"At my lowest point, I felt extreme grief. As though I was in a village and a flood had taken away my whole family, leaving me as the lone survivor."
The internet is aflame with videos, articles and memes of the recent defamation trial between Hollywood stars Johnny Depp and Amber Heard. It’s all over social media, so you’re probably caught up on it. But if not, here’s the TL;DR: Depp is suing Heard for an opinion piece she wrote for The Washington Post in 2018, implying Depp abused her in their short-lived marriage. Depp, however, claims Heard to be the abuser instead. And while the trial is ongoing and a final verdict awaits, public opinion favours Depp’s account. This is happening in the US, but it’s brought attention to a topic we rarely speak of here: domestic abuse in Singapore – specifically, cases in which men are the survivors.
The dilemma of a male domestic abuse survivor
Where violence or abuse is involved in relationships, society immediately tends to associate men as the perpetrators. This can be for a variety of reasons, including disbelief that a man can allow himself to be abused by a woman. Especially if he is the bigger or physically stronger individual. Heard herself was recorded mockingly saying, “Tell them I, Johnny Depp, a man, am a victim of domestic violence. And see how many people believe or side with you.”
This harmful stereotyping is what Dillon (not his real name), a Singaporean man in his forties, experienced when he contacted a welfare group for help with domestic abuse. “I sent them an email, and the response I got said, ‘Thank you for your enquiry on receiving support for being in an abusive relationship with a man’,” he says, adding that he reached out to the group afterwards to correct them on the situation. “I believe this shows a severe lack of awareness and empathy towards men who are suffering and trying to seek support.”
Benny Bong, president of the Society Against Family Violence (SAFV), shares how apathy from bystanders can hold back survivors from reaching out. “There was a survey done in 2019 that found three in 10 Singaporeans knew someone in an abusive relationship,” he says. “However, that same survey found that 40% of respondents were apathetic towards it, whether the victim is a man or a woman. I can only conclude from conversations with male victims that apathy is what they experience.”
Living with domestic abuse
I was connected with Dillon by the teams at SAFV and Lutheran Community Care Services (LCCS). He’s a jolly man with a friendly demeanour and a bucket-load of jokes to boot. You can’t tell he’s a survivor of domestic abuse. In fact, Dillon’s case is somewhat unique, as he’s still in an abusive relationship.
Having been married to his wife for more than a decade, he shares the abuse began about three years into his marriage. “It started with blackmail. I would be threatened that if I did anything she didn’t like, I would incur her wrath,” he says. “Throughout the years, I learnt she has the power to take away the things I truly love. Even now, I’m not sure if perhaps she’s packing up to leave with my kids.”
He also shares that his wife kept him away from friends and family. “I couldn’t hang out with my friends, even if it was just to meet them once a month. And she restricted me and my children from visiting my parents. It was so hard on me emotionally,” he says.
Maria Micha, psychotherapist at Maria Micha Counselling Centre, shares that isolation is a common tactic used by abusers to alienate victims from family members and friends. They’ll have their victims believe they’re incapable and no one loves them. “You’ll notice that victims of abuse lose their light. Some of them become claustrophobic and socially secluded.”
“At my lowest point, I felt extreme grief. As though I was in a village and a flood had taken away my whole family, leaving me as the lone survivor,” Dillon says.
The real impact of abuse
Though Dillon faced more emotional than physical abuse from his wife, the impact it had was incredibly real to him despite not having wounds to show for it.
“To be abused in your own home is one of the worst forms of abuse because there’s no way you can protect yourself. Home is supposed to be a safe haven. For victims of domestic abuse, it’s very challenging not to have a safe place anywhere,” Maria says.
Monica Fernando, family and couples therapist at Promises Healthcare, adds that any type of abuse (whether physical or emotional) registers as trauma within human beings. “Trauma negatively impacts the body and the brain. And when it becomes stuck in the body, the biological response gets repeated over and over again. This causes individuals to stay in a state of heightened reactivity, long after the event has passed.” She mentions that victims who suffered emotional or physical abuse as children experience a higher risk of heart disease, cancer, and reduced life expectancy.
While it’s been a difficult journey for him, Dillon has chosen to stay in the relationship. Some might criticise his decision, but he feels it’s the right course of action for the benefit of his children.
“Herein lies another difference between male and female victims who choose to stay in an abusive relationship,” Benny shares. “A big concern is the safety and wellbeing of the children should the male party leave the marriage. As custody of the children often goes to the mother, male victims fear that with a divorce they will lose contact with their children.”
Dillon has since received help for mental distress, anxiety and depression. He’s also sought out peer support and is focusing on improving his mental resilience. He now spends his time advocating for mental wellness, and shares that he hopes for himself (and those like him) to choose to get better instead of bitter.
The journey forward
There’s still much to tackle in terms of awareness, especially in domestic abuse situations with male survivors. But welfare organisations in Singapore say they’ve noticed a rise in the number of men coming forward for help.
“Men are usually embarrassed to share that they’re being abused by a woman. But the presence of toxic masculinity is decreasing around the world. And with more focus on mental health during Covid-19, they’re hesitating less about coming forward,” Maria says.
“There have been more targeted public education efforts to reach out to them. And organisations like us are also trying to open up channels for them to come forward,” Benny says. “At SAFV, we offer the same advice to both male and female victims: get help as soon as possible. The natural path of an abusive relationship is for it to get worse.”
Addressing the problem early reduces the risk of it escalating into something worse. If you’re stuck in an abusive relationship, talk to trained counsellors, social workers and psychologists who can assess and advise you on how to move forward.
“Despite the wide-ranging impact of trauma on the body, it’s possible to heal from it,” Monica says. Receiving the support you need – whether it’s counselling, psychotherapy or medication – can help you process your experiences and better your overall mental health.
How to give or receive help
If you’d like to seek help for domestic abuse in Singapore, or are keen to contribute donations, you can reach out to these organisations.
1. Society Against Family Violence (SAFV)
SAFV was established to prevent and reduce incidents of family violence. The team works to provide support and therapeutic services for the victims. They also encourage and provide rehabilitative services for perpetrators of family violence. Connect with them or use their men’s helplink for assistance.
2. Lutheran Community Care Services (LCCS)
LCCS actively engages and empowers individuals and families to build and sustain relationships. They use restorative practices to help relationships that have been harmed. Reach out to them through their website or at 6441 3906 to break the cycle of abuse. Or, support them through volunteering or donations.
3. National Anti-Violence and Sexual Harassment Helpline
The Ministry of Social and Family Development has a 24-hour hotline for victims of domestic abuse or family violence-related matters. If you or someone you know is encountering abuse, call the National Anti-Violence and Sexual Harassment Helpline at 1800-777-0000.
The folks at Aware believe everyone deserves a home that’s safe and free from violence. They conduct research and advocacy, education and training, and support services with the aim to remove gender-based barriers in Singapore. To receive help for domestic abuse, contact Aware representatives on the hotline at 1800-777-5555.
No matter your gender or situation, we stand with survivors of domestic abuse in Singapore.