4.2. Shaping Men’s World View: Trauma and Lack of Relational Support (RQ1)
Five men shared experiencing significant adversity or trauma such as abuse and loss of loved ones. For some cases, these traumatic experiences were paired with abandonment from close family members or intimate partners at times of struggle, which contributed to men’s tendency to view people around them as generally unreliable. For example, Chris is a 49 years old, Black man, reporting an annual income less than 20k/year, with a college degree. He described that being abused by those around him has been a “constant theme” in his life. He explained feeling inadequate relational support in that his family and intimate partner took advantage of and abandoned him when he was suffering from the loss of his father. The experience of being taken advantage of and abandoned in addition to being victimized led him to perceive the world as a “scary place” with “awful people” in it.
“I’m still kind of processing and mourning and dealing with a dysfunctional partner and I have been fighting depression, doing the best I can, but, I’ve also been victim to more mental abuse and torture and so... it’s like a bad movie. … I’m thinking this is what a significant other does, is support, they help, they’re there with you. They’re fighting with you to get you better, to get you to where you need to be at. I’m looking back now and I’ve never had that from a significant other. I’ve never had it. In thirty years of being out in the world and dating and relationships and seeking that mate that could give me that, but... it’s been a learning experience, though. Just this past couple months, or since my dad’s been [dead]—I’ve grown up a lot, you know? The world’s a big, scary place and there’s some awful people in it. You know, there’s good people, too, but you’ve got to be careful. You’ve got to be careful. You can’t be vulnerable, because people will take advantage of you if they can.” (Chris)
The feeling of abandonment was not solely experienced at the interpersonal level. Michael, an 18-year-old Black man, reporting no annual income and completing some high school, told a narrative which illuminated the larger cultural or societal norms affecting him by way of heightened fear of stigmatization and marginalization, contributing to a diminished sense of relational support. Specifically, Michael described feeling social pressure as an African American man to hide his history of sexual abuse due to the stigma in his community that boys who are sexually victimized by another man are labeled homosexuals. The fear of being stigmatized primed him to feel that nobody, not even his own family, would ever be there to support him.
“I told you I was sexually molested by one of my family close friends or whatever. And I feel like if I ever told any other soul in my family I knew for a fact I would be looked down bad. But, it’s not that I didn’t want to, you know, because my family, you know, is a Black, is, you know, African American family, you feel me? And you know, the African American community, they really don’t [sic] look down on gay people, whatever. And I’m not [gay], you feel me? I just got molested. And I was scared. I didn’t know what to do, you feel me? I was scared to tell anybody because I know for a fact how my family is...I would never hear the end of it for the rest of my life. You gay this, this that and the third. But really, I was just thinking like, nobody was there for me so from that point on I always thought that nobody would be there for me.” (Michael)
The combined effects of traumatic experiences and receiving insufficient amount of support, care and understanding from others shaped men’s views of how others would treat them throughout their lives, contributing to their decreased sense of relational support in general.
4.3. Unresolved Trauma and Maladaptive Coping Strategies in Adulthood (RQ2)
In the larger sample of the current study, nearly 30% of men were considered socially isolated (see Table 2
). In the semi-structured interviews, men were asked to reflect on their social networks. Seven of the eight participants expressed feeling a certain level of social isolation in adulthood. For example, Anthony (a 29-year-old Black man, reporting earning less than 20k/year, with a GED/HS degree) describes with surprise how he does not have friends outside of his family.
“It seems crazy to be thirty and I’m like, if I threw a birthday party this summer, like, who would be there? It would just be family, you know?” (Anthony)
Chris described being saddened by a lack of friends to rely on for support as a middle-aged man.
“It’s sad. I don’t have a relationship, I don’t have any friends that I trust, you know? I mean, but I knew that. But you asking me having to say it out loud to somebody, even somebody who I don’t know, it’s a hard pill to swallow. That a fifty-year-old man can’t say he has one friend in this whole world that he can go to now and say, hey, I trust you. I need to talk to you. I need to be with you.” (Chris)
Stressors in adulthood such as emotional or financial challenges also contributed to isolation of several men. For example, Jamar (34-year-old Black man, reporting earning less than 20k/year, with a college degree) described that he did not want to talk about his feelings with others when he was feeling depressed and would just “hide away” from his family and friends. Cameron (a 28-year-old Black man, reporting earning less than 20k/year, with a GED/HS degree) described isolating himself when having financial challenges to figure out “how to get money”.
Men who isolated themselves described a dissatisfaction or feeling of sadness about their isolated status. The question is, then, why these men chose isolation as a coping strategy when they find it maladaptive. Narratives told by men further illuminated several mechanisms leading to participant’s social isolation and how isolation affected their relationships with other people, particularly with intimate partners.
