October is Domestic Violence Awareness month, which means increased awareness about the atrocities of domestic violence and its devastating effect on families. Even with several years of experience working in the Domestic Violence Prevention community, at times I fall into the same trap as most of us do. I hear “victim” or “survivor” and, without intention, the image of a battered woman appears. It’s not surprising, after all, study after study has shown that reported domestic violence happens predominantly to women. However, it can take only one experience to shake these assumptions.
During the initial meeting with a client, I will often ask a set of standard questions to ascertain the issues within the case. Typically, domestic violence is rarely the centerpiece of the story, usually it is cast as a side character or footnote of the relationship. Other facts will emerge first such as infidelity, betrayal or other heartbreak. Eventually, harder, but still routine, questions will be asked, such as “Was there any violence in the relationship?” For most male clients, the initial response is not wholly forthcoming. In comes the incredible power of my raised eyebrow, “Really? It appears there might be more to the story…?” Then the situation becomes more clear, he’ll explain how he never hit his partner, but his spouse would throw glasses at him, break phones, destroy rooms like a tornado, all the while calling him names and screaming epithets that would make flowers wilt. Men are not immune to the physical abuses of domestic violence either. There are countless instances of spouses, both women and men, choking them, hurting children, slapping, scratching, hair pulling, punching, broken noses and, in some cases, the need for stitches. Sometimes domestic violence leaves marks, sometimes not, and layered with emotional belittling and isolation, the situation can be overwhelming.
In cases such as these, I reference the Duluth Model Power and Control wheel and hand it to my client. The client uses a red pen and circles anything that applies to their relationship. Often, the wheel turns red, a visual representation of the different yet common methods an abuser uses to keep their spouse vulnerable and under “control”. (If you are relating to this article just a little too much, please Google it and see where your relationship fits in. If you need help, please reach out.) When domestic violence is involved, the family law case becomes more complex. Custody disputes regarding children, the decision of whether to get a restraining order, or whether to call the police the next time (Pro tip: there’s always a next time), can have huge repercussions in a dissolution.
It’s too easy in our culture to dismiss stories like these. Men are bigger, we think. Men are stronger. Men can take care of themselves. What kind of stone age logic is this premised on? We all have brothers, fathers, uncles, boyfriends, male friends – are they all made of stone? Certainly, we all know that to perpetuate the belief that men cannot or do not suffer violence from their partners, is to perpetuate the idea that men are emotionally less than women. It’s simply not true. It may not happen to every man, but it does happen and we need to start listening. We cannot ignore that domestic violence is absolutely a reality for many men in our community. It doesn’t take away from the thousands of women who suffer domestic violence, it just means that our community of survivors is bigger than we originally thought.
To help these men is to tackle another wing of the dragon of violence. When we believe men and treat them like we would any other victim of domestic violence, we create room for both healing and the opportunity to most effectively create a violence-free future for these men and their families. Even in 2015, it’s hard to go into court and request a domestic violence restraining order for a man. In my time as an attorney, several times I’ve heard the words from the bench, “He’s not really scared of her.” As with most shifts in attitudes from the bench, understanding starts with the people and will work its way up.
To start the process of recovery, I have compiled a list of the top five things anyone, regardless of gender, can do in a violent relationship, even if they are not sure they are ready to leave the relationship.
1. Tell someone you trust. This is undoubtedly the hardest part. Our culture has grouped violence in relationships with the same basket as shame. That’s wrong. Violence is a contagion and unlike us humans, violence does not discriminate. Tell someone.
2. Take pictures of the aftermath. If tables are knocked over or vases broken or cell phones smashed, take a picture. Save the picture somewhere your partner cannot find it. If you seek a restraining order or prosecute the crime, this evidence can be extremely persuasive.
3. Save text messages. If your partner threatens you or talks about how he/she hurt you, save the messages. Forward them to an email account your partner doesn’t have access to or to a friend you trust.
4. Have a plan. Volatile relationships can shift on a dime. Be ready to leave and find a place to go. If you cannot stay with your extended family, go through safe web sites to find shelters that meet your needs. Some shelters don’t accept men, some don’t accept pets, some are massively overcrowded. Don’t be deterred. Call a family law attorney or a domestic violence non-profit.
5. If you feel your life is in danger, call the police. Get to a safe place to wait for them to arrive. Choking, knife wielding, gun pulling are all very, very serious situations. Please, please don’t forget that all too often domestic violence is deadly.
Relationships with violence are hard to leave, no matter who you are. Whether its shame, love, commitment, pride, religion, children or money, there are countless reasons why people stay. That being said, there are countless reasons to leave. If you want or need help, it is out there. There are shelters, nonprofits and family law attorneys who can walk you through getting out. It is possible, no matter who you are. And to everyone else, if you are confronted with a friend telling you about domestic violence in their family, listen. Do not let a preconceived notion stop you from potentially giving someone the advice that could save their life.