Despite a steady increase in domestic violence reports, abused men insist that figures do not reflect reality, as victims are ashamed to speak up, have no one to turn to, and are scared they will lose custody of children. For some, this nightmare turns into reality once they separate from their wife. Sarah Carabott reports.

‘I am mourning my child because of injustices in the justice system’

“What I am about to tell you is just the tip of the iceberg,” is the very first thing Peter* says.

The man, who separated from his wife recently, lives in constant fear that he will lose total access to his 10-year-old son.

“My heart bleeds as I feel that my child is slipping through my fingers. In a sense, I am preparing for the worst – I am already mourning him.”

Peter feels that he has tried all he can to save his relationship with his son, but he has failed because the justice system is against him.

The man suffered psychological and emotional abuse at the hands of his wife for years, but he did not want to leave the relationship for fear of losing his son.

The abuse – including paying ‘rent’ to remain in the matrimonial home – increased until he could not take it anymore and he was eventually advised by his own therapist to leave the house and file for separation.

Overnight, he ended up homeless and without access to his child.

Peter told The Sunday Times of Malta that in the past, several women did not work, so those who went through separation often ended up destitute. While he agreed with changes in the law that ensured women were not left in the lurch, as a separated father he feels that women nowadays have the upper hand, no matter the family’s history.

Through it all, children are suffering in silence, but they will carry the emotional scars forever.

“I’m seeing my son drown but I’m wearing a straitjacket and I cannot throw him a lifesaver,” he says.

“At one point he was in need of counselling about the reality of separation, and I suggested that he speaks to his school counsellor. He was quite willing to start the sessions, but changed his mind overnight after speaking to his mother.”

When separation proceedings kick in, women are backed by a society that seems resolute to isolate fathers from their children. Separated fathers are feeling helpless, and nowadays I can fully understand why men give up, he adds.

Peter has only been allowed 24 hours access to his son, and had to “trade additional maintenance money for more time”.

And despite a clear schedule stipulated by the separation contract, which limits extracurricular activities, the mother signed up the son for other activities that coincided with the time allocated to his father.

This added salt to Peter’s wound, who was the main caregiver for his son before separation.

He notes that in some cases, mothers are disinterested in their children until separation looms on the horizon and they suddenly start seeing the child as a pawn to use against the father, because it seems that men are always to blame for separation in the eyes of the justice system.

I’m seeing my son drown but I’m wearing a straitjacket and I cannot throw him a lifesaver

This tussle could guilt-trip the children into believing that they are the cause of tension between their parents, whom they love unconditionally, Peter said.

He questioned whether protection for men and children was thrown out of the window when laws were changed to protect women.

“Is this equality? Is it fair on the children that their time with their father is limited? Is this truly for the well-being of the child?”

Peter called on “those who have the supremacy to change things within the family court to do so now”. The key in all of this was equally shared custody.

All the abuse, plus issues of maintenance and access would no longer be relevant as duties and finances would be genuinely shared in equal measures.

But most importantly, children would be psychologically better off, he said, insisting that the idea of 50:50 custody was not naïve.

“We need to ensure real equality. We owe it to our children. Children are being brought up in frightful environments and are coaxed into opting to stay with the mother if the courts grant them a choice.

“We have heard of stories of children walking out of court after such judgments have been delivered, tearfully apologising to the father. Who is really protecting these children?”

‘My son was used as ammunition against me’

A man who lost touch with all four of his children compared the “hole” in his heart to “an empty grave”.

John* explained that whenever he missed his late father, he headed to the cemetery and cried over his grave. Burying him had brought some closure.

“On the other hand, I can only weep on the inside over my children.”

The man said that his former partners have managed to psychologically alienate him from his children by obstructing the bond that could have been created between them.

This happened to mothers as well as fathers, however, speaking about parental alienation from the latter was still taboo.

John told The Sunday Times of Malta that he got the wrong end of the stick from the very beginning, as the justice system leaned more towards mothers when it decided on who should be granted care and custody.

John first became a father 20 years ago, and the “false allegations” started when his son was a few months old.

When his son turned one, the couple started separation proceedings and John was granted shared parental duties that translated into 40 hours with his child.

Despite going their own way, the abuse on John continued through his son and it grew to a point where his estranged wife accused him of sexual abuse. He was never convicted of the abuse, but he could not take it anymore and distanced himself from his own son.

“Let me put it to you this way. I was with my back to the wall,” he says, his arms outstretched.

“My former wife is standing right in front of me with a gun pointed at me, and the bullet is my son. What would I do? I dodged the bullet. That is parental alienation.

“Nowadays I know I did the wrong thing… I have since tried to get in touch with him several times, to no avail.”

John fathered children from two other women before seeking professional help.

How does a man fall victim to abusive women three times in a row?

“Would you ask me the same question if I was a woman? Haven’t we heard of women who mother children from different men?

“My mother was quite abusive towards me. I believe that just as women who are brought up in an abusive family, could end up victims of domestic violence, men too can end up victims,” he said, pausing as he got visibly emotional.

John has not been in a relationship for at least five years, and looking back, he can trace narcissistic and manipulative traits in his former partners that he had also observed in his mother.

The man, who spent most of his life abroad, married his second wife following the annulment of his first marriage. Although the first few years were quite rosy, his second partner was psychologically and physically abusive.

When he reported her to the police, he was warned not to lift a hand against her. John was taken aback – he had sought the authorities’ protection, but in the officer’s eyes, he was the perpetrator because of his gender.

John’s comments mirror concern voiced by other men who have spoken to this newspaper over the years.

In one particular case, a man recounted how a police sergeant had asked him whether he was actually the aggressor, be­cause since domestic violence victims were usually women the officer thought his wife had reacted to his abuse.

*Names have been changed