This post was catalyzed by Purtek
, but not by anything she posted, not even her article on Feminist Victim-blaming
at The Hathor Legacy
. She made a remark in a private venue that called a bit of inadvertent victim-blaming, and it hit where I live; suddenly, It Was Time to start speaking about this in my LJ.
I don't think this post is going to be all that close to the bone; I don't feel very ready
to talk about it so publicly, so I'm gonna start slowly.
There's this idea that being the strong, whole, independent person that the First- and Second-Wave feminists made it possible for a woman to be, somehow constitutes an inoculation, a magic shield, against abuse. "It can't happen to me
; I'm strong and self-actualized, and I know better than to get into a relationship with an abuser!" (Where the victim-blaming comes in, of course, is the implicit corollary that, if it does
happen to you, you must have somehow failed - not strong enough, too dependent, didn't properly exercise your knowing-better, etc.)
But it can
happen to you - and you might not even realize it. It happened to me, and I didn't realize it until months after I was out of the unhealthy situation.
As I struggled to come to terms with the pain and guilt of marital wreckage, I realized that I had the post-traumatic effects
of emotional abuse (no, I'm not calling it PTSD - there's a continuum of post-traumatic reaction, and it has to reach a certain level of interference with function before it's a disorder). So I went Web-hunting for information on domestic emotional abuse. What I found didn't match my experiences; virtually everything I read portrayed abusers as domineering, overtly controlling, often overtly angry - the implication was that they were aware
they were controlling, got some kind of gratification out of exercising the power, and were only unaware that they were abusers because they believed they were entitled to have that power. Unmistakably villains
, assholes who need to be shamed out of their socially-unacceptable arrogance.Nothing
could be farther away from my ex-hubby. Hell, that description fits me
better than it does him - so I was left continuing to wonder, as I'd been wondering, "Am I an emotional abuser?" Certainly the situation
was emotionally abusive to him. He's gentle, sensitive, reserved, extremely good at containing his anger, a diffident guy who doesn't see himself as being able
to control others, much less entitled
to do so. I'm the one who yells when I'm angry, who is outspoken and decisive and sometimes comes across as intimidating or domineering - I've been monitoring myself for years, learning to phrase what I say to minimize the impression of "telling people what to do".
simply describe the sort of differences of personality and style that, if both people are emotionally healthy and committed to communicating about the differences, doesn't have to be a mismatch. But - communicating is extremely hard for him, and all the commitment-to-try in the world doesn't make it easier... and he endured a great deal of emotional abuse in childhood. "Endured" is the word; all his experience, all his training, says that "deal with" = "endure" - he has no models or frame of reference for working through
issues and resentments.
The stereotypical Overbearing Abuser acts
- he shouts, argues, belittles, sneers. Ex-hubby doesn't do any of that; when he's distraught or hurt, he withdraws. Basically, he's a porcupine - when he feels threatened, he rolls himself into himself, and has no idea how much damage those defensive quills cause.
It wasn't until I read Heartless Bitches International
on abusive situations that I started to clue in (I'd had 'em bookmarked long before for their Nice GuysTM
material; IIRC, it was pure chance that I decided, just when I did, that I wanted to amuse myself by exploring their site further). HBI doesn't really get away from the stereotype of "intentional asshole", but it does talk about more subtle forms of emotional abuse, about the ways that the abused person can wind up wondering if they're the abusive one, and a little bit about abuse stemming from past damage. That, at least, reflected my own experiences well enough to get me past the "am I the asshole?" anxiety.
But the demonizing stereotypes of abusers don't do anyone any good. Yes, many abusers are
overbearing assholes, and/or intend to domineer or manipulate. And, possibly, some who are abused find it a helpful or even a necessary stage in breaking away and healing, to perceive their abuser as unmitigatedly vile - if they need to stop caring about the person, to be able to break free of the unhealthy relationship, f'ex. Gods know, if I didn't still care about my ex-hubby, I'd probably be a lot farther out of the tangle by now - but not, I believe, as healthily
But even the overbearing, domineering abusers are almost always acting out their own unresolved issues. When our response is, "they must be shamed
out of it!!" we're basically saying that to have unresolved issues
is a shameful thing, blaming them for the very existence of those issues. By no means am I letting them off the hook - what they do to
act out those unresolved issues is
unacceptable. But, hell, do we want the smug gratification of berating them with their shortcomings, telling them what Unfit People they are (which, as often as not, will be exactly the kind of thing they were berated with, that built up those issues), or do we want to help them resolve the cause of the problem
? Beating up on people for their bad behavior is easy - hell, any emotional abuser
can do that. It does nothing to encourage them to seek resolution - if not before they do damage, then before they do more
Yep, some of them won't do that on their own. But shaming doesn't make those ones any more likely to, and discourages the ones that might. Calling them Bad People doesn't address the problem; it just reinforces our own illusion of being Good People, Not One of Those.
And then there are the partners, those who are abused. When emotional abuse is framed as, "nasty overbearing abuser; weak, intimidated victim." those who are experiencing abuse that doesn't
fit that frame will often have no way to recognize the abuse. Not
because they don't like to admit they're weak; why should they admit something if it's not true? Not
because they're in denial about their partner's domineering tendencies; if the abuse isn't the abuse of domination, they're not in denial. Nor will it do a bloody thing to help their healing, if they have to twist and rewrite their own experiences to something that fits that box.
I worry about all those people who are stuck in unhealthy, abusive situations with lovable damaged people. If my ex-hubby hadn't hit a crisis point (in his words: "I broke") and tossed my shoes, I'd probably still be struggling, feeling unspeakably guilty every time I expressed a need in the wrong way and he withdrew, beating myself up because I couldn't figure out a way to express my own issues without hurting him.
The day after tomorrow is the second anniversary of the day "he broke". What I eventually came to realize is that who we are
, what kinds of interaction we each are and aren't capable of, is abusive to each other
. That doesn't make either of us a Bad Person, it just means that neither of us is equipped to deal with the other without being damaged. And that's not the kind of thing you see coming.
It can happen to you - either experiencing abuse, or abusing. There is no magic shield, no philosophic formula, no guarantee. Bad things do happen to good people; sometimes, bad things are done by good people.
(Note on gender: I've tried to be gender-neutral in most of my phrasings; emotional abuse, and especially the subtle and often-inintentional kind I'm talking about, isn't restricted to man-on-woman. I may have slipped, though, for no more reason than personal perspective.)