What we know now about abuse is different to what we might have understood even just 10 years ago. Physical and sexual abuse are easier to distinguish – after all, you can see the effects of these types of abuse and they are difficult to deny.
Now we are increasingly aware of psychological abuse and coercive control (the desire for one person to manipulate and have complete control over another).
The range within these types of abuse are broader and can often be difficult to explain – even if you are the victim.
These types of abuse could include constant checking in, controlling household finances or gaslighting. This is a relatively new term which describes an abuser’s ability to make their victim feel like they’re ‘mad, bad or sad’ – for example, they might downplay their own actions or how they treat people. They might say, “I couldn’t have said that – I would never have said something like that to you because I love you and I’m not that kind of person,” making the victim feel unsure of their own experiences.
Society’s view of what a male’s role is doesn’t really fit with being a victim of domestic abuse, yet according to the National Crime Council of Ireland (Whatson and Parsons, 2005), one of every three victims of severe domestic abuse are men. Increasing numbers of male victims are coming forward thanks to our evolved understanding of domestic abuse and to organisations like Men’s Aid, which is Ireland’s only dedicated support service for male abuse victims.
Men can feel ashamed or embarrassed to admit they are being abused by a loved one. But according to Men’s Aid social care team manager Andrea McDermott, these are the situations in which many Irish men find themselves (they have supported a ballpark region of 8,000 men in 2021).
“The Christmas period is always busy for their phone support lines – they call it their “Christmas Crisis Season”.
They are often unsure of what they can do and don’t want to apply for safety orders for fear of getting their partner in trouble
“During the holidays, increased alcohol abuse often escalates an already abusive relationship and can lead men to stay in sheds or outhouses, where they know they won’t be attacked,” Andrea explains.
“They are often unsure of what they can do and don’t want to apply for safety orders for fear of getting their partner in trouble. Men in general don’t come forward (95% won’t go to the gardaí) and they don’t have many people to talk to.
“Often, we’re the first person they’ve told about their abuse and many call anonymously – which is absolutely fine.”
Andrea says they often hear from male farmers living with domestic abuse from a partner or family member. Farmers are already an isolated demographic – generally living out in the countryside and away from their local community. This can leave them in a vulnerable position.
“We all complain about our partners sometimes,” Andrea says.
“Abuse is different – it’s deliberate and constant. ‘You stink, look at the state of you, you’re ugly, you’re useless’ male abuse perpetrators break their victim’s self-esteem bit by bit; they are looking to hurt them constantly.”
Hiding their keys, making their life as difficult as possible – a lot of farmers might not have access to their own car, the cooker or the washing machine
Coercive control can often lead to physical abuse. With male victims, this is usually done with objects (“If he’s a 6’2 farmer and his girlfriend is 5’4 and he has stiletto marks down his legs, that won’t be the first time we’ve heard it,” Men’s Aid CEO Kathrine Bentley recently told me in an interview).
However, the psychological abuse is something they really struggle with.
“Hiding their keys, making their life as difficult as possible – a lot of farmers might not have access to their own car, the cooker or the washing machine,” Andrea explains.
“They might lock themselves into their bedrooms at night and are always walking on eggshells. We know it’s not anything they’re doing.”
When a man is separated or divorced, a lack of access to family, community, children and other areas of support can be a big problem when dealing with an abusive situation.
“In most families, a separation or divorce is really difficult, but you don’t use your children,” Andrea says.
Christmas is an emotive time anyway, but not having access to your children at this time can be really difficult
“Where there’s abuse, the perpetrator will often use the children to hurt their victims. Breaching court appointed access, for example – the father might turn up on an assigned Saturday and the children won’t be there, or at Christmas time he might buy presents for his kids but they get sent back or thrown in the bin.
“Christmas is an emotive time anyway, but not having access to your children at this time can be really difficult,” she continues. “Last January we had four severe suicide attempts. We were, thankfully, able to get the gardaí to intervene in time, but these attempts happened because they hadn’t had access to their children in a long time.”
Spotting the pattern
Domestic abuse can be difficult to spot as an onlooker. It could be coming from anywhere – a parent, child, sibling or partner. Andrea says, while some things to watch out for could be obvious – bruising, cuts or scratches which don’t look work-related – a less-obvious sign of abuse could be the absence of a male loved one in your own life.
“Throughout a marriage, the partner might make sure they stay isolated. This often means when a man finally leaves an abusive situation, they have very little support as they have been isolated from their family for so long.”
If you are in an abusive situation, Andrea recommends taking the first big step by reaching out to your family or a trusted friend.
“Reconnect with your family members,” she says. “Talking is the most important aspect of our work, when the man makes that first phone call. It’s about reaching out and minding each other.”
If you’re still living with your abuser and you feel something is going to happen (“that feeling of ‘I know it’s on its way’”, Andrea says), it’s important to try and plan ahead.
“Keep a bag or a second mobile phone with a trusted friend or neighbour,” she says.
“Leave important documents with someone you trust and try and keep some cash on hand – just in case you have to flee. Contact your local helplines and in an emergency situation always call 999 or 112.”