’I wasn’t walking on eggshells. I was walking on razor blades.’
Domestic abuse is, almost universally, thought of as a women’s issue. But for thousands of Irish men, it’s a fact of everyday life - and the overwhelming majority of male victims will never say a word about it.
We spoke to three Irish men about their experiences, and how they overcame domestic violence with the help of the support service Amen.
*All names have been changed
More of Shane's story follows below - behind closed doors Shane, (not his real name), from Dublin, was married to his wife for 15 years, and never expected to become a victim of domestic abuse. Like many marriages, he began his story by falling in love.
“I fell head over heels,” he said. “The minute I saw her, I told her: I’m going to marry you. It’s a bit strange, I know, and I’ve heard people say it before - but I genuinely knew this was the girl I was going to marry. And I did.”
Only a few days after their wedding, things began to change.
A few nights into the honeymoon, Shane and his new wife were out at a karaoke bar with a large group of new friends they’d met at the sunny tourist destination, “having a great time”, when he ducked out for some air for 20 minutes. He came back in to find “my new wife sitting there with her arms around a man”.
An argument ensued, and Shane and his wife left together. The route back to their hotel went through a sandy, broad laneway, where she suddenly turned to him and “went ballistic.”
“She went mental,” Shane said. “She kicked, she punched, she grabbed.”
The outburst was so violent that an engagement gift of a gold chain she had bought for him was torn from his neck and lost in the sand.
Shane said he just didn’t know how to react. If it had been a man, he would have fought back. Instead, he allowed himself be beaten in public, shocked and unsure what to do.
“To this day, that was never, ever spoken about again. Never an apology. I put it down to drink. I said ‘that what is was’. But that wasn’t normal.”
88,000 Irish men have suffered severe abuse
The most recent figures from the National Crime Council, the office for the prevention of domestic violence, show that 6% of men suffer from “severe” domestic abuse (compared to 15% of women). When “minor” incidents are included, that figure grows to over a quarter, at 26% (compared to 29% of women).
Male victims, however, are almost entirely hidden. While one in three female victims report abuse to gardaí, only one in 20 men will. That makes obtaining real figures difficult - but best estimates are that 88,000 Irish men have been severely abused during their lives.
In 2013, the service for male victims of domestic abuse, Amen, received calls from over 2,000 men seeking help, advice or counselling. Most are married and middle-aged. Calls come in from every demographic.
Physical abuse does happen to men, regularly - from being beaten or bitten to having cigarettes stubbed out on their skin, and stabbings.
Even more common, though, is consistent verbal and psychological abuse. Victims report name calling, threats, spreading false rumours, and of attempts to turn children against their father- even invented stories of child abuse. Sometimes, these incidents continue long after a relationship has ended.
For many men, the feeling of helplessness is far more harmful than the danger of physical injury. Many feel that even their own friends or family won’t believe them, and there’s nowhere to turn to.
Oisin, 47, from Cork, married a woman who was constantly jealous. He found himself being followed, having his phone messages read, his letters opened. He didn’t have the freedom to go anywhere or see anyone, and his wife started to claim she’d seen his car parked places he had never been.
Oisin’s wife never hurt him physically - his abuse was entirely psychological. He lived in small town, and the rumours she spread about widespread infidelity affected every aspect of his life.
Like those men who suffered physical attacks, it was the silent, constant psychological abuse behind closed doors that drove Oisin to despair.
When he went to his GP, distraught, he was told that his doctor “knew all about it” - or, at least, the version his wife had relayed.
“I was nearly suicidal - I didn’t know who to turn to,” he said, recalling that even family members didn’t believe him.
“It turns out that she was on the phone to them on a regular basis, and she was texting them … but what my wife was relating to them was totally false, totally untrue.”
Involving family and friends, or attempting to isolate the victim from them, is not an uncommon story.
Ken, 41, tells a similar tale. “She had me believing that my family was against me, against her, and against the relationship,” he said. “She had me believing it was my family’s fault, not hers.”
“That was very isolating - that was one way she got control of me.”
Like others we spoke to, Ken said it was the psychological abuse that hurt most - more than the incident when she poured boiling water over his arm, or when she threatened him with a knife.
“Before I knew it, there was no one I could turn to. it came to the point where I thought: who’d believe me? I’m 6”1’, she’s only 5” odd. Who’d believe me that she could physically or mentally try to do anything to me?”
After the incident on their honeymoon, things had never been perfect for Shane, but it was when they were expecting their first child that the relationship changed dramatically.
“When I was told we were having a baby, for the first two days it was like *we* were having a baby … this was big.” he said of his excitement. “It didn’t last very long.”
Suddenly, Shane discovered that his wife’s controlling behaviour was increasing. They argued more and more, and he was always, he says, wrong. If he didn’t apologise after every single argument, he couldn’t eat at the dinner table.
“When she was pregnant, it was scary. You’d be sitting down having your tea or your dinner, and I’d get a plate thrown at me. A cup thrown at me. A fork. Or if she was walking by, you’d get a clatter to the back of the head,” he recalls.
“I wasn’t walking on eggshells, I was walking on razor blades.”
Behind closed doors
More of Shane's story follows - finding help
It was also, largely, hidden from outside view. Shane says they didn’t go out much to meet friends, but when they did, he’d “let his hair down”. Which was just fine with his wife - in public, at least.
“If we were in company, [she’d say]: ‘he’s gas, look at him, he doesn't care.’ But you’d walk in the door, close the front door, and: ‘you made a show of yourself. You’re an embarrassment.’ You couldn't win.”
v To make things worse, Shane had no one to turn to.
“I didn’t go down to the pub and say: ‘jaysus lads, you won’t believe what the missus did to me last night’. You don’t do it. Everything is ‘rosy in the garden’.”
