How to Support People in Abusive Relationships #1 Trust
|As with rape, I think that third parties - people who are neither victim nor perpetrator - are often neglected in the stories we tell about domestic abuse. People outside these relationships can't stop the abuse happening, but they do have some power and that's something hardly ever spoken about. Refuge asks us to look out for signs of abuse in our (male-partnered female) kith and kin, but don't give us much advice about what to do.|
Often, nobody on the outside will know that abuse is happening and of course, there are times when friends and family feel someone's partner is bad news, without any justification (or indeed, because they themselves have issues with control). However, anything you can do to help someone who may be being abused - or is vulnerable to abuse - has the potential of changing, if not actually saving, a life.
This has become two posts, because I have a lot to say (when do I not?). It splits roughly into two posts because there are two themes. In order to escape and recover from abuse, a person has to learn to trust themselves and to value themselves. So, first of all:
Things you can do to encourage abuse victims to learn to trust themselves.
1. Never directly question a person's perception of their own situation.
Sometimes, friends and family can plainly see that a relationship is abusive, while an abuse victim cannot. There can be a great temptation to point out that their whole worldview is topsy-turvy, they're in danger, their self-esteem is rock bottom and they're living with a monster. This would be a really bad idea.
Abuse victims constantly question their own perception of their situation. They have been conditioned to do so. They have learnt to mistrust their instincts, their recall of events, their very understanding of what's going on around them. They may have been told that they misremember things, make too much of things, lie about their feelings and demand unobtainably high standards of behvaiour from their abusers.
My experience was not a particularly extreme one, but my ex constantly questioned my perception of things, my memory, my friendships, even my beliefs - one notable and regular accusation was that I secretly held religious beliefs; allowing my ex to accuse me of being delusional about something I didn't even think or feel, as well as helping to isolate me from religious friends and family.
Months after I left, he continued to speak as if he knew me better than I knew myself. During one of his last lecturing e-mails to me, my ex wrote:
"Your perception of the present is just as distorted as your perception of the past and in time you will realise it, and when you do you will no longer feel that you have to disassociate yourself with the last 12 years, or me. Be wary that you don't make a bed for yourself that you won't want to lie in when that realisation occurs."I remember this because it was a moment where a penny dropped about what had been going on; you can't trust how you feel now, you can't trust how you felt before, but you will figure this out and then you'll be sorry! Of course, I probably never will figure it out - although what if my perception of the future is just as distorted as my perceptions of the past and the present?
But this illustrates the point well; ten and a half years (I'm pretty sure it wasn't twelve) of being told that you don't have a clue what's going on or even how you feel about your life puts you in a state of constant self-doubt. In the first few months after leaving, I felt I didn't know who I was, because I had no idea about my real strengths and real weaknesses. I second-guessed my own needs and desires and found it incredibly hard to listen to my instincts, especially when it came to other people. But I did know that I had come from a very bad place and any amount of muddle and mess I found myself in was better than that.
Any statement along the lines of “You don't realise this, but you're being abused.” is likely to be about as useful to an abuse victim as the many other statements they have heard along the lines of “You don't realise this, but you're broken in all kinds of ways and I'm the only one who can fix you.”
(I hope I don't have to warn anyone against the even worse mistake of questioning someone's perception about whether abuse they describe is as bad as all that. There is this just world fallacy within many of us which makes us question the idea bad things could be happening to our close friends and family. There are circumstances when this is hurtful or frustrating and there are circumstances when this is downright dangerous. If you're a member of a jury, you might have to be more objective, but when someone you love complains of abuse, it's best to assume that it's as bad, if not worse, than you're being told.)
Edit 04/01/2014: I want to add a link here to Liam's excellent post about Religious Abuse. The focus is on supporting trans people in situations of religious abuse but most of this applies to anyone who is being abused, particularly within a community or family.
2. Show you trust the person and expect them to be competent.
Abusers treat their victims as if they are not to be trusted. They are often monitored and supervised against everything from infidelity to doing the washing up the wrong way. They are often denied certain basic adult responsibilities and freedoms because, they've been told, it's not safe. This doesn't stop abusers depending heavily on their victims, but this is dependence rather than reliance; they are depended upon, but not expected to get things right. You might be expected to prepare a meal, to extraordinary tight specifications, but then be interrupted for an interrogation about whether you are doing it right, will it be late, have you remembered certain stages of the process and special requests?
After all this, it is quite a shocking experience when someone asks your help or relies on you for something important, treats you like an averagely competent adult, yet alone an adult with areas of expertise and talent. Most people respond well to being trusted and relied upon, but it is especially useful to people who have been repeatedly told that they are useless, disaster-prone or unsuited to responsibility. Not only does this trust prove that other people value them differently, but being able to help someone or successfully complete a task (and be thanked or praised for it) proves that it isn't just a matter of opinion.
