Thursday, October 04, 2012

How to Support People in Abusive Relationships #2 Valuing Oneself

My first post on this was about helping someone to learn to trust themselves.  This bit is (roughly) about encouraging an abuse victim to learn to value themselves.

This isn't about getting a person to feel good about themselves, so much as encouraging the fairly fundamental idea that neither they, nor anyone else, deserves to be abused. It seems very strange now, that from time to time over a period of years, I would worry that my partner would strike me too hard, at the wrong angle, and I would fall against the wrong kind of surface and be seriously injured or killed. And whilst, as I say, the risk occurred to me, it wasn't an urgent matter. And yet I thought I had reasonably good self-esteem.

Some abusers do make their victims feel very good about themselves, but very briefly, very occasionally and often only in the direct aftermath of violence or betrayal. Victims end up living for those highs of praise or affection, appreciating them all the more for the contrast between that and the usual coldness and criticism. Oddly, Fifty Shades of Grey (yes, yes, I've read some with Jennifer Armitrout's commentary) illustrates this very well, with the heroine's inner goddess leaping about at the slightest compliment and during sex, when the rest of the time (which is most of the time) she is angry, puzzled, dejected, jealous, doubting, creeped out and very often actually afraid of the person she thinks she's in love with. (Incidentally, I don't think this means anything about the people who enjoy this book, except that this is probably the first porn they felt they had permission to read. Nor do I think it's an even slightly good reason for the book to be burnt.). Anyway...

There are many ways of making our loved ones feel valued, which in turn helps them value themselves. I hope most of those things are obvious, so here are some which may not be...

1. Don't think your disapproval will help at all.

Isolation is a huge factor in abuse. Abusers sometimes attempt to cut their victims off from friends, family and other sources of support, but failing this, they'll merely attempt to undermine all the victim's other relationships by whatever means. Outside disapproval is a gift to them, so much so that they may well make it up if it doesn't actually exist. They will work hard to spin whatever's been said or done so that the victim can think
  • This person doesn't respect me or my choice of partner. 
  • They don't understand me. 
  • This person says these things because they want to control or hurt me. 
  • I can't expect my partner to spend time with this person, who obviously hates them. 
  • Any time I spend with this person is a kind of betrayal to my partner. 
  • I must always put the best spin on my relationship in order to prove this person wrong. 
  • If I ever so much as hint that we have problems, this person will say “I told you so.”
When I first got together with my ex husband, my parents were understandably upset – I was very young, in a very vulnerable position, both physically and mentally unwell and my ex was almost twice my age. They were having a tough time in their own lives and (in common with most abusive relationships) things moved very quickly. So they handled it quite badly. There was no element of my parents' disapproval making this man more attractive - their disapproval meant I had nowhere else to go.  I felt I had to keep spinning the relationship like it was all roses in the garden.

Years later, long after my folks had chilled out and made a massive effort to include my ex as part of the family, my ex continued to use the idea that they didn't like him and didn't respect me. In the comments on #1 post, Kethry described how her abusive ex went one further and attempted to portray her parents as abusers.  Even after I finally left, it was only when my ex started being a problem to them that I decided to tell my folks the truth.

Expressing an explicit objection to specific behaviour is a million times better than expressing general disapproval through hints, passive aggression and excluding the abuser from family events. Perfectly nice people are sometimes ostracized by disapproving in-laws and jealous friends. Abusers are likely to lie about what has happened but "They hate me because they don't think I'm good enough for her." requires less creative spin than "They told me off because I called her a stupid bitch in front of them."

On which subject...

2. Do object to abusive behaviour when it happens in plain sight.

It is okay to make it clear when things you see and hear are not acceptable. Reacting to this stuff demonstrates that we care about our loved-ones being in a bad situation. It doesn't always mean that we can do something about what is happening, but the expression of concern matters so much.  It undermines the bubble in which the victim is living, where abuse is a  normal occurrence.

