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
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.
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:
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.