How Can We End Toxic Masculinity If Men Don’t Speak Up About Being Abusive?

The man I never wanted to be.

It’s funny how things find you. When my editor pitched this story examining domestic violence and toxic masculinity after a series of news stories featuring men committing crimes after their partners left them, I leapt at the opportunity. Her angle was interviewing men who have abused women and are seeking treatment for their violent behaviors or knew men that were abusive.

I posted a request on Facebook asking men to message me directly and have their quotes anonymously cited. Frankly, I hadn’t expected my inbox to be flooded with men saying “I beat women” but was completely unprepared for the number of messages from women whom have suffered abuse: colleagues, former classmates and friends.

Each had their own testimony, but shared similar threads: being screamed on, threatened, cursed, punched, choked, grabbed, kicked, beaten and attacked with objects; withdrawing from family and friends; living in fear for their safety; and finally escaping. They also warned against reaching out directly to their exes for fear of reprisal, their former partners still denying past assault and violent behavior and wanting to protect me from being attacked.

So I was left in a quandary. How does one write a story about abusive men without abusive men willing to come forward and with abused women afraid of retaliation? Then I decided to stop being a hypocrite and tell my own story.

I’m a 38-year-old father of four and recently celebrated my 10-year wedding anniversary to my college sweetheart. My wife and I met when we were 20 and 21, respectively, both new members of Black Greek-lettered organizations and introduced by a mutual friend at a historically Black college and university. Our on-again off-again romance has been battle-tested over the 17 years we’ve known each other.

The first time I violently grabbed my wife (then girlfriend) was in our early 20s. I was headed out to a meeting with my multi-level marketing team and she stood blocking the doorway preventing my exit, admonishing me about being “in a cult.” I was already late, now being further delayed and also furious, and snatched her out of the way. Pinning her against the wall, I warned her about provoking me and preventing me from building my “business enterprise.”

But that is not where the abuse began. I’d already demonstrated aggressive and controlling behaviors years prior, when our relationship first started, establishing grounds for what was listening, not maintaining relationships with her exes and invalidating or minimizing her feelings.

“When a person tells you that you hurt them, you don’t get to decide that you didn’t.”  — Louis C.K.

At the time I thought I was simply communicating my expectations and relationship boundaries, but working on this piece has helped me to identify that as abusive behavior and signs of an unhealthy relationship. When we began dating, the two of us were inseparable figuratively and physically speaking. As our relationship matured beyond the hot and heavy stage, I even went as far as scheduling our intimacy.


“ can be, uh, a gradual progression, and it can be (snap) real quick. So your partner that's been emotionally abusive for years can, in a drop of a — a blink of an eye can become physically abusive…” — Chandra Robinson

Domestic Violence (DV), while traditionally associated with physical assault and sexual violence by men against women, is a national public health epidemic affecting families. Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) is a spectrum of abuse in close relationships which impacts 1 in 4 women and 1 in 7 men. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that almost half of intimate partners have experienced emotional abuse.

Perpetrators of abuse seek to maintain power and control over their intimate partners; their ultimate goal is to impair a person’s ability to make choices for themselves via coercion, isolation and manipulation. Here’s a checklist of violent and controlling behaviors to take inventory of within your past and present relationships (spoiler alert: you will fail).

Admitting you have a problem is the first step to recovery. Understanding the problem of DV takes work, so I reached out to two organizations that are leaders in the field. My Sister’s Place (MSP) is a women’s shelter and organization founded in 1979 in Washington, D.C., aiming to prevent domestic violence. And Men Stopping Violence (MSV) is an organization that conducts training and advocacy programs whose goal is ending violence against women was founded in 1982 in Decatur, Georgia.

Last year, MSP responded to a request from D.C.’s Child and Family Services Administration (CFSA) to develop a program for male batterers whose children were removed from their households. CFSA saw domestic violence as one of the many challenges to rehabilitating families and wanted to find ways to reintegrate fathers into their children’s lives. MSP identified the Batterers Intervention Program (BIP) curriculum developed by MSV as a best practice in the field.

In January, after a successful pilot, MSP began their first 24-week BIP with a group of 15 men meeting weekly from 6-7:30 p.m. Participants in the program are referred through the courts system, engage in in-class exercises, openly discuss their maladaptive behaviors and complete take-home assignments. Additionally, the program builds accountability in the men through weekly check-ins with one another by phone to honestly discuss their progress and whether there has been any further abuse.