Top tips:
  • Address the abuser, if they are present.  It is their problem.  You and I know that what you say probably won't make any difference to them, but you owe it to others to treat abusers as if they are grown-ups, capable of taking responsibility for their actions, as opposed to the missing stair.
  • If the victim is the only one around, give them sympathy rather than a telling-off.  I used to hear, "You shouldn't let him treat you like that." as if there was something I could and should be doing about it.  Far better was when I heard, "I'm sorry he did that. You deserve better."
  • Object to the abuse, not the abuser.  The temptation to say "Stop being such an arsehole." is best resisted in favour of "Please don't do [specific behaviour]." 
  • Be specific. For example, try to repeat the exact words they used rather than objecting to their tone or manner. Specificity makes it more difficult for the abuser to twist later on.
  • Be as brief as possible and perhaps most importantly, 
  • Don't get into an argument about it.  This is a very difficult trick, but is perhaps the most important. Abusers aren't any good at arguments, but they are pretty good at derailing them and twisting them into something else.  End the conversation with your objection.  Move on.  Either change the subject or walk away.  If you're not allowed to change the subject, walk away.
As human beings, we owe it to each other to object whenever we see bullying or mistreatment.  Sometimes someone is having a bad day, but they still need to be told.  Vulnerable people around us (to say nothing of any children present!) need to know when behaviour is not okay.

Meanwhile, when abuse happens in company and nobody says a word, it is very easy for the victim to imagine that everyone feels the same.  My ex used to lecture me on various of my supposed inadequacies in front of other people, and I realise now that usually, folk were simply too embarrassed to speak up.  It's  probably worth knowing that that's not always what it looks like. 

3. Talk about abuse.  Talk about abuse with everyone

There's a part of me that feels that, now life is so good, maybe I should stop talking about and writing about domestic violence. But quite obviously, domestic violence is a very common experience and a very damaging one.  If one person learns something which helps someone avoid or escape an abusive relationship, then it is worth rabbiting on about until the cows come home.

When I was being abused, I inevitably read or heard about domestic abuse from time to time. When I did, I found reasons why these stories were absolutely nothing like what I was going through. When friends and family told stories - even though few had any clue of my own situation - they were somehow more vivid and struck home.

Some examples of the stories I remember effecting my perspective:
  • A couple in my social circle had had a very difficult time; the girlfriend had something of a breakdown amid all manner of personal and professional pressures. During this time – which was short-lived and over by the time the boyfriend told me about it – she had verbally attacked her partner and accused him of all kinds of ridiculous things. He told me, “I learnt for the first time how a man can actually be tempted to hit a woman, but you'd have to be a complete monster to actually do it.”  I was pleased that my friends were both physically safe, and wondered why I was not. 
  •  A rather macho friend described abuse he had experienced which culminated in his being stabbed. He spun this story in a particular way – all the violence was down to the girlfriend's mental illness, and his reasons for staying with her were sympathy and concern for her safety. I don't know the truth - I really don't - but I suspected that (a) he had been manipulated, to at least some extent, in order to stick with her when she was regularly violent and (b) mental illness was a poor excuse for attacking someone once, but no excuse at all for doing it after the first time. 
  • A gay friend telling me about the abuse and violence he suffered at the hands of his ex-wife. Years later, he still partly blamed himself because he was gay and couldn't give her the kind of marriage she wanted, despite wrestling with his sexuality and undergoing a series of exorcisms (seriously) to try to straighten him out.  I was shocked that he should blame himself and while the marriage must have been a bit of a disaster, that didn't make the violence somehow more reasonable.
  •  My mother telling me the story of her young colleague coming into work, looking very upset. She said she'd broken up with her boyfriend and didn't seem to want to talk about it, but everyone rallied around to look after her. Later in the day, strengthened by the support of her colleagues, she lifted her skirt and showed the entire office a horrible bruisey carpet burn down the length of her thigh. Her boyfriend had pushed her down the stairs and so she had finished with him. I understood immediately the power of what this young woman had done and wished I had such strength. 
It's probably not a coincidence that three of these stories involve abused men.  For various reasons to do with my psychology - but probably not uncommon reasons - I have always perceived other women as being more vulnerable than I am. I tend to feel protective of other women who are in trouble, rather than relating to them (although I've got better at this). Meanwhile, the way stories of domestic violence are often told in the media and in fiction makes victims hyper-feminine; young, pretty, quiet, modest, nurturing and often from traditional backgrounds. I struggled to relate such cases to my own circumstances. 

Gender may be a fundamental factor in the way we are treated at times, but it is not a fundamental factor in life experience. This is one reason why I think it is very dangerous to talk about abuse as something that men do to women - it can alienate women, quite apart from people of any other gender. This is not to say that it's somehow sexist to discuss abuse within a specific gender dynamic. Discussing the experiences of abused women does not cause a problem for abused men - the absence of discussion about men's experience of abuse, and the very poor provisions for abused men is the problem. Similarly for people of other genders, those abused in queer relationships, adults abused by people who aren't their romantic partner and so forth.

