Tag Archives: domestic abuse

After the abuse

One of the things that can be very tough for someone leaving an abusive situation, is the emotional aftermath. Where romantic partners and friends are concerned, the process of coming to terms with abuse can be very difficult. I think coming out of bullying in the workplace is easier because the odds are you didn’t have that much emotional investment to begin with. That makes it simpler to recognise the bullying and to put it behind you.

You love someone – be that romantically or in friendship. You love them, and trust them and invest in them. You assume that they love you. When they tell you they were only trying to help, or it was for your own good, you believe them. When they tell you it was a mistake or an accident, you believe them. We’re all human, we all mess up. You accept your friend, or your lover, and you accept their flaws and shortcomings. Victims of abuse are often persuaded by their abuser that nothing wrong has happened. It is the love the victim has for the abuser that makes such persuasion possible.

Then, at some point, something happens to make you question this. You catch them in a lie. You find you just can’t take any more of how they treat you, and you reconsider what their behaviour means. Or perhaps they turn on you, telling you they despised you all along. Perhaps they are the ones who leave, and they knock you down hard as they go. All of their previous behaviour is now reframed by something that makes it look like perhaps they never were your friend or ally. Perhaps they hated you all along. Perhaps you were a resource to use, an ego boost, a whipping post.

If you’ve never been there, you may think at this point, shocked and heartbroken, that it would be easy to walk away. It isn’t. What you end up with are two incompatible realities. In the old reality, this was your beloved, or your dear friend, someone you were open hearted with and trusted. In the new reality, this person thinks ill of you, may be a real danger to you. It is painful thinking so badly of someone you loved so you may try and resist that. You may hold onto the old love, and try to find excuses for what’s happening. You may want to fix things or try to change things. If they come back after this latest offence and make sorry noises and offer excuses, you may accept that and go another round with them.

This is part of why domestic abuse victims often find it so hard to leave their abusers. If you love someone and are in the habit of forgiving them, it’s a difficult turnaround to accept that you can’t afford to keep doing that. It is really hard to believe the worst of someone you love. It is often easier to carry on believing they are ok, even when they are manifestly mistreating you.

If you have other people in your life who truly care for you and support you, then you will be able to compare them to the abuser, and it will help you see what’s not acceptable. This is one of the reasons abusers will often try to isolate their victims. If you are alone, and the abuser is the only person you’ve got, you may cling to them because there’s nothing else. Letting go is very hard in that context, as is believing that anyone else could ever treat you well.

It takes time to change the story of your relationship with a person. It takes time to unpick what seemed like love or friendship, and accept that it wasn’t. It is a hard thing to swallow, when you suspect that you’ve opened your heart to someone who has abused your trust. It is natural to resist that interpretation and to want to think the best of people. It is a hard thing admitting that your friend or lover is full of shit, and has no love for you at all. During that unpicking time, you are likely to feel disorientated and vulnerable.

There are no easy answers in this sort of situation. I think the important thing to know is that there’s nothing weird about finding it difficult. In the aftermath of abuse and the lies that always go with it, figuring out what’s real takes time.

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Female violence against men

Whenever the subject of domestic violence comes up, there is always a man keen to get in there and make clear that domestic violence is also something women do to men. I find this difficult and problematic. First up, I know a number of men who have been victims of domestic violence. I know it exists. I suspect women generally know it exists, and if we didn’t – there are always men about ready to remind everyone.

All the evidence that is out there suggests that domestic abuse, and domestic violence have a massive gender imbalance in them. The victims are overwhelmingly female, and the perpetrators are overwhelmingly male. Yes, female violence exists, yes, domestic abuse can and does happen in gay and lesbian relationships too. But mostly, this is male on female violence, according to all the statistics I have ever seen.

But here’s the thing. Men who wish to speak up about male victims of domestic abuse often say that the problem is under reporting. Men don’t talk about it because they’re embarrassed. Maybe no one has ever researched this, I don’t know – if you do know of research, I’d like to hear it.

