I know better, but I read it anyway. There are certain news posts about high profile domestic violence cases that scream at you to avoid the comments section, but not so much because of the post itself. Some things just seem to draw out the trolls, and it’s always – unfailingly – on a topic that requires some sort of first hand experience and knowledge about the subject if you have any hopes of making intelligent, thoughtful – if not productive and healing – commentary that doesn’t scar countless people in the process.
Suppositions do none of us any good. They never have, and they never will. When you make a supposition, you are drawing inferences based only on what you guess you would do to handle or respond to a situation you have never had to deal with. You guess that based on how you see yourself to be in connection with your character and personality in circumstances that are on the opposite end of the spectrum that you would do and say A not B when faced with a situation that is contrary to anything you’ve ever experienced. That you would somehow know better. That you feel you are a good enough, kind enough, honest enough person to do, know, infer, and say the right thing at all times no matter how dire the situation. That you would never allow or accept this.
On the opposite side of the coin, not only do you present opinion and conjecture based on advantageous circumstances when assuming how you’d respond in extremely precarious situations, you’re also elevating yourself over others who HAVE been through it by minimizing, invalidating, and dehumanizing them based on what? Evidence of your past responses? Your in-depth knowledge? Your hard-won experience? No. You push them down in the dirt and trample over their backs brandishing about myth, misconception, and supposition as though it were truth. And I’m not talking about truth as in undeniable, irrefutable proof. I’m talking about your version of truth (because perception and fact are never the same) that has been bent and twisted to your circumstances and your beliefs and your values. How can you not know that conjecture is inadmissible?
What would you do if I told you that you are most likely wrong? Think about it carefully – (you think) you don’t know anyone who’s been through it (but statistics prove otherwise, and your critical, judgmental attitude has shown them you can’t be trusted with that information), you haven’t been through it, and you believe things that others tell you out of their misguided beliefs and warped view of the world that they themselves have never experienced. What gives you the liberty or credibility to analyze everyone who has been abused and make statements based on your unfounded opinion as to how they ended up being with someone who abused them? How can you ever dare to say how you would react or what you would say in any situation until you actually find yourself in it? Still, you wield your “I would dos” and “I would nevers” as though you had authority and knowledge – things that both require hindsight – on the matter. What’s worse, however, is that you show your ignorance by insulting and mocking us in the process. Because you in all your infinite knowledge and sheer level of genius are better than we are. Because you claim you would have known.
Allow me to strip you of your carefully constructed delusions and put you on notice that your position means absolutely nothing. You have no right to even weigh in, because your functional knowledge on the subject is nil. Here’s why. You are looking at your own life that has relationships filled with healthy dynamics and comparing it that to the dynamics in abusive relationships. Dynamics that, unless you have lived through them, you have no hope of understanding. Doing so is about as productive as trying to fill a cup without a bottom.
Before I continue and explain the way dynamics in an abusive relationship actually work, I’m going to offer a theory as to why some of you make these erroneous assumptions of all the things you would have done so much better, quicker, and smarter than I did when I was being abused. Honestly, before you take too much offense to the tone of my words, I do not feel that most do this as a deliberate way to offend, hurt, shame, or devalue those of us who have been abused. However, it is imperative if the conversation framing domestic violence is ever to be properly aligned, you must be made aware that your response and your language inevitably impacts us negatively. And once you have lost your ignorance of this, change is required and rightfully expected.
You can posit that my words will still fall on deaf ears all you want. Be warned, however, that I will brush off this assertion just as quickly as you offer it. Even if it is so, it does not mean that I should throw up my hands in resignation and give up. The act of giving up equates to trampling down and leaving behind those who are now in need of our help. The simple fact remains that if we all continue to fall silent when victim blaming, shaming, and devaluation of our worth and dignity happens, if we fail to share the urgent truth that can release others like me from shame and humiliation that we do not in fact own, if we fail to make the effort by consciously declining to right a wrong or correct a fallacy especially when it causes harm, we become complicit in its perpetuation and take up a share of blood guilt for each act of abuse, blaming, and fatality.
Fatality. You don’t have to be an actively participating party in it to shoulder blame for it. Yes, I said it. If that reality is hard for you to accept, take a few moments to meditate on how passive participation (like seeing but turning away like it didn’t happen) can cause you to bear a portion of that burden. Whether or not the victim / survivor of trauma is stripped of their life by the abuser or they take their own life in despair and hopelessness, to willfully look away and be silent makes those turning a blind eye complicit. If you see someone being harmed and you choose to decide their life is not worth any sort of intervention, if you choose to not reach out to them to help, whatever negative fate lies in the store for them you have helped craft through your inaction. I feel that I must always lift my voice without restriction placed on how many times I will have to repeat myself. This is the only way we have hope for change, and even one person that listens makes it worth it.
