By Andrew L. Yarrow
Domestic violence — and allegations of violence — can be one of the most toxic issues in contested divorces. Too often, rightly or wrongly, they are likely to result in fathers getting shut out of their children’s lives and men having to make larger child support and alimony payments.
The standard scenario — from courtrooms to movies — is that the husband has been physically and verbally abusive, scaring and hurting his wife, often in front of their children. He’s the goon, and his wife deserves to be rid of him.
Certainly, many women do tragically end up victims of domestic violence, but there are two other scenarios that can be just as true, yet receive little attention.
The first is that allegations of domestic violence are what some family law attorneys call “the nuclear option.” Lawyers tell their clients to file papers to get an order of protection if they say they feel fear, and as a way to strengthen their case.
Similarly, if their husband raises his voice — no matter who started the fight — divorcing might call the police. Within minutes, a squad car will show up and, without listening to both parties, an officer will tell the husband to get his shaving kit and clothes and then escort him off the property.
It has been estimated that 85 percent of protective orders are entered against men, with most being used tactically to get the upper hand in a divorce. Aside from the effect that these orders can have on child custody, property division, and payments to an ex-wife, men who are innocent are stigmatized and records of these orders can be found by employers or when looking for a job.
But it’s the second scenario that is the least discussed. This is when the wife is the abusive or violent spouse, hitting their husbands, throwing things at them, destroying their belongings, spewing so many four-letter words that a hardened criminal would blush, and even pulling weapons on them.
One in seven men (compared to one in four women) experience “severe physical intimate partner violence,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). And this doesn’t include verbal or other forms of abusive behavior. The Mayo Clinic has also written about domestic violence against men.
While interviewing men for my book, “Man Out: Men on the Sidelines of American Life,” I heard many disturbing stories. A mother told me that her son had almost been killed by his ex-wife and fled to her house. One man recalled how his wife threw glasses and plates at him and was verbally abusive to his son from his first marriage; then, if it weren’t so troubling it would be funny, she smashed the cat’s water bowl by using it as a weapon.
Why don’t we hear more about men who are victims — either in court or in the media?
There are a number of reasons: 1) Men are more likely to commit the most heinous acts. 2) Most advocates against domestic violence have been women’s groups. 3) Centuries of storytelling, from Othello to Hannibal Lecter, have reinforced the narrative that men are the attackers and women are the victims. 4) Law enforcement almost automatically makes this assumption. 5) Many a man feels like a “sissy” to report that the bruise on his face came from a punch by his wife, which also suggests that the CDC data may underestimate the real toll.
So, what should men do? First, don’t be afraid to report to the police any incidents or patterns of violence and abuse by your wife toward you or your children.
Collect evidence: Take photos of a bruise or scratch, a punched-in wall, or broken glass. If possible, record the audio on your smart phone.
If there are witnesses, ask them if they can describe what they have seen or heard to the police or your lawyer. Write down in detail what happened (or has been happening).
Get your own protective order. If your children have been abused, gather any evidence you can and protect your kids.
Evidence is especially important since police and courts often disbelieve men who say that they have been victimized by their wives. Tell your attorney, who can use this information to help your case.
Although no man or woman should be a victim of violence or other abusive behavior, if it happens to you, documenting and reporting it can be critically important to your divorce case and can make a big difference when it comes to custody and financial matters.
Andrew L. Yarrow, a former New York Times reporter and history professor, discusses these and related issues in his recent book, Man Out: Men on the Sidelines of American Life.