The Marriage Podcast for Smart People

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The Abusive Wife

The classic domestic abuse scenario is a husband beating his wife. I think almost all of society gets that and understands it’s wrong. Then you have husbands that are emotionally and psychologically abusive: people are still struggling to accept this as a form of domestic violence, but more and more are understanding this is a severely devastating problem for a wife. But today we are going to cover the least well known and least understood situation: the abusive wife. As it turns out, women are capable of the same mindset and actions that abusive men are capable of. How Common Are Male Victims of Abuse? It turns out this is a difficult question to answer as abuse towards men is underreported and underbelieved (yes, I just invented a new word there: what I mean is that when a man reports abuse he is not as likely to be believed as a woman reporting the same). What do we know about the stats? A research study from 2008[i] found that 19% of reported domestic violence cases involved a male victim. Another study from 2010[ii] found that for every 1000 people in the American population, 3.8 women and 1.3 men will be victims of partner abuse each year, making female victims of abuse roughly three times more common than male.  However, these stats do not give the whole story. Western society is still fairly patriarchal in the sense that men are assumed to be in a position of power over women in most contexts, including marriage. This means that abuse is normally thought of as an abuse of that power, inflicted by men upon women. The idea that a woman could physically or emotionally abuse a man does not fit with this worldview that the man is the powerful head of the house[iii].  This means that men will very rarely admit to being victims of abuse, for fear of humiliation, being labeled as cowardly and weak, or not being taken seriously. The fact that very few men admit to being abuse victims leads much of society to think that it does not happen, making it even harder for male victims to be taken seriously[iv].  Many Reactions Are Unhelpful In addition to being a hidden, shame-inducing problem, men who do come forward about abuse from their wives are often ignored, disbelieved or even suspected of abuse themselves when they do come forward. Since much of society views abuse through a patriarchal lens, the idea of male victims is inconceivable. This means that for male victims, their family and friends may not believe the abuse is really happening, or downplay how serious it is. This can also happen when men take their allegations to social services or to the police. Research from 2004[v] found that 35% of abused men were ignored by the police and 21% were arrested themselves, since the police assumed the wife must have been attacked herself and acted in self-defense. With this issue of under-reporting and disbelief in mind, a large study from 2014[vi] reviewed over 200 studies and concluded that abusive wives may in fact be just as common as abusive husbands. What Does Female-Perpetrated Abuse Look Like? Abuse directed at men can take many forms and is in most ways very similar to abuse directed at women. A study from 2004[vii] interviewed 100 abused husbands and found all the different types of abuse were present: Physical abuse: men reported being kicked, threatened with weapons, burned or scalded, stabbed, and other forms of violenceEmotional and psychological: verbal abuse, belittling, threats and aggressionSocial: controlling where the husband goes, not letting him see other people or not letting him interact with the childrenEconomic: denying access to food/money etc Since abuse is largely the same regardless of gender, all the mind games, manipulation and control issues that apply to abusive husbands also apply to abusive wives. Psychological impact on abused men is also similar to its effect on women, but with an added component of shame at being a victim of