So in that vein, here is my theory as related to those who harbor no negative intent on their response to stories of abuse. Talking about domestic violence makes people in general uncomfortable, because it means acknowledging that it happens and that it is a repeated act of deliberate aggression in intimate partnerships committed forcefully against the victimized party with the intent to control, manipulate, and damage. It means having to digest the fact that each act of abuse is a deliberate act of cruelty and malice planned out and chosen by the abuser. If each of us has to admit that it happens to strangers, we also have to accept that it can happen to acquaintances, those in our inner circle, and that it can even happen to each of us. So in an effort to save ourselves, we build a fortress of denial and blindness, dehumanizing others in the process.
Part of this denial and dehumanization also involves weeding out “undesirables” from the group so we can project the occurrences onto others who do not somehow fit in our own perception of the world. People are catalogued into groups composed of income, ethnic background, religion, education level, social status, growing up in abusive homes, and alcohol and substance abuse. The fewer of these groups a person identifies with, the safer they feel, as though inclusion in them is the only way that the “horror stories” can become reality.
The problem with this is that the unintended consequence of this denial and blindness actually carries more danger for those dwelling within its unstable fortress. The protection you may feel you have built up is simply a lie. If you allow yourself to find comfort and solace in the denial, you see no reason to pay attention to the many signs of trouble that occur along the way. The end result is that you or someone you know becomes trapped with a devil of their own, and all the indicators that something is going wrong are ignored, even when there are easily noticeable signs that they are being harmed. Any denial and ignorance of your own construct has now become a well-camouflaged trap just waiting for the prey to happen along and become ensnared in its metal teeth.
And it isn’t just through denial that we put others in danger of abuse. Every time someone makes fun of a girl smacking her boyfriend as we pass by and look down on him in mockery (because “surely he must have done something to deserve it,” right?), we put his life in danger and demean his worth as a man. Every time someone says to their friend that they should ignore things that equate to verbal/emotional abuse because he does this and that for them, you’re enabling the mental conditioning and abuse to escalate. Every time you see someone grab their child’s head by the hair and jerk it back and dismiss it as a deserving punishment, you’re willfully turning a blind eye to someone who is inculcating acceptance of violence into their child and severely damaging their delicate mental development in its most important phase. Every time you choose to criticize and berate a friend because they stop spending time with you, taking your calls, or responding to your texts, you could be helping an abuser successfully isolate them from support that’s urgently needed and putting them in grave risk of injury or death.
Even worse is how many raise their children. We tell our sons, “Men don’t cry, suck it up. Be a man.” We imply to them that if a women puts their hands on them, the proper response is violence, because “they need to be handled” or “brought back under control.” We mock our sons’ masculinity if they tell us they are being bullied or mistreated or physically abused by peers or someone they are dating. We teach our sons entitlement by telling them winning is the most important. “Claim what’s yours. Get your trophy.” You minimize street harassment by saying “Boys will be boys.” We teach them that indulging in their sex drive makes them more of a man, and having been violated – which means molested or raped (against their will) makes them questionable for not enjoying it.
And what do we teach our daughters? “Look for your prince. He will come, and he will sweep you off your feet into ever after.” Sure we get swept off our feet. Sometimes it’s by things like tire irons, metal bars, and baseball bats. And how many ignore that because we’ve told our daughters “Oh he just picks on you because he likes you.” We show her by example of our own behavior and opinions of ourselves and pressuring them to look and dress a certain way or focusing on their “unnatural beauty as child” that their physical appearance is the only valid measurement of their value as young girls and woman. By minimizing cat-calling and harassment, we teach them that it’s okay, even normal to be objectified. And by telling our daughters they can’t dress a certain way or be a tease, we say to them, if you do this, you deserve everything that’s done to you. Daughters are raised to be ashamed of their sexuality as women. Men who have a chain of conquests are celebrated while a woman who has more than one partner can be mocked and shamed as a whore.
We lie to our children by omission and tell them there are no monsters hiding in the closet, under the bed, and in the darkness while opting to conceal the fact from them that true monsters hide in the light and sleep next to you in bed and eat dinner with you at the table. We tell them strangers are dangerous but ignore the fact that most children are harmed by family and friends of the family or teachers, religious congregation, and clergy etc. And in all these things, we are handicapping them and placing them in danger by withholding imperative truth.