All the stories matter for everyone's sake.

And on this subject

5. Don't be sexist

Seriously.  Almost every long-term abusive situation I have ever witnessed, heard or read about has featured gender as a weapon. This includes abuse within same-gender couples, mothers abusing daughters and fathers abusing sons.  The stereotyped flaws of men and women (e.g. men are rubbish at expressing their feelings or understanding the feelings of others), as well as stereotyped ideas about what men and women should be like (e.g. a real man never shows his emotions) provide a large and reliable arsenal of abuse available to any abuser, in any context.

Sexism is, of course, inconsistent, so these stereotypes can be applied inconsistently; one moment, I would be a disappointment as a woman, because I was fat and ugly, no good at multi-tasking and failed to meet my ex's bizarre standards of housework and tidiness. The next moment - and any time I was upset - I was chided for being a typical woman; over-emotional, unforgiving, demanding, talking too much etc.. My ex questioned my stated feelings if they contradicted what he thought a woman should or would naturally feel about sex, sexual jealousy, marriage, having children, family, friends, work and money. Sometimes he wanted me to be more like his idea of a normal woman, sometimes he wanted me to be less so.

The trouble is that these stereotypes are the foundation for lots of people's ideas about gender and certainly the basis for a lot of our humour and social bonding.  Having been looking at poems and other readings for our wedding next year, it's quite terrifying how many readings suggested for weddings, contain jokes which present men and women as creatures so inadequate and incompatible that it sounds to me like code for "This will never work out, so let's have a laugh about it while we can."

I know that lots of happy egalitarian couples make jokes about each other, playing on gender stereotypes.  Sometimes it means nothing at all.  Sometimes, it is a gentle way of negotiating one another's faults, particularly faults brought about by upbringing.  I know I am sensitive to this stuff.  But I became sensitive to this stuff, because during the years I was abused, part of my mind was always saying, "It is not fair that I should be treated this way, that I should be characterised this way and expected to perform this role." and part of my mind was saying, every time I heard so much as a sexist joke, "Well, everyone else seems to be cool with it. Even if I'm right, I'm pretty much alone on this."  This is to say nothing of jokes about domestic violence.

The same goes for all kinds of prejudice - any difference that the schoolyard bully would pick up on will be used by adult abusers.  But sexism has to be the big one that effects absolutely everyone.

6. If you are scared for someone, express your fears.

It is always a good idea to tell people you fear for exactly what you're afraid of.  At the very least, this begins a conversation the two of you need to have, even if it doesn't change their course of action.  Knowing that your loved-one has a vague sense of unease about your situation isn't much help at all (Parents really need to know this - some parents, not just mine, are very good at letting their kids know that they don't like a situation, when the kids don't have a clue what their actual concern is.)

The state of Maryland in the US have reduced their domestic homicide rates - rates that tend to remain stable over decades - by introducing a "screen" used by police officers called out to incidents of domestic violence (ht @pseudodeviant):
The first three questions concerned the most important predictors of future homicide: Has the abuser used a weapon against you? Has he threatened to kill you? Do you think he might kill you? If the woman answered yes to any of those questions, she “screened in.” If she answered no, but yes to four of the remaining eight questions, again, she was in. Among these were other, less obvious indicators of fatal violence: Has he ever tried to kill himself? Does she have a child that he knows isn’t his? 
The officer would then present her with an assessment: Others in your circumstances have been killed; help is available if you want it. If the woman agreed, an officer would dial the local shelter from a police cell phone (to prevent the abuser from finding out about the call) and hand it over. 
If you're worried that someone you love will end up badly injured or dead, let them know.  Don't catastrophise; abusers of all kinds are much more likely to commit murder than people who are not abusive, but that doesn't mean that the sister-in-law who calls your brother names is at all likely to end up killing him. She might, however, damage his self-esteem, his mental health, and will provide some very problematic messages to any children they have.  And it is okay for you to voice such a concern.

As with objecting to abuse, don't blame the victim "You'd be stupid to stay with him!", try to be specific, be brief, only say it once and make it clear that you're not going to say it again and again.  If you offer help (and it's generally a good idea to offer some very serious and flexible assistance to someone whose life you fear for), make sure that help is unconditional, with an open ended time-frame.  If you're offering to take someone in, also offer to contact refuges and support your loved-one through finding emergency accommodation elsewhere.

