The male victims of domestic violence
They fear not being believed and are embarrassed about how society will judge them. Ailin Quinlan on the men suffering in silence at the hands of their partners
Behind the walls of quiet suburban semi-ds, cosy terraced homes or sprawling Celtic Tiger-era mansions, they live in fear – and their numbers are rising as the recession grinds on.
Some simply can't sleep because they've previously woken to find their partner standing over them with kettles of boiling water; others, who have been attacked with baseball bats, stabbed with scissors or burned with hair straighteners, can only find rest in securely locked bedrooms or garden sheds.
They are the victims of a barrage of emotional and physical abuse, but often they do not seek help because they fear they will not be believed.
Because they're men.
It's the dirty secret of Irish society: every day, thousands of men are being beaten and psychologically abused by wives or partners.
They come from across the spectrum – doctors, solicitors, gardai, successful businessmen and the unemployed – but they all have one thing in common. Their lives are hell.
"Domestic violence against men in Ireland is common, and the economic downturn has made it worse," says Dr Michael O'Shea, a psychotherapist who has counselled male victims of domestic violence for several years. "Some of the stories I've heard are horrific. You get different levels of abuse: emotional, mental and physical abuse is very common. As a therapist and as a man, I've been shocked by the level of trauma which men can incur in relationships."
Physical abuse can include anything from a bite or a kick to stabbings or attacks with baking implements, irons, drills, high-heeled shoes and hair straighteners.
Niamh Farrell, manager of Amen, the Navan-based voluntary group that provides support to male victims of domestic violence, has come across some extreme cases – one man had boiling water thrown on him while he slept.
Another, a long-distance juggernaut driver, reported that his wife refused to let him sleep whenever he came home from a long trip because, she said, she wanted him to be so exhausted when he went back to work that he'd crash his lorry.
Farrell also recalls an old man in his 80s who confided that his abusive wife routinely hid his diabetes medication.
"They come in very upset. They feel humiliated. You'd be shocked at what you'd hear in this office – you think you've heard it all and then someone walks in the door and tells you something that floors you."
Sandra Kelly, a support worker with Amen, recalls some of the abuse stories that have crossed her desk in the past few years.
"Some of the common things are boiling water thrown into their laps while they are watching TV," she says.
"If they're holding a child, a woman may attack them because the man's first priority is to protect the child and he will take the blows from the fist or an implement.
"Stabbing is another thing – scissors and knives. A very small blade can do a lot of damage."
Fellow support worker Aoife McGrath has dealt with men who routinely lock their bedrooms at night in case their wife or partner attacks them in their sleep.
"We've had men who have woken up in the middle of the night to find their wife or partner standing over them with a knife," she says.
"One man locked himself in his bedroom – his wife was so angry she set fire to the carpet outside his door. We've known men who even moved out to the garden shed to put some distance between themselves and their partner or wife."
Six-foot tall and very muscular, John (not his real name) was married for nearly 20 years.
For much of that time he suffered intense abuse: "It started around the birth of our first child, when she started calling me names for no reason. I'd be eating my dinner and there would be a cup thrown at me if I disagreed with her," he says.
"I learned early on that I had to be the one to say sorry. I couldn't open my mouth – everything I said was wrong. Eventually, I only ever spoke when she spoke first.
"I behaved as if I was walking not on eggshells but on razor blades – she'd just blow up and she'd hit me, box me, throw cups and knives and forks at me for nothing."
On one occasion, John says that she stabbed him several times.
"The children were definitely affected – my daughter was very anxious and my son was very nervous and got upset very easily."
Psychological abuse such as name-calling and constant put-downs, and the constant stress of living in an atmosphere of intense volatility, can be incredibly traumatic, warns Dr O'Shea.
"Some of the men who have come to see me have been suicidal; I'd be quite concerned about them."
They may have endured mental and physical attacks over a period of years before coming for help. "I know of cases where men have been attacked while they sleep – they can be woken up to a beating with high heels or a bat of some kind."
By the time O'Shea sees them, they're usually aged between their mid-30s and late 50s, may have endured the attacks for years and have come to him as a last resort.
"Often, they would be severely traumatised by years of sheer abuse," he says.