Abusers can be very much likened to the Devil who is described in Scripture as having the capability to perpetually transform himself into a being of light so he can beguile and mislead and ensnare others. In the beginning, they create a facade of being kind, loving, gentle, honest, and compassionate. They go to great lengths to shower the unsuspecting victim with love, profess to have their best interests at heart, and may also make some sacrifices that lend to the assumption that the relationship developing between the two is a partnership where they both put in equal effort and receive equal reward for that effort. However, in the shadows, they have already set their plan into action. Nothing, no matter how innocent it at first appears, is done or said without manipulation, deceit, and intent. And believe it or not, all the very public show of gift-giving, romance, chivalry, care, and affection is done for two reasons: one, to lure the victim in, and two, to create a public personality everyone on the outside sees consistently so when the abuse does begin, and when the victim finally tries to tell someone, chances are few that any will believe the victim, because the abuser is widely perceived to be “such a good person.”
In the early stages of the abusive relationship, the abuser works tirelessly to construct the image of a kind, loving, committed partner. This seduction of the victim, regularly referred to as “love-bombing,” is the stage during which the affection of the victim is stolen through deceit with the purpose of later exploiting that emotional bond developed with the abuser so they can slowly begin to re-wire the victim’s thinking and imperceptibly establish control over them. Extreme amounts of praise pour over the unsuspecting victim, and they give a lot of their time to them. There can be seemingly endless dates or vacations, lavish spending, and a constant stream of flowers or gifts. Sexual intimacy is pressed for because abusers know this strengthens the emotional connection of the victim to the abuser. All of these are interpreted by the victim as genuine acts of affection, so they respond by reciprocating the emotional investment in their partner. What they are unaware of in the beginning, however, is that their love, trust, and affection for the abuser are in fact being stolen, because everything is a show. A farce. A lie and betrayal that is, in my opinion, one of the worst kind. The abuser feels no genuine love for their partner. They are merely doing what they know they need to in order to lure them in so the love the victim offers up honestly can later be used as a tool of manipulation.
Also used are long hours of deeply intimate conversation where the abuser gets the victim to reveal their most personal thoughts, emotions, traumas, and life experiences in a deceptively caring way, even appearing to divulge many of their own. I say “deceptively caring,” because the true intent of the abuser here is not to get to know and understand their partner out of genuine interest in their who they are or out of the slightest concern about their well-being. It’s a reconnaissance mission. The abuser is phishing for any emotional baggage, past trauma, and resulting issues of confidence that they can later exploit and use to cause psychological distress to their victim or shame them into complying with their demands so that they abuser doesn’t reveal secrets or embarrassing things they don’t want made public, whether it be to family, friends, or co-workers.
In the love-bombing stage, you can frequently also witness the abuser defending or supporting their partner when they are hurt or wronged by someone else. They also provide monetary assistance or offer to do even the most menial of chores for the victim. Early on, the abuser will appear to minimize things they do as only an altruistic desire to help ease some sort of burden their partner carried. Do not be misled. All of these are machinations designed by the abuser to forge an intensely deep bond between themselves and the victim that they can later twist and manipulate when the verbal and emotional abuse becomes overt or perceptible. However, as the relationship progresses and the abuse escalates, a very different motivation (and the true one at that) emerges. Later all these things the abuser did to help the victim early in the relationship, whether it reminding them all the times they came to their defense, the bills they helped cover, the times they watched the children, and all the money, attention, and affection they initially showered on their partner, will be twisted around to be used as evidence of how much they care about the victim. Why would they need to do this? Simple. When the victim begins to question the maltreatment, the abuser will have at their ready a million and one examples of how much they love their partner and would never do anything to hurt them based on prior behavior in the relationship:
“When all your family and friends refused to help you when you needed it most, who was the only one that was there for you? Who paid your debts, watched your kids so you could take extra shifts, bought you a new wardrobe, took you on vacation, (etc.)? Who tolerated your late nights, your obnoxious friends, your demanding kids, your nosy mother? No one else would have done that for you, and I wouldn’t have if I didn’t love you… You ought to show more appreciation for me!”
“I would never do anything to hurt you deliberately, but you just make me so mad! Don’t you remember how I stood by you when you lost your job/your father? I can’t believe you would say that about me! You have no idea how much what you said just hurt me!”