Under-reporting is not an exclusively male issue. Here’s why women don’t report domestic abuse reliably. They are afraid that if they speak up, they will be killed, or their children will be killed, or their family members or pets. Or that they, their children, pets etc will be violently or emotionally punished in response to them speaking out. Or that social services will take their children away. The threat of violence is a reoccurring feature in domestic abuse, even when violence is not yet present. Not a fear of social embarrassment – which, sure, is uncomfortable, but fear of potentially fatal consequences. Fear of what happens if you speak up, and the perpetrator does not go to prison, and knows where you live. Or lives with you. If their name is on the property in some way, you can’t legally change the locks. Where are you going to go to be safe? Many women don’t talk about what they’ve been through until after they have safely escaped. Trying to get out increases your risk of being killed.

When a man is killed in a domestic violence incident, it tends to make national news. Typically, two women die every week at the hands of a partner in the UK, figures from other countries seem to be about the same, or worse. It has to be especially gruesome or also involve children to make the news. It’s not really news after all, it’s commonplace. This is not about victims reporting or not reporting, this is about corpses. This is about how many bodies can be attributed to spousal violence.

So please, can we stop suggesting that hypothetical men being too embarrassed to report domestic violence is somehow comparable, and overlooked, and in need of more care and attention, than the routine murder of female abuse victims.


Wrecking other people’s stories

People like stories. We build our lives around the stories we have about who we are, where we come from and how the world works. If you are part of a shared, dysfunctional story, and you decide to step out of that story, there will be consequences and it is as well to be aware of them.

For people dealing with domestic abuse, the time of greatest danger is the time when you try to leave. Not just because you are physically trying to get out, but because you are putting the lie to the story about how right, virtuous and justified your abuser is.

People will fight and kill to protect their stories and their take on reality, even when those stories are clearly harming them. As the person breaking the story, you are perhaps more likely to be seen as the destructive oppressor, and not the rescuing angel you may imagine yourself to be. Those still in the story may simply recast you so that they can keep the story going. “You used to be such a nice little girl. I don’t know what went wrong.”

Sometimes, the only way out of a story is to break away from the people whose story it is. Sometimes, the only option is to play the role consciously and then escape into spaces where you can properly be yourself. Sometimes to do that, a safe house is required, a new identity, police protection. Sometimes you have to ask difficult questions about the price of your relationships, and the implications of leaving them. People can die as a consequence of misjudging this.

If you call out a story as a lie, even if you can evidence it, people may fight you. They may fire you, take you to court, lie about you, attack you on social media. They may deprive you of key resources. If you refuse to play your allotted role you may be harassed, ridiculed, threatened or abandoned. You have no control over how other people respond when you stop acting in line with their story.

But you have the right to live your own life, and you have the right to be safe. So, if you’re wrecking a story, plan your escape routes first – more or less literally as required. Do some risk assessment. Consider the consequences. Try to break the story as calmly as you can, with minimal drama. There is nothing like drama to keep a story moving, because even as you think you’re resisting it, you can find the energy of it being sucked in and used to reinforce the existing story. You were always a useless child. Now you’re upsetting everyone with this stupid idea that you can do something. It’s all your fault… These are the outcomes to avoid.

It’s natural to want justice, to want recognition. It’s reasonable to want the people who have miscast you to realise their mistakes. It’s also very likely that you won’t get that. If you choose to stay and fight, you may be pulled back into the old story. Sometimes, it is better to go quietly and start a new story of your own somewhere else.


Am I a terrible person?

Any sane person looks for external evidence about who they are and how their behaviour impacts on others. However, a person in a toxic environment may be dealing with a chorus of voices telling them they are awful. This might happen in a family context, in a school or workplace, or anywhere else one person with little power can be made scapegoat, or whipping post. For the person who is fundamentally kind and well meaning, this sort of feedback can cause immense distress and psychological difficulty. And if the harder you try, the more you fail, the more distressed you will become, and the more you may feel you have to stay and make up for your mistakes.

