Under Attack: The lonely cry of battered husbands.
by Karen Woodstra, Published in The Toronto Sun, Father's Day, 1994

Waves softly caressed the white, sandy shores of Florida under a clear blue tropical sky. The breeze was gentle, the air warm, the mood romantic. For a Toronto couple, it was to be the backdrop for a tryst intended to save their troubled marriage. But after three glorious days, the dream of reconciliation turned into a nightmare. He awoke at 4 a.m. to answer a pounding at the door. His wife, drunk, had been out with another man. His eyes filled with tears: "Is this what I get for trying to make a go of things?" he sobbed.

She responded with a string of profanity. He packed his bags and, as he left, she ran out behind him, carrying a pillow which she held over her hand as she punched the front window of their beachfront room. Panicking, he forced her back into the room, where she began to punch and kick him. Then she hurled a lamp. Next she ripped the phone from the wall and threw it and pulled the drawers from the dresser and threw them, too. Finally, catching him off guard, she grabbed a beer bottle and smashed it into his face.

When two Orange County police officers arrived, she screamed: "Arrest him!" The officers, noticing his injuries, said if she insisted on having him arrested, they'd have to arrest her, too. No charges were laid.

In thousands of homes across Canada, the family is a crucible for seething violence. Women are beaten daily and innocent children are victims of brutal assaults. But there is another form of violence that has been largely ignored, even laughed at. Husband abuse, according to several studies, is becoming as prevalent as wife abuse.

"Men are going through what women did in the '60s and '70s," says Mark, the victim in that Florida motel room. "I believe men will have to suffer more - as women did - before this is a fully recognized problem."

Statistics show husband abuse is spreading, but few services exist to help the victims. One such group, possibly the only one of its kind in Metro, meets in the Beaches to provide counselling and support for abused husbands.

The men who gather there weekly abide by a strict set of rules: "Keep meeting discussions confidential. Keep an open mind. Don't bring guests to closed meetings. Don't tell others how they should and should not feel."

The serious voice pauses. "What is said here, what is heard here, when you leave here, let it stay here." The meeting commences.

A dozen men from all walks of life sit in a meagerly decorated room. Portraits of the Beach Roll of Honor line two walls. The men begin to speak. The occasional silence is filled by buzzing from the overhead fluorescent lights. Traffic noises from Main St. periodically interrupt the conversation.

The men take turns telling their stories and sharing in each other's despair and frustration. As they speak, their stories are as similar as the body language: clenched fists, hunched shoulders, tense expressions, sorrowful eyes. A sullen cloud envelopes the room.

A man saturated in emotional pain allows silent tears to stream down flushed cheeks. The room is dead quiet as we watch a man, beaten by his wife and humiliated by society, draining his anguish. He speaks of how he attempted to take his life the night before.

"I tried hopelessly to save my marriage. I was willing to forget the past and to start all over." He recounts how she not only rejected his plea as he attempted to put his arm around her, but had him charged with sexual assault. He was convicted.

The group is called Male Survivors of Relationship Violence. It was formed in March l993 and meets every Monday at Community Centre No. 55 on Main St. Its founder is a man we'll call Kevin, a man who says his wife assaulted him throughout four years of marriage.

"When my marriage ended, I searched desperately for a self-help group for abused men. What I found was society making a joke because I was abused. I actually came across people who laughed at me."

That humiliation drove Kevin to form the support group. "There are countless men out there who are faced with the same agonizing pain I experienced. Being an abused husband is bad enough the systemic abuse many of us endure afterwards is just as debilitating to our emotional well-being."

The group was funded by the federal government for the first year, but currently relies on private and corporate donations. Toronto psychiatrist Gordon Baker, whose patients include several men abused by their wives, is on the board of directors.

If husband abuse is so prevalent, why don't we hear about it? Metro Police Sgt. Sue McCoy, of the community services unit, says men are reluctant to come forward because of "fear of being labeled a wimp by society."

Abraham Kass, a marriage and family therapist in Newmarket, says: "The attitude "men are men" is a false notion. I believe husband abuse is just as prevalent as wife abuse. In my practice, the cases of wife and husband abuse are 50-50."

Scott is typical of the men who are victims of abuse. "Men think they have an image to uphold. If we admit that our wives beat us up, we'd be labeled a wussy. If you show up at work and you have a visible bruise, some people jokingly say, "What happened, wife beat you up?" Hey, I tell you, when you've had your self-esteem destroyed you don't need any salt poured into the wounds - even if it is meant as a joke."

