Many, many years ago I was on a panel at a psychology convention. We were discussing themes of abuse (the way abuse reveals itself in society).
I stated something that was so obvious to me (from research, from training, from experience) that I assumed it was both known and well recognized in that community: any rational individual who is the victim in an abusive relationship and decides to stay in that relationship is no longer a victim. Now they are a contributor to their own abuse, hence they are a willing participant in their own abuse and any rational person who willingly subjects themselves to abuse can’t be a victim.
They’re probably no longer rational in the classic psychological sense, and equally they are no longer a victim.
This is fairly obvious reasoning to me. I thought it would be obvious to everyone else.
I was escorted from the conference under guard. The negative response was that intense, that visceral. Things were thrown at me, I was shouted at, insulted and if people got close enough, I’m sure I would have been eviscerated. Nobody quoted Blaming the Victim at me and, to be honest, the intensity of the response indicated I’d probably revealed an uncomfortable truth rather than said something idiotic. We laugh at idiots, we punish truthsayers.
That was then. Now this concept is pretty well established in the therapeutic community: if you don’t leave the abusive relationship you’re no longer being “abused” in the traditional sense because you’re participating in the activity.
Echoes Dying in the Canyon
Recently that experience came back to me via a couple I know, Tom and Jenny. Tom left Jenny and his two children. Jenny was close to gathering them and had made plans to leave Tom because he was increasingly psychologically and emotionally abusive to her.
She was very close. To protect herself and her children. Very close.
And, she told me, in the middle of one particularly hellish bout where he was yelling, she was crying and the kids were screaming, he stopped.
Stopped, she said, as if he’d been shot. His face changed color, she said. His jaw was clenching and unclenching, his cheeks were so tight and white they looked like painting canvas. The muscles in his throat looked like they were strangling him. His eyes were swollen and so red she thought he might have had an aneurism or burst a vessel somewhere.
And he looked at her and through clenched teeth said, “Jenny, I am so sorry. I don’t know what I’m doing. I have to leave. I can’t do this to you or the kids anymore.”
He grabbed a jacket, walked outside, closed the door, got in his car and quietly drove away.
The sudden lack of yelling, crying, screaming and shrieking, she said, was more deafening than his raging at her.
But the echoes of his abuse remained.
A Voice in the Wilderness
Tom called her a few days later. He was in therapy. As part of his therapy, Jenny was asked to come in for one session so his counselor could explain things to her.
Warily, she agreed.
Tom, the therapist explained, had contacted him and described, quite calmly, what he’d been doing to Jenny and that he hated it. He didn’t know why he was doing it. He couldn’t seem to stop it.
The therapist said that Tom’s coming forward on his own was an incredible step. The therapist could not guarantee that Tom would change but Tom’s coming forward was a very strong indication that Tom, at his core, wanted to change.
Jenny, if she was willing to help Tom, would need to learn a few techniques for handling confrontational behavior.
She would need to learn to talk loudly, distinctly, clearly, confidently and affirmatively to Tom should he become abusive. Not yell back, more like yell with. Instead of “Why are you yelling at me?” more like “Think about what you’re really yelling about! What’s really going on here?”
She would need to be a voice of reason, a voice directing Tom to health when Tom needed to gather all his mind’s energy because he was becoming lost in some primitive emotional wilderness.
Patterns recognized can be interrupted
Slowly, things are getting better. Tom is still in therapy. His treatment of Jenny, it turned out, was learned.
From his father.
Who probably learned it from his father.
Taichi Sakaiya wrote “Any form of society that becomes fully established and passed down through generations has self-perpetuating cycles to reinforce the conditions it requires to exist.” in The Knowledge-Value Revolution and what is true of societies is true of families and groups. Lines of force, fields of energy pass from father to son, mother to daughter, across genders and generations.
There is no telling how far back this type of behavior goes. Therapists know that families display behavioral patterns generationally. A perfectly understandable behavioral pattern in one generation is passed to the next generation and is slightly exaggerated. That slight exaggeration is picked up in the succeeding generation and exaggerated even more.
The common examples of such things are irrational fears. Someone demonstrates an intense fear of spiders (for example) and, tracing back, we discover that their mother had to thoroughly clean any room where a spider was found and that their grandmother was always uncomfortable seeing a spider.
The behavior is a response to some trigger. Together and done often enough, a pattern forms. Good therapists help clients recognize and change the patterns.
But Patterns Here Need to Match with Patterns There
Patterns, especially behavioral patterns, need matching patterns to thrive, kind of like interlocking puzzle pieces. One piece in isolation tells you nothing about the puzzle but without it the complete picture isn’t revealed. Psycho-behavioral patterns are evolutionary in nature. Therapists are aware of this, too, and call it enabling. This brings us back to the individual who stays in an abusive relationship. That individual is enabling the abuser to be abusive by staying in the unhealthy relationship.
The person with the irrational fear of spiders will only retain that irrational fear if they are routinely around others who allow, encourage or enable that fear to be demonstrated by acting against the trigger (the poor spider in this case). If that irrational fear — that behavior — isn’t encouraged, nurtured, enabled, it will not flourish, what therapists call “fail to thrive”.
This requirement that behavioral patterns find enabling matching behaviors is also why, when one person seeks to stop some behavioral pattern, their partner is faced with a tough decision: Either they recognize their own behavioral pattern and change it as well or deal with the (often painful) change in the relationship.
In other words, if person A is the abused member of an abusive relationship and decides to leave that relationship, person B either has to find someone else who’ll participate in their own abuse or stop being abusive.
Wallace and Pat
Also long ago I met a couple, Wallace and Pat, who were “swingers”. One day Pat confided that the only reason she took part in swinging activities was because she believed it was the only way she could keep her marriage together. I could have told her that she couldn’t complain about her husband’s behavior nor could she voice disfavor. Instead I asked, “What is Wallace providing you that you believe you can’t find elsewhere?”
She thought long and hard. Finally she said, “Identity.” And behold, there was a memory of her father’s flirtations with other women in the neighborhood and her mother’s toleration of his behavior. Thirty years later Pat was with someone who enabled her to be the kind of woman her mother was but only more so, thus providing Pat with a familiar identity “perfected”.
The Devil You Know
Pat was comfortable with a known devil, specifically a devil that helped her recognize who she was in the world. Pat, if she left Wallace, would either have to consciously craft a new identity for herself or find a new Wallace who would help her perpetuate her old identity, one based on her mother’s behavior.
And the Devil You Don’t
Tom hated the devil he knew and is working to create a new identity for himself. He and Jenny say they’ve fallen in love with each other all over again. They also admit there’s still some moments when things are rough. Jenny’s recognizing some things in herself that need changing. They’re learning how to recognize devils and avoid them.
The kids, after some touch-and-go times, seem to be enjoying the ride.
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