When Jacob Noll* was growing up in the Midwest, he could never have imagined he would experience domestic violence. "I was a straight, white guy in a normal, small town that kind of catered to people like me," he says wryly. "My family was really close. My folks are still together. There were no big family problems that would have given me some kind of a window into how dark the world can be." Yet Noll spent several years in such darkness after falling in love with Courtney, a woman he met online.
Courtney was a year older than Noll, and from the start, he was enchanted by her presence online. She was pretty, he says, but more than that, she found him funny and engaging. Noll says he "made a play" to meet Courtney in person — they lived a few hours apart from each other — and was disappointed when she declined. But a year later, in 2006, she emailed Noll "out of the blue." She was just out of a relationship and asked if he wanted to get together. "I ran at it," he says of her offer. "It was an adventure to get to know her because she lived far away."
It was the summer of 2006, and Noll was 22 years old. He was a somewhat rudderless college grad; he wanted to do big things, but wasn't sure what that looked like. Instead, he poured his energies into nurturing a relationship with Courtney. She was charming and funny, but also vulnerable. He thought he could help her, perhaps be her knight in shining armor. The long-distance relationship progressed quickly. Even from the beginning, Noll saw signs of volatility, but he always found a way to write them off, even when they involved Courtney's episodes of drinking too much and passing out. "I would always put it back on myself and say, 'You're a guy who's not good with emotions and feelings. You're dumb, you're a dunce, and she just knows more [about feelings]," he admits.
It's easy for Noll to look back now and see the trajectory of emotional and verbal abuse that led to physical battering, but at the time, Courtney's behavior and words convinced him that the problem was his alone. She was emotionally volatile and from the beginning, exhibited extreme mood swings, but Noll was sure that, as a man, he just didn't understand women's emotions. "A relationship like that warps your thinking," he says. "I took every mood swing at face value and trusted it, took it seriously, and was willing to believe I was the cause of it." He knew he was in too deep, but he was also uncertain about how to turn back. He proposed to Courtney. It wasn't long before the physical abuse started.
One of the first episodes of battering occurred as the couple was preparing their wedding invitations. Courtney, who was drinking more frequently, was also becoming increasingly violent. While working on the invitations, Courtney was "sneaking away and getting drunk," Noll recalls. When she returned, "she slapped and punched me. Then, she actually got on top of me and started choking me."
He says he tried to postpone the engagement, but Courtney became hysterical at the suggestion. "She was on her knees, apologizing while holding my wrists very tightly, making a big show of being sorry — and it worked." By summer 2007, they were married.
Noll still didn't accept that he was a victim of domestic violence, mainly because it never occurred to him that a man could be abused by a woman. But though women are three times more likely to be killed or seriously injured by a male partner than vice versa, up to 29% of straight men in the United States have been the victim of physical violence by an intimate partner in their lifetime. (Even more — up to 48% – experienced psychological and emotional abuse at the hands of their partners.) Each year, more than 830,000 men are victims of domestic abuse — that's one every 37.8 seconds.
Still, Noll continued to try to "be a good guy and do the right thing," he recalls. Because Courtney was manipulating him emotionally and verbally, he was willing to believe he was the one with the problem. He felt compelled to help Courtney with her emotional instability. "I believed if I could be good enough, that I could help put things together and help manage this very unmanageable person," he says.
No one in their circle of family and friends knew that Noll was already being abused by his wife. He had alienated his friends by throwing himself into the relationship with Courtney, and he worked hard to conceal her behavior from others, even when she ended up in a psychiatric hospital for a brief episode of inpatient treatment. She continued the verbal and emotional abuse, and the physical violence persisted. The couple would fight for hours at a stretch, ending only after exhausting themselves. "She could go and go and go and beat you down until you're suddenly on your knees, crying and apologizing, and you don't even know why." Noll's social ties were effectively cut, and he was alone. He knew his marriage wasn't healthy, but he continued to feel the weight of responsibility: "I was very focused on being an upright, 'good guy.'"
Acknowledging the Abuse
Increasingly, however, Noll couldn't write off Courtney's attacks. Physically cut off from everyone else in his life, he used email to slowly reveal his abuse to his one remaining friend and the pastor at his church. "But even then, I was using this coded language, like 'She's strong willed. She has emotional outbursts. Things are tough, she's moody.'" The idea of being abused was one he still hadn't articulated — which is not uncommon for men, who struggle to reconcile domestic abuse with ideas about masculinity.
But the terrifying tipping point came when Courtney discovered Noll's emails and confronted him. "She was just devastated," he recalls. "I had talked about her, like I'd told tales out of school or something. This was an atom bomb in our relationship." Noll adds that he felt guilty for hurting her so deeply. "I had committed a grave sin. Talking about these awful experiences was breaking the code of silence around the relationship, so in the logic of this relationship, she had the right to be broken and devastated."
It wasn't until his parents intervened that Noll articulated he was being abused. One weekend, when he and Courtney were supposed to go home for his brother's birthday, Noll called his parents to say Courtney wouldn't be joining him. He continued to shoulder the blame, saying he thought his marriage was in trouble and that he'd "done something terrible," but his parents broke through the defense. "My dad asked, 'Has she ever hit you?,' and I said, 'I'm not going to answer that,'" Noll remembers. "That's what started it. To hear my parents' voices, these two people who love me and have good heads on their shoulders, made a light bulb come on for me."
It would take more than a year for their divorce to become final, and extricating himself from the relationship and abuse wouldn't be easy. "I was still religious and I was hanging onto that and I said to my parents, 'You can pray for us.'" It wasn't until his father said, "Jacob, I think this situation has had enough prayer," that Noll realized he had to get out. "I knew she wouldn't change, it was no longer my responsibility to help her change, and it was the first moment I realized I was in an abusive relationship," he says. But recognition of the abuse didn't eliminate the barriers to leaving the marriage. Noll wasn't confident he could get out of the house safely and he had to make an escape plan with the help of his family.
Leaving a marriage defined by domestic violence hasn't been the end of Noll's challenges. The divorce took more than a year to finalize. And Noll had to get a restraining order to prevent Courtney from ing him: She had shown up at his workplace and snuck into the basement of the home they had lived in. Even when that was behind him, the effects of the abuse rippled across the rest of his life. "I didn't even really start dating again until I was 27," he says, and a serious relationship — his first since the divorce — ended last summer. "In some ways, it was harder," he says, because "there's something neat and tidy about the person you were with being a monster."
These days, Noll is in therapy, where he's working to unpack the past so it doesn't repeat itself. "I don't live in fear that I'm going to be hit again," he says, "but I have a lot of work to do on myself. What's the trauma and what's just the way I am? I'm conflict-avoidant. I have a concern about big shows of emotion, unstructured, out-of-control emotions. I've had to learn about boundaries and how to talk about my own interior life without fear." He's relied heavily on family and friends, reconnecting after being isolated from them during his marriage, and written a book, called The Love Bomb, which has been a key part of his healing process.
While he's not currently in a relationship — "I'm taking a break from women," he says — he's hopeful about the future. "It was a big shock learning that something that scary, unpleasant, and toxic could find me," he says. But today, he finally feels free. When an abusive relationship ends, he says, "it feels like losing 100 pounds. You get out and you're like, 'I've got a new life!'"
* All names have been changed to protect identities.
This story is part of an ongoing series about domestic violence and abuse. If you or someone you know is at risk, reach the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233. If you are in danger, call 911. More information and resources are available at the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence or the National Online Resource Center for Violence Against Women.