The situation has worsened since the recession, adds Niamh Farrell – statistics show the total number of contacts received by Amen jumped from around 3,600 in 2009 to more than 5,200 in 2012.
While this may partly be a result of the increased awareness of the existence of support organisations, and also a greater willingness by men to seek help, Farrell believes the economic downturn has had a very significant impact. "The recession has seen an increase in calls to the centre," she says.
More men are at home due to job loss, bringing increased strain to bear on domestic relationships, while the growth in unemployment has resulted in significant financial strain on families.
"In some cases where the woman is working and the man is not, and you have men losing financial independence as a result of losing their job, their wife or partner may now be in control of the finances and can be using that to abuse," Farrell of Amen explains.
Verbal attacks are the most common form of abuse and, Farrell observes, it often acts as a gateway to physical violence.
"Verbal or psychological abuse can be taunting, name-calling, claiming they are useless as a father or insinuating that they may not even be the father – this happens all the time."
Other methods of psychological abuse include the destruction of personal possessions, such as hobby equipment including records or art supplies, as well as social isolation.
"We have guys who have been stopped from playing football with their friends or not allowed to go on lads' nights out," says Farrell.
Male victims of domestic violence make up about a quarter of the overall clientele of OSS Cork, an agency that provides support for male and female victims of domestic abuse.
Here, too, the impact of the recession has been noticed: the number of new clients rose from 168 in 2008 to 220 in 2012, says manager Deborah O'Flynn, who believes it's impossible to ignore the effect of the economy on what is an "overall rise" in the number of male and female victims of domestic abuse since the start of the recession.
While public awareness of the existence of OSS Cork has increased, and it's becoming more socially acceptable for men to seek help with the problem of domestic violence, job loss is definitely a factor.
"There's a huge put-down of their self-esteem because they lost a job; that is used to chip away at their confidence. They get verbal abuse," says O Flynn, adding that, in the long-term, this can be even more damaging than physical assaults.
Adds Dr O'Shea: "The typical client is someone who is unemployed and out of the home, in his late 30s up to late 50s. The house might be in negative equity – in some cases, the man has to pay the mortgage even though the ex might be living in the house with someone else.
"Since the recession, he may have lost his job and the lifestyle is gone, and he'll be told, 'You are not a man any more; if you were, we wouldn't be losing our house'."
Jack (name has been changed) is a case in point. A once-affluent businessman, he suffered years of abuse, which got worse once the recession hit.
"During the boom I earned a lot of money, but it dried up when the recession came and she wasn't happy about that," he explains. "I started earning less and she didn't like the fact that, financially, things were tighter.
"She'd hit or kick me. You could end up with your dinner all over the floor, or she'd empty out the presses with one hand. She'd hit me with everything from candlesticks to a poker or a lamp. I've locked myself in the bedroom but she broke the lock.
He continues: "If you were in the car with her and she didn't like something you said, she could hit you, even if you were driving.
"Sometimes she'd make me get out of the car and she'd drive off – maybe she'd come back a few minutes later. It was all about power and brinkmanship."
Physically big – over six-foot tall – compared to his wife, who is very petite, he tried to hide the abuse, often unsuccessfully. "She'd turn on me verbally in public – I often walked out of social functions," says Jack. "Friends often asked me how I let her treat me like that, but I kept my mouth shut for the sake of peace.
"I'm very afraid of her when she's had a few drinks, to be honest. I've had to leave the house because she gets so aggressive and a few times I've left for several days.
"I hate coming home from work. I try to stay out as long as possible. I've got to the stage where I felt like pulling the plug on myself. You keep trying; you hope the next day will be a better day, but it never is."
Like other experts in this area, O'Flynn has found that many clients will not hit back. They either have a deep-rooted moral objection to hitting a woman, or they fear being goaded into something that will be reported to gardai, she says.
"A lot of men we see would say they never hit back. They don't know how to react to this; they know you don't hit a woman," adds Farrell.
Take Arthur (name has been changed). A farmer with several children, he was physically abused for trying to stop his wife hitting their children.
"The wife started getting very cross with the children and she'd hit them for minor reasons. When I started to intervene, I got hit," he says.
"Once when I intervened, she hit me on the back of the head with something and knocked me out cold.
"Another day when I intervened after she lost her temper with one of the kids again, she gave me a black eye."