One problem is that abuse victims often don't get relied upon because they believe that they are incompetent and fail to put themselves forward. I used to be nervous about making a cup of tea at someone else's house for fear of spillages, broken mugs, accidental poisoning and somehow burning the kitchen down. When people never volunteer, others are often reluctant to ask. It's worth asking. Don't press the matter, but do ask.
3. Take an interest in your loved ones' dreams. Expect them to succeed and celebrate with them when they do.
Abusers are generally very dismissive about and critical of their victim's work, dreams and achievements. All of those things are threats to the abuser, because there's the potential for the victim to gain self-worth, praise from others and various life opportunities in a way that is completely out of the abuser's control. Male abusers frequently persuade female partners to stop working altogether and discourage outside projects. Even when abusers actually depend on their partner's career for money or status, no achievement is ever good enough.
In British culture, we don't encourage one another's dreams generally. We certainly assume that if someone does need encouragement and support in their work, it's coming from those closest to them. But the opposite may be the case. Putting faith and taking interest in someone's work and celebrating their achievements is a sure-fired way to undermine abuse. It's much more effective than just telling someone that they're wonderful; it shows them that they are capable in a way that matters to them. It teaches them to trust their own capabilities and any glimmer of self-esteem they have floating around.
As with failing to volunteer, abuse victims often fail to put themselves forward and talk about the positive things they are doing. On the day I finished my first novel, I had lunch with my parents, aunt and two cousins. We talked about everybody's lives. We talked about the lives of various family members who weren't there. But nobody asked about what I had been up to and I didn't say, even though my news was, quite frankly, somewhat bigger than anything else we spoke about (really, it wasn't the biggest deal ever, but everyone else's life was pretty quiet at the time). I don't blame anyone else, because it was a precedent I had set. I had learnt that nothing I did was of interest or importance, so others had learnt not to bother to ask.
It is always worth it to keep asking, even when you've not dragged much information out of a person in the past.
4. Be a Trustworthy Person
This is important in two respects. The first is that obviously, if you are a trustworthy person, your friends and family will be able to come to you for help should they need to. The second is more subtle. Having people in one's life who are trustworthy helps a person to trust themselves, especially if they're realising that they've made a tremendous error in their judgement of character elsewhere. During the aforementioned period after I had left my husband, I had a great difficulty determining who I could trust, whether I was simply an appalling judge of character or whether I was somehow a bad influence on the people around me. To have friends who proved themselves time and again was a great salve to my sanity.
Top tips for being the right kind of trustworthy:
Adult abuse victims need good strong allies, not rescuers. If you're really unlucky (because it will be a truly dire situation) you might rescue someone from a single violent situation, but adult abuse victims have to choose to leave those relationships. You may get to be Leah or Han when the abuse victim finds their inner Luke, but you don't get to destroy the Deathstar.
The concept of rescuing adults from abuse is incredibly problematic. For one thing, abusers love these kinds of narratives and it is very common for abusers to believe that they have rescued (or are in the process of rescuing) their victim from something or other - very often themselves. Abusers think in these terms because it removes autonomy from the victim, it demands a debt of gratitude and dependence from the victim (after all I've done for you; you are nothing without me etc.) and it provides an excuse for the abuser to assume complete control. Even during the grovelling phase, my ex referred to me as the project of which he was most proud. He thought he was Henry Higgins, forgetting where such a sense of entitlement leads.
It's easy for victims to buy into these ideas to a certain extent. I had one friend who, years later, spoke of gratitude towards a first husband who regularly beat her up, but had rescued her from her small town provincial life and introduced her to a wider, more intellectual world. It seemed obvious to me that my friend was wrong; she had been extremely young when she'd met this man (who by virtue of the massive age difference knew stuff she hadn't learnt yet), and she'd been thoroughly fed up with her life and immediate surroundings. Sooner or later she was going to walk into a library, catch a bus to the wider world or meet other people who would introduce her to the same things without taking all the credit - if, indeed, she wasn't already on her way. But she continued to understand her younger self in the way she'd been taught to; as a completely blank canvas, passive and unmoving, upon whom someone else had the magnanimity to paint great things. Between assaults.
This is one reason why abuse victims often manage to leave one abuser only to find themselves with another slightly different abuser, feeling indebted to the second abuser for rescuing them from the first (or the mess they were in, having escaped the first). Meanwhile, people in abusive relationships can sometimes behave as if they are waiting for rescue, because they don't trust their own ability to make radical decisions about their lives. And of course, it can be fairly easy to steer a person, who is very used to being controlled, towards a course of action that you think is best, even when you mean them no harm.
It's a much bigger and braver thing to trust an abuse victim and support them in finding their own way out. If good people truly trust and value themselves, they will act in their own best interests, far more effectively than they ever would under someone else's command. It can be very hard to trust someone that much, especially when you are very worried about them, but it is a tremendously powerful act of love and respect. It's about loving someone for who they are, as opposed to who they might become.
The only person who can end an abusive relationship is the victim. Even if they do have matters taken out of their hands, through coercion or pressure, they will remain under the abuser's power until they decide take that power away.