As a psychotherapist and Director of the Men’s Resource Center of West Michigan, Randy Flood can tell you that domestic violence is non-discriminating. It happens regardless of gender, age, sexual orientation, social-economic status, culture, or occupation. Flood has counseled men who perpetrate domestic violence and claim to be victims as a means of avoiding accountability for their behavior. But he has also worked with men who have been or are the victim of abuse. Unfortunately, for men such as these, society continues to make it difficult to openly tell their stories of abuse and to seek treatment and healing. Which is why, when a good friend offered to share his story of surviving domestic abuse on the Revealing Men podcast in the hope it would help others, Flood was grateful.
Jim’s story highlights the struggle inherent for many male victims of domestic violence: societal or internal beliefs about manhood, the risk of not being believed, and the fear of experiencing shame. It touches on stereotypes, i.e., how can a professional, educated man be the victim of domestic violence. And it illustrates how, when the customary masculine paradigm of using brawn or fighting back to conquer the aggressor will not work, there is another heroic path available – one of care and nurturing. This article is edited for length and clarity. You can hear the entire conversation on the Revealing Men podcast. We invite you to listen with an open heart and mind to truly hear the human tragedy no one is immune from nor asks for.
This is the third in a series of four podcasts featuring men who reveal their personal experiences with abuse, violence, and bullying. The series provides insight as to how males are often socialized to accept emotional and physical abuse and pain—suck it up—and how that primes them to pass this abuse forward. Each man interviewed identifies how he has experienced abuse and how a new self-awareness allows a revisioning of masculinity where the cycle of abuse is no longer accepted or mindlessly passed down. Find the other podcasts in the series here:
- Counseling Changed His Life — an abusive man’s experience with counseling
- Bullying: Understanding and Mitigating its Effects — personal stories of bullying and redemption
- Becoming a Pro-feminist Male in the Military — how the concepts of masculinity and masculine identity can include compassion and thoughtfulness while retaining courage and leadership
Being a Male Victim of Domestic Violence
Flood: I’d like to welcome my friend, Jim. He has had an experience that sometimes men struggle to talk about and so when I was talking to Jim about Revealing Men and why we want to review what’s going on in the inner lives of men, he said, “I think it’d be good for me to talk about my experience with domestic violence and being a victim of domestic violence and what that was like.” With the hope, I think, that if you can give voice to your experience, maybe that would empower other men to be able to come and talk about their experience. Because so much about being a victim of domestic violence from a woman is hard for men sometimes to grapple with. And so, thanks for coming in and being willing to share.
Jim: Yeah. Thanks for having me, Randy.
I think one of the reasons why I want to be here and I want to tell this story is because for so many people it’s so unbelievable. I’ve not told a lot of people yet about this, but I’ve spent a lot of time recovering in therapy and the like, and some of the few people I’ve told flat out didn’t believe it could occur. I’ve been told by a good friend, “No it’s not possible for a woman to abuse a man, and look at you, you’re tall!” So, clearly, that can’t happen!
Flood: So, you think it comes from some belief that, what, a real man couldn’t be a victim because they have the strength and power to not be one? And so, your story doesn’t have construct validity?
Jim: [Laughs.] Basically. I’m not so sure about the terminology yet, but it’s just amazing. And, as I have run into a few other men over the years, that slowly this comes out, it’s just a similar experience. So, since I’ve spent a lot of time invested in my own healing and recovery and am a bit able to talk about it, I thought it was time.
Flood: Yeah. I appreciate your courage and your willingness to do this. You and I have talked about it in the past but not maybe in the ways you might talk about it today. I’m willing to hear you out and we’ll ask questions along the way and maybe point out trends that other men might want to hear about.
The Pattern of Abuse Starts Subtly
Jim: I got married quite young to a woman who would appear to have some serious psychological challenges that never were diagnosed during our marriage. Folks have thought she had a borderline personality disorder and maybe was also bipolar. [She was] a very bright, engaging woman who slowly defined reality in our relationship. As long as I went along with her definition of reality, things generally went pretty well. But, as she seemed to get increasingly off-balance, any resistance I would offer to what was no longer reality generated increasing amounts of verbal abuse, arguments, and eventually physical abuse.
