It’s hard for me to write the story about being in an abusive relationship. Not because it’s hard for me to talk about it, though sometimes it is. Not because I’m still carrying shame and self-doubt or because I might trigger my own trauma responses, though I am and I might. It’s because writing about being a male survivor of intimate partner abuse, especially when your abuser was a woman, is dangerous water to tread. I fear derailing conversations about domestic violence against women, or giving certain men fuel to claim that some kind of “misandry” or “reverse sexism” is afoot and men are the real victims now.
The fact is, it wasn’t any new cultural phenomenon that made it so easy for my abuser to hurt me (and, even now, makes it hard for me to be believed or helped when I tell my story) — it was good ol’ fashioned patriarchy.
Here are the facts. For two years, I was in a cohabiting relationship with a person who was physically, emotionally, and psychologically abusive to me. I have post-traumatic responses to things that remind me of that time. For instance, my abuser would hum when she was upset with me over some small thing that I would eventually be made to pay for, and the sound of my roommate humming while walking around the apartment triggered a flashback.
Through a constant campaign of gaslighting, negging, and emotional blackmail, she undermined my sense of self-worth to the point where she could make me do anything she wanted. I am still working to regain the confidence to believe I deserve good things, and to re-learn how to stand up for myself and insist upon being treated fairly.
Despite all this, there are still people – some of whom witnessed this all happening firsthand – who don’t take me seriously when I tell them I was abused by this person. Here are three ways a misogynist culture marginalizes men when we are victims of abuse.
1. Toxic Masculinity Norms Mask Abusive Behavior
It’s hard to get sympathy or understanding for what I’ve been through when outdated, toxic cultural expectations for men still exist and normalize many of the ways we can be mistreated.
One way this hit home for me was in how long it took for me to realize that there are two forms of financial abuse. The one we most often hear about goes: Partner A is the primary earner and does not allow Partner B access to money, using it as a means to control them. What we rarely hear is how it played out for us: Partner B refuses to work or contribute to household expenses but makes constant demands outside of what Partner A is able to do, expecting that Partner A will take on more jobs and hustles and sacrifice their own needs to accommodate B’s desires. I was essentially handing my paychecks over to my ex by the end, and we were always broke by the Monday after payday.
There were times when I denied myself a fifty-cent bag of chips knowing that she’d come to me wanting that fifty cents soon, and I’d regret not having it. This is not okay, but her circle of “old-fashioned” friends and their beliefs that it’s a man’s job to be a “provider” normalized it, making me feel broken for being unable to make miracles.
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This plays out in other aspects of relationships too. When society still backs up old, restrictive gender norms, those expectations can be weaponized, and your abuser will likely be backed up by a lot of people who still subscribe to them.
2. Macho Culture is a Convenient Enforcer
I spoke before about emotional blackmail. One of the most surefire ways my abuser found to control me was to play into my insecurities with threats to hurt and humiliate me.
Often, when I fell short financially, she’d tell me about all the friends she had, all of whom had glamorous, high-paying careers; all of whom were attracted to her, and hated me for being an unworthy partner. She would tell me, when I couldn’t provide her with something she wanted, that she would just get it from one of her friends. Of course, she’d have to pretend I was out of the picture.
My unease with that arrangement pushed me to sacrifice more of myself, spread myself thinner, risk burning bridges by begging everyone in my circle trying to find a way to make it happen. This happened over things as small as a pack of cigarettes: when I suggested we share, she said I could keep it and she’d get a pack from one of her friends, so she ended up getting the whole pack from me. (I have since, mercifully, abandoned that habit.)
She would also undermine my masculinity, telling me I was “too feminine” because of tiny mannerism quirks I had never noticed about myself. I watched her intentionally misgender trans people who had angered her, and passive-aggressively talk about trans male friends of hers who supposedly “weren’t really trans” just because they weren’t the butchest thing in the room before they transitioned, implying that no one who doesn’t perfectly fit masculinity stereotypes deserves to be a man.
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She had a “friend” for every situation, in case anyone noticed that pattern. It wasn’t hard to envision my own identity being dismissed by her in the same way if I got on her bad side.
Much like how our gendered culture dictates that a man should “provide,” even in our so-called “millennial” generation where double incomes are required for all but a select few couples and families, it also dictates that shaming a man for not living up to manly stereotypes is permissible, perhaps even necessary. It takes our own insecurities and fears about measuring up and weaponizes them against us.
This still isn’t misandry; it’s our old friend misogyny, telling us that if we aren’t able to meet the macho standards, we’re not men – so in a society that rarely recognizes third (and beyond) genders, we’re by default women, and that, we are constantly reminded, is not a thing anyone should want to be.
3. Stereotypes Minimize Even Physical Violence Against Men
How often do we see a female character in a movie slap a man who has wronged her in some way, and this is played for laughs or applauded as a good way to stand up for herself? A lot of this goes back to ideas that women are weak and fragile, and to the same masculinity standards saying that no “real man” would feel threatened by a woman.
I didn’t have any desire to fight back, and I’m certainly not saying I think I should have been allowed to. But I was repeatedly given the message – both by my abuser herself and by the rest of the world – that men who get hit did something to deserve it, and complaining about it makes me less of a man.
It’s misogyny again that feeds these attitudes: it didn’t matter that I’m disabled and have limitations to my physical strength, or that I was shorter and lighter than my abuser. If a woman hit me and I did anything other than quietly take it, I’m weak. Our culture dictates that it’s shameful to talk about it, so we just pretend it doesn’t happen, or that when it does, it doesn’t count.
Patriarchy hurts all of us in different ways. It gives all of us unfair expectations and punishes us when we don’t live up to them. It switches up the rules and finds reasons why none of us should be trusted when we say we’ve been abused. It creates a space for cycles of abuse to continue because it’s not safe for anyone to talk about it.
Working to dismantle it helps all of us, too. We will all benefit when we get rid of the oppressive gender roles that keep us from being free to live in our truth, even a painful truth like this one.
[Featured Image: Photo of a white woman and man sitting on a wooden bench outside in what appears to be an expansive park. The woman is facing to the left, away from the man, with her legs crossed and her arm on the back of the bench with her hand on her face, clearly annoyed or upset. The man is holding his head in his hands in anguish, his face obscured, shoulders scrunched down. Source: Vera Arsic for Pexels]