Thursday, May 10, 2012

Domestic Violence & Why Zero Tolerance Is So Tough

The most common piece of advice given about domestic violence is to exercise zero-tolerance. When a competent adult assaults you, they demonstrate a dangerous disregard for your physical comfort and safety. They are dangerous. You need to leave straight away. This is good simple advice.

I wanted to explore why people very often don't, partly because I think it's a good thing for people to understand and partly in the hope that anyone who is in that situation will find it useful. This has become epic, but I wanted to put it in one place. I've framed it as if all these adult violent relationships are romantic in nature - this isn't the case, but it is most commonly the case and it is the dynamic I know most about.

1. Love is the Most Determined Defense Lawyer in the World.

When you are in love, especially if you are heavily invested in that love for your self-esteem, then you're going to find any excuse, any extenuating circumstance to convince yourself that:
  • (a) your beloved really does love you (even when that looks ropey)
  • (b) your beloved is worthy of your love (even when they're definitely not)
  • (c) everything is going to be all right (even when things are bad and likely to get worse)
Meanwhile, our culture tends to value romantic love above all other relationships without having strong expectations for what it should be like. There's this general idea that we should put up with more from our romantic partner than we would ever put up with from our colleagues, our friends, other family members, even our own children. Lots of us have been taught that a successful relationship is, above all things, an enduring one and that good loyal loving people stick the distance, no matter how unrewarding it may be.

This is a terrific mistake. If you're going to give more of your love, time and energy to a particular person, then they absolutely have to be worthy of that. There is absolutely no virtue in wasting your life on someone who abuses you. You can't even pretend that you're sacrificing your happiness for theirs. There are millions of people on our planet who would benefit much much more from your kindness, compassion, energy and love and would never dream of assaulting you in return. Some may even love you as much as you love them. Which is lovely.

2. Shock!

Until it becomes a regular feature of domestic life, violence is a very shocking experience. Once it has happened, you don't get to be alone for the day to think things over, talk to your friends about it and work out how best to respond. In fact, you have to respond there and then, while you're still hurting, sometimes while you're still on the floor. And usually, you have to respond to a person who is either sobbing with remorse or still in a terrifying rage.

It takes a very gutsy person to declare it's over, then and there - and I don't necessarily recommend that. But the other shocking thing is how very quickly things can go back to normal. So quickly that there's a small part of you which doubts that it ever happened, and if it did, was it really as bad as you thought at the time?  Normal is nice. Normal is a massive relief! It can be extraordinarily tempting to put it all down to a horrible blip in your otherwise happy existence.

And when you think like that, the next time is just as shocking as the first.

3. Violence is on a Spectrum.

There are lots of other behaviours whose effects feel very much like physical violence, which are not so universally condemned. Things like shouting and swearing in someone's face, insults, accusations, violence towards furniture or other objects, interfering with someone's ability to relax, sleep, eat or exercise, humiliating someone in public, stopping someone leaving the room or ranting at someone about how completely useless and worthless they are.

If you've experienced this sort of thing and then your partner punches you, it doesn't necessary feel as if a terrible line has been crossed.  That's because none of this stuff is okay. Physical violence takes it onto a different level because it's so very dangerous - even a push in the wrong direction could seriously hurt or kill you - and it is an unambiguous criminal act. But you shouldn't have to put up with any kind of abuse from anyone. You wouldn't take that from a stranger; you certainly shouldn't take it from someone who professes to love you.

4. Is it really Violence?

Re-enter that corrupt but tenacious defense lawyer, stage left. To me, real violence meant punching and kicking. I wouldn't have said that had I witnessed other kinds of violence or indeed if I had been assaulted in any other context. But for some reason, the first time I felt that something had gone really wrong was after my ex punched me in the back.  It is hard to explain why I didn't quite count being elbowed in the ribs, being groped, being grabbed by the arm, by the throat and having it squeezed, being knocked down and pinned to the floor, among other things, as violence - even though some of those things were much scarier than a single punch.

I suppose this was chiefly because I was in denial and in all previous cases, I felt I had said or done something wrong whilst in close proximity of my ex-husband, and it was hard for him not to lash out. Punching someone in the back can't really be about snapping in the heat of an argument (not that all previous violence involved an argument, but still). He punched me in the back simply because he wanted to.