This is a common domestic abuse scenario. The innocent party in all of this may feel personally responsible and may come to believe that they are a terrible person who really must try harder to fix everything. It can be very difficult to find your way out of one of these. I honestly have no idea how anyone does it alone. My own experiences and the stories I’ve heard others share tend to suggest that friendship, and the people who refuse to buy into the scapegoat story are key to getting out of one of these roles.

Blaming and shaming isn’t just something that happens inside small, abusive groups. It happens on a much bigger scale with the blaming, shaming and gaslighting of the poor, the disabled, migrants, the mentally ill, the unemployed. We live in a time where those with most power routinely punch down, and blame those who suffer for that suffering. Collective resistance is the only possible answer to this.

If you’ve been cast as the villain in someone else’s story, how do you tell what’s going on? How do you tell if you’ve been obliviously awful? Have you been indulging a sense of privilege and do you now feel hurt for being called on it? Are you more upset about being called out than about the harm you may have caused? These are not easy things for a person to judge. Wounded pride and challenged privilege tend to get defensive at this point. People who mean well try to sort things out, make amends, and improve.

Here’s something it took me a long time to learn. If you’re the sort of person who listens, learns from mistakes, tries harder, says sorry and means it… then you will still fuck up now and then. But, you’ll sort it out mostly. You’ll move forward if you’re dealing with people who allow that. If you’re trying, truly trying and nothing you do is ever right, or good enough, then the odds are that you aren’t the problem here. If you can get it right with some people and not others, look hard at that. The odds are it’s because some people meet you half way, and some people don’t. If you’ve been cast as the villain, you will never be allowed to put things right and move on.

It look me years to establish that if someone was ok with me, it was not simply because they didn’t know me well enough yet to hate me. Sometimes, you have to collect a lot of evidence before you can demolish a role you’ve been cast in against your will. There are plenty of people out there keen to make others responsible for their own shortcomings. If you’re kind enough to internalise that, they will keep shitting on you, and telling you that the shit is your own.

Being a kind person doesn’t require you to keep on being kind when people are routinely shitting on you. It is perfectly reasonable to move away from people who can only criticise you, and for whom you are never good enough. Even when that’s family members. It is perfectly ok to give your time and life to the people who see you as a good thing. Trust them. They may not be labouring under any illusions at all.


Why do we need International Women’s Day?

I hear in my memory, the voice of a man I once knew, talking about why isn’t there a men’s day, and how women hold all the power anyway. He, and those like him, are exactly why we still need to raise issues and awareness.

There are plenty of Western women who believe that the equality issues are all sorted and feminism is just another bit of history. I’ve met them too. And there are guys who believe that what they do in the privacy of their own bedrooms and marriages shouldn’t be anyone else’s business. Including the belief that the police should not be investigating them.

We need International Women’s Day because internationally, definitions of rape are too often shoddy and sometimes non-existent. Worse still there are countries where the female victim of this crime can be punished for sex outside marriage. I’ve heard men speaking on the radio about how if girls dress in provocative ways, of course they are going to get raped. As though to be a man is to have no self control. That’s an insult to men. The guys who think that lack of self control is a justification for rape and violence need telling that no, they are not proper men. Real guys can keep it in their pants when they need to. We have a long way to go on that score.

We need International Women’s Day for the many, many victims across the world who suffer domestic abuse. Not just the ones who are bruised and bloodied, but the ones whose self esteem is taken from them, who are used as slaves, drudges and sex objects. Those who die at the hands of men also need to be spoken of. There are still too many people of both genders who think its fine for women to be subservient to men. We need today for the trafficked girls who are kidnapped and sold, and who, if rescued will be stigmatized by their communities for what happened to them. We need it for the girls from impoverished families who don’t get an education and are sold into marriage before they even hit puberty. For the girls in their early teens who still die in childbirth every year. For the victims of forced marriage everywhere.

We need it here in the UK too, where your typical woman still earns 20% less than your typical man and a working mother can still expect to do most of the housework and childcare. Here in the enlightened west where a rape victim in a court room can still expect to be asked what she was wearing when the assault took place, as though that made a difference.