Mistrust of others. Four men shared a sense of mistrust of others and mentioned that as a result of mistrust, they refrained from closely interacting with others and isolated themselves when renewed experiences of betrayal and abandonment emerged in adulthood. For example, Tyler (a 31-year-old Black man, reporting earning less than 20k/year, with a GED/HS degree) described experiencing an “ultimate betrayal” from his previous intimate partner who cheated on him and shared his “dark secrets” with the other man. Tyler says that he “should have never told her anything”, and he also reported that he expects “nothing at all” from his family members because they had not shown him the level of care and favor that he showed them. When asked about how he reacts to the experiences of betrayal from others like these, he reported that he would isolate himself.
“[When feeling betrayed] I want to go, like, isolate myself from people. Like, I kind of like, been doing a good job at it, too.” (Tyler)
Anthony said that he does not hang out with friends and isolates himself because his friends “tarnished” his relationship with his intimate partner and also tried to “keep him down” in negative environments and moods. He goes on to explain that people are only friends with him for personal gain, such as when he suggests that his friends were trying to “get” his then girlfriend.
“That was something I had to learn, too, because people will be haters. They will see you being happy and it wasn’t necessarily [obvious], but it would be like, you know, we all chilling, I got my lady with me, and somebody would make a inappropriate joke. It’s, like, c’mon, like, you see my lady right here, why would you even bring the subject up or why would you even start talking about that? And I didn’t realize [it] before, but I realize it now. Like, they were on the low hate, you know what I’m saying? On the low trying to get her. … I think having friends in that early relationship, that’s, I think that did mess up my relationship with my daughter’s mother … I don’t think [having friends around] matters that much because people only going to be around you for what they can get from you, what they can get out of you, what they can gain from the situation … So, and I know that. And if my friends, they want to hold me down, they want to, you know what I’m saying, keep me down, I just can’t run with it, you know?” (Anthony)
James is a 40-year-old Native American/Alaskan Native man, who reported earning less than 10k/year, with a GED/HS diploma. He also reported he mistrusted people after having issues with friends, which contributed to his tendency to isolate himself.
“I don’t trust too many people at all … As far as friends goes, I never really had, I’d never really allow myself to have too many friends, because I didn’t know what they were being my friend for, you know? … So, I kind of like, isolate myself. You know what I mean? Not on purpose, I just don’t feel like being bothered, you know?” (James)
Taken together, trauma and adversity paired with a lack of social support contributed to men’s mistrust of others in general, shaping their tendency to choose isolation as a strategy to cope with stressors in adulthood.
Stifling Vulnerability and Emotions. Notably, men did not explicitly discuss the association between childhood experiences and their tendency to isolate themselves as coping mechanisms for stress in adulthood; however, Jamar describes how his father raised him to “hold in” his emotions which led him to restrict his emotions with friends. He describes how his limited ability to rely on others in times of need can be emotionally overwhelming.
“I’m the strong person. I need to hold it in. I need to be the example. That’s how I was raised. So, I didn’t know how to really talk to nobody when I had issues or problems or emotions or say when I’m sad or hurt. No, I didn’t know what that meant. I was that rock, you know? I was supposed to be that strong one and can accomplish anything, you could deal with any situation.” (Jamar)
“Ever since I was younger, and I just kept, I keep things in. I don’t express myself as much as I should. I’ve looked at it as being weak or didn’t want to expose myself or felt, put a persona on, but, it was hard for me for a while to express and touch or, and talk about things that may happen to me or bothered me … I had a lot of pressure. I was always the leader, I was always the person to look up to and depend on and that’s been mostly, basically the story of my life. Even friends. It just became overwhelming, you know, I think now I’m looking back at it. Even friends found, I mean, it was amazing. It’s amazing. It was overwhelming.” (Jamar)
Men also expressed a fear of being taken advantage of, encouraging them to stifle their vulnerability. Three men described that they were taken advantage of in close relationships, such as intimate partners, once they expressed their vulnerability with them. For example, Tyler said that his intimate partner shamed him for his “dark histories” he shared with her and later cheated on him, which he described as a “betrayal”. Chris said that, although he does not try to suppress his emotions, he recognizes that letting “too much be shown” lets other people take advantage of him.
“I try to pride myself on [being able to open up emotionally] although now I’ve realized it’s gotten me in trouble, because I’ve shared too much and I let too much be shown. I think sometimes you can be too raw with someone and they can take that and use that to their advantage.” (Chris)
These narratives suggest that the socially learned or prescribed masculine norms of emotional suppression and experiences of being taken advantage of when showing their vulnerability to others may have led these men to further refrain from expressing any vulnerable emotions. As a result, these men tended to isolate themselves rather than talking with others about their struggles when feeling stressed.
Guilt and Shame. Two men also described that guilt and shame served as a reinforcing mechanism that prevented them from sharing their emotions during times of great stress in adulthood, prompting social isolation. Tyler said that he did not express his feelings of stress resulting from adversities in adulthood such as incest because he felt guilty and ashamed.