People who are the victims of women abusers often struggle to recognise their experience of violence as violence. In the movies, women slap men round the face all the time, sometimes for comic effect (in older movies, both parties of a straight romantic couple would slap each other almost constantly and nobody ever bruised or seemed to mind). Men who are abused by women can feel (as they are sometimes told) that it's not violence if you're bigger and stronger than the person attacking you. This is nonsense. It's all violence.

5. Is it really Domestic Abuse?

The first thing to say about this is that it doesn't matter what words you use. If you feel hurt, humiliated or scared within a relationship, then it doesn't really matter. You shouldn't have to feel like that.

Domestic violence or domestic abuse are, quite rightly, seen as very serious things. However, along with words and phrases like rape, sexual abuse, child abuse and many others, we tend to perceive these experiences as meaning the worst possible manifestation; the calculated crimes of unremitting monsters against unwitting innocents. Abuse, ongoing and mixed up with love, guilt, compassion and a sense of duty, rarely feels like that at the time.

This is one huge reason why victims of all kinds of abuse often struggle to put a name on what they've been through - even though they'd generally have no trouble identifying it as abuse if they saw it happening to someone else.

When challenged, abusers will invariably differentiate between what they do - snapping, lashing out, losing their temper - and real abuse. They will argue that there is a difference in intention; an abuser carefully plans his actions to control and manipulate, whereas they just get frustrated or jealous and don't really mean to hurt you at all.  This is nonsense. Outside questions of self-defence and insanity, the law only ever differentiates between violent crimes according to what a person did.

After I left, I often wondered how conscious my ex was about what he was doing. To what extent he really meant to control me, to make me feel so bad about myself, or whether that was all an accident of his anger and arrogance. My conclusion was that it doesn't make the slightest bit of difference. In morality, all that matters is what we do to one another.

6. They are unwell/ under a lot of stress.

Everyone has stress in their lives. One in four of us will experience a mental illness of some kind during our life time and almost everyone who lives to adulthood will experience bereavement, romantic problems, employment or money worries, illness, anxiety about friends and family. Lots of marriages endure tension and conflict over matters as diverse as sexual jealousy, debt, problems with children or the matter of who left the toilet roll holder with no toilet roll on it. Life is sometimes very tough.

The good news is that the vast majority of people, including those under immense stress, including those with severe mental illnesses, have never been violent towards a loved-one. This isn't part of the normal ups and downs of things.

This includes men. The vast majority of men manage not to be violent towards loved ones ever. Some men will try to argue that testosterone makes them impulsive, while women have magic powers of self-control. Of course, it's generally a very convenient impulse that only takes over in the presence of people who are smaller, physically weaker and very unlikely to hit them back.

People are violent because they want to be. The physical act of violence releases endorphins; it feels good, it relieves tension. It makes you feel powerful to physically dominate another person. It makes you feel powerful to be feared, to exact pleas and apologies. And it feels good when you have so much temporary power over a person that they forgive you or blame themselves and choose to stay with you and keep on loving you, even though you don't deserve to touch the cloth that shines their shoes.

This is why domestic violence always gets worse; even though it involves getting angry, it feels good, so there will be more and more of it and it will be more extreme and more dangerous and eventually deadly. The only clear causal connection between mental health and domestic violence is that being or having been a victim of domestic violence is a major risk factor for various mental illnesses.

7. Guilt and Shame.

The easiest way to reassure yourself that you are loved, that your beloved is worthy of your love and that everything is going to be all right, is to imagine that you are the one who screwed up, that this is your shame. This is made easier by the fact that abuser's violence is rarely completely random - you've generally just said or done something that has upset them, however unwittingly - and they're generally very happy for you to take the blame. They may well insist upon it.

I dreaded the day I'd have to visit my folks or see my friends with a black-eye - or hide away pretending to be ill until it healed. Whenever something in the house got broken, it was me who primed my ex on the innocent explanation we would give to anyone who asked. I frequently apologised after he assaulted me.

I wasn't merely afraid that someone would realise what was going on and apply pressure on me to leave. I was afraid of being found out. I didn't want people to think I was that kind of woman. I was strong, I was opinionated, I was a feminist. I didn't want people to think I was some kind of victim. A victim is helpless, hopeless, dependent on others.

My capacity for guilt about the violence was so great that, when I was leaving my marriage, having realised how utterly unacceptable my situation had been, I actually apologised to my husband for letting him be like that. I had shifted from thinking that I had provoked him to thinking that I had harmed him by putting up with it.

