Breaking Free: Men in abusive relationships

HOUSTON – Peter recounted the time a police officer knocked on his door. He figured a neighbor had called 911 after hearing the thumps and thuds that had become an all-too-familiar sound. No one was arrested because the person who answered the door showed no signs of abuse. It was Peter’s wife. He stood in hiding, on the other side of that open door, fearful an arrest would break his already splintered family.

“She answers the door, shows her pretty face and they go away, not knowing that on the other side of that door, I’m cut. I’m bleeding,” he said, remembering the moment he said his wife stabbed him.

He said he didn’t want her to be arrested.

“I’m not gonna come out and be like, man y’all need to take her to jail. No, I’m not going to do that. My kids are here. There’s neighbors that are watching,” Peter said.

Peter, an alias used to protect his identity, eventually separated from his wife after nearly a decade of abuse.

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He’s one of the thousands, according to victim advocates, who warn domestic violence against men has been on the rise since the start of the pandemic. While numerical data to support that claim is limited, advocates point to the anecdotal evidence: More calls for help, more requests for beds, and more questions about what to do.

“It is very, very obvious when we talk to them that we understand what they are saying and what they’re going through,” said Dr. Conte Terrell, a counselor, coach, and advocate for victims of domestic violence.

After noticing an uptick in inquiries for help from men, Terrell created a program designed to get men talking about the pain they endured.

Doing so isn’t easy, but Terrell said there’s power in numbers – more men talking, makes more men feel comfortable to do the same.

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“Abuse is abuse. We had to be able to make sure they were comfortable coming, especially since they were reaching out because we know men very rarely do that,” she said.

According to a report published by the Texas Council on Family Violence, 35 men were killed statewide by an intimate partner in 2021.

Additionally, about one in four men “report having experienced severe physical violence from an intimate partner in their lifetime,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

REPORT: Texas Council on family violence

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Victim advocates stressed the importance of breaking the stigma associated with being male and abused. Fewer men feel comfortable reporting their injuries than women.

Olivia Rivers, CEO and executive director of The Bridge over Troubled Waters Shelter in Pasadena, said her organization first opened its doors to men 11 years ago.

“We try to break that stigma through education and prevention,” Rivers said, adding, “violence against men is not really talked about especially when you’re talking about it in an intimate setting. So, to receive services from the Bridge, it’s no different than a woman calling for services.”

The shelter keeps space reserved for men in an area separate from women.

“A lot of the shelters that focus on men here in the Houston area are homeless only, and while domestic violence is one of the main reasons people experience homelessness, there needs to be places for men who are homeless but also can focus on that healing aspect of the trauma they’ve been through with family violence,” Rivers said.

Mimi Sterling, CEO of Dallas-based The Family Place, agrees.

“We know that those numbers are times thousands in our community and it’s staggering to think it’s under recognized, it’s under reported, and it’s underserved,” Sterling said.

The Family Place opened its doors in 1978, as Texas’ first shelter for battered women and children. The facility expanded its reach in 2016 by opening a men’s shelter and counseling office. Sterling said they did so after noticing more men seeking help.

“Since 2016, we’ve housed 425 men,” Sterling said.

Last year, 84 men sought shelter at the facility.

Sterling and other advocates continuously circle back to the fact that cases of domestic violence against men are underreported – as are resources to help.

WATCH: Teaching young men and boys the skills to prevent abuse

The Harris County Domestic Violence Coordinating Council advises men to contact a shelter – even if they may not know whether men are accepted. Either way, officials from the council said they can direct a male victim to the proper place to receive help.

Peter said it’s been a couple of years since he left his wife. They’re now divorced and he has custody of their son.

“He’s 10 and he’s doing better than he’s ever done in his life. He’s a happy kid. A happy kid,” he said.

Peter said it wasn’t easy to share his story and he credits his work with Dr. Terrell in being able to do so. His breakthrough came after years of feeling alone.

He said breaking the cycle now includes telling other men they don’t have to stay.

“Be that one that helps break that cycle,” he said, before wiping away a tear when thinking about the life his son won’t be forced to live.

“I don’t have to worry about what my son sees that’s going to stick with him for the rest of his life. He doesn’t have to be the punching bag for someone that’s upset – that the anger’s not even directed towards him,” he said.


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