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[personal profile] sunflowerp
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".

That could 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 out.

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 damage.

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.)

(no subject)

Date: 2008-05-30 03:24 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] lilairen.livejournal.com
Honestly, I suspect that the 'who we are is abusive to each other' was, in a milder form, some of what was going on with me and my most recent ex. Who I am still very close to; we mended our relationship well enough to end it well.

But ...

... it's hard.

(no subject)

Date: 2008-06-02 05:25 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] lilairen.livejournal.com
Honestly, I believe the only reason that it wound up being possible for [livejournal.com profile] brooksmoses and me to break up sanely was me getting involved with [livejournal.com profile] arawen. I took all that emotional energy and sank it into bringing our emotional balance up to zero.

(no subject)

Date: 2008-05-30 05:25 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] nscafe.livejournal.com
Good post.

Can you do coffee sometime in the near future?

(no subject)

Date: 2008-06-01 06:52 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] nscafe.livejournal.com
I pretty much play it day by day. I do know that when I'm out and about, I only tend to last about 2 or so hours before I feel the urge to flee.

So... with that in mind, it may be best to figure out another day where we can be more private.

But I'm pretty much flexible around what you can arrange. Just drop me a note on your journal and we can go from there.

(no subject)

Date: 2008-05-30 06:27 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] sarahbubble.livejournal.com
Hi, it's Purtek, just with a different hat on. :)

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.

I can so relate to this, and I think it's a really good expansion to what I was saying in that Hathor post (and what you said at the beginning of this one). Definitely connecting to lots of other stuff I've been thinking about lately, though I'm not sure I'll ever write about it - I just like the way you're really dismantling the dichotomy of victim/abuser Good Person/Bad Person that seems so pervasive all over the place.

(no subject)

Date: 2008-06-04 06:07 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] betacandy.livejournal.com
This is absolutely hugely true. Abusers come in many flavors, and no amount of education or independence or feminism will ever protect people from them 100%.

Some abusers don't mean to be abusive. Some of them may even really want to change, but be incapable of it. At what point do you know you've tried hard enough to have earned the right to give up? It's not as cut and dried as people often think.

(no subject)

Date: 2008-06-05 07:29 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] betacandy.livejournal.com
You know, I thought I had put "earned" in quotes. I was being slightly ironic, but I was also thinking about how we're told people are lazy and give up on relationships too early and just don't do enough to make it work. Women have been counseled ridiculously about how much they should do to make it work, up to and including accepting a little beating now and then.

That's sort of who I had in mind when talking about "earning" the right to give up, because I've known women whose family and community NEVER approved of their decision to leave their abusers, and I have some idea the effect that had on those women.

It's True

Date: 2008-06-22 06:04 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] danmara.livejournal.com
I struggled for a long time, and still struggle with the "I will not become an inadvertent abuser" issue. Learning to work with someone...anyone...really...because we all have issues...can be difficult, especially if you have your own issues to deal with as well.

Sometimes there really is only so much you can do. Sometimes you get to a point where you just have to say "I can't do this"...I can't live with this person, and I can't work around their issues. There are some times when two people just are not compatible in a particular way (they may be made for each other in other ways...or not). It's not because either one of them is 'inferior' or 'messed up' or 'abusive'...it's just because it doesn't work.

(no subject)

Date: 2008-08-02 07:00 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] aebhel.livejournal.com
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.

Wow. You just summed up, in that one sentence, one of the most damaging relationships I've had in my life.

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