We also need to celebrate the women who have been persistently written out of the history books. We have a tendency to focus history on male politicians, ignoring the roles of women, their work and actions. It creates an impression that all women do is stand round as ornaments and squeeze out babies, and this has NEVER been the whole story. Have a look some time at the role of women in dissent and radicalism in UK history – they take some finding because most books don’t include them. You’ll need a specialist, feminist text for that, but thankfully they exist.

We are a good half of the population. We have as much intelligence, skill and potential as those who landed in this world blessed with a willy, on the whole. Sometimes more, sometimes less, but on the whole, we are more alike than different. But there are still places around the world where to be a woman is to be a second class citizen at best. And there are still people who can’t hear ‘no’ in every country. Until rape is consigned to the past, until trafficking has gone forever, until there is no man on the face of this planet who is able to imagine that he has the right to own and control women, we need today.

While we’re here, it’s a good time to also appreciate the good guys, the heroes, fathers, co-workers, equals, companions, friends… the ones for whom respect is natural and a given. The ones who listen, care and respect themselves enough to do the right things for the right reasons.


Taking no prisoners

I read a letter recently in which it said something like “drivers cite congestion frustration around the school as the major cause of their speeding through the village.” That people feel comfortable saying this astounds me, but its part of a much wider culture and one I feel very strongly about.

We may not have much control over our emotional reactions to things, but we do, all of us, choose how we behave as a response. The idea that something, or someone else is ‘making’ you behave in a dangerous, violent, cruel or antisocial way is ridiculous. No one is holding a gun to these people’s heads to make them go faster. As they aren’t emergency services, the few minutes of differences made to journey length is largely irrelevant. We do what we want to do in these situations, and then we deny responsibility. If a child is knocked down and killed as a consequence, will the driver still blame the frustration of congestion and imagine they aren’t responsible? Maybe some people would.

We get cross. The heat of angry emotion rushes through us, so we shout. We are entitled to shout, because we’re being made angry by someone else. And then the anger means we want to take the offending person and shake them. We are so angry we hit, we push, they fall. It’s not our fault, they made us do it, they made us angry.

Now let’s take a step back. What did the person do to make us so angry we were violent? Maybe they insulted us. Said we were stupid, or wrong, or that we’d let them down. Told us they weren’t happy, or that we’d hurt their feelings, or we’d frightened them, that we weren’t perfect. Not had the dinner cooked on time. Not ironed the shirt perfectly. They made us angry. They made us do it. You said ‘no’ and I wanted to hear ‘yes’ and now you have made me angry, and when I beat you until your bones break, that will be all your fault.

See how it works?

Every day, anger leads to violence in someone’s life and violence leads to serious damage, or to death. More often than not we aren’t talking about big, heroic reasons for getting angry either. We aren’t talking about thumping the guy who raped your daughter, or beating off a mugger, or anything justifiable. No, we’re talking the kind of people who, being slowed down by the traffic around a school think that breaking the speed limit, in an area known to have children, dog walkers, joggers, cyclists, horses and tight corners, is just fine. Ordinary people. Normal people.

Once we’ve established that “you make me angry and therefore my reaction is not my fault” is a viable idea, we can escalate. I shout at you. Tomorrow I shove you. Next week I’m going to slap you in the face and in a month’s time I will push you down a flight of stairs, and then I’m going to get so angry that I kill your dog, just to show you that making me angry is a bad thing. And even then, I still feel like I have the moral high ground. It’s not my fault. You made me do it.

“You” might be a five year old child. You might be a pregnant nineteen year old or a brittle boned granny of eighty. It doesn’t matter, apparently. Your power in causing anger, is too great, and you therefore deserve to be punished. You were asking for it.

