Emotional Abuse for Men
The male experience of emotional abuse is in some ways no different than the female experience and in some ways very different. We all feel the same emotions, so the pain, anger, low self-worth, and other feelings are felt just as much by men as by women. However, it’s tougher for a man to share his experiences. Many people, both men and women, don’t want to hear about a man’s emotional pain. Men, more than women, are expected to just deal with it. As a result, many men find it really difficult to deal with their emotional abuse experiences.
Mad and Glad
In his book The Courage to Feel, Andrew Seubert states that traditionally men are allowed to display two emotions: mad and glad. They’re allowed to be angry and they’re allowed to be happy. Any other emotion is tabu, including fear and sadness. This puts quite a strain on male emotional abuse survivors.
I’ve seen research in the social sciences about the lack of support some men get in validating and healing from their emotional abuse. A study done in the Journal of Humanistic Counseling, Education and Development, for instance, in 2004 by Joshua M. Gold and Gabriela V. Pitariu reported lack of awareness that counselors have of men’s emotional abuse experiences in domestic relationships. They state that many counselors feel that certain emotional experiences (such as fear, dependency, and vulnerability) aren’t suitable for men to express. Therefore, they’re not comfortable dealing with male clients who express these emotions.
This isn’t just a problem with domestic emotional abuse. These assumptions about “acceptable” and “unacceptable” emotions may influence how a man views the emotional abuse he went through as a child. Despite (slowly!) growing awareness that emotions have nothing to do with gender, our society strongly supports certain emotional behaviors based on gender. This can make it difficult for a man to admit to common emotionally abusive experiences like oppression, helplessness, and despair.
A son is just as vulnerable to the authority of an emotionally abusive parent as a daughter. If a boy is constantly ridiculed by his mother and father, his self-esteem and self-trust will suffer. If he has controlling parents then his sense of identity will be scarred. If he’s deprived of unconditional love, acceptance, and respect then he’ll struggle to develop these things within himself.
But it’s easier for a woman to admit these feelings because our society feels more comfortable when a woman expresses low self-esteem, identity confusion, and vulnerability. These are judged as distasteful in a man, not just by others but also perhaps by himself, and that blocks healing. You can’t deal with pain if you don’t admit you have it and let yourself feel it.
Tough Emotional Abuse Experiences for Men
There are certain emotional abuse experiences that can be especially challenging if you’re a man. That’s not to say that women don’t go through some of these experiences, especially if she’s been treated as a male substitute by one or both parents. But there’s a layer of social expectation for a man that doesn’t exist for a woman, making these experiences even more difficult for a man to deal with. I just want to discuss five of them.
We live in a world ruled by patriarchy. That means men have more power in society. It’s a fact. That makes power and weakness a big deal to many men because they’re raised to care more about it than women. That makes a bullying parent tougher for men to deal with, particularly when you’re dealing with a bullying parent as an adult.
I think there’s an extra element of humiliation and frustration when an abusive parent bullies a son instead of a daughter. It’s like the bullying parent is undermining the man’s place in society. A patriarchal society says every man has a certain amount of power, but a bullying parent makes him feel like he doesn’t have that. That leads to feelings like helplessness, vulnerability, and low self-esteem. All are frowned upon a patriarchal society. So he ends up not only having his power threatened but also feeling uncomfortable about the feelings he’s left with.
Let’s say, for instance, that a college-aged son wants to get a degree in the humanities. His bullying father thinks the humanities are for women because the only job options with such a degree are low paying positions. He pushes his son to get a degree in business instead. If the son gives in then he may feel like he doesn’t have the power in life he’s supposed to have. If he refuses then his father will likely put him down for a long time, maybe even his entire life. This again undermines his self-esteem.
Making jokes at another person’s expense seems to be a particularly “male” way to communicate. Get a group of men together who’ve known each other for a while and teasing seems to flow naturally. That, however, isn’t the same as a ridiculing parent where the goal of the “joke” is to show their son that they have the power. Ridicule is essentially a veiled way of putting him down.
But because teasing is accepted as a way for guys to communicate with one another, the feelings of hurt from a ridiculing parent can be more discomforting for a man. He may feel he needs to be able to take it and that he’s too sensitive, which of course men in our patriarchal society aren’t supposed to be. He may feel he’s supposed to like the jokes when really he hates them. He may even feel there’s something wrong with him.
Let’s take as an example a joking situation between a ridiculing parent and his son versus one among friends so that we can see why one is emotionally abusive and the other isn’t. If a man is teased about his poor performance at a touch football game among friends, it isn’t normally done with the intent of making him feel like he’s no good. In addition, he has as much right to tease some of his friends about their poor performance. There’s an equal exchange of jokes going on.
When, however, a ridiculing parent teases their son about his poor performance at a game, the situation is very different. First, the role of a parent isn’t like the role of a friend. Parents are supposed to support and encourage their kids even when they mess up. They’re supposed to make them understand that making a mistake or doing something poorly isn’t about them being bad but of having done something badly, which can be fixed in the future or compensated for through some other activity.
In addition, the ridiculing parent, though claiming to just be joking, is actually on a power trip. It’s all about the need that underlies the behavior. Non-toxic friends don’t need to make anyone feel small while the emotionally abusive parent does because that’s how they feel big. I’m not saying that all parents and adult children who tease each other are emotionally abusive. If the need underlying it isn’t to make the other feel bad then we can say it’s a way for them to communicate. What I’m saying is that emotionally abusive parents have a need to boost their self-esteem at the expense of others, and this particular way, ridicule, can pose special problems for male abuse survivors.
