Dr. Claudia Cornell on the emotional abuse of men by women
If you search the web, you will find few web sites that deal with the emotional abuse of men by women. Most sites that deal with this subject tend to be a bit on the misogynistic side. As a man, I don’t want to be painted with the same brush as men who abuse women, so it’s not fair to paint all women as emotionally abusive.
In my search, I did find one web site that presented an intelligent, balanced view of the subject. WomenAbusingMen.org was founded by Dr. Claudia B. Cornell and Kimberly C. Taylor.
While I found WomenAbusingMen.org to be quite intriguing, I wanted to learn more on the subject of emotional abuse of men by women. I sent an email with a comprehensive list of interview questions. Fortunately, I received a prompt response from Dr. Cornell expressing a great willlingness to answer my questions in the hope of spreading awareness on the emotional abuse of men by women.
- What inspired the two of you to start the Women Against the Abuse of Men web site?
The website came about in our effort to provide a practical online resource for men who are dealing with abusive women in their personal lives. There are also many requests for information and resources from family and friends of abused men, and we are attempting to help them as well. As therapists working in the domestic abuse field, it was obvious that men were not accessing help in the same way women do. Taking the time to consider all the reasons why this might be the case, made us realize that most men are probably not getting any assistance at all. Making information on abuse available specifically for men seemed an important thing to do. If abuse in all its forms is fundamentally wrong, then it is just as wrong for a man to be forced to endure abuse as it is for a woman. A critical lapse in abuse advocacy exists when the resources for victims of Intimate Partner Abuse (IPA) have been developed almost exclusively for women and their children, leaving abused men and their children to fend for themselves. Being professional women working in the abuse arena, who know men are also being abused, we felt it was important to acknowledge this openly and to find creative ways to reach these men with the understanding and the resources they need to help themselves. The website and the book seemed to be two effective ways to reach as many men as possible.
- Do you ever receive any interesting reactions given the fact that two women are speaking out on the abuse of men by women?
Yes, there is always an interesting reaction when we talk about being advocates for abused men. First of all, most people do not realize that men are abused by women or that this is possible. People usually focus solely on physical abuse and don’t realize, not only is physical abuse happening to men, but there is an entire continuum of emotional abuse that is equally harmful and morally wrong. When I tell them that abuse, both emotionally and physically, happens just as often to men as it does to women, people are stunned. Somehow these statistics (from family conflict research) have never made it into the general consciousness of society, despite the fact that these results have been known for over 30 years now (Straus, Gelles & Steinmetz, 1980). Women are often surprised, needing to hear what was said a second time, as though they must not have heard it correctly. Some women don’t know what to say at that point in the conversation; but others express they are very impressed and respect what we are trying to do as professionals, and as women. Men, however, often know exactly what we’ve said the first time, and seem surprised that we actually said it out loud. Most men seem in awe of what we are doing, appearing quite moved that two women would lend a helping hand to them, while holding other women accountable for their actions. There is the sense that we have crossed the picket line and gone against our gender in order to help men. In reality, IPA is not a gender issue - it is a human issue that crosses gender lines. We must acknowledge, when men and women abuse partners at equal rates, the gender gap in Intimate Partner Abuse is an illusion (See Straus et. al., Dutton and Whitaker for corroborating research). And in truth, we are very willing to help abusive women turn their lives around as well. Some families might be preserved if women abusers are willing to be guided into an appropriate way of relating to their partner.
- In your experience or research, roughly what percentage of emotional abuse cases involve the emotional abuse of men by women?
Our experience is working directly with people in a counseling setting. Therefore we do not have formal statistics to offer. And as we find out how rare it is that men will discuss it openly, we can safely assume the statistics certain researcher has generated must be low. When men begin to feel safe about speaking out on the emotional abuse they are enduring, we will be able to get an accurate read on the real number of men we are talking about. However, I can tell you that emotional abuse is greatly underestimated. I think emotional abuse by itself occurs a lot more often than people realize. Most attention is paid to physical abuse and the emotional abuse that accompanies it. Once a relationship becomes physically abusive, emotional abuse has most likely been going on as well, and possibly for quite some time. Emotional abuse is a precursor to physical abuse. However, in my experience, emotional abuse is much more insidious than physical abuse; it causes great pain and emotional damage over time. Most types of emotional abuse are not illegal and therefore easily minimized and largely ignored. However, the scars of emotional abuse run very deep. One man recently echoed the thoughts of many other men I’ve heard from, when he told me he would rather be hit by his wife than told day after day what a worthless piece of garbage he is. My hope is, that emotional abuse will be given the attention it really deserves, in the research field and in our society as well, so we can openly acknowledge this is an unacceptable way to treat others and impact this problem in a significant way.