In case you aren’t squirming with discomfort already, I’d like to mention a news story this week, the jailing of a man from Cornwall who gouged his girlfriend’s eyes out. She has young children. No one was talking about why he did it, and that’s brilliant, because all the reasons, the justifications are imaginary. He did it because he was a sick and evil bastard. But I’d be prepared to bet you that in his head, in the moments when he reached for her to do that, he was telling himself it was fine. Justified. He was angry. She made him do it.

Evil starts small. We don’t wake up one morning and decide, spontaneously to torture, murder or otherwise destroy another human being. We go slowly, building our confidence and our justifications. Most importantly, we hear or see things we don’t like, we allow ourselves to feel angry about them, like a spoiled child who isn’t getting their own way and then we IMAGINE that feeling this way entitles us to retaliate. Or speed through the village. Or take it out on the next person.

“It/he/she made me angry, made me do it” should never, ever be accepted as an excuse for appalling behaviour. It’s bad enough in small children, utterly unacceptable in adults.


Rioting, prisons and justice

In the aftermath of the UK riots, we’re hearing that about three quarters of the arrested rioters and looters have already been in trouble with the police before. At the moment, the solution of preference is to slap longer sentences on people. But, if these are people who have already been through the prison system, there’s little reason to think another stint inside will change their ways.

A lot comes down to how you understand justice, and what you believe prison is for. If prison exists as punishment only, then it has some function as a deterrent. All the evidence makes clear that deterrents, even extreme ones like the death penalty, flogging, cutting off body parts, do not cause crime to cease. We’ve been locking people up for a long time now, and they still go out and re-offend.

I think to understand why punishment isn’t effective as a deterrent you have to consider why people commit crimes in the first place. On one hand we may have crimes of desperation – theft and violence occurring because people feel (rightly or wrongly) that there are no other alternatives. This feeling of no alternatives will not be challenged by additional risk of punishment. Alternatively, there is an idea I first encountered through Brendan Myers talking about attitudes amongst native Canadians. Crime can be perceived as a breakdown of relationship. Thus the criminal may feel that there are entitled to use and abuse – a might is right attitude for example would lead to this. They may consider themselves superior to others so that they imagine the normal rules are not, or should not be applied to them. They may consider their victims to be inferior, inhuman, irrelevant such that the crime against them does not matter or is justified. This would be true of all hate crime. All of these reasons go with a mindset that will not expect to be caught, and if caught, will not expect to be seriously punished, and if punished, will not necessarily give up the beliefs that underpin the criminal behaviour.

If people commit crime through desperation, social isolation, hopelessness, anger or poverty, punishment won’t fix that. If people do it because they have no respect for anything, locking them up will just reinforce their ideas. And on the other side, putting someone in prison gives nothing back to the victims, there is no redressing of wrongs.

I’m a big believer in getting offenders who have committed smaller offences to do community work that will help them re-engage. This is part of my Druidry, in which justice is a very important idea. Not just any old job that occurs to the powers that be either, but something that will affect them. Cleaning up their own mess, repairing the damage they have caused where possible. I’m also hugely in favour, where appropriate, of sitting offenders down with  their victims and making them face those people as people. That can be tremendously healing for the victim as well.

There are people who are so sick and antisocial in their behaviour that, for everyone else’s safety, they need taking off the streets. Locking them up for a few months or years and then sending them back out won’t fix anything longer term. Prison has to be about re-education. Many prisoners have already fallen through the cracks and have major literacy and maths issues (I know, I have friends who teach in prisons). Many have mental health issues, drug addictions and other problems that need fixing if they are to escape from crime. There is also the issue of violence as learned behaviour. In Strathclyde, I gather, police are tackling violent crime as though it was a contagious disease, taking the stance that people who are normalised to it are more likely to perpetrate it. This makes a lot of sense to me. It means not only tackling gang violence on the streets, but looking at where our young humans learn that bullying pays, violence is fine and he who shouts the loudest and punches the hardest gets to rule the roost. And where do they learn this? At home, all too often.

