Contrary to popular belief, men can experience abuse in relationships — and it’s far more common than you think.

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When it comes to abuse in a relationship, we typically imagine the survivor as being female.

What doesn’t come to mind as quickly is the idea of a man experiencing abuse. The truth, however, is that men can and do experience abuse in their relationships. This abuse can often go unnoticed, be severe, and create long-lasting problems.

If you’re a male experiencing abuse, you’re likely all too aware of this. And you probably feel alone, isolated, and possibly ashamed of your circumstance.

But you’re not alone. In fact, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV), 1 in 4 men will experience some form of physical abuse in a relationship during their lifetime.

And in my experience of treating men for almost 20 years, this figure is too low when all forms of abuse are considered.

Unfortunately, many of these abuse survivors will be overlooked because, whether we like it or not, gender stereotypes still exist. This means we’re predisposed to think it unlikely that a man — who’s physically dominant and likely more aggressive — could be abused by a partner (female or male).

But male abuse survivors are more common than you might realize, and the ways in which they’re abused can vary greatly.

How can something as serious as abuse in a relationship be overlooked? If a man is being abused, wouldn’t we know it? Wouldn’t we see it?

The answer is, probably not.

Abuse of men in relationships is a bit like a dirty little secret. People, especially the men who are living with it, don’t talk about it — even if they realize it’s happening.

Societally, we’re accustomed to hearing about women being abused by men. Unfortunately, history has given us ample reason to see this as an unpleasant but real possibility.

But a woman controlling or abusing a man? This must mean the man is weak and easily manipulated, right?

No, not at all.

But it’s this impression that often keeps men from opening up about their abuse and seeking help when they need it.

Of course, this assumes a man recognizes that he’s being abused. It’s common for those experiencing abuse to have trouble seeing it and be resistant to admit it.

For a man in particular though, admitting that he’s being abused in his relationship can be emasculating, making him feel he’s not a real man. So, he may develop psychological constructs — patterns of behaviors or thoughts — to help him minimize and explain away what he’s experiencing.

Men may also have a narrower definition of what constitutes abuse in a relationship.

Abuse isn’t just physical, but if you ask a man if he’s experiencing abuse, he may immediately assume you’re asking if he’s being hit by his partner. It’s far more likely that the man experiencing abuse is dealing with emotional, psychological, verbal, or even sexual abuse.

Many men who are experiencing abuse will themselves overlook any form of abuse that isn’t overtly physical and fail to recognize what’s happening to them.

This blind spot we have as a society for the relationship abuse men can experience means we fail to notice how much more common it is than we want to believe.

Although women can be physically abusive, this isn’t the primary way men find themselves experiencing abuse in a relationship. When it comes to physical abuse, women are far more likely to be the ones experiencing it.

Physical abuse by a woman is typically a response to physical abuse by their partner.

Verbal and emotional abuse

When a man physically abuses a woman, he’s viewed as angry, out of control, and morally wrong. However, many men have been rightly taught never to use their physical advantage over women in an abusive manner.

A woman who is abusive, however, might exploit this restraint by giving in to her own anger issues or manipulative instincts and becoming verbally or emotionally abusive toward her partner. This kind of “you can’t touch me” approach leaves a man unsure of what to do, other than to take it and live with it.

Sexual coercion

Men are also more prone to sexual coercion by women. So, rather than forceable sexual abuse, a woman may use sex as a weapon to try to control a man. This may take the form of:

  • withholding sex
  • promising sex or sexual acts in order to get what she wants
  • using sexual flirtation to control or outright hurt him

There may also be covert sexual acts — such as forcing fellatio or grabbing genitalia — that can be seen as a form of sexual abuse.

Because some men are responsive to acts of a sexual nature, they may not recognize this manipulation as a form of abuse. But using anything as a means of trying to control your partner, including sex, can be seen as a form of abuse.

Psychological abuse

Women can also employ psychological abuse tactics. These can include:

  • demeaning the man in their life
  • undermining the man’s confidence
  • causing the man to feel isolated and dependent

These can manifest in a few ways for the man, including:

  • being socially cut off from friends and normal activities
  • calling names or intimidating
  • interfering in family relationships
  • making unfounded accusations of infidelity
  • constantly monitoring calls, texts, and social media
  • exerting financial control and manipulating or undermining behavior — such as overspending

Additionally, a man’s children may be used against him.

Some women, who may have a strong influence over their children’s behavior, use this influence to negatively manipulate and alienate the children against the father. They may threaten a man’s access to his children or expose certain flaws or behaviors to his children that will turn them against him.

This is abusive behavior to both the man in question, as well as the children who are caught in the middle and being used.

So, if men don’t want to talk about it and may not even recognize it — and there are no physical signs like bruises or broken bones — how can you tell if a man is being abused in his relationship?

Actually, there are signs of abuse in men. You just have to know what to look for.

Consider the following for clues a man may be dealing with abuse.

  • Changes in personality. Any distinct change in personality in anyone should raise a red flag. It doesn’t always mean abuse, but it generally means something is going on. In a man, a change in personality — such as an outgoing person becoming withdrawn or a responsible, or a steady man acting in angry, wild, or irresponsible ways — could be a sign of abuse.
  • Being anxious or fearful about his partner’s response. Being regularly and overly concerned or anxious about how your partner will respond to you isn’t healthy. It may be a sign of fear that failure to please will result in punitive or abusive measures. This is true for both men and women and can result in a breakdown in communication.
  • Becoming overly apologetic. A person experiencing abuse may become accustomed to unnecessarily apologizing or overexplaining their behavior.
  • Needing to check in with his partner repeatedly. Along with becoming fearful of his partner’s response may come the need to check in with his partner constantly. Or, the partner’s need to keep tabs on him and know his whereabouts at all times. If you find that a man’s partner is checking up on him or has trained him to check in more often than seems reasonable, it may be a sign of abuse.
  • Depression. In men, depression can manifest as anger more so than in a despondent mood.
  • Alcohol or substance use. Men are prone to using alcohol as a method of self-medicating. They use it or other substances as a means of managing emotions and escaping. So, if a man begins drinking more than usual or starts smoking cigarettes or cannabis, consider it a warning sign that something may be off.
  • Seeming generally unwell. Men are notorious for their inability to express feelings. If a man is experiencing abuse, he may not know how to talk about it, feel ashamed of his situation, or stuff his feelings. This can result in an outwardly observable illness. In essence, the abuse is making him sick.
  • Low self-esteem. One effect of abuse that’s consistent amongst men and women is the lowering of self-esteem. Especially if a man seems to become unsure of himself in an area where he once was confident, he may be an overlooked survivor of male abuse.

These are not all the signs of abuse in men, but they’re some of the most prevalent. If you notice these in yourself or a man you love, it may be time to act.

Putting a stop to abuse in any relationship is difficult and complicated. It would be nice if it were as easy as just saying stop or leaving, but it’s not.

Ending abuse is also not something that’s easily done alone. Many people experiencing abuse — male, female, or gender-nonconforming — find that the support of family or friends, and likely a mental health professional, can help them make the needed changes.

It can be done, however.

Yet the initial step, which is possibly the hardest step for a man, is admitting the abuse exists. Once this hurdle is cleared, then change can begin.