The couple later separated.
Physically much bigger than his ex, Arthur never wanted to retaliate. "Later on, I found people were slow to believe me; some of our friends wouldn't believe it when it came out and they sided with my ex, so I lost friends as well," he says.
"It's awkward because we live in a community where everyone knows everyone else.
"I feel very embarrassed about it. It usually doesn't happen that the men get hit by the women. There's a shame factor.
He adds: "If you were in the local rugby club, for example, it wouldn't sound great if it came out that the wife was hitting you. Once a guy said to me in a pub that I wasn't a man if I let a woman hit me."
However, Dr O'Shea actively counsels men not to hit back, saying that will only turn them into offenders and lose them credibility.
"It takes a big man not to hit back, so don't be embarrassed that you didn't retaliate," O'Shea says.
Shame and a fear of not being believed are the main reasons many men don't come forward, and children are often the reason why some will remain in the home, enduring years of abuse.
"We feel that this kind of abuse by women is very widespread, but it's not being acknowledged," says Niamh Farrell.
"Men will not come forward and talk openly about it; they're afraid to because they don't think they'll be believed.
"They will have a fear that people will laugh at them, because, after all, how could this small woman abuse this big man? So humiliation is a big factor in the secrecy around it."
Things are improving, though, says Deborah O'Flynn of OSS.
The gardai and the courts are increasingly open to the concept of male victims of domestic violence and it's becoming more socially acceptable for men to seek emotional as well as practical support, but the biggest problem is still public perception.
If service providers still have a lack of understanding or awareness that a man can be abused, it will affect the provisions and supports put in place for male victims of domestic violence, she warns.
The glaring lack of refuges for male victims of domestic violence is a case in point. And on a one-to-one basis, a negative reaction can have a very damaging result.
"Sometimes you'll come up against officials in various areas who aren't receptive to the idea of a male domestic-violence victim because of a lack of understanding about it," says O'Flynn.
"That can sometimes discourage a client from pursuing the matter. Domestic abuse victims often only go for help after they have been exposed to it for a long time.
"Their self-esteem is already very low, and if they get short shrift from the official they go to, then it buys into their own low self-esteem and fear that no one will believe them, and they will give up."
Generally, she says, OSS Cork will counsel male victims to stay in their homes until it becomes impossible to do so.
"There are women's refuges, but no men's refuges," she points out, adding that staying elsewhere may not always be possible.
"Getting out of the home is not as easy as a person might think. Family members may not be an option, and if you are a home owner or a council tenant, it is very difficult to get rent allowance because you need to get on a housing list."
The situation leads to a huge sense of isolation, says John*.
"People find it very difficult to believe a man who says he's a victim of domestic violence. There's no talk about it and the media don't want to know."
ADVICE FOR MALE VICTIMS OF DOMESTIC ABUSE
Don’t hit back, warns psychotherapist Dr Michael O’Shea. “If you do, you’re totally discredited because you become an offender yourself,” he says.
Realise that you have choices, even though your confidence may be very low. Talk to a friend and family member, or seek help from an organisation such as AMEN.
Keep everything within the law and seek good legal advice from free legal aid or through AMEN.
Recognise that you are a victim and have a right to be protected and a right to safety and dignity in your home.
It’s wise to stay in your home until it becomes impossible to do so, says Deborah O’Flynn. “Getting out of the home is not as easy as a person might think. In an emergency situation a woman can apply for a refuge but not a man.”
Consider the possibility of getting the abuser out of the home. If that’s not going to work, consider, in conjunction with your support worker, the possibility of leaving yourself.
If and when you leave, make sure you have a prepared safety plan. This is a collection of important telephone numbers, clothes, documents, passports, PPS numbers, marriage certificates. Your support worker will help you to work out your safety plan.
Follow-through is crucial: don’t apply for a barring order or safety order if you don’t intend on following through on it; make your appearance at the hearing, and call gardai when appropriate, because if you don’t follow through on a plan of action, the perpetrator knows it's an empty threat.
Think about getting counselling.
If you cannot get your abuser out of the home and don’t want to move out yourself, continue to link in with the support service. Your support worker will help you ensure that you know how to disengage from potentially volatile situations and keep yourself as safe as possible while still living in the same environment as the perpetrator.