Breaking the Silence on Domestic Abuse

In this eye-opening interview, I spoke to Josh Munro, COO of Break the Silence UK about different types of domestic abuse. Josh shone a light on the groups of people who are equally affected by this but sometimes overlooked by services. We discussed how organisations can support employees to safely access support and other useful signposts to resources. Trigger warning: this article contains references to domestic abuse and descriptions of emotional and psychological abuse
Photo of Josh Munro

In this eye-opening interview, I spoke to Josh Munro, COO of Break the Silence UK about different types of domestic abuse. Josh shone a light on the groups of people who are equally affected by this but sometimes overlooked by services. We discussed how organisations can support employees to safely access support and other useful signposts to resources.

Trigger warning: this article contains references to domestic abuse and descriptions of emotional and psychological abuse.

Josh Munro is a Director of Break the Silence, an organisation that helps men facing domestic abuse. I got in touch with Josh because over the last few months, particularly during the pandemic, a number of my clients have become aware of some of their staff facing domestic abuse or an increase in domestic abuse cases. It’s certainly an issue that’s been hitting a lot of the headlines.

Employers have been asking me how to support those staff, as part of their broader focus on employee well-being as a result of the pandemic. A lot of talk about domestic abuse is rightly aimed at abuse faced by women, but we know that also men face domestic abuse as well as people who are LGBT+ and people who are disabled. It’s an important area I wanted to learn more about.

To get started I asked Josh about his background, the role he has now and what led him to it.

‘I am a qualified independent domestic violence advisor. I’ve been in the sector for the last four years. I generally specialise in male victims, LGBT+ victims and complex needs. I have worked in three separate counties, both with victims and perpetrators of domestic abuse. I’ve wanted to work within this sector since quite a young age since I was about 18. After covering modules at university on domestic abuse and learning about careers within domestic abuse it cemented my passion for the role to help people as best as possible.

Examples of what I’ve done include sitting on multi-agency risk assessment conferences. That is with the police, Social Services, probation and housing where all sorts of multi-agency meet to try and support the victim. I have also done child protection, child in need work and supported victims in court, as well as written and filed restraining orders. There is so much. I also help clients find and get into refuge space as well.

I’m one of three Directors for Break the Silence UK. For us, domestic abuse is a human issue. We support all victims, all genders, all nationalities. It’s any age, race, class and gender. Anybody that is experiencing domestic abuse can receive help from us. All three of us have experience working in female services. My caseloads were usually female because there weren’t generally many men coming into services. You’ll find that across the country, because when they pick up the phone, it’s, “Hello, Women’s Aid” or “Hello” insert many services which pretty much cater to and for women.’

I imagine that domestic abuse is quite broad in the types of abuse that occurs, so I asked Josh if he could give me a quick overview.

‘Overall we’re looking at emotional abuse, psychological abuse, economic abuse, as well as physical and sexual abuse. Victims can experience one type or a couple or even all of them, especially in cases where there are complex needs and they’ve been in the relationship a while.

We usually find it’s worse within rural communities because it’s been experienced for 15, 20, 25 years or even longer. A barrier is that it’s happening behind closed doors and that people can have that mentality still, even in 2021. Psychological and emotional abuse are very different but certain aspects can come across as quite similar. Psychological abuse might involve coercive controlling behaviour. Little things that make you question your sanity. Whether they’re taking keys out of the bowl, or they are moving things around the home, or blocking your access to your medication, they’re making you feel unsafe or unstable.

Emotional abuse has a horrendous effect on people, purely because that person is being chipped away little by little, every day with horrible statements. You are useless. You are not worthy of love. No one loves you. No one likes you. All these little, little things that start, and see it might be at the start of a relationship, “Oh, you’re so clumsy. Oh, you’re so forgetful.” Oh, you’re so whatever, insert an insult here.

Compounded over time it can really, really badly affect people. I’ve seen male victims cases where it’s been from the family from birth. From the people who are supposed to love you, no matter what. That’s carried on within each relationship that has been had afterwards. The realisation of that for one bloke who I’m thinking of was unbelievable. He didn’t know what a healthy relationship was. He thought everything that he was experiencing was normal. Things that men are being told and believe are things like I can’t perform in bed or I’m being told I’m not good at my job. I don’t provide enough money. I don’t buy expensive food. I don’t buy nice clothes. I don’t have a nice car. I don’t have a five-bedroom house. All these comparisons are made to victims, even to celebrities like Daniel Craig, or Dwayne “the rock” Johnson are pretty good examples. Perpetrators might say, “Oh, they look like they can satisfy their woman. They look like they can provide. They look like manly men.”

All of these images that are being projected onto the victim impact them and compound that worthlessness tenfold.’

So this is happening behind closed doors, and the podcast audience is Heads of HR, diversity and inclusion leaders, people that run wellbeing programmes, that kind of thing. I asked Josh what are the telltale signs that they might be able to look out for to see that some of their people are suffering from domestic abuse?

