abusive relationships are a serious issue that affect people of all genders, but men often face additional barriers to leaving an abusive partner.
The Reasons Why Men Might Stay in an Abusive Relationship
There are a number of reasons why men may stay in abusive relationships.
1. They face societal pressure to be the “strong one” or the “provider” in a relationship
Being considered the “strong one” in a relationship can make it difficult for men to even admit or realize they’re being abused.
Men are often expected to be the ones in control and to be able to handle any problems that arise.
But when their relationship becomes abusive, they may feel personally responsible for that turn because they feel like they’re the one who’s been “leading” the relationship. They then feel like they’ve failed at their job to be the “provider” or the “strong one” and that now it’s their job to “fix” it.
This often means they try to handle it alone. Silently. They don’t reach out for help, and they stay in the relationship, and thus continue enduring the abuse.
2. They fear being perceived as “weak” or “unmanly”
Men are often taught that they should be able to handle anything that comes their way and that showing vulnerability is a sign of weakness.
To admit that any of us is being abused is the ultimate sign of vulnerability. We can’t get help if we don’t reach out, and it can be painfully hard for many of us to stomach the idea that we’re actually a “victim,” especially when we’re being victimized by someone who is likely physically smaller than us.
But if men don’t admit that they’re in an abusive relationship, they’ll likely continue to stay in it, even at the cost of their own self-esteem and self-worth.
3. They lack the support of friends and family
I’ve heard from more than one client something to the effect of, “If I told anyone that, they’d never believe me.”
There’s unfortunately a stereotype that women can’t be abusive. Women are human too, which means they too can be abusers.
Because of this stereotype, many men may feel that their friends and family won’t believe them or that they’ll blame them for the abuse: “She can’t abuse you! You’re a man! You must have done something to deserve it.”
Feeling like we won’t have any support means we’re even less likely to admit what’s happening behind closed doors. If we can’t admit what’s happening, we can’t ask for help. This isolation can make it harder for men to leave an abusive relationship, as they may feel like they have nowhere to turn.
4. They’re financially dependent on their partners
Men may also have difficulty leaving because they’re financially dependent on their partners.
This can happen for a variety of reasons, such as lack of job opportunities, low income, or limited education or job skills. In these situations, men may feel like they have no choice but to stay with their abuser because they rely on them for financial support.
The abuser may also use financial control as a means of exerting power and control over them. They may threaten to cut off financial support or prevent the victim from finding a job, leaving them with few options for survival.
5. They have children with their partner
Men may feel a strong sense of responsibility to provide for and protect their children and may believe that staying in the relationship is the best way to ensure their children’s well-being. They may fear that their partner will harm or take their children if they leave the relationship.
They may also fear divorce or lengthy custody battles and that they would ultimately lose access to their children.
6. They grew up in abusive homes
Many men may have grown up in abusive households themselves. As a result, they may have internalized the belief that abuse is a normal part of relationships and thus, may not recognize that their current relationship is abusive.
For those of us who’ve experienced abuse in our childhood, we likely don’t know how to recognize or respond to healthy relationships. As a result, we may have a lower self-esteem and self-worth, which can make us more susceptible to staying in an abusive relationship and believing we don’t deserve better.
This type of conditioning can make it difficult for anyone to leave an abusive relationship, as they may feel trapped and powerless.
7. They love their partner
Of course, anyone who has been with someone long enough has developed some sense of love, attachment, and loyalty towards their partner.
Unfortunately, when abuse happens, we don’t forget all of the positive memories and feelings we have towards our partner, and because of that, we may believe we can change our partner or that the abuse is a temporary problem that will eventually be resolved.
We also may have certain beliefs that bar us from leaving a relationship, even if it’s become abusive, because, for example, we may not believe in divorce, “marriage is forever,“ ride-or-die, etc.
What to do
If you’re in a relationship that may or may not be abusive, it is important to take steps to address the situation and protect yourself.
1. Be honest with yourself
Recognize that abuse is not your fault, and that you deserve to be treated with respect and kindness.
2. Reach out for help
Talking about your experiences with someone you trust can help you process your feelings and start to make sense of what’s happening. There are also many resources available to help anyone who is experiencing abuse, such as hotlines, counseling/coaching services, and support groups.
3. Develop a safety plan
This might include identifying safe places to go, creating a code word or signal to alert others that you need help, and planning how to leave the relationship if necessary.
4. Document the abuse
Keep a record of any incidents of abuse, including the date, time, and details of what happened. This documentation can be helpful if you decide to seek legal assistance.
5. Remember that it’s okay to leave
Leaving an abusive relationship isn’t a failure or a lack of manliness. Abuse is never the fault of the victim. It’s a necessary step in taking your power back. It can be difficult, but it‘s important to remember that it’s what’s best for you to put your safety and well-being first, and that, if you have children, it’s what’s best for them too.
Men may stay in abusive relationships for a variety of reasons, but it’s possible to get help and leave. Help is available if you look for it, and the abuse is and never will be your fault.
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