After the abuser has determined that the victim is primed to escalate into overt verbal and emotional abuse, they do so very cautiously. In the beginning of this stage, initial arguments, snide remarks, etc. are washed away as the abuser as just having a bad day. They will say something meant to be hurtful and when witnessing a reaction of emotional pain, they will rush in to apologize and comfort the victim. The compliments made by the abuser in the beginning begin to take an ambiguous tone, and this is not incidental. Abusers use what’s referred to as false positive criticism to begin subtle changes in the victim’s thinking. Whereas in the beginning they may have said, “You are so beautiful!” what tends to happen in this stage is they add a detractor at the end of the compliment. While they watch the victim applying makeup, they will smile wistfully and profess to love her natural beauty. “You are beautiful just the way you are; you don’t need to wear makeup for me.” We tend to take this at face value, but what the abuser really means is “I don’t want you wearing makeup, because I don’t want anyone else looking at you; you belong to me.” Or they will say, “You always work so hard! Why don’t you take some time off and let me take care of you!” We may hear “I feel you really deserve a break” but what is really being said is “I want you to stop working and stay at home so I can isolate you and make you dependent upon my income so you can’t go anywhere. I want to cripple you and make you so dependent on me that you can’t so much as buy toilet paper unless I say so.”
Eventually (and the timing isn’t the same for every abuser), the verbal and emotional abuse become openly hostile and control is now manifesting in very dangerous ways. Gas lighting and conversations laced with heavy sarcasm are a normal mode of communication in the household/relationship. We have now entered the shock and awe stage in the abuse. Feeling confident that their subtle manipulations have begun to re-work the victims once healthy thought patterns, the abuser begins to test the waters. Initially, there will be a horrible argument where the abuser appears to merely overreact to something the victim said or did. This offense was manufactured as a way to justify their testing the victim’s responses to them. Once they see that they are forgiven and given another chance, they will continue to press with more intensity until it reaches the point where the verbal and emotional explode in unimaginable brutality. They no longer “request” you not wear makeup every day. They will call you a whore, back you against the wall in a threatening manner, and warn you there will be consequences if you do it again. They will imply impending harm to the family pets or the children and other relatives to get your compliance. They will unleash a hateful, cruel, malicious flood of emotionally destructive criticism aimed at emptying you of every good thing you feel about yourself so they continue the emotional abuse and stuff you so full of poison that you emotionally die. And speaking from personal experience, the moment when you lose the last bit of your love for yourself and when your hope dies is unquestionably worse and infinitely more painful than escalation to the physical forms of abuse.
The process by which a victim’s self-esteem is destroyed is a complex one. It isn’t just some empty threats and name-calling; the methodology of verbal and emotional/psychological abuse is one of mangled confusion. The name-calling and manufactured arguments are used in small, carefully measured doses early in the priming process, because the abuser knows too much too soon will alert the victim to something being wrong. For their purposes, verbal abuse is administered in a manner that allows them to desensitize their partner to the negativity that is being introduced into the relationship. As time goes on, the abuser makes incremental increases in the severity of verbal abuse until they feel they can add another weapon and begin the phase of the abuse where they begin to manipulate and re-work the thinking patterns of their victim. This is where gas lighting beings. Abusers will do things that they know their partner does not like, was not aware of, or is afraid of and then confuse them by insisting the victim knew. Things will start to disappear or even appear out of thin air at times the abuser senses the victim is distracted or overtired, and then they will accuse them of being the cause. They will deny things they said, insist they told them something when they did not, and even have multiple conversations with the victim about the same incident and change the story each time, insisting when the victim correctly repeats the last conversation that the victim is the one that got it wrong. Perhaps they may set up or cancel doctor appointments without telling the victim, pay (or deliberately not pay) a bill when saying the opposite, promise things to other people on behalf of the victim, making the victim look bad for “not keeping their word.”
There are victims of abuse that never endure methods beyond the crippling damage of verbal and emotional abuse, but you should never, ever – and I mean NEVER – dare think they should feel lucky for their circumstances, because they have been sentenced to a life of emotional torture. And once they do leave, they have wounds invisible to the naked eye that will plague them for years to come in the form of destroyed self-esteem, lack of confidence, inability to trust, form, or maintain any relationships, depression, possible suicidal thoughts, insomnia, nightmares, and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), just to name a few. For those of us who find ourselves introduced to a new form/method of abuse, there is no way to see it coming. The fear has always burgeoned within our gut previous to this that it could happen, but it never made it out of the possible reality and into our daily lives. What occurs in this escalation solely depends on the abuser’s own pattern of abuse. In my case, the decimation of my emotional health was followed by a horrifically violent and unexpected physical attack as I finished getting ready for work one morning.
