I’ve worked in the domestic violence and sexual assault fields for some 47 years and you would think it gets easier hearing all the thousands of stories after all these years. It doesn’t. When it comes to domestic violence, my heart still aches when I’m listening to another sobbing, confused, terrified wife or girlfriend recount her story of abuse at the hands of someone who purports to love her. Sometimes I know the abuser. He might be receiving counseling from me as well, and I’ve gotten to know his insecurities, his hopes, his fears, how he is as a father, even the good guy that he is most of the time. Except, when his buttons get pushed and Dr. Jekyll becomes Mr. Hyde. Then, he frightens his partner and, if they have kids, he frightens the children as well. I hear the kid’s stories, too. I can’t count how many times in my office I hear young children or grown adults tearfully describe how their Daddy scared them last week or thirty years ago. Daddy has a temper. Daddy has a scary face. Daddy yells a lot. Daddy says mean things. To be clear, this blog is not about the many severe battered women cases I encountered over the years. That is a whole other story. No, it is about too many “average” households and dating relationships. It is about yelling, and verbal and emotional abuse, and passive-aggressive payback. It is about our male default fallback position of anger. [For purposes of self-disclosure, I must sadly admit that sometimes I was that scary-faced, yelling person with my kids and partners. It has been a long and ongoing journey to heal and change that programming.]
Many women report that the verbal and emotional abuse and/or the passive-aggressive payback/revenge is sometimes worse than any physical abuse because it wears them down over time and cuts them to the core. It is amazing the horrible things people can say to each other when they have completely lost it. I have heard it all, and in an abusive relationship I was in many years ago, I have firsthand experience with many terrible things yelled at me. After four years of this woman’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde abusive behavior towards me, I felt I had completely lost my identity, my self-esteem, and any sense of self-respect I might have once had. It took a long time to recover me. So, yes, there are also angry, abusive women partners and mothers, but since I am a guy, this blog is focusing on my sex. Also, most men don’t have to fear their female partner because she is bigger and stronger than them. Men generally can and do inflict far more physical damage on a woman in an abusive relationship than a woman can on a man. So, I’ll let a woman writer address the issue of abusive women.
The reasons for this male fallback position are complex and multi-layered. Let’s start with 10,000 years of male warrior programming. Men were purposely raised to be hard, cold, tough, and unfeeling. A woman friend who attended the Naval Academy at Annapolis described what it was like to learn how to kill 27 different ways, how you were trained not to look into the eyes of a superior, how you were driven to be cold and professional, and how you were programmed to unquestioningly obey orders. What does that do to a person’s sense of humanity? What does that do to a culture’s view of the male role and male behavior? Please understand I am not denigrating the brave men and women who serve in our military, simply pointing out that traditionally armies were trained to kill and conquer. It has been their mission throughout history. It is only a modern development that sometimes they are now supposed to be peacemakers.
Many years ago, one of my mentors, Deborah Hellman, compassionately described this at a workshop on healing the heart. No male-bashing in her story. She asked us to imagine living in a small village in times long past. You are a farmer working in the field, when you suddenly hear the church bell ringing urgently. It is the call to alarm and you have not heard it in years. You run to the barn, pick up your rusty sword and breathlessly race to the town square. You are joined by several hundred worried local men and the village leader, the only one with military experience, who gathers you in ragged rows to go out and meet whatever enemy is threatening the village. You march uncertainly out to face a marauding army and you have no time for feelings. The young man you are fighting hand-to-hand with will not spare you and you cannot spare him. If you do allow feelings to get in the way, you could lose your life, your home, your wife, your children, and your village so it is a bitter fight to the death over and over on the battlefield. My Dad once revealed that the most frightening combat experience he had in WWII was hand-to-hand combat with another young, frightened German soldier. My Dad was 18 and the German was probably around the same age. As they stared into each other’s eyes, he could tell neither of them wanted to keep fighting and they were both terrified, but they could not understand each other and they could not trust the other to just walk away. He never told me the outcome of the fight, whether he killed or wounded the young man or if they somehow agreed to back off from each other, but it illustrates the horrors of war and what is required of both victor and vanquished. It requires pushing compassion and empathy aside. It means shutting down your heart. And, it requires anger, so you can defeat the “enemy.”. What does that do to the warrior when he returns home to “normal” life. Doing the dishes. Talking with the wife. Picking up the kids from soccer practice. Buying the groceries. Struggling with bills. Where does he stuff the horror, the hurt, the fear and the anger? Where and when does it leak out later?