A very first event, that sort of became a bit of a paradigm, was she didn’t want to change the diapers on the baby and she lost it. She basically threw our one-year-old child at me. I caught our daughter and lashed back at my wife out of anger. And so, it was just an instinctual thing on my part, but that, in her mind, at least, set the paradigm that I was actually the abuser. Our interactions were often framed in that way.
Later on, she just had a ferocious intensity for verbal fighting and, as we had children, I wanted to avoid that. I would go to our room and say “Well, let’s at least fight here.” And then, I just wasn’t into fighting, so she would yell at me and if I didn’t fight back verbally with her, she would get angrier and angrier. And then, she would generally start hitting me in the head or try to strangle me, and I just put my shoulders up to sort of impede her hands and just tough it out. Anytime I would jump up if I couldn’t take it anymore, she would accuse me of abusing her because maybe she rolled off the bed while she was trying to strangle me and I would go out the door. I just got into a world where I accepted that.
Flood: What world was that? What do you think went on in your head that aided your dysfunctional acceptance of it? Sometimes people are surviving and adapting because there’s kids. People will say, “Why does she stay?” There are reasons sometimes people get trapped or endure.
Jim: At this point, at this far out, there’s no reason that I would accept but at the time, I was married and deeply religious. I didn’t want to disappoint my parents. My sister had been divorced. And so, I thought, “Oh, my parents can’t take another divorce in the family.” I mean, any kind of stupid thing you could come up with. And also, I had made this vow, this marriage vow, and I take my word seriously—in sickness and in health—ya know? She was sick. I could see that at that point. So, I was just gonna stick it out, and I was gonna deny myself stoically because, at that point, I didn’t expect much better out of life. I was just gonna ride out the storm.
The Tactics of Social Isolation and Emotional Abuse
Flood: Did it begin to tear you down? The name-calling, in and of itself, beyond the physical. I mean, she was smart, so she probably cut deep with her names.
Jim: Yeah, yeah. She was very bright, and she cut very deep. I’m sort of a people pleaser kind of personality. That may be less common than typically socialized males, but that’s who I am. And so, I always was trying to keep her happy, right? I would cut out one part of myself, and then another part of myself, and then another part of myself, in an attempt to keep her happy, to keep her pacified. It didn’t really dawn on me that it wasn’t working.
The other thing, that I didn’t really notice, [was] we were moving a lot for work and establishing ourselves in different countries, so we didn’t have a good social network. And, on top of it, she cut me off from all my friends. I never, ever, went out with anyone in almost nine years of marriage without her.
Flood: Wow. And that’s a classic tactic, right? Social isolation gives a person, an intimate partner, power because they get to define their reality and you’re cutting parts of yourself out to adapt to it and that creates a power differential over time. And you’re isolated! So, you’re not able to have the support. It’s very effective.
Jim: Yeah. When she finally left, I started seeing a psychologist: an American Jewish woman married to an Israeli Jewish guy who was a psychiatrist and part of the Israeli defense forces. He, after hearing [my] story was like “my God this woman is brilliant.” This woman naturally knows how to torture, isolate, and get mind-control over people. There are manuals for how to do this. That was just his gut reaction, which is sort of shocking to hear about yourself.
Flood: The Duluth Battered Women’s Movement in Duluth, Minnesota started back in the late ’70s, early ’80s. And that’s what they essentially did. They took the model of oppression that’s replicated throughout the world and relationships and created this power and control wheel. And so, it becomes this brilliant way, a brilliant paradigm for control and power. And you sound like you were right in the web of it.
Jim: Brilliantly evil. Yes.
Flood: It is. Yeah, there’s a logic to it, a dark logic.
Jim: It’s just hard to comprehend, for a lot of people, that you’re caught in this dark, brilliantly evil world and, at the same time, you’re having some success professionally and living your life. People don’t believe it because of that, and if you can show up to your job every day they must think: “Oh, it must not be true.”