Domestic abuse is widespread. Children who grow up exposed to not just violence, but disrespect, verbal abuse, emotional, and psychological abuse learn to abuse, and to accept certain kinds of behaviours as normal in their peers and future partners as well. I’m not saying ‘blame the parents’ here either, because abusers do not exist in a vacuum, they exist in the context of cultures and histories, attitudes to women, belief about might and right, and the pernicious belief that if you can claim provocation, violence is ok.

If we want justice, and if we want to tackle criminal behaviour, then locking up offenders is not going to get us either. It is not a solution, just a reaction. It doesn’t prevent crime. If we want to not have rioting and looting, if we want to not have violent gang cultures, then we need to start by looking at the context in which these things happen. I feel very strongly that we need to start paying serious attention to both the direct, and the knock on effects of domestic abuse. Violence begins in the home, all too frequently. If we want to deal with it, we have to figure out how to tackle it there as well.


Non abusive relationship

A few weeks ago, someone I know raised the question, is it possible to have a non-abusive relationship, or are we all on a spectrum of abuse? I’ve done a lot of thinking since then, and here’s where I’ve got to.

The basis of abusive relationship – be the abuse ever so mild – is a lack of care and respect. We’re in it for what we can get. We wheedle, cajole, manipulate and otherwise compromise the other person into letting us have our own way. We get out of the housework, the gardening, we don’t do our share of caring for the child. We make unreasonable sexual demands, or we make sex conditional on something else we want. When we don’t get our own way we strop, sulk, break things, make our displeasure known so the other one will think twice about doing that to us again. When we don’t get our own way, we feel terribly sorry for ourselves and we make sure other people know about it, and suffer.

Are we all doing that, to some degree?

One of the questions this raised, for me, is around how we express need and distress. I think for a healthy relationship it has to be possible to say ‘this is not ok’ ‘I cannot do this.’ ‘I am unhappy about what you have done.’ I’ve considerable experience of that kind of expression being treated as emotional blackmail, and abuse. Am I an abuser? I feared so for years, and did everything I could to ask for less, take issue with less, accept whatever came my way, and cause as little distress as possible. This was not actually doing me any good.

There is a difference between saying you are hurt, or troubled by something, and emotional blackmail. Partly it’s to do with intent, partly with honesty. Abuse involves making people do things they do not want to do, while you remain in control of the situation. Control is critical. When you raise a problem, you blame the other person, it is their fault. Raising a problem in a non-abusive way, you may simply say ‘this does not work for me, please can we do something different.’ No blame, just recognising a thing that does not work and needs changing. The differences are huge in terms of impact.

Let’s imagine a scenario in which your partner hurts you. It appears to be accidental. You say ‘Actually, that hurts, can you please not do it again.’ This is a fair request. The response should be ‘sorry, and what exactly did I get wrong there’. And then them not repeating the thing that hurt. If the response is ‘well it shouldn’t hurt’  or ‘you are upsetting me by making a fuss’ this is abuse. This is making it harder to flag up problems.

Let’s imagine a similar scenario, in which you are, or claim to be hurt. “Why did you do that to me? You did that on purpose. That was horrible.” Now, if it wasn’t deliberate, the other person is on the back foot, defensive and in the wrong. Not a good relationship scenario.

If you are too tired to do a job, or don’t fancy doing it, and you just acknowledge that, and do it another time, that’s fine. If you do it anyway, fair enough. If you refuse to do it, and complain until another, equally tired person does it instead, that’s not playing fair. If you always assume that how you feel and what you want is simply more important than how things are for anyone else, you are going to act in abusive and damaging ways. If you think you are entitled to use, take, and manipulate, because you are clever than them, or better than them, or more deserving, you are going to abuse.

Good relationship starts from mutual respect, from seeing the other as equal in value, and treating them accordingly. Good relationship is honest. It doesn’t try to get round people, or persuade them, it doesn’t involve getting your own way. In a good relationship, the idea of winning or point scoring is a nonsense. What you’re after is the good of both, the wellbeing of both. Yes, you can have non-abusive relationship. I’ve got one. They take work, diligence, determination and paying attention, but they are also works of joy and beauty.