And make sure they know that you will continue to support them whatever they do.  It can take an abuse victim many attempts to leave an abuser. Zero-tolerance is extremely difficult. They may have false starts.  They may get scared or be moved to forgiveness and go back on their own accord.  But at no point does a person stop needing support.


Anonymous said...

Again, all really really good stuff - and thank you for the mention! My one comment is to do with point one and expressing disapproval of abusive behaviour that happens in front of you. I would say, from the perspective of someone who is deaf, that if the abuser expresses abusive, derogative comments but NOT in front of the victim, or where you are not sure that the victim heard, to be careful of expressing disapproval. This is something my ex would regularly do - say something horrible (with a smile to the friends as if to say ha ha joking) to my back, then when i turned around and asked him to repeat it (because I have enough hearing to know I was spoken to, just not enough to know what he said) he would say something innocuous. The only reason i know that this happened is because my friends told me that he was doing this after we broke up. They wisely decided not to tell me he was doing it because they knew it would put me in a position where I would have to choose.

Its a very tricky thing, dealing with someone you love who is being abused, whether they recognise it or not. There's a lot of really good, thoughtful stuff in these two articles... thank you for writing them. :)



The Goldfish said...

Hi Kethry, hugs to you too. :-)

What a nasty piece of work your ex was! I imagine that there a great deal of specific abusive behaviours different disabled people experience, which are so pernicious and difficult for everyone to work out the best tactic. I'm really sorry that he did that - for you most of all, but also your friends, who were put in a very difficult position.

Anonymous said...

Intimate partner abuse is a very complicated issue, and most people who have never been in a battering relationship, especially ones where there have never been incidents of physical abuse - "only" psychological terrorism seem to have a hard time understanding this.

With regards to the men who claim to have been abused: this is super complicated. Yes, there are men who are physically and emotionally assaulted by their partners, and there can be major imbalances in relationships of all gender configurations.

It is very important to remember that an extremely common tactic of ABUSERS is to play the victim. This helps to further isolate the real victim, who may not be the man claiming to be the victim. Abusers are very skilled manipulators. I recently came across the concept of DARVO, put forward by psychology professor Jennifer J. Freyd. "DARVO = The perpetrator or offender may DENY the behavior, ATTACK the individual doing the confronting, and REVERSE the roles of VICTIM and OFFENDER". More info about this concept here:

Thanks for speaking about this topic. Supporting a friend or loved one who is struggling with an abusive relationship can literally save their life.

The Goldfish said...

Thanks Anonymous,

I'm aware of DARVO and I think blaming a victim for the abuse they've received is par for the course. I don't believe my ex ever told anyone else that I abused him, but he certainly told stories of mistreatment and betrayal, and on those occasions I tried to address his behaviour, he would always spin things so that it was my fault. He would repeatedly accuse me of nagging, which was exactly what he did - he never let me have any peace, supervised and criticised my every move and complained about every aspect of my behaviour, looks, language and demeanor. Even with the violence, he would always recall events as if I had physically cornered him, was berating him with "verbal violence" or even that he was trying to stop me hurting myself. In reality, absolutely every incident of violence was extremely sudden, after a short exchange or none at all, and of course, I was never in any danger of hurting myself.

However, although gender is massive factor in all abuse, I don't believe that the particular tactic you describe - crying abuse - is unique or even particularly favoured by men. After all, to be the victim of domestic violence is still hugely stigmatised and particularly so for male victims.

Meanwhile I believe there are much more powerful accusations straight male abusers can reach for - it's much easier for a man to portray a woman as emotionally unstable (especially if she has a mental health history), either prolifically adulterous or completely frigid, horribly jealous, a terrible nag, a poor mother and so forth.

Meanwhile, it's a regular crass comment you see under many articles about violence towards women - the idea that horrible women can cry domestic abuse when things go wrong and are automatically believed (which of course, they're not) and then they get the house, all the money, custody of the kids and so forth.

Speaking out about experiences of domestic violence always carry social risk - some people won't believe you, others will think you're making a fuss over nothing. This risk is even greater for men - a lot of people just can't conceive of a woman really harming a man.

So although I am sure there are male abusers who do claim to have been abused, I think bad men have more likely weapons at their disposal.

Meanwhile, I believe it is very important to believe people, unless and until we have a really good reason not to. I don't think gender is such a reason.