Don't worry; both the guilt and shame will go away. The biggest aid by far for me was reading and listening to the stories of other survivors of domestic violence. None of them fit a stereotype. None of them were weak people. All of them were loving people and most of them had been vulnerable in some way when they'd entered these relationships. But apart from that, all they had in common was experience.

8. The Complicated Business of Forgiveness and Redemption.

Unless you can do something productive with it and especially when it is directed towards someone you care about, anger is an extremely ugly, uncomfortable, intrusive emotion which you want shot of as soon as possible. For this reason, good people often try to forgive crimes against them very quickly, simply to make the negative feeling go away. It feels like the right thing to do, the big thing to do, the loving thing to do. It can make you feel like a good person, especially at a time when someone else has made you feel rotten about yourself. But it's very complicated.

First off, it could be that all things may be forgiven, but not all things should be tolerated. If you tolerate someone hitting you, then you are holding them to a much lower moral standard than you would ever hold yourself. Are you a better person than them? Definitely! Should you treat them according to different standards? Well, no. That won't make the world a better place for anyone.

The other major complication is that true forgiveness - for something that has caused real harm - takes a long time.  I forgave my ex-husband everything he did, I tried to wipe the slate shiny clean as soon as possible, until one day I realised my own value and all that forgiveness crumbled away.

It's not supposed to work like that. Then I got angry, far angrier than I had ever been in my life and that was fairly horrible. Eventually I seemed to recover from the anger, and maybe this recovery can be described as genuine forgiveness. I don't know. Perhaps it's just indifference. I really don't care.

The third complication is that there simply must be some people who strike a loved one, feel terrible and manage to sort themselves out and never do it again, which leads us to...

9. It won't happen again. They promised.

It is impossible to say that anyone who assaults a loved-one is, to a man, irredeemable. I think it is very likely that those relationships are irredeemable and the most helpful thing a person can do in aid of their partner's redemption is to leave them. However, people are people and people sometimes do make good with a second chance. But honestly, a third? Love is worth all kinds of sacrifices, but that's just not love.

So, if your partner has been violent towards you for the first time ever, some useful questions to ask yourself:
  • Do you feel like a good person who is deserving of love, respect and care? Not just attractive, sexy or useful to have around - a good person who deserves a lot lot better than what just happened?
  • Do both you and your partner believe that they are fully responsible for what they did, or do you or your partner think there are factors which took the matter out of their control?
  • Is it normal or exceptional for your partner to behave aggressively towards you, like shouting and swearing, throwing things, etc.? 
  • Does your partner's idea of making good consist of material gifts, an increase in romantic gestures or physical affection, helping more around the house and granting more freedom for you?
  • Have they taken definite action to prevent this happening again, e.g. counselling, an anger-management course or giving up alcohol? 
  • If you decided to leave them, do you imagine that nobody else would have you?
  • If you decided to leave them, would you be afraid about what they would do?
My ex-husband once said to me (roughly), "There won't be any more violence now. I think we both know how to avoid that. You've got much better at not provoking me and I've got much better at walking away from those situations."  This was only half true; I had become more submissive, more subservient, there were dozens of topics which I knew never to speak about, there were clothes I never wore and people I never spoke to and there were all kinds of household tasks which I carried out in a perverse, inefficient way because it was his way. My ex, on the other hand, never learnt to walk away. Thankfully, I did.

10. Fear.

People are afraid to leave abusive relationships for various reasons. Many of them are just the same reasons as those effecting people in ordinarily unhappy relationships, but often exaggerated. For example, the fear of being alone and unloved is made worse when someone has repeatedly told you that you are unlovable and nobody else would put up with you. The fear of being lonely is made worse when you have been isolated from your friends and made to feel that nobody else really cares about you. The fear of being unable to cope by yourself is made worse when you have been told that you are profoundly incompetent.

There's also fear of what the other person will do. This is not an unfounded fear; the most dangerous time in a violent relationship is just before, during or just after an attempt to leave. However, staying doesn't keep you safe either and there is support to help you get away unharmed:

Refuge for women and their children.
Men's Advice Line for men in straight and same-sex relationships.
Broken Rainbow for lesbian, bisexual, gay and trans gender people.

There's also the police. The police have specialist domestic violence officers who can help keep you safe and get you the help you need. Personally, if you have good friends and family, I would suggest placing yourself in their physical presence and telling everyone what has been going on, as soon as possible.


Gary Miller said...

I'm shocked that you went through all of that. I'm also in a state of admiration for you.

How painful was it for you to deliberately remember those incidents and then put them into words as you have done?