Former Ontario Supreme Court chief justice G.T. Evans says: "So many men fear a loss of their macho image with an admission of being abused."

Christopher Murphy, a lawyer specializing in family law in Newmarket, agrees: "Men fear society's general reaction - "What a wimp, the wife beats you up" - so they rarely come forward."

The men who do come forward find they are often laughed at, or asked: "Husband abuse? Are you serious?"

Mike was brutally attacked by his wife.

"She grabbed my hair, forcing my head downwards. With incredible force, her knee smashed into my face, destroying my glasses. The flow of blood blurred my vision."

While his wounds were being stitched up in hospital, his wife admitted her guilt to police. The hospital report states "wife assaulted him." Yet the police laid no charges until Mike pressed the matter. When he told his story in family court in Toronto, Mike says the entire courtroom burst into laughter, including the judge. Mike dropped the charges.

It is common for these men to have their complaints treated lightly. They have no desire to divert attention from the seriousness of wife abuse, but merely want their plight to also be taken seriously. Instead, society tends to trample further their fragile emotional states.

"We affirm many women are faced with a serious problem," says Doug. "But not all women are lily-white. Our situation must be recognized, too."

"Mr. B" or "The Reverend Victim" recently won a $200,000 lawsuit against Durham Region's Children's Aid Society for negligence after the agency believed his wife's flimsy accusations of child abuse. She had run off with a paroled criminal the Anglican minister had, at the request of parole officials, taken into his home. She had taken their daughters and virtually cleaned out the family's bank account. After Mr. B tracked her down and won visitation rights, she accused him of molesting the girls. The agency went to court, without his knowledge, and obtained a child protection order against him. He battled back in family court and, eventually, was exonerated. He had lost his pulpit, but fought on and won custody of his daughters.

"For me, the greatest abuse was the insidious set of lies my wife told," said Mr. B. "She took nine years of my life away. That hurt more than any physical action."

Mark, whose stormy marriage ended on that Florida vacation, acknowledges hundreds of women are routinely abused by their husbands. He just wishes people could believe the opposite is also true.

"I can't speak for everyone but, in my situation, my wife had no problem uttering death threats or slicing my arm with a knife. I feel women are more apt to use a weapon to counteract the man's physical strength. Look at John Bobbitt (whose wife lopped off his penis). I don't feel he's an angel, but he certainly didn't deserve that!" Crimes committed by women are on the rise.

Metro Police statistics show 13,454 women were charged with Criminal Code offences in 1992, a 31% increase since 1990. Men still commit far more crimes, but the number of women being charged is climbing at a faster rate than men.

"I believe women became more violent at the same time of the alleged equality between the sexes," says former justice Evans. "They became assertive."

Peter (not his real name) says his wife constantly tried to provoke him during their 14-year marriage.

"I could never figure her out. One time she threatened me with a knife. I was terrified. She had malice in her eyes. I only forgot to take the garbage out!"

Peter locked himself in his room and called police. When they arrived, they found a calm woman sitting in a rocking chair, bottle-feeding her baby. No charges were laid.

He recalls: "She would throw objects - flower pots, plates, anything in an attempt to injure me. What hurts most is that no one believed me."

Peter finally wrote to Premier Bob Rae, and Rae replied: "I have read your letter and agree society must recognize that men are also victims of domestic violence. You raise a number of important issues about victims and abuse. Our government feels that all such violence is completely unacceptable."

Manitoba recently enacted a zero tolerance policy on domestic violence in which the government decided to deal harshly with all domestic assault cases, whether by a male or a female. The legislation was opposed by women's rights groups, which argued women are usually acting in self-defence. In Saskatchewan, the recently passed Victims of Domestic Violence Assistance Act allows for the removal of the abuser from the home. Newfoundland is drafting similar legislation, says a government minister.

Attitudes are slowly changing.

In July 1993, a man was given a conditional discharge for assaulting his wife after telling Cobourg provincial court she persistently provoked him. Judge John Bark stirred up a ruckus when he said from the bench that he was reminded of a not-well-publicized statistic that far more men are assaulted by their wives than the other way around. James (not his real name) would agree with the judge. He endured repeated verbal and physical assaults after his wedding in l988. If something was in need of repair around the home, and he was unable to fix it, his wife would slap his face and call him

James was reluctant to speak about his experience. He is a short, thin man, almost frail. He says his wife outweighed him by 45 kilograms (100 pounds). Toward the end of his marriage earlier this year, James lost his job.