You’re thinking right now, “Oh if someone ever hit me, I’d leave the first time. I’d never allow that!” Bull. Here is what happened to me the first time, and although the attack mode varies with each of us, I have noticed the same basic similarity between this first event in our stories. As I finished putting on makeup (which I also wore the preceding two days I was off and at home with my ex), he came stomping into the bathroom and grunted at me. The basic exchange that followed was his accusing me of going to meet someone over lunch and calling me a whore. I know now what was to follow, but that day the thought was never in my head that he would actually cross that line and physically attack me. And I know now that even had I responded differently, there is no guarantee he wouldn’t have that day. No one will ever know for sure, but all that matters is that he used that day as his excuse to escalate the abuse into physical violence in a very decisive, brutal way. I wasn’t in the mood that day to have to tolerate his need to argument. I remember rolling my eyes and him and asking him if he was crazy before turning to walk past him out of the bathroom.
Without warning, he grabbed my arm, spun me around, and threw me against the bathroom wall. He pushed my body back against the wall, stomped on my feet and pushed his leg against both of mine pinning me to the wall. And then he wrapped his hands around my throat and strangled me even as I writhed under his weight trying to contort my neck and head any way I could in an attempt to get in the precious oxygen he was denying entry into my lungs. My chest tightened and violently heaved futile gasps as the muscles contracted and protested in response to the constriction around my neck. He continued to increase pressure until he realized that I had started going in and out of consciousness, and then he dropped his hands from my throat, and stood before me with his chest heaving and eyes opened wide and fixed on me in devilish anger. Before I knew it, his closed fist came at me landing squarely on my chest.
To the mind that has not experienced trauma, it seems logical that I would be scared and immediately try to flee to safety. Here’s the thing. You are not thinking like a victim of abuse who has just ambushed. You only suppose what you would do, because in your mind that has no threat short-circuiting your ability to reason, it just makes sense. You will not understand how at that moment that thought never entered my mind. You will not understand how that’s even possible, and I don’t really care. I was at the moment a victim of shock and awe who was successfully dragged into the next phase of my abuse, and I was incapable of responding with logic.
What happens after the first explosion of violence generally is that we go into shock. I wasn’t thinking, “Crap! He hurt me and I need run.” My thoughts were scrambled, I was stunned, and I was desperately trying to pull myself back to a reality that I was no longer sure was in fact reality. My thoughts followed this line:
“What just happened? Was that real? Who is this person?”
“I must have imagined that. There’s no way that just happened.”
“It couldn’t have. Impossible. That wouldn’t happen.”
“Who is this person?
“Oh God I’m going to be late for work.”
And even stranger to you still, perhaps, that to this day what I focus on most is not the pain, the discomfort, the foreign noises struggling from my throat as I fought desperately to breathe under the weight of monster and his crushing hands. I obsess over how the bathroom was so flooded with light and shudder as I try to figure out why his face that was just inches from mine was blacked out in shadows. I can’t understand it, and some days I try desperately to figure it out still before I have stop myself and remind my brain that those are the thoughts of a person in shock, a person who was so afraid and caught off-guard by the violence befalling her had a break from reality, because it was entirely too much to process.
There was no first date where he acted completely normal one moment then turned and punched me in the face the next. That is not reality. That would make it simple. Do you understand now?
There is no time to gather your thoughts and think about the gravity of what has just happened to you. Your mind short-circuits, tries to come back under control, and that moment, that horrific explosion of violence you just survived never gets processed. And many abusers will feign horror at what they’ve done, crying about how sorry they are and promising they would never do it again.
There’s also no “silence” in between, because while they aren’t physically attacking you, they continue wearing you down by using all different kinds of abuse that are specifically designed to cause psychological damage that allows them to keep you trapped in that hell.
Don’t you think if he beat the crap out of me the first time we went out that I would leave?
Don’t you think if that happened that way to all of us that we would leave before anything else happened?
There is a reason they use torture to break prisoners. Victims of abuse experience that every day behind closed doors, and not just a few hours or days or weeks. It carries on for months and years at a time, and there is no way we can respond to that kind of oppression, stress, and duress in our homes with logical thought patterns. We are thrown into a world where we spend every ounce of our physical and mental faculties just trying to survive.
But you’re trying to get in my face and tell me I could have left if I want to.