Can we talk for a second about abused, heterosexual, men? I mean, Johnny Depp’s talking about it, so surely we can too, right?
Part of what came out in the Depp-Heard trial is that Amber Heard was diagnosed with both Borderline Personality Disorder and Histrionic Personality Disorder. People with one or both of those disorders have characteristics that make relationships with them very difficult “high conflict”. Why that’s important is that personality disorders have an 8-10% prevalence rate in the US. That means there are a lot of people in high conflict relationships who are experiencing some level of partner behavior that could be classified as high conflict and then, perhaps, emotionally abusive.
And, as it turns out, some of those victims of emotional abuse are heterosexual men. But do we as a society believe that? Do the abused men even believe it?
By the way, in our society, men don’t “get abused”. Instead, men are more frequently characterized as the abuser. Which we know can be true. There’s not a lot of room, however, for the man who is being abused in some way to be recognized as a victim, even by himself. So hetero men in abusive relationships don’t make space for themselves to be labeled, be heard, or be helped. Secondly, when anyone at all is abused, they often have a lot of shame around it. “What did I do to deserve that?” “What are people going to think?” Then add into that the stereotypes of heterosexual men as either abusers themselves or too manly to be abused, and there’s very little opportunity (or incentive) for men who are being abused to speak up and get help.
Then how can we tell if a man is being abused or has been abused in the past? Well, you can’t just take one look and know. I wish it was that simple. Instead, there are more subtle signs.
A man who appears to have shut down or shut off his feelings
A man who uses substances to cope
A man who has bursts of anger at people other than his alleged abuser
A man who looks and acts like every other man in his profession, birth order, sexual orientation, relationship status…
As you might be able to tell, those signs might also mean a guy has other problems or doesn’t, or is abusive himself or isn’t.
Except for the first sign: A man who appears to have shut down or shut off his feelings. More and more frequently in my work, I see men who appear to wear their limited feelings on the outside of their button-down shirt. Those feelings are neat and small. Those feelings show up as: capable, calm, logical, rational, forward-thinking…oh wait, those aren’t feelings.
These are men who have a hard time identifying a feeling beyond anger and happiness. Anything beyond those two acceptable emotions requires vulnerability. And a man who’s being abused can’t safely be vulnerable or it may be used against him. For instance, take a man who shares a worry with his partner. Later it becomes, “If you were a real man, you would DO something instead of just worrying about it all day.” A man who shares his sadness later hears, “You’re such a crybaby. I told my friends what a sap you are.” What about the man who says, “I can’t take this drama anymore; I’m leaving!”? Well, he gets to hear from his neighbor’s cousin that he abandoned his poor partner, broke her heart, and is a narcissist. So you see, there’s no incentive for an abused man to feel. Instead, there’s incentive to cope in other ways that aren’t always healthy.
It doesn’t surprise me at all that some of Johnny Depp’s coping mechanisms looked unhealthy or maladaptive. In some ways, he was reacting normally to an abnormal situation. Drinking and doing drugs to numb out? Check. Getting upset when he’s being goaded? Check. Trying to escape the drama and then going back to her (or inviting her in) so she will stop waking up the neighbors while threatening to kill herself? Check.
The big question I haven’t asked but am going to (and then answer) is, What Can We Do?
We can do a few things if you are a non-therapist and some additional things if you’re a mental health provider.
Ask the right questions. This doesn’t usually include “Are you being abused?”. Instead, ask about behaviors they experience. And what happens inside them when those behaviors occur.
Provide validation. Anyone can do this! It’s as simple as, “That must be tough.” Or, “What a hard situation you’re in.” This doesn’t include things like, “Yeah, my wife/girlfriend/mother/sister is just like that. I just try to look at the bright side.” That is NOT validation. That is invalidation.
Encourage appropriate support. This can be suggesting they find someone to talk to who understands what they’re going through (you know, like a therapist!). It can also mean suggesting they talk to their family or close friends and NOT the person causing the issues for them.
Check-in with them consistently. Sometimes people who are being abused will sort of hint at it and then not ever bring it up again. That’s fine. It just means that you CAN bring it up and keep the door of validation and support open.
If you’re a mental health provider, here are some add-ons:
Use some form of Internal Family Systems (IFS) parts work to help them sort out the parts that are afraid from the parts that are hiding the fear from everyone else.
Provide concrete examples and strategies they can put into use right away. It can be helping them communicate differently, respond more appropriately, or use the B word. Yes, BOUNDARIES, of course.
Refer to a trauma-informed therapist if appropriate. Sometimes men who are currently being abused by a partner had a parent who was similarly abusive. If a man needs to process old trauma before trying to change current patterns, trauma-informed therapy might be a good way to do that.
Continue to validate, especially as he tries to make changes and then experiences tiny little successes. Success can be as simple (but not easy) as waiting five extra minutes before returning a text (yes, really). It can be as big as moving out, blocking on phone, email, and socials, and never contacting again. Anything in between there that represents a change to the cycle or a change to a pattern of thinking and doing IS a success. Make sure he knows that.
Like your client for who he is, regardless of what he’s experienced. There’s a lot of healing power in unconditional positive regard. This you can show in your demeanor, your body language, how you talk with him when he doesn’t accomplish a goal (hint: don’t shame him), and what small talk you share at the beginning and end of session.
Through his relationship with you, as a friend, family member, or mental health supporter, he will also learn that he’s worthy of your positive regard, capable of making changes, and supported as he does so.
Then maybe one person won’t be caught up in the cycle of emotional drama and abuse any longer.
If you would like to learn more about High Conflict Personalities and Relationships, check out my course linked here.