It's remarkable that you've been able to do this and I'm sure your words will help someone who is on the wrong end of this appalling type of violence.

You're right of course, in these situations Zero Tolerance is the only answer.

Thank you for sharing your thoughts and experiences in this way.


stopbeingstupid said...

A very well-written post. So sorry you went through this, and so glad it's over now.

Stephen said...

I'm so proud of you.

Ruth Madison said...

Thank you for this. I still struggle to understand why I stayed for as long as I did in a bad situation. It really wasn't long, but I still wonder why I didn't leave at the first incident. I made the excuses and it wasn't until I heard myself sounding like a character in a Lifetime movie that I realized where I had gotten.

Utter Randomness said...

Thank you so much for posting this. I have been in abusive relationships in the past and I get so tired of the "why don't they just leave" rhetoric. It's hard to write this kind of stuff out, and I admire you for doing it.

Unknown said...

This was a superb essay and should be read by everyone, whether or not they've been abused.

Sally said...

Oh Goldfish. OH OH God - I couldn't read this after number two because I'm very sensi (strike out) vulner..(strike out) frightened (yes thats the one) ... anyway have to say how scarily VERY COMMON ABUSE IS !!! I was very saddened when you first blogged about the abuse done to you, and continue full of admiration for your support and enabling of others to end it.
Abuse IS frighteningly common .... I had put out of my mind on the day I found out it happened to me - that my husband had photographed me unconscious after raping me - because he showed me the picture years later and just minutes after he said he was leaving me, and then told our daughter he was leaving ... so I had to take care of her .... for years. I only KNEW he had raped me when he showed me the photograph and only REMEMBERED he had shown me the photograph on that terrible day YEARS LATER when I had the brain space - when my daughter went to uni - to accept flash backs that told me it had happened. My doctor treating me said NOTHING surprises her anymore and yes it is terribly common. This man is an accountant, a pillar of his local community (although he and his second wife do keep moving around the country every couple of years ! ) ... your story I feel was part of my process towards remembering - my unconscious digging around to find the information to tell me (in flash backs) why I still, at 59, I still had those nightmares. Goldfish thank you for your input into my life. Bless you!

The Goldfish said...

Sally, I'm so very sorry this happened to you. I hope that my post hasn't got you down too much.

If it would ever be useful to talk, you can e-mail me diaryofagoldfish at Google's e-mail service.

Anonymous said...

this has helped me it is very hard to come to terms with domestic abuse i stayed with my husband for 20 years suffering abuse from him sometimes he was ok then it would start again. it is hard to leave but there is help out there if they hit you once they WILL DO IT AGAIN and it often gets worse, try and be strong and end the relatioship.

Anonymous said...

Wow. Just... wow.

This: It is hard to explain why I didn't quite count being elbowed in the ribs, being groped, being grabbed by the arm, by the throat and having it squeezed, being knocked down and pinned to the floor, among other things, as violence - even though some of those things were much scarier than a single punch.

I was in a seven-year relationship (that ended eight years ago) that way after the fact I recognized as emotionally abusive. My ex never actually threw a punch, but there was plenty of this other stuff. It blows my mind that I never thought of these clearly violent acts as violence.

The Goldfish said...

Thank you both Anonymice,

I'm very glad you're both safe now. :-)

Anonymous said...

Hi,I just read your blog and it seems you have just penned down exactly what I have been through. Yesterday night my husband hit me for the first time,he justifies it saying that I provoked him to do it. I somehow am not being able to accept it, it is humiliating even if both of us are at fault. I don't know whether I should walk out on my marrige. I don't know whether this is the end??? He has verbally abused me in the past and I have always forgived him, it is my love which makes me forgive him my marriage over??

The Goldfish said...

Anonymous, nobody can tell you what to do. But there's nothing you could have done where you would deserve to be hit. People sometimes make dreadful mistakes, but when they do so, they apologise immediately, take responsibility for their actions and take steps to make sure that it never happe ns again. They don't search for excuses and blame other people.

I think you are doing the right thing by looking closely at your situation. These posts, I wrote about supporting people in abusive relationships may also be helpful: One Two.

I don't know where you are in the world, but Refuge has a helpful page of Warning Signs that you may be in an abusive relationship as well as advice about what to do next. If you are anxious

Trust your gut, and treat yourself as if you are a person deserving of respectful treatment, above all things. Talk to your friends or any family members you can trust about what has been going on. Look after yourself and remember that you deserve a good life, whatever happens next.