Army 'Ahead Of Society' In Addressing Abuse by Connie Smalls

Originally published in Casemate, Fort Monroe, Virginia

Used with permission of the author.

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Connie Smalls was the Casemate editor

The bright purple bruises on his upper arm were in sharp contrast to the faded yellow ones. The short sleeves on his brown T-shirt just barely covered the remnants of the previous night's fight. His BDU collar couldn't hide the long, crimson, raised marks from her nails that stretched from the left side of his neck to under his chin.

Repeated arguments with his wife had escalated to frequent physical confrontations. People were noticing. How could he continue to deflect the repeated questions from fellow soldiers when asked about the marks? How could he continue to deflect her punches?

The above situation sounds like a scene from a movie, but it's actually played out in real life, and in the military. Male spouse abuse is a continuing problem, according to family counseling experts.

The number of "initial substantiated" 1 male spouse abuse victims on active duty in the Army was more than three times the number of active-duty female spouse abuse victims in FY94, but that number has decreased steadily over the last decade, Eva Granville, Fort Monroe Family Advocacy Office, said.

The Army's and TRADOC's statistics follow the same pattern, showing a decline in spouse abuse victims over the past decade. Although in most years since FY94 active duty male spouse abuse victims outnumber female victims two to one.

"Male soldiers in abusive relationships don't see themselves as abused (in the same sense that women do)," Mary Stahlman, a social worker with McDonald Army Community Hospital, Fort Eustis, said. "Fortunately, the military is aware of the problem and is taking steps to correct it."

Counseling services are provided through the family advocacy office of Army Community Service at most installations. Monroe has a low caseload (for male spouse abuse), said Stahlman, but those kinds of cases here and at Forts Eustis and Story have one thing in common — the soldiers aren't volunteering for help.

It's usually someone in the chain of command that sees the problem, she said.

"They (the command) see the bruises...they want help to resolve the situation. I don't think I've had a soldier walk in himself and say 'I'm being abused by my wife.' Every male soldier that's been in my office has been initially identified by his command."

There are two types of male victims that the military refers (for counseling) most often, Stahlman said.

"In one case, men are being abused by women and are not fighting back — they have been taught to never hit a woman. But their spouses have not been raised to avoid physical violence, and they are becoming physical.

"The second kind of case is where both partners are striking the other and the abuse is mutual," she said.

"I think what the military is seeing generally, is more cases where the husband and wife are being abusive to each other," she said. "Although I do have cases of male spouse abuse where there is no aggressiveness on the part of the man."

Stahlman sees women's increasing aggressiveness as a cultural shift.

Culture also affects the way men perceive themselves in an abusive relationship. Stahlman says:

"In order for a soldier to say, 'Yes, I'm an abuse victim' — that's going against everything in his culture. Not just his Army culture, but culture generally.

"It's not socially acceptable in our culture to say 'My wife is beating me up.' That's why I say the Army is ahead of society in addressing the issue, because the Army is willing to recognize that (male spouse abuse) exists, and they are willing to take steps to do something about it. But it's the Army institution initiating action, not the individual victims."

The individuals in the Army, who are being abused, are responding the way they would in our general culture, which is to simply disbelieve it, she said.

"They might say, 'Yes, my wife hits me, but I don't call it abuse.' They certainly don't believe it is. They look at the difference in size between themselves and their wives; they look at the level of injury, and they are taught not to make a fuss about being hurt."

So, how do family advocacy counselors like Stahlman get male soldiers to confront physically violent marital situations?

"Generally speaking, a man who comes in who has been physically abused by his wife is not at all happy about the situation, and he feels stuck about how to resolve it," she said.

"He's been taught contradictory messages: first, 'defend yourself from physical assault, and second, 'don't hit a woman.' A woman is hitting him. He doesn't like it and doesn't know how to get it to stop without physically responding.

"Abused men are probably the most quickly helped clients I work with," Stahlman said.

"They are highly motivated to stop the abuse, while continuing the relationship. They are usually simply looking for a way to resolve the issue. When they learn different ways of responding, they're quick to make a change. It's a very fixable situation, once a man has identified and acknowledged the problem."

"That's why I say it's a very changeable situation," she said. "Usually the men who come in here love their wives, or they wouldn't still be in the relationship. They simply need a different approach to resolving conflict."

Marital problems that don't improve affect the whole family. When the wife continues with the pattern abuse against the spouse, the violence is likely to spread to the children, Stahlman said. It's not unusual to see signs of depression, or above normal aggression, in children whose parents are fighting.

"I don't think there's any less impact for children seeing their father beat up their mother, than for children seeing their mother beat up their father."

"Fortunately men who may not have realized it when they show up here, grasp it pretty quickly — that witnessing violence is hurting their children."

Sometimes, domestic violence impacts a service member's ability to do his job, but resolving the issue usually restores the previous level of functioning, Stahlman said.

"Generally speaking, it has a short-term impact on readiness until the problem is addressed," she said.

Since men in abusive situations aren't coming forward themselves, Army leaders are vital in recognizing problems and referring them to family advocacy, according to Stahlman.

"Maybe it's from the family advocacy program education over the years, whatever the cause the Army seems to understand the problem, and they're doing something about it.

"I'm just very impressed that I've had captains of units call me with referrals or first sergeants walk soldiers in and say, 'There's something going on here that shouldn't be going on.' That's really the first step."


1. A substantiated case of abuse is one that fits within a certain pattern of behaviors and injuries on a scale from one to five, with five being the worst.)


Conflict containment principles


(Courtesy Fort Monroe Family Advocacy Office )

(Editor's note — to contact the Fort Monroe family advocacy office, call Eva Granville at (757) 788-3993.)

1. Problem solving is a collaborative effort to resolve a mutual problem. Each issue, regardless of who raises it, has implications for the level of satisfaction of each. Positive change will benefit each, thus, all problems are mutual.

2. Two winner (win-win) tactics should be used. The goal should be that of seeking a resolution acceptable to both. Don't ever try to win an argument with your spouse.

3. Each partner should follow the "change first" principle. Each partner should be prepared to "pay in advance" by changing their own behavior first, rather than insisting that they will change when their partner changes.

4. Problem solving should consist of two distinct, non-overlapping phases: Problem definition and problem resolution. Problem definition should continue only until both agree on a common definition of the issue. Once problem resolution has begun, the issue should not be redefined nor should additional issues be introduced (cross complaining).

5. Problem definition should be brief, positive, specific and future oriented. Don't confuse talking about a problem with problem resolution. Give only enough examples, in issue — not personality terms, to define the issue — not overwhelm your partner.

6. Only one problem at a time should be discussed. Break problems down into small, solvable steps. Don't take on more than one issue at a time.

7. The communication skills of listening, validation, feeling-talk, positive expression and negative expression should be followed. The feeling that one is being listened to and taken seriously may be more important than winning.

8. Problem solving should be modest and limited in focus. You should recognize that you won't get everything you want. The best solutions will come when both are invested in the change process.

9. Conclusions should be detailed and repeated by each. Once a negotiated compromise has been reached, congratulate each other on your mutual success and celebrate your accomplishment.



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Last modified 5/16/18