“I mean, you’ll be the first person outside of my wife and pastor, I told you, I told you. But, my family...it’s incest. Like, that shit rampant in my family. That’s why I don’t like talking about it. You get what I’m saying? That shit ain’t normal. … It’s just that, like, it feels shameful. Like, I feel kind of guilty. Like, it’s your fault.” (Tyler)
James described that, although he is now able to open up emotionally after receiving therapies, he used to feel stigmatized based on the adversities he faced in adulthood such as homelessness. This stigma made him fear how others would judge him and subsequently held his feelings in.
“I slept on porches in the wintertime, I done walked around all day because people, you know, they looking at me all funny. They’re not saying they don’t want me around, but I could feel the energy like, oh, man, he around. He’s about to be asking for stuff... … And I just learned [in therapy] how to open up and just express myself. So, no, I’m not influenced [by what others think of me], like, I feel what I feel. I’m not going to hold it in because of what somebody else would think. They’re going to judge me like this, they’re going to judge me like that, they’re going to think about me like this, they’re going to think about me like that. I don’t [hold in my emotions] anymore. I have, in the past, you know, but not no more.” (James)
Taken together, men’s past adversities and social pressure at the family, peer and societal level prompted them to restrict their emotions and isolate themselves.
Mental health. The lack of social support in adulthood may have a detrimental impact on their overall mental health, deteriorating the emotional instability of those who were already suffering from significant stress. Chris mentioned that he has suffered from frustration and depression since being abandoned from his family members and intimate partners after his father passed away, a person whom he considered one of his few social supporters. Jamar also described how his social isolation contributed to his increased dependence on alcohol and drugs. In a relatively extreme case, Tyler even experienced auditory hallucinations and even started to harm himself as he continued isolating himself:
“But, no, [isolating myself is] not healthy, though, because that isolation could lead to other stuff, you know, me getting trapped in my thoughts, and I start hearing them voices again. Hearing them voices I start hurting myself and doing little weird stuff and I don’t want to do all that.” (Tyler)
4.6. Maladaptive Coping Strategies in Adulthood and IPV
Mistrust of others. Half of the men in Phase I explicitly acknowledged that their mistrust of others impacted their relationships in adulthood. In Phase II, “Alterations in relationships with others” (a proxy measure for mistrust of others) was negatively associated with men’s social support (r = −0.352, p < 0.01), and it was positively associated with men’s perpetration of psychological aggression (r = 0.539, p < 0.001), physical assault (r = 0.280, p < 0.05), and IPV injury (r = 0.339, p < 0.01). Results from the OLS model indicated that together, men’s increased symptoms of “Alterations in relationships with others” and decreased social support significantly predicted higher frequency of IPV perpetration (p = 0.006). At the predictor level, men experiencing greater level of “Alterations in relationships with others” were more likely to report higher frequencies of IPV perpetration, controlling for social support.
Stifling Vulnerability and Emotions. Men’s collective narrative described how they stifled their emotions to protect their vulnerability, but this led to isolation as a coping mechanism during stressful times. The survey data from the larger sample showed that the severity of the men’s trauma symptoms is negatively associated with the level of their social support (r = −0.419, p < 0.01), indicating that men with greater trauma may be more likely to be socially isolated. Bivariate associations in the larger sample show that men’s “Alterations in regulation of affect and impulses” (e.g., modulation of anger) was positively associated with psychological aggression (r = 0.403, p < 0.01). Results from the OLS model indicated that increased symptoms of “Alterations in regulation of affect and impulses” and decreased social support together significantly predicted higher rates of IPV perpetration (p = 0.013). At the predictor level, men experiencing greater “Alterations in regulation of affect and impulses” were more likely to report a higher frequency of IPV perpetration, controlling for social support.
Guilt & Shame. Men described how their guilt and shame served as a mechanism to hide their emotions and to isolate themselves. According to the bivariate analysis, men who reported greater social support were also less likely to report complex Alterations in self-perception, particularly related to guilt and shame, in the past month (r = −0.453, p < 0.001). In turn, men’s “Alterations in self-perception” were significantly associated with IPV psychological aggression (r = 0.668, p < 0.001) and injury (r = 0.431, p < 0.01) perpetration. Results from the OLS model indicated that increased symptoms of “Alterations in self-perception” and social support significantly predicted higher rates of IPV perpetration among men (p < 0.001). At the predictor level, men experiencing greater levels of “Alterations in self-perception” were more likely to report higher rates of IPV perpetration, when controlling for social support.
Mental Health. Some men described how their mental health impacted their social and intimate relationships in the narrative analysis; the relations between social networks, mental health, and IPV were validated in the larger sample. That is, men who reported larger social networks were more likely to report positive mental health well-being (r = 0.284, p < 0.05). In turn, men’s self-rated mental health well-being was significantly associated with decreased psychological aggression (r = −0.433, p < 0.01), physical assault (r = −0.333, p < 0.05), and injury (r = −0.384, p < 0.01) perpetration. In the OLS model, men’s report of lower levels of mental health and social support significantly predicted higher rates of IPV perpetration (p = 0.022). At the predictor level, men reporting lower levels of mental health well-being were more likely to report greater levels of IPV perpetration, controlling for social support.