After the Abuse: You Can Be a Victim or a Victor

A lot of the men who contact me are in the process of disentangling themselves from an abusive relationship.

When intimate partners abuse men, physical violence is often a very small and late-emerging portion of a long history of mind games, emotional manipulations, social isolation, humiliations, and financial abuses. Female abusers serve to grind down a man’s sense of identity and self-worth. He is only himself insofar as he is a part of a couple, he is only happy when she is happy, he is only worthwhile so long as he makes her feel safe and secure.

Many men in abusive relationships give up hobbies, interests, friendships, even beliefs for his abuser. He will make incredible sacrifices in the name of bringing harmony to a relationship that is full of cultivated conflict, or to please a partner who has no incentive to be happy.

By the time the vast majority of men in these relationships finally figure out what is going on, there isn’t much left of their old lives and old selves. They wake up one day and realize that they don’t know how to be anything but a human punching bag.

Some of them would rather put up with another lifetime of misery than face that problem with clarity. Many men in this situation decide to just put up with the abuse.

The task of figuring out who you are, what you believe in, and what you want out of life as a man alone in the world is terrifying. I have never seen a man feel so adrift and confused as I have when they are first stepping out of a bad relationship.

To make things worse, a lot of men also find themselves facing down the unfeeling juggernaut of the family courts, abandonment by the social circle they shared with their partner, total isolation, false accusations of crimes, or even violence from their ex’s male friends and relatives.

I’ve had conversations with men in some version of this situation probably ten or fifteen times a year every year that I have been running The Wild Man Project. It is always a hard to hear their stories and see just how much they are suffering. Over the years I have developed a program for helping them start the healing process and find their feet. The short version of it has always been:

Step 1: Cover Your Bases

Ending relationships with an abusive partner is almost never clean. Right now, many abusers are happy to use the law as a weapon to make their leaving partner miserable.

  • Cut yourself down to minimal contact.
  • Get legal protection and coverage.
  • Talk to an expert for any kind of legal entanglements coming up.
  • Seek out mediation or binding arbitration if possible.

Step 2: Get Some Perspective

Understand what the hell happened in this relationship. Understand that the behaviour you were being subjected to really was abuse: you didn’t just imagine it. And there was probably a good reason why you didn’t see it at first.

Step 3: Get Some Support

Healing simply isn’t something people can do alone. We need help, whether we like to admit it or not. Most men who have been in an abusive relationship for any amount of time have become isolated from their friends and alienated from their family Sometimes you can rebuild those bridges, and sometimes you need new, positive people in your life.
  • Find a therapist or life coach who can help you start moving in the right direction.
  • Look for men’s groups, Men’s Sheds, Men’s Church Groups, or Iron John Societies where you are going to find an environment that encourages you to share, and where you are very likely to find someone who has been through the same thing.
  • Consider support groups like AA, NA, Alanon, etc., if you are struggling with alcohol, drugs, or your partner had abused them.
  • Call up old friends that you could talk to, even if you haven’t seen or heard for them in years. Ask them to meet you for a drink or to play a game online where you can chat as you play.
  • Visit family.
  • If you have any interests or hobbies that you haven’t cultivated in awhile, look for clubs, classes, and meetups related to them. Your CIty Calendar, the community post bard at the local library, and (and Kijiji if you are in Canada) are great opportunities.
  • Consider volunteering: groups like Habitat for Humanity, animal rescue, Search and Rescue, the local benevolent clubs like the Rotary or the Lyons, Big Brothers/ Big Sisters, or the area YMCA or YWCA always can find ways to help you help out.

Step 4: Start Some Self-Exploration

Getting to know who you are outside of your relationship is possibly the hardest task on this list. It really does help to have that coach or therapist. Or at lest one of those rare really useful self-help books.
  • Start writing in a journal
  • If you are even remotely religious, attend some services (in a new place if your ex is still going to your old church, temple, mosque, cricle, coven or whatever.)
  • Learn how to meditate or do yoga, not only do they clear your head, they equip you with skills that let you master your emotions.
  • Start learning a new skill – a new language, a musical instrument, or some complex hobby (I am partial to teaching clients how to fly drones.) This will help you start developing positive momentum.
  • If you don’t already, learn how to use a budgeting and a time management system (nothing forces you to learn about your hangups quite like writing a budget.)
  • Begin an exercise routine – or take an exiting one to the next level.

Step 5: Start Setting (and Meeting) Some New Life Goals

Having a goal – any goal can help you start healing in a big way.  If you have really done a good job on the self-exploration front, you are likely going to find ones that are big, meaningful, and congruent. This is a more personal process, and where the meat of my coaching process sits. I don’t usually have bullet points for it… but it might be time to develop a few.
Yesterday, a client of mine helped me realize that I was missing a critical step zero in this process, however. It is something he said in response to the police recognizing him as a victim, rather than a perpetrator of domestic abuse:
“I have officially been recognized as a Victim of Domestic Abuse […] but I like to think that I am a Victor, not  Victim.”
My client realized that getting out of a relationship where his wife starved him of affection, destroyed other relationships, and tried to take everything he owned, was a victory. He slew a big and terrible dragon just by deciding to walk and choosing to live a better life.
That is a critical step that I often miss when I talk to new clients (or readers looking for a friendly ear), because they usually come to me after they have already taken it. That is to decide that you are already on your way to a better life, rather than that you are facing the end of one.