Before he died, a distant relative sat down with me and humbly told the story of how he gave his wife a black eye. He did this with all the boys in our extended family at a time when we were old enough to understand but young enough to shape our belief system. He wanted us to grow up with a deeply held belief that it is never okay to strike a woman.
Belief systems define who we are and are difficult to change. I could post a hundred scenarios where you think a woman deserved to be hit, but my subconscious completely rejects the input as absurd or rationalizes why it does not matter. Belief systems are powerful, and when shared by a population, they build civilizations up or burn them to the ground.
A “Men’s Problem”?
Recently, I was at a domestic violence conference where a speaker asserted that “domestic violence is a men’s problem.” He went on to say something about not caring if it offended people, that it should offend people, and his belief was backed by statistics saying women are overwhelmingly the victims. In other words, that is his belief system, and he will rationalize why any contrary information does not matter. So, let me give you that contrary information, and then tell you why it does not matter
First, let me tell you a little bit about my experience with domestic violence. Not only have I seen it in my professional practice, but I’ve witnessed it with family and friends.
Arnold and Ann have a child together. Both parents have drinking problems. When Ann gets drunk and upset, she throws things at Arnold. One day, Ann became especially angry and started throwing items at Arnold and punching his head and body while he was holding their baby. Arnold kicked Ann out, and she called the police and had Arnold arrested. Ann, it turns out, has done this with at least two other boyfriends. The truth was only revealed later when she attacked the wrong person.
Previously, Ben was arrested for beating his wife, Betty. The attack was so severe that she required hospitalization. But he used the kids as leverage to get his wife to come back, and she never prosecuted him. One day when they were both drunk, they had an argument, and Betty locked Ben out of the bedroom and passed out. Ben decided to retaliate for his prior arrest by filing a false report that Betty pointed a gun at him. Police records showed multiple inconsistent statements on Ben’s part, including bizarre claims that Betty’s prior injuries were due to her own clumsiness. And yet, because Betty doesn’t remember anything, she is labeled a perpetrator and indicted for family violence assault with a deadly weapon. “She pointed a gun at me” almost always wins over “I don’t remember what happened.”
How do you tell who is the victim and who is the abuser? The victim is probably the one you don’t like. Think about it. Is it the popular kid being beaten up at school, or is it the popular one doing the beating? Abusers are masters at manipulating other people’s belief systems – not just their victims’. It is downright creepy hearing the support an abuser receives from family, friends, and fellow church members against the victim. I wish I could repeat some of the things they say.
Anecdotal versus Statistical Evidence
These examples may not matter to you because they are anecdotal evidence, which refers to evidence derived from individual stories and experiences. It is often dismissed as immaterial because it is considered less reliable than large scientific studies. This, however, is another belief system that you should challenge.
While statistical evidence is more reliable, it is only as reliable as what it measures. For example, if I go to the courthouse and count the number of men and women in suits, I should get a good indication of how many lawyers are there. Why do it that way? Because it is more efficient than asking everyone to show a bar card. It’s important to remember, though, I am not measuring lawyers, I am counting people in suits and assuming that is a good proxy. My assumption sounds reasonable, but it could be way off. Domestic abusers do not carry around domestic abuser cards. We can only count arrests, admissions, complaints, or some other proxy. Nobody can go back in time to see what really happened.
In my anecdotal experience, the number of male and female victims are about even, and the number of wrongful arrests and incorrect findings of domestic violence is frustratingly high. In the two examples above, a study counting arrests would find three female victims and one male victim. Case 1 revealed one female victim when it was actually one male victim. Case 2 showed one male victim when in reality the female was a victim twice. So, the study is flawed.
Maybe my anecdotal data is completely unreliable, and I am an outlier in the statistics. Or, it could be that studies matching my experiences better reflect reality. Your belief system may prevent you from considering this latter possibility and questioning the validity of your assumptions. See, for example, this story: “Women more likely to be perpetrators of abuse as well as victims“. University of Florida News (last visited October 30, 2017).
Being a Victim
At this point, it may help to talk about why victims return to their abusers. As I said before, abusers are masters at manipulating people’s belief systems. An idea that they instill in women is that if they leave, they will lose their children forever. For men, the notion is that if they leave, they will be arrested, ruining their lives and reputations. Thanks to the belief system that domestic violence is a men’s problem, this is sadly a very real risk.
How do men become victims in the first place? Like me, many men are instilled with the belief system that it is never okay to strike a woman. They live in fear that if they lift a finger in their own defense, they will be prosecuted. Women have fingernails, hands, feet, and whatever weapons are handy that are capable of inflicting damage and pain. Imagine you are that guy in school who was beaten up all the time. Now, you are being hit by your wife, and your self-esteem is entirely wrecked. If you call the police, you risk being arrested. If you leave, you also risk being arrested. In either case, do you really have any options?
Whose Problem is It?
So, how can we determine whether domestic violence is a men’s problem? In my opinion, that’s the wrong question. The question should be, “What use is a belief system that says domestic violence is a men’s problem?” All around us, there are victim monsters in pretty floral dresses with bright eyes smiling at you, and victim monsters wearing dashing suits giving you friendly handshakes and pats on the back. Does it matter if 4 or 40 percent of victims are men? The children in their homes see horrible treatment and abuse of their mothers or fathers. What belief systems are being wired permanently into their little brains? Let’s focus on that.
If you are not willing to have your belief system challenged and instead want to silence or shut out contradicting information, then you are part of the problem. You may see yourself dedicating your life to standing up for what you believe in, but you aren’t. The more important the problem is, the more ideas and perspectives are necessary to solve it. And yet, today we do the opposite
Listening is Better than Pontificating
Aren’t some things worth a broken ego? How about we don’t shut out ideas we don’t want to hear? Why not put the problem of domestic violence above our belief systems and listen? Are ideas that challenge our deeply held beliefs scarier than the monsters they might be creating?