"These men are not what you think," says Andy Wald, a therapist at a Montgomery County crisis center. "The stereotype is the big, bruising, beer-drinking man. They're usually quite timid. They have a difficult time expressing themselves in an appropriate way."
"They have low self-esteem and fragile egos," says Eric Kafka, the psychologist who runs the Prince George's County men's spousal abuse group. "They have a traditional sex-role orientation. Often, they have witnessed or experienced domestic violence in their family of origin. Under stress, they use coping mechanisms of denial and minimization. They avoid confrontation and problems until they blow up. They don't know how to problem-solve."
James runs a contracting business; Frank is a construction manager. Both agreed to be interviewed for this story on the condition that their names would not be disclosed. The names used are not their own.
They, too, feel like victims. Victims of the court system, victims of bad marriages. Victims of the assumption that it is all their fault. Victims of a stigma that will not go away.
"At some point, I got to stop looking at these hands," James says. "I got to stop thinking about hitting and start thinking about the rest of my life."
By his count, those hands struck his wife five times in the seven years they were married. The fifth time was the last time. He punched her in the side. Two months later, she left.
He has spent a year in counseling at the Prince George's County Health Department program, learning to express his feelings without making a fist. He is asked what it was like to hit her the first time, when she was pregnant with their first child.
He answers softly. "Real bad. Real bad. Real bad," he says. "You lose something right there. You lose something right there.
"It makes you feel less than a man for hitting. I always felt I had a lot of self-control. I definitely don't want to hurt nobody. It's weird that you can have somebody you love push me to the point where I would do something. It was taking me to the edge of a cliff. I'm saying, 'I'm afraid. Don't push me. The only way I can get away is to hit you to get you to let up. Now back off.' "
James felt abused. "Nobody asks about the mental abuse," he says. "How it can tear you apart. Instead of making me such a villain, ask how I felt or what my wife's part was."
They had two sickly childen and sometimes he felt neglected. "If she wanted to stay on the phone three hours, she did. If she wanted to go into the business account and spend $500 or $1,000 or $3,000, she did," he says.
Things got worse. The incidents, as he calls them, took place once every year to 18 months. "If I held her to subdue her, it was 'You twisted my arm,' " he says.
"He minimizes the violence, she exaggerates it," Kafka says. "You're talking about people with two different truths. The truth is neither can get at the whole truth because their noses are crammed up against the tree and they can't see the forest. Their home is dry forest waiting for a match."
"Basically, it's the same old 'She provoked me' in a more sophisticated way," says Suzanne Edwards, who has counseled both partners in abused relationships at the Montgomery County crisis center. "The men do feel victimized. But they're not the ones that were hit."
James sighs. "You know you got the problem. You know you hit her. You know she'll forgive you but she'll never forget. Bottom line: I have the right to get angry. I have the right to jump up and down. I don't have no right to hit nobody."
"Don't call me a wife beater," he says. "I don't feel I'm a wife beater. Though I did do that. So how can I come to terms with that? I feel like there's something I'll never get back."
He wants to make one thing very clear: He did not create this situation on his own. "It's not just me out of the clear blue sky knocking my old lady around."
He says he has hit her once since they were married five years ago. That was in November. He left for six weeks. He came back. They agreed to a contract hammered out by their therapists: the weekly chores were itemized, along with a required number of hugs (2) and kisses (2) and compliments (2) a day. They have dwindled to none since he returned.
"I'm feeling so hurt all the time," Frank says. "I'm afraid to come home. Every single night I think, 'What are we going to fight about tonight?' Why can't she just greet me at the door and say, 'I love you'? It's a war every single night."
Frank's father abused his mother, once breaking her nose. "I knew I'd never hit my wife," he says. "I learned too much at home."
Wald estimates that 60 to 70 percent of the men he treats in private practice and at the Montgomery County crisis center come from homes with a history of abuse.
There was always a lot of pushing and shoving and yelling between Frank and his wife. But one night in bed, late, she answered the phone, hung up and wouldn't tell him who'd called. He knew it was her friend about whom they always argued. He lay there for an hour, the rage and the rejection exploding within him. Their baby daughter was lying between them. He told his wife to wake up. She ignored him. He pushed her, then tried to kick her off the bed. She tried to get at him, to get the baby away. "I said, 'I'm going to give her a shot and teach her a lesson,' " he says. "I hit her open-handed on the temple. It was a good shot, but not like I would hit a man. It was a deliberate, calculated punch. I knew what effect it would have. I knew it wouldn't be enough to put her in the hospital. She turned around and came at me. I thought, 'In order to make her stop, I'll have to hurt her.' I stiff-armed her in the forehead."
He remembers the sensation. "It felt good," he says. "It felt like: aah, relief. But: the second, the moment that that feeling was existent, the immediate feeling thereafter was a swing 180 degrees to extreme guilt. While the connection was there, it was good. When my hand was drawing away, it was, 'Oh no.' "
Maybe, he says, the good feeling was from being connected to her even in this awful way.
"It's not like there isn't the Jekyll and Hyde situation," says Kafka. He estimates that occurs in 10 percent of the cases.
"Usually it takes two," he says. "Even if he starts it, then she has to adapt to it. She turns off to him. She's passive aggressive. She has something to do with it. They feel betrayed. They feel the public is against them. They're looked upon as these incredible hulks. They're told they're the ones with the problem, that their wife doesn't have to take any responsibility at all.
"They say, 'I had a tough life. I've never gotten a break. I had parents that hit. I work two jobs. We've got two babies. She's not working. She's dependent. She's overspending. She's screaming at me. I don't have any friends. I finally hit her. She turns me in to the cops. She betrays me. She doesn't like or love me. Her legs close every time I walk into the room. The court says I'm a monster. She doesn't have to get any help. I'm the one that has to get help.' "
A 1983 study by the Montgomery County Health Department Community Crisis Center of men charged with assault and battery found that only one of every 42 treated at the center had a second charge filed against him in the next 18 months. One-third of the men who did not receive counseling were charged again in the next 18 months.