The second primary cause seems to be childhood. How we are raised is the key factor. If there was a lot of anger and yelling, even abusive behavior, in your home life, you are going to grow up with that programming. You can’t avoid it, only confront it and heal it. If you don’t it will leak out throughout your life, mostly against yourself and against your loved ones. In my family, the person who talked the loudest was the one who was heard. So, yelling was my default position and seemed perfectly normal. The wakeup call for me came many years ago during an innocent pillow fight with a girlfriend. I learned not everyone’s family handled anger the same way as mine. We were just playing around until I noticed she looked frightened. She related that in her family a pillow fight was an act of violence. That certainly stopped me up short. Later, I discovered that yelling could frighten my partners, especially if they had had PTSD from abusive partners in the past. To me it was just “normal” arguing and yelling. To them, they were waiting for the punch to follow.
I know where my anger and rage came from. I am an incest survivor and spent a lot of years in therapy facing those demons down. I am not interested in blaming my parents for my anger issues anymore. They were raised in angry households as well, and it does little good to blame, and I love them. I can hold them accountable, but as an adult, I am responsible for my own life now. It is my job to change and heal the anger programming. And, that takes a lot of determination, self-honesty, and courage.
Secure and mature men don’t frighten, intimidate, manipulate or harm their girlfriends or wives. They don’t yell and they don’t say things that they would be horribly embarrassed if friends and family heard what they actually said.
“Go ahead and kill yourself psychobitch! The world will be better off without you” “No one will ever love you, you cunt!” “I hope our baby inside you dies. You don’t deserve to be a mother.” “I hope you die and rot in hell forever, you whore!” I could go on, but it makes me too sad to remember all the horrible phrases I have heard used against women. I simply recite them to point out that they go beyond heated words; they are way over the top. They are verbally and emotionally abusive, and rightfully frighten their partner, especially when accompanied by death glares, yelling, and throwing things around. She is just waiting for the punch to follow.
Secure and mature men hold themselves accountable and take steps to change their angry or abusive behavior. Secure and mature men courageously face their childhood issues and family baggage. My wife puts it simply. If they continue the abuse and don’t face it, they are cowards and do not really know how to love.
Some of the causes for male anger and violence stated above are reasons, but they cannot be excuses. The statistics are sobering. Twenty-five percent (25%) of women will experience physical abuse at the hands of a boyfriend or husband. Fifty percent (50%) of women will receive verbal or emotional abuse. As men and as a country we must all stand up to stop the violence. The way mothers and fathers raise their boys (and girls) must change. The message for our children must be that verbal or physical violence is just not acceptable, no matter the provocation or how angry you are. Walk away. Take a timeout. Find another way to work things out. And, as a parent, you are the role model, so you can’t just talk the talk. We know that children do what we do, not what we say. What is the legacy you are giving your children and grandchildren? We know that every abuser and victim learned it from the generation before. You can make a choice to end abuse in your own family now.
To conclude, the following incident would almost be amusing if the subject wasn’t so serious. A few years ago, I was doing a Past Life Healing Circle at our spiritual center. It is a guided meditation in which the participants each experience their own past life, usually of a past life where they need healing or resolution. On this day, all the participants were women. For some reason, they were engaging in a familiar sport, male-bashing. One was complaining about her alcoholic ex-husband, another about her verbally abusive boyfriend, another about her husband’s insensitivity, and so on. We progressed to the meditation which takes about an hour. Afterwards, everyone was unusually quiet. Most of the time they would excitedly share their past life and the powerful lessons that accompanied it. Not today. Finally, it dawned on me. “You were all men,” I exclaimed. They all sheepishly nodded. “Oh, and you weren’t all nice guys, either,” I added. Again, embarrassed nods. The lesson is that we have all played all the roles. This is not about bashing men. It is about all of us taking responsibility for stopping the violence. Spiritually, we know the power of words, so we must be careful, thoughtful and loving when we disagree. It is not easy when we are heated, but it is possible with self-awareness and hard work. There are so many ways to be hurt in this world, do we really need that hurt to come from our loved ones? Love is an action verb and does not equal violence in any form.