‘It’s noticing how people are at work in a personality sense. They probably turn themselves on so they’re ready for work. When they have a quiet moment to themselves, or they’re behind closed doors, or they’re in their enclosed office, you can feel the sunken energy or at least slouched shoulders, or eye-bags. In some cases, people are sleep deprived because their partner won’t let them sleep. A partner could also try and impact their ability to do their job or to even get to work. Look for tardiness. Anything is suspicious when it’s been quite good for a while until the timeline of a new relationship and that’s suddenly sloped right down. Or they’re calling in sick two or three times a week. Or there’s a new issue or they’ve still got that stomach bug or there are equipment difficulties at home if they’re working from home. A partner could smash their keyboard, hide their mouse, tamper with the computer, tamper with the sound, tamper with the microphone.

There are quite a lot of things to consider. Any person who is working in HR can find space to ask that question, or at least, ask about how things are at home? When that person has sat in the HR office it can be a very intimidating process. Even if it’s the smallest thing there is the fear that my job is on the line. That belief is that I must smile and nod and get on with the questions.

Being able to provide a safe space for your colleagues to divulge, or having counselling sessions or services coming in would help quite a lot.’

So there are a lot of things that HR could put in place. Many organisations have employee diversity networks so those networks could provide resources and signposting links to domestic abuse charities and organisations like Break the Silence UK.

Even small businesses can offer an employee assistance programme nowadays outsourcing at a fairly low cost. There are multiple companies out there that provide that service. I think it’s about getting support structures in place.

The chief exec at Josh’s organisation, Lee Marks, wrote a book called ‘Break the Silence, A Support Guide for Male Victims of Domestic Abuse’ which is available on Amazon. Josh edited the book and contributed a couple of chapters. I asked him why they’d written the book? And why was its focus on male victims?

‘Lee and I have been quite close in terms of career path for the last few years. We originally spoke because I applied for his job. I spoke to him via email and thought “Oh, this bloke’s lovely. He’s very helpful.” At the time he was a male domestic abuse support worker.

Then we met in my latest role working with perpetrators and he was doing our training and we just built a friendship from there. He had the idea for this book. There are hardly any resources for men, especially for professionals in the sector trying to help them as well as family, trying to support them. So we, myself and Amy the third Break the Silence UK Director encouraged him. We said, “Just do it, do it, do it, do it, do it and do it now!”.

He managed to write it incredibly quickly. His passion for the topic comes through in the book, which is fantastic. He asked me to have a read, to see what I thought. I was so honoured to help. I read it over a weekend and said to him, “Right, okay. Awesome. I make these suggestions and also, what do you think in regards to LGBT+, potentially the disabled as well as a few of the points within the book?” And he’s like, “Ah. Actually, yeah, that would be very interesting. Do you fancy contributing to that?… “

Not a lot of organisations understand LGBT+ dynamics. So in the case of the book, we’re talking gay men, bisexual men, trans men, and being able to understand those relationships between two men. I’ve spoken to other domestic abuse support professionals who say when they ask, “Oh, how do you deal with LGBT+?” there are blank stares.

 So my response is to say, “Well, as a gay man. Let me just put a little bit of info in there. Because it’s two men, they seem to think, we’ll have a bit of a bust-up. We’ll leave it to fisticuffs. It will be a physical outburst and one will get removed from the property and that’s it.

Whereas LGBT+ relationships are just as complex, loving and validating, especially when healthy. So when violence or other forms of abuse comes into the mix it can have a different aspect to it.

So a controlling behaviour can be, “Do this thing or I’ll out you to your friends that don’t know. I’ll out you at work.”

That’s controlling especially if the workplace is particularly conservative or a very large company that is very concerned with an image as most are. Having worn that mask myself, it’s exhausting. When you work so hard to keep that facade going, you will do anything to keep it up because you don’t always know how your colleagues will feel. You always get one colleague…

I’ve had to manager say to me, “Oh, so you’re gay?” I was like, “Yeah.”

They said, “Oh, fair enough. You seem a nice lad, and I’m not saying that I agree with it or anything”.

I expected that. It’s not a shock, but it’s very much finding a way to have that conversation within work if you are comfortable in your own time.’

Josh makes such an important point. I have talked to loads of employers and they say to me that they want more inclusivity and more diversity, because they want people to be, bring their whole selves to work. I think that’s a good point, because if somebody can’t be open about their sexuality at work, then they’re having to keep that part of their identity hidden, and that can be used as a threat in the situations that Josh has outlined.

Even the throw away remarks, like the manager Josh gave as an example can have quite a profound impact. I was talking with a client the other day and he was saying that he feels like he can’t show up to work on a Monday morning and talk about what he did with his boyfriend over the weekend, because the culture of the organisation is very heteronormative. In his words, they’re talking about what they did with their kids over the weekend and stuff like that. He feels like his lifestyle doesn’t fit with the expectations a lot of people have in the company. That’s draining his energy because he’s having to think twice about what he says or doesn’t say to his colleagues.