- Are male emotional abuse victims typically afraid to speak up?
. Yes, I think it is fair to say most men are intimidated by the potential consequences of speaking out. There is a false stigma for men suggesting they are less than masculine if they admit, and therefore allow a women to abuse them in any way. This is completely untrue of course; only increasing public awareness will change this faulty assumption. In truth, the shame is on the abuser not the abused. When a man is being abused by a woman, it is about her, not him. Certainly, we can understand a man’s reluctance to discuss it. These are highly personal issues and very difficult. A second problem for the abused man is the perceived risk that such a disclosure will be turned around on him because he will not be believed; he could possibly expose himself to false allegations and possible arrest, despite the fact he is the one actually being abused. Threats, coercion and retribution are hallmarks of emotional abuse. Until the abuse of men by women is fully exposed, understood and deemed unacceptable by society at large, the risk of retribution from an female abuser does exist for men. Disclosures, interventions and safe exits from these relationships must be handled very carefully. However, I must say at this point, the tide is turning! Change is under way and it is inevitable now. So men can be encouraged, this problem will not stay as it is.
- Could you describe typical emotional abuse scenarios?
Generally speaking, the undercurrent of emotional abuse involves a consistent pattern of discontent on her part, for which he is blamed. She feels justified in manipulating, abusing and even terrorizing him based on her rigid perception that he will only ever fail to meet her expectations; therefore, he deserves her wrath. Letting her have what she wants quickly becomes null and void as soon as she is discontented once again. At some point, she is so invested in her anger, her ability to manipulate him, and how powerful this makes her feel, no matter how hard he tries nothing he does will be good enough. Any success or good mood he may share with her that doesn’t involve something she wants for herself, will only aggravate her; this will likely be followed by her attempt to tear him down and bring him back to a miserable state of self-doubt and loneliness. At some point, he will probably stop trying altogether and share as little as possible with her; this is a survival technique for him, which will work in the short term, but this is not meant to sustain him in the long run. This becomes a vicious cycle of attack and withdrawal, leaving a man to question himself, his self-worth and his purpose.
Another general scenario, involves a woman whose moods change rapidly. She’s up, she’s down, and prone to extreme reactions. There may not be a lot of thought behind her abusive flashes of anger, and these incidents don’t necessarily make sense. This woman may be affected by a mental health problem – possibly Bipolar Disorder. A medical intervention by a licensed Psychiatrist and appropriate medications will be necessary to resolve this issue. Therapy will a qualified therapist is also highly recommended for this woman and her husband and possibly their children where this applies.
- On your web site, you list “Lies about you to others” as a behavior of Emotional Abuse. What do these lies typically involve?
The lies I was referring to involve a mild to severe attack on his character among friends, peers and family members. She may attempt to blame him for her own lapses in behavior towards her friends. Often, abusive women lie to downgrade a man’s reputation and to gain sympathy for themselves at the same time. In general terms, the lies often involve a list of his bad behavior she is enduring in the relationship. Ironically, the scenario I have heard most often from men involves their wives and girlfriends implying or stating openly that these men are abusive towards them. This is a power play on her part that involves quite a bit of spinning to make it work. This allows her to vent her anger, assert her control over him, while justifying her own bad behavior. It is a way to take the attention off of her own bad behavior and put the negative focus on him.
- How does one recognize that one is affected by emotional abuse?