“The goal is to reduce the incidents of violence that [are] occurring in the home and help establish types of healthy relationships between the two intimate partners in the home. ...allowing the fathers to still maintain their role as a father figure — which doesn't necessarily mean that the relationship continues between the two partners.” — KaShawna Watson

Chandra Robinson, Community Programs Manager for MSP, is responsible for community outreach efforts for the organization. Chandra invited me to speak with herself; Carol Lofter-Thun, Executive Director for MSP; and KaShawna Robinson, Lead Facilitator for MSP’s BIP. What these three do for women in D.C. is heroes' work: providing emergency shelter and services; advocating both in congressional hearings and individual court cases; and facilitating presentations for organizations wanting to learn more about violence prevention.

MSP’s headquarters are housed on an upstairs floor in an office building located on D.C.’s historic U Street Corridor. I’d never been to U Street for anything outside of social activity and this experience was markedly different from happy hour. Chandra, Carol and KaShawna brought me up to speed on the epidemic rate of emotional abuse, the spectrum of violence and the need for a community-based approach to prevention.

“...there are some individuals who have very destructive abusive relationships who have never been physically assaulted a day in [their] life. So domestic abuse can be physical, emotional, financial, reproductive abuse. It could be financial abuse that has not escalated to the point of physical abuse.”  — Chaunda Robinson

The first step to understanding IPV is identifying the signs of abuse. Emotional abuse is psychological aggression towards an intimate partner, e.g. name calling, criticism, humiliation and threats with the intent to harm their partner or oneself. It is also demonstrated in the use of mind games (making a person doubt their beliefs), manipulation, coercion, isolation and control (frequent check-ins via text or calls).

“It can come across as very flattering, ‘I care what you wear, I want you to spend all your time with me,’ but it's...actually quite damaging and is a warning sign of someone who's looking to control someone else.”  — Carol Lofter-Thun

In financial abuse, the perpetrator controls the access to monetary resources (source of income, bank accounts, benefit allotment) and/or damages the financial standing (credit rating, identity theft) of their intimate partner. Reproductive abuse is demonstrated by preventing access to birth control, refusal to use contraception, threatening punishment when seeking abortion or committing assault when electing to keep the child.

The last time I was physically abusive towards my wife was a couple years ago, “we” were at “our” wits' end with my son attempting to sleep-train him. We’d spoken to our pediatric physician, who recommended a five-day course to get him to sleep on his own. It involved a series of progressive steps that include checking on him the first few days and then letting him self-soothe (cry himself to sleep) in the latter days.

My wife elected to be out of town the first few days, leaving me to be the cold, heartless and seemingly deaf parent. We were making adequate progress, with my son falling asleep after about 15 minutes of crying. I’d lost a few days of sleep listening to my toddler wailing dramatically, acting as if falling asleep was the equivalent of torture.

But it’d be worth it to have a good night’s rest (four consecutive hours) and my wife all to myself when she returned home. On this night, he quieted down within 10 or so minutes, the silence sounding like sweet success. Shortly after my wife came home, I went upstairs to check on my son, needing confirmation that he was indeed asleep and not deceased (parents always confuse sleeping toddlers with suffocation).

When I opened the door to peek at my slumbering son, I found my wife spooning with him. I was enraged and quickly lunged at my wife, snatching her out of the bed and dragging her across the floor. My son woke up screaming, traumatized by the sudden absence of his mother. My wife was clearly hurt, humiliated and blindsided by my ambush.

Even writing this now I feel the need to justify my behavior, the frustration from being undermined, my efforts sabotaged, the sleep I lost never to be restored. But all of that pales in comparison to the guilt I feel for treating my wife as if she were some ragdoll and the fear I instilled in my family. In that moment, she was simply something out of place, not in sync with my strategy to have some sense of routine, order and need to control the sleeping arrangements I’d deemed necessary.

I have become the husband, the father, the man I never wanted to be. Certainly not a man I'd want to be with my daughters.

Ulester says stories like mine are not uncommon for participants in his group. During many of his sessions with male batterers, he shows films depicting violence against women such as What’s Love Got to Do With It, Laurence Fishburne and Angela Bassett’s iconic portrayal of Ike and Tina Turner, and Enough starring Jennifer Lopez. One particular scene in What’s Love Got to Do With It depicts Ike dragging Tina across the floor in front of her children. After the viewing, Ulester asks the group, "How many of you were that little boy, standing in the doorway watching your mother physically assaulted or sexually assaulted?"