Similar to bullying, a berating parent takes a shot at a social right that patriarchal society gives to men. Berating involves making the man feel small when a patriarchal society tells him he can feel big in comparison to the women and “weak” men around him. That brings up feelings of vulnerability, self-doubt, and low self-esteem, all emotional experiences that men aren’t supposed to have.
For instance, parents who make their son feel as though he can’t do anything right are teaching him that he’s less than everyone else around him. As he ventures into the world, he runs into messages around him telling him how he should be in control of his life, have confidence in himself, and be assertive. All of that is extremely difficult if you’ve heard all your life that you’re a loser, leading to even more feelings of inadequacy.
Manipulation involves a more subtle way of gaining control of someone. When a parent is manipulative, a man can be left feeling like he’s been tricked. That can make him feel stupid or worthless. It can also make him feel conflicted about the whole issue of assertiveness, which men are supposed to have. Manipulation is often about getting us to do things we don’t want to do. A man who’s repeatedly manipulated by an emotionally abusive parent may ask himself again and again, “Why didn’t I just say no?”
For instance, let’s say a man shares with his manipulative parents that he’s planning a skiing trip to Lake Tahoe over the Christmas holidays. The parents feel “abandoned” during what they perceive as a time when the family has to be together. They try all kinds of direct and indirect manipulation tactics to get the son to cancel his trip, including guilt trips, anger outbursts, and recruiting other family members to make him feel like a jerk for ruining the family’s Christmas.
If he gives in then he may feel like he’s a weakling. If he doesn’t and goes on his skiing trip, he may carry around a burden of guilt for a long time, not to mention hearing about his “abandonment” for years to come when his parents want to manipulate him into doing something. Both emotional experiences leave him feeling vulnerable, which men aren’t supposed to feel.
One final emotionally abusive experience that can cause special problems for men is intrusiveness. This is when abusive parents need to know everything that’s going on in the man’s life and interfere with his life as often as they possibly can. This can make a man feel like he’s being smothered or that he’s not independent. Society places a heavy emphasis on a man being independent, so that can lead to low self-esteem.
Intrusiveness also makes us feel like we’re not in control of our lives. That takes away our personal power, which again is something that society tells a man he has. A male emotional abuse survivor with intrusive parents may feel like he’s a loser because he can’t even control his own life.
For instance, Susan Forward in Toxic Parents tells of a man who’s mother was constantly nagging him about getting married. He ended up resisting marriage because he felt like doing so meant he was giving into her. That would have meant he wasn’t as in control of his life as he wanted to be. So intrusiveness can have destructive effects on a man’s life.
When it comes to emotional abuse, male survivors have the added burden of trying to deal with socially taboo experiences alongside the pain and destructive effects that any emotional abuse survivor has to deal with. In order to heal from abuse as a man, you really have to rebel against these social taboos because they just don’t go together. You have to validate your feelings of vulnerability, low self-worth, grief, and any others that society tells you you shouldn’t have. You have to really believe that it’s OK to have those feelings.
Gender roles ingrained in society can have an emotionally abusive effect on a man if his abusive parents reinforce them or hurt him when trying to rebel against them. This can lead a man to harbor hostility towards women or become the victim of dominating women. What’s really happening is that he’s unnecessarily taking on the gender issues of his abusive parents upon himself.
Mothers who express hostility towards men may express hostility towards their sons. They’re really taking out their feelings of oppression and anger against the men in their lives (fathers, brothers, partners, male friends) on a male who can’t fight back. Men who have to deal with this could develop hostility towards women that really doesn’t belong to them.
Conversely, a man can be heavily influenced by a father who demonstrates hostility towards women. This is further supported by the messages he sees all around him of men dominating women. Friends may encourage him to show authority over his partners. The media sends clear messages that a “real man” is one who is in control of those around him.
He may react to such a father destructively in one of two ways. First, he may take on his father’s condescending, hostile attitude towards the women in his life (mother, sisters, partners, daughters). First, this gives him a greater sense of power. Second, it’s a way for him to connect to his father based on something they share–gender.
A man may, however, rebel against this behavior by getting involved with dominating women. Often in relationships where a man dominates, the woman doesn’t stand up for herself, which contributes to the unhealthy situation. By getting involved with a dominating woman and resisting being dominating himself, he can’t replicate the painful environment of his childhood.*
Resources for Emotionally Abused Men
It can be especially helpful for male emotional abuse survivors to read the experiences of other men. You’ll find men discussing their experiences on emotional abuse forums, so check the Resources page for them. In addition, I’ve found a couple of blogs by abused men.
Child Abuse Survivor: Mike McBride is a survivor of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse. He’s been blogging about his experiences for a while now. You can also follow him on Twitter @SurvivorNetwork.
Mind-Body Thoughts: Don Shetterly is a massage therapist and musician who talks about healing from abuse and other topics on his blog. He also wrote a book called Hope and Possibility Through Trauma where he reflects on his healing journey. He’s on Twitter @mindbodythought.
* I haven’t discussed men who rebel against their father’s hostility towards women out of genuine respect for women because I believe this leads to healthy relationships, not emotionally abusive ones. If a man gets involved with a dominating woman then I think it’s because of unresolved emotional issues, not because he’s unlucky or because all independent women are dominating. Incidentally, the story is no different for a woman. If she grew up with a passive father who was dominated by her mother and rebels by choosing dominating male partners, it’s not because she truly believes in an equal partnership between men and women and was just unlucky or because all men look down on women. It’s because of unresolved emotional issues that have to do with gender roles.