It’s rare for an abusive man somewhere on the spectrum of an abuser not to claim that his wife is just as abusive or is also an abuser. I hear it all the time. “But, Andrew, sure I abused her that one time, but she has done…” The list of their wife’s failures goes on and on, justifying their perceived “one time” egregious behavior because of their wife’s present-day continued slights.
First, I know the abuse has never just been a one-time thing. Overt abuse maybe, but the covert, subtle abuse has been in the water; most of the time the perpetrating partner doesn’t even know that it is there. He is blinded by his own privileged position of power and control. The overt abuse events may only be one or two stories, and most abusive men can “own” that time was abusive and wrong. But what many abusive men don’t realize is that abuse doesn’t grow in isolation without certain conditions. Meaning, it needs certain elements to thrive. These elements create and produce the subtle abuse that is most common and more difficult to name, acknowledge, and move beyond and into healthy styles of relating. Imagine abuse grows in a petri dish, in the dark, with certain “bacteria” present such as arrogance, misogyny, a history of pornography use, theological rigidity, sexism, unaddressed childhood wounds, entitlement, and voila you have created an environment that is perfect for abuse to flourish and provides justification of despicable behaviors. Many times, this is unconsciously developed over a lifetime of growing up within systems of male privilege and male-centric environments (the church being one of the largest).
So the fragile man, who has been catered to his entire life, begins to muddy the relational waters with his attempts to make himself and his partner equally guilty for the condition of their poor relationship by saying some version of “No, you are the abuser!” At the time, “thinking” he is merely advocating for himself, he misses the entire systemic nature of his abuse, of which he has been the main participant and benefactor of the system that has so served him.
As the man argues that his wife is also “the abuser,” he further gaslights his wife’s experience in an attempt to make her reality less credible and doubt her own truth. After years of abuse and objectification, whether it’s spiritual, emotional, or sexual in nature, a woman can grow increasingly weary, and often the contempt towards her abusive spouse grows with intensity. Though not the ideal destination of healing for the abused partner, this is a normal and necessary part of the healing journey. Another way to say this is, the goal for the abused spouse is not to be an aggressive ass in return but to demonstrate clean mature anger, which is a healthy response towards injustice and abuse. Responsive contempt is not the same as abuse (but yes, it is a form of hatred) yet can be helpful. Let me explain.
Abuse is more like cancer, a terminal disease that if left untreated you will surely die. The most common and undiagnosed form of this “cancer” is husband-to-wife violence. Though, of course, this is not only one-sided, wives can definitely be the primary abusers to their husbands as well. If this is the case, please get help and find safety now. However, since I work primarily with men and male violence, this article will be addressing what I see in this dynamic of blame-shifting and a lack of emotional maturity and integrity of owning our own sin and becoming the good and safe men we long to be.
If abuse in a marriage is more like cancer, then the contempt a woman responds with is more like a baseball bat to the knee cap. Is it wrong? Yes! Is it painful? Yes! But it is vital to admit that no matter how painful and unfair the violence against you “feels” it is not the same as cancer. Her contempt is a response from years and years of her voice being silenced, her experiences being gaslighted, her being emotionally, psychologically, spiritually, sexually manipulated, and abused, and she is pissed! Rightly, so. Many times this has been done behind closed doors, and with no one else to witness her experience. She has felt isolated and alone and has had enough! This rage is not the end goal, but a journey to travel through. As a victim of abuse, you must let your experience speak. Know that you are worth raging over, the injustice against you was evil, and your anger is now a gift to help you break the chains of this prison.
So men, when your partner’s anger is not clean and she is wielding her baseball bat full of contempt, your goal of being a good and safe man is to begin to be someone who can handle her rage without internalizing it, or returning the aggression. Meaning, if she is freaking out and going off on you, “What a coward!”, “You are a piece of excrement!”, “I hate your guts!”, “You liar!” you have to fill in the blank. In one way, this can be a good thing. Follow me—she is finally feeling safe enough to rage at you without fear of retribution. She can finally lash out and be heard. (Now, as I said earlier for those women who are reading this, that is not the end goal, but it is part of the healing process.) Abused wives are asking is “can my husband handle my fullness?” Will he crumble? Will he be defensive and reactive in response? Will he become aggressive in return? This type of contemptuous response from our partners is an opportunity to practice your growth and maturity. You can have boundaries with her rage and still handle her rage with kindness and care. Remember that abuse is what you have done, but it is not the totality of who you are and you are responsible for the trauma your behaviors have cost your partner.
Learning to handle your partner’s anger is vital but what about your own? Letting your anger out in a clean way is the goal. What is clean anger? Clean anger is letting out aggression where no one gets hurt. Anger is not bad; anger is a part of what it means to be human. It’s just an emotion. But the question is what do you do with your anger? Do you allow it to turn into aggression? Or can you express your anger in a clean way that does no harm? For example, going to your backyard office and screaming aloud all your frustrations, or going to the forest to hit a tree with a stick, punching pillows or slamming them onto the ground, or whatever exercise you feel is right for you, but giving your body full freedom to feel all the rage and equally release it. The key is that you are by yourself or with a trusted, safe friend, but not with your abused partner. You must let out your rage without causing harm to another, so if someone is with you it’s important that they have more emotional distance and have not been harmed by your aggression in the past. (Your partner should not witness your exercise in aggression release because it could be seen as another form of intimidation or manipulation.) This is for you and you alone to process and get your anger out so it does not turn into aggression. These are a few ways of helping you process your anger without it coming out sideways and hurting those you love.
Let’s continue to lean into the good and safe men we are becoming Let’s own our failures and our abuse so we can move through and beyond them.