I would encourage any man who suspects her treatment of him crosses the line, to log onto our website and learn more about emotionally abusive behavior. The first step to turning this problem around is becoming fully educated and aware of the problem itself. For instance, men who find themselves walking on eggshells for fear of what ordeal may erupt at home, should learn more about emotional abuse to determine how many signs of abuse they are dealing with on a regular basis. Men who find themselves staying late at work to avoid going home to her might consider a closer look also. Stress-related physical ailments, possibly linked to problems in the relationship are a red flag as well; such as, headaches, stomach problems, neck and muscle pain and so on. Symptoms of mild to moderate depression, which would not be uncommon with abuse, include a loss of appetite, fatigue, insomnia, irritability and an inability to enjoy the things usually enjoyable. Trauma symptoms are more significant and may include nightmares, moderate to severe depression, panic and possibly suicidal thoughts; these symptoms require medical help right away.
- Once you recognize that you are a victim of emotional abuse, what steps do you recommend taking?
When a man finds he is survivor of emotional abuse, he has some choices to make. If he is not fully committed to her, he must decide if it is worthwhile to continue with the relationship; my advice: prior to a significant commitment – plan a safe exit and go on with your life. If he is significantly involved or committed to her, he must decide if he wants to try to salvage the relationship. If so, he will have to calmly confront the issue with her directly; this should not happen during an argument, but in a calm, appropriate moment. It might be handy to show her the Women Abusing Men website, containing a professional opinion, in addition to his own, which will be harder to discredit. He might decide to confront her with this information in the presence of a professional therapist, presenting a list of the abusive behaviors he is enduring in the relationship with her.
On a side note, it never ceases to surprise me how many abusive women don’t realize they are abusers. Teaching an Anger Management group for women for several years now has made this clear to me; they have convinced themselves he deserves it, or perhaps, they have convinced themselves what they do is “not that big a deal.” When it is brought to their attention how abusive their behavior is and that they have not right to inflict this on him, they are often very surprised. Therefore, this must first be brought to her attention, supported by another opinion other than his. Emotional abusiveness is a symptom of something going very wrong. Therefore, it must be dealt with effectively. I highly recommend a good therapist with experience - a third person to provide objectivity, clarity and guidance. If she is not willing to pursue therapy, I recommend a man go on his own; this will demonstrate how serious he is about the changes that must be made and it may encourage her to join him after all; if not, he will need the support and guidance of a trained therapist to plan his next steps and to move beyond the negative effects
- You have a book coming out. Could you tell me a little bit about it?
The book is called: Trapped in Silence: The Secret Life of Abused Men and the Women Who Abuse Them. It is a practical guide for men, their families and friends, for helping professionals and for anyone who would like to learn about what men are going through. Women who are wondering if their behavior crosses the line can also read this book to see if the scenarios reflect their own thoughts and behavior. We discuss how IPA became a gender/feminist issue, the full continuum of abusive behavior, how to proceed safely in a relationship with an abusive woman, the early signs of potential abusiveness in women and much more. We are currently in the final stages of editing the book before it will go into print. We have an email list on our Website, where people can type in their addresses to be notified when the book is available for purchase.
- Is there anything that you would like to cover that has not been asked?
I do have some additional comments I would like to say to men who are dealing with emotional abuse: First, it’s not your fault and you don’t have to accept this. You deserve better. I encourage you to make this happen for yourself. The truth is, even when a woman has a valid complaint against a man, abusing him is never an acceptable way of handling it. I recommend men make sure they don’t get pulled into a ”Mutual Abuse” scenario by letting her bad behavior set the pace for his behavior. Abuse can be very contagious. Mutual abuse goes on about 50% of the time, so it is a common problem among families dealing with abuse. Men should keep their actions beyond reproach at all times – Don’t play that game – Their freedom may depend on it. This problem is not going to go away without help, so get that help as soon as possible. There is one national helpline specializing in abused men, that may be able to provide referrals for assistance in your local area: The Domestic Abuse Helpline for Men and Women (DAHMW) is run by a woman named Jan Brown. They can be reached at 1-888-7HELPLINE. They operate completely on donations, through a group of dedicated volunteers who have a special place in their hearts for abused men. They are eager to help as many men as they can to get the help they need, so give them a call.
Best wishes, one and all.