He blamed his home life. After three weeks of job hunting, she threw boiling water at him, demanding he get work immediately. Shortly after the incident, James says his wife forced him at gunpoint to perform oral sex. Later that night, as she slept, he escaped with only the clothes on his back.

How much is really known about relationship violence against men?

A study done by University of Alberta psychiatry professor Roger Bland found 22.6% of women admitted hitting or throwing things at their husband, while 14.6% of men admitted hitting or throwing things at their wives.

Scott doesn't know about statistics, he just knows how he was belittled and hurt by his wife.

"When she was worked up about something, her voice was as loud as a clap of thunder. We were evicted from an apartment because of it." A shadow crosses his face. "I put up with so much verbal and physical abuse. There were times I was terrified. At the end of the relationship, she threw a metal address file at me, leaving a deep gouge in my hand. She went wild and destroyed countless possessions in our home. Thankfully, my daughter slept through it all. When the police arrived, she told them I did the damage."

Scott says the police interviewed his wife, then arrested him. He was convicted of assault and jailed for 60 days. "She told the police I pushed her into a glass table. No scars on her - she was the one who destroyed it - I get time for it. To make matters worse, she got custody of my daughter from my first marriage."

In a 1993 federally funded study conducted by Reena Sommer and others at the University of Manitoba, almost 40% of women polled said they had threatened or physically abused their husband, considerably more than the percentage of men who admitted abusing their wife. A 1985 survey, conducted by family violence researchers Murray Straus and Richard Gelles at the University of New Hampshire, revealed nearly twice as many wives threw things at their husbands than vice

Denis says his wife threw dishes, lamps, candleholders, even a rocking chair at me. I never knew when to expect her violent outbursts, so I lived almost in constant fear for two years. One time, she had cut herself and in her blood wrote: "I hate you."

"People ask why I put up with it. I felt that being a man meant you absorb it all." Eugen Lupri, a sociology professor at the University of Calgary, specializes in family and gender relations. Lupri conducted a national survey of some six million couples in 1986 and found the overall violence index was 17.8% for men and 23.3% for women. The severe violence index was 10.1% for men and 12.9% for women.

Why do abused men remain in abusive relationships?

As with abused wives, abused husbands are likely to remain with their wives if they experienced or witnessed abuse in their childhood or have limited economic resources.

Mr. B says one reason is "many men honor their vows `for better or for worse.' It's something they hold tight to." People tend to settle into routines and patterns, which we are reluctant to sever. Toronto psychiatrist Gordon Baker says we accept these routines for two reasons: "security and sanity."

In many cases, abused men are the type who were reared to never strike a woman, even in self-defence.

"It was understood ever since I could remember, I was never to hit a girl," says Denis. "I believe many men raised in the '50s and '60s had that drilled into them."

Many men also remain in an abusive situation to be near their children, and to protect them. Some husbands become the target of abuse when they try to protect their kids.

Alan (not his real name) fears for the safety of his son. "She has serious problems, yet won't acknowledge them. With her short fuse, I worry about our son. Her temper is a time bomb."

Mildred D. Pagelow, a research professor of sociology at California State University, says men and women stay in relationships after the initial experience of violence for many of the same reasons: They love their spouse, the spouse is genuinely apologetic, disclosure of violence would cause embarrassment, or the behavior is excused by circumstance (alcohol, drugs or stress).

Debbie De Gale, a social worker with The Elizabeth Fry Society in Winnipeg, has established a program called Women For Change. It provides counselling for women who abuse their partners.

"Violence is a learned behavior. Women, as well as men, have witnessed or experienced violence in their childhood."

De Gale notes many women are in reverse roles now. They are the family breadwinners and facing more stress than ever before.

What will it take for society to recognize men are also victims of spousal abuse? Former chief justice Evans says: "Men must talk about their situation."

Sgt. McCoy says: "Education will help men get recognition that they, too, are victims of spousal abuse. Everyone has the right to be safe and comfortable."

For men who are suffering, Mr. B, has a few words of inspiration:

"Truth is always strong, no matter how weak it appears. It just doesn't come out as quickly as we would like it to."

"Violence should not be a gender issue - it is a human issue."