Josh agreed. ‘If that person does decide to disclose about his weekend that can lead to a lot of questions that aren’t necessarily tactfully put together. Questions can get very invasive, very quickly. I’ve had the, “Oh, so which ones the man, which ones the woman? Or, do you want children? Or are you going to adopt?” Even though I am childless by choice.’

Josh also wrote the chapter on disability so I asked him which are the key things in that chapter that are unique to people living with a disability or long-term health conditions?

‘Some long-term health conditions require a lot of medication, whether that be to function day-to-day, manage pain, or say manage symptoms that you have or for side effects of a medication that you need for said condition, One of the main points is that one when medication is withheld.

What they may fail to understand is the control that’s being exerted by the perpetrator who has taken advantage of that person. They know that person is in pain. There’s only so long they can go without that medication. They’ll come home to them in cold sweats or passed out. And having that medication, an inch or even just like a centimetre or even just a fingertip out of reach, when you are desperate for it, is a new kind of hell.

It genuinely sickens me that people have risk assessments done for them where that has been the case. The fact is that not only is the control horrendous, that abuse can play on that person’s mind as well so it’s very similar to emotional abuse in the sense that they are being chipped away at every day, being reminded, “You’re not a whole person. Everyone else can manage with this, why can’t you?”

It’s a way for the person to be made completely reliant on that perpetrator. Because it’ll get to a point where they might say, “Oh, well, I thought you wanted to go out and have tea with family, but you’re still griping about your medication,” or, “You’re still grappling with this very small issue,” that isn’t a small issue.

It can make people choose isolation because they need to have the medication that they desperately need to function over their family and friends. Their family and friends might begin to think, or at least will be nudged into thinking by the perpetrator, “Oh, no, they didn’t want to see you, they’re not interested. Or, I think they might be addicted to the medication, I think we should try and change it.” And with that, there are more side effects with changes in medication. That becomes very controlling behaviour.’

Something that has struck me from what Josh has said so far is those continuous small bits of digging and behaviour compound over time to eventually really undermine somebody’s confidence and self-worth.

Josh said that’s because the big outburst never happens first. ‘You don’t show your hand in poker, so the bigger outburst, I’ll save that for later. Initially, it can be love bombing. We’re talking about constant gifts, going out to dinner, all these very nice thoughtful things, flowers at work, declarations of love over social media. Really doting over you in front of family and friends. “Oh, isn’t your new partner lovely? Oh, they seem so nice. Oh, you two look so happy together.” And then behind closed doors, it will start with the, “Oh, you’re wearing that?”

“Oh, you seem to have put on a bit of weight or let yourself go.”

“Oh, you’re losing your keys again, I swear you’re getting really scatty these days. What’s wrong with you?”

It can get into things like, “Mmm, might want to start looking at medication”, or, “I think you might have this diagnosis… ” It does build over time or it can happen over weeks or months. Cases depend on the level of progression and how quickly they can get in the home and into that person’s life, their work relationships, maybe isolating them from the same or opposite gender at work.’

I asked Josh from his professional experience, typically, at what point does he see people getting the help that they need to help get them out of these situations? Is there a common thread or pattern?

‘With physical domestic abuse, it can come quicker than with emotional abuse which takes longer. From recent stats, we’ve seen men can stay within these relationships for up to six years or more before they start asking for help. Implementing things at work, or at least looking at the company’s domestic abuse policy, can help because six years is a long time.’

I asked Josh what services Break the Silence UK offer.

‘It’s individual personalised support. If you come to us, we do a risk assessment. We’d look at your local area because we have a few people on our books from all over the country at the moment. With permission, we start speaking to agencies. Social work, in regards to seeing their children. The police, in regards to how the situation is being handled and whether they’ve done the domestic abuse specific risk assessment and comparing it with ours. We might be highlighting that we’re scoring this bloke as a high risk of abuse, so why have you got him as a standard? We’ve had very positive responses from different forces too because we won’t go away when someone’s at risk.

We do one-to-one support. We can make references to other support agencies in your local area as well. If you need a letter from us for court, or if you need us to refer you over to National Centre for Domestic Violence for a restraining order, prohibited steps order, all of these different things to keep you safe or even apply for safety measures to be put into your home, so lock changes, alarms, all these different things we can get that done for you.

You can speak to us at any time. Our contact information is on our website at www.breakthesilenceuk.co.uk. On our contact page, we’ve also got our email addresses. We say that we respond as diligently as we can to enquiries. We’re working as well as setting up the business so bear with us as we’re human too!’

If you’ve read this article I’d encourage you to get your copy of Break the Silence, A Support Guide for Male Victims of Domestic Abuse, which is available on Amazon, both as a paperback and on Kindle. I found talking to Josh eye-opening and I hope it’s been useful for you too. Hopefully, you can take some hints and tips and resources back to your organisations to support staff who might be experiencing domestic abuse.

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