Society’s Reluctance to Recognize Male Survivors of Domestic Abuse
Flood: Domestic violence is a huge problem for women as victims, but there’s this hidden thing about men’s victimization. What do you think, best as you can understand it, were the unique challenges for you as a man, as a victim? Is there something about how it registered for you or how you uniquely adapted to it; what stories you were telling yourself as a man? Narratives?
Jim: As a man, I was all on this stoic thing. I’m Dutch. I’m a man. I can tough it out…I can tough it out. Even during the physical abuse—it was physical abuse, I can say that now—I would laugh at it because she wasn’t that strong. She wasn’t that good at strangling me! When I was curled up in the fetal position in the corner of the room when she was kicking me and mocking me, the kicks, I could put up with them. It’s a weird illogical logic. That you can come up with those stories. And then, I guess, the key, and again that’s one of the reasons I’m here, is someone has to believe males that have been abused. And only when that starts to happen, can there be healing.
When I started counseling, I picked up a book, I’m sure you’ve seen it, Trauma and Recovery by Judith Herman. It’s sort of a text-booky kind of book, but to me, it was like a self-recovery manual. But the key chapter was really tough for me because it’s like, “there can only be true healing when there’s a societal embrace of the cause,” ya know, like battered women, or PTSD Vietnam Vets. Only when society does the final step and acknowledges that and says, “We’re willing to bear some of that burden and we’re willing to correct that” can the individual victims really be truly healed. I don’t think we’re anywhere near that with male domestic abuse. [Flood: “No.”] And so, in a sense, I don’t have hope for full healing yet because I’m still reluctant to tell this story. And when some people hear it, they just say “nope, couldn’t happen.”
Acknowledging and Grappling with the Shame of Abuse
Flood: I have, as you know, a history of working with batterers, with men who have perpetrated domestic violence. It’s amazing to me the amount of men who come in believing that they’re victims: “if you were married to my wife,” “She triggers me and pushes my buttons,” “You would hit her too.” There’s this feeling that [they’re] being victimized, that [they’re] only reacting or retaliating.
I think there’s this fear that I can’t believe you because I have to question whether you’re just a wolf in sheep’s clothing, right? There’s that part. There’s this belief in this masculine essentialism as I would call it. Whereas, like a “real man” would just react, right? Their survival mechanism would kick in and they would overpower her or they would hit her or something. [Jim: “Exactly.”] There’s this narrative that says you can’t be a victim versus “No, I have value systems and I have belief systems about how I function as a man and what I do with my hands and what is acceptable. That is an internal restraint that intercedes before I just instinctively do something that you are telling me I would do if I was a true victim.”
Jim: Right. I think when you look at other oppressed groups, like African Americans under slavery or many of the oppressed peoples that I’ve worked with over the years overseas, the oppressed people can’t hit back, even if they’re male. Because there’s a whole hierarchy structure that would make hitting back much worse. A male will pay a price now, in a professional society at least, if they hit back or whatever. That’s a further restraint. So, you’re in an encounter with someone who’s not going to have those restraints, who is not going to play by those rules. They can get a sense of that and really leverage that power to play outside the rules.
Flood: That’s a dimension, maybe a gender specificity, that’s different, right?
Jim: Yeah. It’s radically different. It’s a hard map to follow because the stories like mine are just never told and so people haven’t walked through that path and it just seems so weird.
Flood: What is the shame part in your recovery? “Why me?” or “what could I have done differently?” or your masculine identity as victim? Has there been a legacy of shame you’ve had to try to work through as well? Trying to undo that toxic shame?
Jim: It’s huge. I’ve been relatively successful on the career front and education front, and to sort of stack that up on one side and the experience of utter humiliation, shame, and abuse on the other, they just don’t seem to be part of the same equation. But, they’re parts of me. It just doesn’t make sense, even to me. It’s just so hard to compute. I feel shame as a man, especially as an old-school man, and I feel a lot of shame as a father, as a parent, for not protecting my children better. They weren’t so much abused physically but they were subject to this household that was out of control and witnessed a father being humiliated and they weren’t protected. That’s something I continue to feel a lot of shame about.
