Male victims of domestic violence and the barriers to speak out and seek help

By Dr Ghana Shyam Chapagain
29 November 2019

Domestic violence (DV) is a rising form of human rights abuse that affects health and overall wellbeing of the individuals involved.

In case of the Nepalese community in Australia, it is sadly a pervasive social problem which has had devastating effects on members of the affected families.

We must understand that different communities view DV in different ways. However, broadly speaking, it is any incident or pattern of incidents of coercive or threatening behavior, violence or abuse occuring between people aged 18 or over who are, or have been, intimate partners or family members – regardless of gender or sexuality.

Based on media reports alone, it can safely be assumed that women tend to experience DV more than men, and the abuse they face is of substantially more severe in nature.

Here, we must not forget that men in heterosexual relationships and men who have sex with men (MSM) can also suffer similar abuse from a partner, ex-partner or adult family member.

Whether we are talking about the Nepalese community or beyond, partner abuse usually begins early in the relationship and, if not intervened, tends to continue. For some couples, repeated aggression and discord may lead to marital distress and contribute to the likelihood of divorce. For others, aggression leads to battering, severe physical injury, suicide or even homicide.

Philosophers have long seen gender as the basic category on which the world is organised. In the context of marital discord, the issue of gender and power are first to come to the fore, closely followed by issues of culture, ethnicity and race. Most discussions about gender and culture have been driven by women’s rights groups. The centre of their attention has been the issue of power difference between two sexes and the collective unconsciousness of the society that perceives gender roles in a traditional way. Gender is seen as the psychological, social and cultural features and characteristics that have become strongly associated with the biological categories of ‘male’ and ‘female’. Gender, in this sense, is not just the biological sex but it is determined by many characteristics arising from one’s socio-cultural contexts.

The Nepalese society is still filled with gender messages about who we should be and who we should not be.

Typically, men are assigned work that is in the public sphere (and most often are the bread winners of the family) while women carry out responsibilities that are more private in nature like homemaking, childcare, maintaining the  family and many other affairs of domesticity. Many of these gender stereotypes and gender expectations have described who we should be within our marriage and within our families. For example, men are seen as emotionless, of stronger character, rational, aggressive and leaders whereas women are seen as nurturing, emotional, passive and followers of their male counterparts.

In context of the Nepalese society, since the democratic movement in Nepal that eventually led to a more open society and the easy access to information, educated women appeared to break through the traditional stereotype. They now began demanding and expecting more interdependence, assertiveness and a sharing of major responsibilities such as household chores, childcare and providing for the family. This has put further pressure on men to come out of their typical ‘gender box’ while still fulfilling their traditional responsibilities. It has pushed the male population beyond their psychological comfort zone. This very issue appears to be the reason of major conflict in heterosexual married couples. This has possibly contributed to more violence towards men which has always been underreported and poorly acknowledged.

For the past 40 years or so, Nepal has been constantly undergoing a process of political transformation. It has taken a cultural toll and brought about changes in social values and traditional norms. Unlike the changes in women who appeared to have adopted some components of western culture, men started becoming more focused in incorporating the ‘Alpha’ characters to survive in the competitive world. They tend to portray themselves as courageous, that they will take any risks in life as well as in their businesses.

A typical Nepalese man tends not to share his negative emotions as it is seen as a serious personal weakness. They become consumed by their careers, by their urge and “need” to excel in their careers so that they are taken seriously in the community. Everything else may start to fall apart when this “barrier” takes hold of them. The alpha male recognizes that life must be balanced. Work, love, health, and friends are all essential areas that must be cultivated in order to maintain a strong lifestyle across the board. They strive to be at the top of the social status hierarchy to have greater access to power, money and mates, which they gain through physical prowess, intimidation, and domination.

The very challenge to ‘masculinity’ is considered to be one of many barriers that keep men from speaking out about domestic violence against them. For some men, talking about their feelings and reporting their abuse is less of a man. Fear of disclosure is massive for others. Male victims experience different emotions like internal fears, ambivalence related to shame and denial. When the abuse continues, male victims often feel embarrassed to discuss various aspects of their abuse outside their personal networks. One of the main barriers to disclosure and help-seeking is their commitment to relationship. Many men would like the DV to stop, but not their relationship in which they are still emotionally invested. Some of the commitments to the relationship is perhaps due to fear of losing contact with children as the family courts often favor mothers for custody purpose. The other barriers to help seeking are closely related to the confidentiality and the perceived availability, and potentially the reality of available services for men victims of domestic violence.

Violence and abuse to a male victim may take many forms. Apart from physical (slapping, hitting, scratching) and emotional (belittling remarks, yelling, screaming, being ignored etc) abuse there are other types of abuses like limited decision-making opportunities, social isolation (being unreasonably restricted from your family and friends) and also dominating behavior. Often the domestic and abuse in married couples are combinations of various forms.

The impact of family violence on male victims is in many ways different than what female victims experience.

The male victims often suffer a feeling of guilt and shame with a constant undercurrent of fear and a sense of loss of safety. They have difficulties trusting others including their colleagues at work. They carry an unresolved anger and often experience anxiety and flashbacks. Over time, they lose their self-esteem and develop self-hatred. With over-controlling spouse, they may develop loneliness and social isolation. They may carry physical stigmata of the abuse with signs of physical injuries and scars. They start self-medicating with alcohol and other drugs and over time, they may develop clinical depression including suicidal attempts. These people are more likely to suffer from heart problems like hypertension and other physical illnesses.

It is quite unfortunate that change in abusive partner’s behavior is unlikely to occur unless she seeks professional help, which again seldom happens. She may be acutely remorseful after a major incident takes places – which does not help – because it already too late. Hence, there is no alternative to the male victim making a timely decision regarding his safety before things escalate beyond repair.

Another barrier to help-seeking is that male victims are likely to feel that they may not be trusted by the authorities if he reports. However, the approach to support male victim of DV is changing in Australia and a timely reporting may be helpful. The male victim has to get timely support and develop a safety plan.

Australian support services:

MensLine Australia 1300789978
Beyond Blue

Dr Ghana Shyam Chapagain is a consultant psychiatrist based in Sydney. 

The writer of this article is solely responsible for opinions, ideas and information contained in this article – Editor

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