I DIDN’T KNOW A MAN COULD BE ABUSED BY A WOMAN
A staggering number of men are victims of domestic violence by their female partners. One speaks out to break the taboo.
When Jacob was growing up , he could never have imagined he would experience domestic violence. “I was a straight, a normal guy, he says wryly. “My family was really close. My folks are still together. There were no big family problems that would have given me some kind of a window into how dark the world can be.” Yet Jacob spent several years in such darkness after falling in love with Helen, a woman he met online.
Helen was a year older than Jacob, and from the start, he was enchanted by her presence online. She was pretty, he says, but more than that, she found him funny and engaging. Jacob says he wanted to meet Helen in person — they lived a few hours apart from each other — and was disappointed when she declined. But a year later, she emailed Jacob “out of the blue.” She was just out of a relationship and asked if he wanted to get together. “I ran at it,” he says of her offer. “It was an adventure to get to know her because she lived far away.”
Jacob was 22 years old. He was a somewhat rudderless university grad; he wanted to do big things, but wasn’t sure what that looked like. Instead, he poured his energies into nurturing a relationship with Helen. She was charming and funny, but also vulnerable. He thought he could help her, perhaps be her knight in shining armor. The long-distance relationship progressed quickly. Even from the beginning, Jacob saw signs of volatility, but he always found a way to write them off, even when they involved Helen’s episodes of drinking too much and passing out. “I would always put it back on myself and say, ‘You’re a guy who’s not good with emotions and feelings. You’re dumb, you’re a dunce, and she just knows more [about feelings],” he admits.
It’s easy for Jacob to look back now and see the trajectory of emotional and verbal abuse that led to physical battering, but at the time, Helen’s behavior and words convinced him that the problem was his alone. She was emotionally volatile and from the beginning, exhibited extreme mood swings, but Jacob was sure that, as a man, he just didn’t understand women’s emotions.
“A relationship like that warps your thinking,” he says. “I took every mood swing at face value and trusted it, took it seriously, and was willing to believe I was the cause of it.” He knew he was in too deep, but he was also uncertain about how to turn back. He proposed to Helen. It wasn’t long before the physical abuse started.
One of the first episodes of battering occurred as the couple was preparing their wedding invitations. Helen, who was drinking more frequently, was also becoming increasingly violent. While working on the invitations, Helen was “sneaking away and getting drunk,” Jacob narrated . When she returned, “she slapped and punched me. Then, she actually got on top of me and started choking me.”
He says he tried to postpone the engagement, but Helen became hysterical at the suggestion. “She was on her knees, apologizing while holding my wrists very tightly, making a big show of being sorry — and it worked.” By the end of the year, they were married.
Jacob still didn’t accept that he was a victim of domestic violence, mainly because it never occurred to him that a man could be abused by a woman. But though women are three times more likely to be killed or seriously injured by a male partner than vice versa.
Still, Jacob continued to try to “be a good guy and do the right thing,” he recalls. Because Helen was manipulating him emotionally and verbally, he was willing to believe he was the one with the problem. He felt compelled to help Helen with her emotional instability. “I believed if I could be good enough, that I could help put things together and help manage this very unmanageable person,” he says.
No one in their circle of family and friends knew that Jacob was already being abused by his wife. He had alienated his friends by throwing himself into the relationship with Helen, and he worked hard to conceal her behavior from others, even when she ended up in a psychiatric hospital for a brief episode of inpatient treatment. She continued the verbal and emotional abuse, and the physical violence persisted. The couple would fight for hours at a stretch, ending only after exhausting themselves. “She could go and go and go and beat you down until you’re suddenly on your knees, crying and apologizing, and you don’t even know why.” Jacob’s social ties were effectively cut, and he was alone. He knew his marriage wasn’t healthy, but he continued to feel the weight of responsibility: “I was very focused on being an upright, ‘good guy.'”
Acknowledging the Abuse::::::
Increasingly, however, Jacob couldn’t write off Helen’s attacks. Physically cut off from everyone else in his life, he used email to slowly reveal his abuse to his one remaining friend and the pastor at his church. “But even then, I was using this coded language, like ‘She’s strong willed. She has emotional outbursts. Things are tough, she’s moody.'” The idea of being abused was one he still hadn’t articulated — which is not uncommon for men, who struggle to reconcile domestic abuse with ideas about masculinity.
But the terrifying tipping point came when Helen discovered Jacoby’s emails and confronted him. “She was just devastated,” he recalls. “I had talked about her, like I’d told tales out of school or something. This was an atom bomb in our relationship.” Jacob adds that he felt guilty for hurting her so deeply. “I had committed a grave sin. Talking about these awful experiences was breaking the code of silence around the relationship, so in the logic of this relationship, she had the right to be broken and devastated.”
It wasn’t until his parents intervened that Jacob articulated he was being abused. One weekend, when he and Helen were supposed to go home for his brother’s birthday, Jacob called his parents to say Helen wouldn’t be joining him. He continued to shoulder the blame, saying he thought his marriage was in trouble and that he’d “done something terrible,” but his parents broke through the defense. “My dad asked, ‘Has she ever hit you?,’ and I said, ‘I’m not going to answer that,'” Jacob remembers. “That’s what started it. To hear my parents’ voices, these two people who love me and have good heads on their shoulders, made a light bulb come on for me.”
It would take more than a year for their divorce to become final, and extricating himself from the relationship and abuse wouldn’t be easy. “I was still religious and I was hanging onto that and I said to my parents, ‘You can pray for us.'” It wasn’t until his father said, “Jacob, I think this situation has had enough prayer,” that he realized he had to get out. “I knew she wouldn’t change, it was no longer my responsibility to help her change, and it was the first moment I realized I was in an abusive relationship,” he says. But recognition of the abuse didn’t eliminate the barriers to leaving the marriage. Jacob wasn’t confident he could get out of the house safely and he had to make an escape plan with the help of his family.
The divorce has been done! While he’s not currently in a relationship — “I’m taking a break from women,” he says — he’s hopeful about the future. “It was a big shock learning that something that scary, unpleasant, and toxic could find me,” he says. But today, he finally feels free. When an abusive relationship ends, he says, “it feels like losing 100 pounds. You get out and you’re like, ‘I’ve got a new life!’