A third of domestic violence victims are male – yet it remains taboo. Here one abused man shares his story
The first time my ex-wife’s temper turned from vicious insults into violence was after I’d had a haircut she didn’t like. She dragged me down the hall by my hair, punching the back of my neck.
Soon after, she repeatedly hit me on the head with a telephone receiver after she didn’t approve of the way I’d spoken to my mum.
And, most absurdly, she set about my shins with a child’s plastic golf club after I’d hung my underwear out to dry without folding it the right way.
Did I say anything to anyone? Or leave her? No, I didn’t. For, like thousands of other male victims of domestic violence, I was mortally ashamed of what was happening to me, convinced if only I was a better husband, these attacks would stop.
I made light of what was happening, even though it robbed me of my confidence and self-esteem. After all, I was a man. How could I be a victim of someone nearly half my size?
Except I was. And it’s not just me. According to recent British Crime Survey statistics, a third of domestic violence victims are male. That’s 400,000 men a year. At least.
‘All the evidence suggests it’s much more widespread than the figures suggest,’ says John Mays of the equal rights organisation Parity. ‘Between one third and 40 per cent of domestic abuse cases are female perpetrator and male victim, and it’s a sad fact that this isn’t generally known.’
I certainly never suspected it would happen to me when I married Lisa just six months after meeting her. I was only 21, straight out of college and had just had my heart broken by another girl I’d been dating for three years.
I was so devastated that when Lisa told me she loved me, I was so grateful I proposed, long before I’d taken enough time to get to know her. Not long after the wedding we went travelling around the world for a few months. It was while away, on a boat from Hong Kong to Shanghai, that I witnessed her temper for the first time.
She’d asked me to wait near the restaurant while she nipped back to the cabin. She was gone ages and when she came back her face was contorted with rage. She accused me of having moved, and that her looking for me had caused her to trip on a metal bar and bang her shin.
Almost 4,500 women were prosecuted for domestic violence in 2008-2009
She screamed at me and wouldn’t listen as I tried to explain she was mistaken. It was the first time we’d rowed and I was shaken by the intensity of her anger. However, I’m an optimistic person and put it down to the pressure of being newly married, although it changed the way I was with her.
I started to make decisions based entirely on what made her happy as I didn’t want to experience her wrath again. This was the first small step towards becoming a victim of abuse. When we returned home, my wife was pregnant, which seemed to make her temper tantrums more frequent. And towards the end, she turned violent.
At first she did sneaky things, like squeezing my earlobes or pulling the short hair at the side of my head — things that hurt but didn’t leave marks. It meant that when the slapping and punching started, it seemed less shocking.
Asking her to stop never worked. She wouldn’t talk about her anger, dismissing it as all my fault. I didn’t dare retaliate either. Hurting a woman was wrong so I let her get on with it until she calmed down. And I couldn’t leave because she was pregnant.
In between these rages she could be kind and loving, and this would give me hope that the marriage might work, especially after the birth of our daughter.
Apparently, this is typical. ‘Effectively, the victim is in a place of despair and occasionally the violent partner throws them a bit of love and care,’ explains psychologist Nicola Graham-Kevan, of the University of Central Lancashire. ‘The victim, thinking they might be to blame, becomes contrite and tries it make it better, but inadvertently they’re rewarding bad behaviour, making it more likely to happen again.’
After our daughter was born, the abuse became more regular — at least several times a month. Each day I’d wake up with a knot of tension in my stomach, wondering if I’d get through to the evening without a fight.
I lost friends as she hated me seeing them and they hated coming round because she was so cold to them. I’d go months without seeing my old mates.
I didn’t tell anyone what was happening, though I later found out some of my friends and family were worried. They’d tentatively remark that I didn’t look very well or seemed quiet but I’d brush it off. I felt weak, ashamed and assumed, wrongly, that they would judge me. I worked from home as a freelance graphic designer, which cut me off from the normal world even more.
I tried to appear happy but felt powerless. I started having panic attacks and felt depressed and was constantly tired. I concentrated on getting through each day. Three years after we married, we had another daughter and moved house. I hoped a fresh start would help her see sense.
But she began to involve the children. She’d throw tantrums in front of them, standing in the doorway so we couldn’t escape. They’d sit there, knees drawn up to their chests trying not to get involved. She’d refuse to listen to my pleas not to scream or attack me when they were around.
Finally, eight years after we wed, I summoned up the courage to leave. By then I was working in an office and, in desperation, I’d confided in a colleague. She was the first person I’d ever admitted it to and she made me understand it couldn’t continue. The spell had been broken and I realised there was an alternative.
So, one June morning I packed my bags and moved in with my mum. I took the girls with me but eventually shared custody with her. I was lucky. I got out in time. Ian McNicholl didn’t. The 47-year-old was nearly killed after a sustained assault by his girlfriend, Michelle Williamson. She’d become violent six months after they met but one night a year later, things got even worse.
He says: ‘She told me, “I’ve put an iron on you, I’ve kept you awake, I’ve poured boiling water on you. And you still won’t have sex with me. Tonight I’m going to kill you”.
‘She started to beat me all over my chest and head with a metal bar. I was too scared to call the police but a neighbour saw me covered in blood and reported it.
‘The policeman said he knew the bruises on my arm were old so it hadn’t happened just once. He said if I told him that the person in the house had committed the violence, which he strongly suspected she had, he could help me. I summoned up every last bit of energy I had, nodded my head and whispered, “Yes, it was her”.’
Williamson is now serving seven years for GBH with intent and assault. Ian is still waiting for reconstructive surgery on his face — two years after the final attack. My psychological scars healed a lot quicker. Within weeks of leaving my wife, the fun side of me began to return. I contacted old friends who were happy to help me. But, embarrassed I’d put up with it for so long, I didn’t tell many about my experience.
‘It remains a taboo subject,’ confirms Mark Brooks, chairman of the charity Mankind Initiative, which helps male victims of domestic violence. ‘While there are people coming forward, there are still millions who will keep it a secret.
‘Five years ago there was hardly any recognition that men could be victims. But police forces and local councils are now starting to recognise there are male victims in their community. However, more practical support and advice is needed.’
Perhaps then, more male victims will come forward.
Paul and Lisa’s names have been changed.