Even when men do speak out, they’re often not believed. “[People] started worrying about me and my mental health, I was telling such stories,” Oisin recalls.
“It was all happening behind closed doors - only happening in the house,” he said.
“[People] were seeing [my wife] as calm and collected, and me as totally and utterly unable to cope - which I was.”
In fact, Oisin was so unsure of himself he went for psychiatric assessment, and persuaded his wife to come too. Oisin passed with flying colours, the first of several - as social workers would later demand more.
He had no clinical condition, he was told, but his wife was asked to return for further diagnosis. She never came back.
Things didn’t improve for Shane after their child arrived. His doctor, he said, told him his wife was suffering from post-natal depression, and he trusted that things would improve.
Until, one day, he came home from work one day to find his wife smacking their young child - and confronted her directly about it.
“That was the first time she ever held a knife to up to my throat and told me she’d kill me,” he said.
From that point on, “she would tell me: I’m going to get separated from you, I’ll take the house, I’ll take the children, you’ll end up with nothing.”
And Shane believed her. The threat of losing his children was what kept him under control - like many others. Of those who called Amen for help in 2013, only 4% of them were childless, and the fear of losing access to their children was a recurring theme in our conversations.
v Shane believes that domestic abuse, on the part of either sex, is a learned process. During his courtship, he’d observed his future mother-in-law resort to physical violence towards her husband on occasion, and call gardaí “to put him back in his box”.
He never expected to suffer the same fate - but his wife began to call gardaí to their home whenever they disagreed.
He also said there were no warning signs - no indication that an incident was about to happen. “Just the flick of a switch - boom - then you were in it.”
It was a sudden, unprovoked attack that was one of the worst assaults in Shane’s 15 years of marriage.
“I heard something hit the sink”
The day after a serious argument - during which Shane’s wife had called the gardaí again - a sense of normality had briefly returned to the household.
He was standing by the kitchen sink, and asked his wife for her contribution to their joint credit card, as he did every month when the bill arrived.
Suddenly, without warning, he felt a sharp sting at the back of his ear. He turned around to see her standing there with a towel in her hand, as she raised her arm as if to hit him - which would be nothing unusual.
He brought his arm up in self-defence, and received a quick series of blows to the hand and stomach. Or so it seemed.
“I actually thought I was being punched in the stomach, until it stopped, she turned around, and I heard something hit the sink,” Shane said.
“It was like slow motion … she walked out as cooly and calmly, and I looked in the sink, and saw there was a knife … and saw drops of blood falling out of my hand and my arm.”
Shane had, in fact, been stabbed with a knife hidden behind the towel in her hand.
A medical examination later would show his two wounds to the hand and belly were not deep or life-threatening - but there were as many as 15 marks on his stomach, each an attempted stabbing.
Gardaí arrived on the scene before an ambulance did, and he asked them to take his children from the house. It was while he was being treated by medical staff that gardaí reappeared from inside the house - helping his wife, who claimed he’d stabbed himself.
As he watched from the ambulance, gardaí helped her take the children from the house and drive away.
Shane’s children -who are now in their teens - no longer have a father figure. That he can no longer see them is his greatest regret.
Amen says many of the men they speak to tolerate abuse for the sake of their children. It’s a recurring theme for abused men.
“She has taken my children. My children don’t want to know me,” he told us. “I am the devil. I am bad news. I am everything that they don’t want to have in their life.”
Shane was self-employed for many years, and says he went to every event in their younger years. In his own words, he “was at the opening of a bag of crisps”.
“The time I spent with my children in hours and physical togetherness - there’s many people with grown-up children who haven’t spent the volume of time. We did everything together.
“I took it for granted. My life was my children.”
Now, though, he believes his children can’t remember any of it. He says they’ve been raised to believe their mother brought them up almost alone.
All three victims we spoke to had their children at the forefront of their minds. Ken told the story of his lowest moment when, unable to cope, he found himself contemplating suicide on a bridge.
”I climbed up on top of it. I was about to say: what’s the point?” he said. “[But] I remember seeing my son in my head, and I climbed back down.”
In the end, Shane didn’t leave the family home - a minority among affected men. But he did lose his children. That been a huge blow to him, and one he says he can’t put into words.
But he says he had no other option. If he could do it all again, he’d still advise anyone caught in the same situation to contact Amen.
Amen provide a number of services to men suffering domestic abuse, from a confidential helpline, staffed by volunteers, to face-on-face counselling and a support group.
Shane was, eventually, referred to Amen by a garda superintendent, after he made an appointment to complain about the constant calls to the gardai by his wife.
He had never heard of Amen before, and said he didn’t think he could talk to anyone.
“(Talking to Amen) was a very strange experience, because there was nothing they hadn’t heard before. Which seemed wrong, because this should not be happening [to anyone].”
“I hadn’t spoken to family, I hadn’t spoken to friends, I’d spoken to nobody. I didn’t go down for a pint and say what she did to me last night. It’s just a thing that fellas don’t do.
“And to hear these people say you’re not on your own … [I thought] no one else could be going through this.
“They didn’t question what you were saying. They believed everything you said. No one else did.
His sentiments were reflected by the other two men we spoke to. Oisin said the support of having someone to talk to “kept me on the straight and narrow - they actually kept me alive.”
Ken’s advice to men in this situation is: “Get out. Get out of the relationship if you’re stuck in something like that” - even if you want to stay for the children.
“It’s still not an ideal situation, but at least I have my life back … it’s my own life, my own decisions, my own self confidence.”
If you are affected by any of the issues in this article, call Amen on 046 9023 718. This awareness campaign is funded by Cosc – National office for the prevention of domestic, sexual and gender based violence. READ MORE: Shocking stories of domestic violence, but sadly not surprising .
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