“...three quarters of the men, these are men who witness — and they tell their stories — horrific acts of violence against their mothers and the sense of helplessness to protect her. And they swore, ‘I'll never be like that man, my Daddy, my father-in-law’ or the date for the night...and they are tortured because they become that man.”  —Ulester Douglas

I’ve spoken to my wife about this incident and she shared her embarrassment and disappointment that I would behave like that in front of our children. She also called me out on how arguing, shouting or cursing in front of the children is harmful to both her and them as well.

Children raised in abusive families demonstrate its impacts in many ways: academically, behaviorally, physically, displaying PTSD symptoms, often developing substance abuse problems and becoming batterers themselves. There is significant research indicating how trauma from abuse rewires the brain, keeping children in a heightened state of anxiety and arousal, i.e.: the fight or flight syndrome, for years.

Perpetrators of violence pass down generational abusive behaviors to their children. I know I don’t want that for my son nor my three daughters.

In 2005, MSV started the Because We Have Daughters (BWHD) program to appeal to the protective instinct inherent in fathers. The program is a community-centered approach to preventing violence against women through workshops and exercises that “...helps men understand what it would be like for their daughters, and all women, to live fully and freely without fear of violence.”

Both MSP and MSV believe that focusing on individual men alone will not prevent nor eliminate violence against women. They both conveyed a need to look at the problem from a holistic perspective. In diagnosing the problem, they look at the infrastructure of how women are viewed in society, the systems of oppression in place globally (racism and sexism) and all the ways men don’t see the necessity of tackling this issue: the patriarchy, toxic masculinity, male privilege and the fragility of the male ego.

Destructive notions of manhood hurt everyone, men, women and children. Toxic men are destroying families, killing women and children. It’s bigger than Chris Brown, Ray Rice and Steve’s also Marissa Alexander, Bresha Meadows and the #MenAreTrash trending topic. This issue permeates race, class, income, education, sexuality, religion and nationality.

Both MSP and MSV, understanding the complexity, pervasiveness and intersectional nature of preventing violence against women, explained that there is “no one-size fits all” approach to tackling this issue. Emotional abuse, domestic and intimate partner violence in unhealthy relationships affects all of us. No organization can overcome an issue that impacts almost half of all relationships without awareness, advocacy and engagement from each one of us.

Supports and services for domestic violence have historically revolved around sheltering women and separating children from households — essentially treating the symptoms without solving the problem. Men who are abused their family members and intimate partners have behavioral issues that will remain unresolved without treatment.

In considering the utility and efficacy of groups like BIP, it may seem counterintuitive that there would need to be support for perpetrators of violence. KaShawna sees the progress from participants in BIP, “...these men are reporting out to us in group… ‘I've learned how to negotiate what I wanted without being aggressive at work, with my child's teacher, with my child's social worker.’ So the skillsets that they're getting from group [are] transferable….”

Men largely posture, play-act and perform manhood, having developed a composite sketch of what makes a man from media, male influences, marketing campaigns and messaging. It's apparent that these fragmented pieces assembled together do not produce quality men. Shouldn't there then be an investment in making better, fuller and more realized men?

“...we're hurting. So all this trauma...I would say most have experienced, and it's unprocessed, it's not dealt with. We carry around this trauma, because the very nature of trauma is — among other things — it's a form of energy and it it has to be dealt with.” — Ulester Douglas

Helping people to foster healthy productive relationships requires community investment. Ulester says healthy couples have empathy and authentic engagement, are free from fear of consequence and have a respect for the wants and needs of both partners. Carol offered this perspective, “I think there's been a lot of focus on domestic violence as a gender issue...whereas it’s really about unhealthy relationships between intimate partners and family members as well.”

My wife and I have been in marriage counseling since September. We’re doing the hard work of identifying our emotional triggers, understanding where our relationship models have come from and developing skills and techniques to productively negotiate during conflict. We are fortunate to have the wherewithal financially to afford treatment and have the support from family to attend weekly sessions.

But aside from working on our relationship, I know there’s work that I need to do within myself to become a better husband, father and a man deeply invested in protecting women and families. Just as this story found its way to me, I hope that it finds its way to you and that you’ll join me in preventing violence against women.

If you are a man aware of other men (friends, family or loved ones) abusing their intimate partner or family members, don’t be afraid to engage. It could save someone’s life. Stay vigilant and “if you see something, say something.”

If you are being abused and need 24/7 support, please contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-7233 | 1-800-787-3224 (TTY). Local resources include: My Sister's Place (Washington, D.C.), 202-529-5991; House of Ruth (Maryland), 410.889.7884; and Doorways for Women and Families (North Virginia), 703-237-0881. For more information on Men Stopping Violence and how to bring their programs to your community, call 404-270-9894.

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