Flood: Yeah. I can see it on you as you talk about it. Shitty. Sorry. And I agree with you that somehow as a society, as academics, as sociologists, as psychologists, we’ve got a long way to go I think to do a better job recognizing this form of abuse and seeing that it’s out there and that it’s particularly difficult. It’s difficult for women to come forward and talk about it for their own reasons, and it’s also a difficulty, in many different layers, for men.
Escaping from the Web of Abuse
Flood: You broke through the silence. How did that happen? Where you remember first being willing to talk about it? Or how you extricated yourself? Or what light came on that said, “Okay. I gotta find a way out.”
Jim: There’s just an endless string of stories, endless strings of podcasts, we could do on this. One particular thing that has a lot to do about gender, and gendering, and masculinity is, in the midst of this, when I was finally facing it, the kind of strength I felt I could generate was that of I wanted to pick up all three of my kids—three kids at the time, who even at that point I doubt I could pick up all three because they were getting older. [Laughs] I wanted to carry them, walk from where I was living in Central America at the time, all the way back here to Michigan. Obviously, no one could do that, not even Superman probably.
But what I needed to generate was a different kind of parenting skill that wasn’t about the physical strength; it was about empathy, care, and creating a safe environment for the kids. All sorts of things that my traditional socialization as a male hadn’t really equipped me to do. Here I was suddenly, the single dad with full custody of three little kids and I had to play all these roles that we would typically divide up between male and female or at least a couple of partners [Flood: “Yeah, sure.”] and here I was alone. One on three and pretty beat up.
Flood: It’s interesting you said the vision of this caring father has so much physicality to it. This heroic journey of picking your children up and having the strength to carry them miles and miles and miles. That seemed arduous but you had a narrative for it, you had a vision for it. But then, when you finally plopped down and were safe, you had to figure out how to care for them. And be emotionally available and that was like “holy shit.” That’s quite a journey. Emotionally, in your inner journey to ready yourself for that and heal.
Jim: Yeah. I had to rewrite my DNA in a way. [Flood: “Yeah, yeah.”] That’s a lot of work, to rewrite your DNA!
Flood: That is a lot of work. It is.
Jim: I’ve been in therapy for 20 years and I’m still working on some of this stuff.
Discovering the Healing Path Forward
Flood: Say a little bit about the love you did find, eventually.
Jim: I thought of throwing in the towel on my work overseas and coming back [to the States] because I was a single parent of three and that was pretty daunting. And then I ran into some old email and renewed my memory of a woman who had widowed and had three kids also. So, we’re sort of the multi-cultural, post-modern version of the Brady Bunch [Laughs]. We are a patched up, beat up, nontraditional family in so many ways. She’s also a very gifted public speaker and travels the world. And so, I still often was cast in this role of being a stay-at-home dad or whatever. But it was beautiful because I was able to do that much better accompanied. Two versus six. Two parents versus six kids is a lot easier than one versus three.
Flood: Well, you are a strong, beautiful, and dynamic man.
Jim: It’s hard to believe that I’ve made it this far. Yeah. That movie Unbroken about this guy who gets tortured, that was sort of my vision of the male, ya know? [Flood: “Right.”] Instead, I’ve gotten very broken and then, in the midst of it, somehow came out a little stronger, maybe.
Flood: Thanks so much for coming and talking.
Jim: Thank you, Randy.
Support and Healing for Male Victims of Domestic Abuse
Although some men suffer victimization from domestic violence in silence—believing that a real man will just deal with it and not burden others—Jim’s story shows you don’t have to be alone.
The Men’s Resource Center offers specialized counseling services for men, including trauma counseling for males who have been victims of abuse along with online counseling and online men’s support groups for men who can’t access our services in person or who prefer the comfort and convenience of their own space. Each program is facilitated by highly-trained, licensed counselors. Contact the Men’s Resource Center online or by phone (616) 456-1178 for more information or if you have questions about this segment, ideas for a topic, or would like to be a guest on the Revealing Men podcast.
Call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at (800) 799-7233 if you or someone you know needs assistance because of domestic violence. If this is an emergency, call 9-1-1.