Let's Talk About How We Talk About Abuse

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 12.06% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

A friend posted this amazing link on Twitter from this TED talk. In case you’re too lazy to click through to some animated GIFs, I’ll summarize:
“I did not know the first stage in any domestic violence relationship is to seduce and charm the woman.
“I also did not know the second step is to isolate the victim.
“The next step in the domestic violence pattern is to introduce the threat of violence and see how she reacts.
“We victims know something you non-victims usually don’t. It’s incredibly dangerous to leave an abuser, because the final step of the domestic violence pattern is ‘kill her.’ Over 70% of domestic violence murders happen after the victim has ended the relationship.”
All true, in my experience. And worth knowing. If you didn’t know this fact, then make sure to absorb that, because it’s not quite as simple as leaving someone who’s going to feel very betrayed when you leave.
Yet what struck me about this talk beyond the obvious horror – “Hey, I think of you as such an object that I’d rather kill you than see you live without me” – is how she’s talking about the domestic violence pattern.
She’s talking about it like it’s a stratagem one uses. Like the way Pick-Up Artists do, with classes they can take. They decide “Hey, I really need a woman I can beat the shit out of,” and they read some books online – “How to Find People With Bad Instincts” – and then they enact their four-step program very carefully.
Some do set out to be abusive explicitly, of course. I’ve heard too many stories to deny that. But with the abusers I’ve known personally, they don’t have a plan per se – they’re too emotionally incoherent to have a plan for anything. They’re asocial louts who get enraged that the world is not attending to their desires, and they don’t have many friends who aren’t total sycophants because they creep normal people out sooner or later, and when they find a victim they’re isolating them because they’re terrified of any competition. (And often such a sad-sack case that the victim stays once that vulnerability is revealed: “He needs me.”)
Now, keep in mind, that’s not all abusers: there are “successful” folks who have good-paying jobs and many friends and still abuse the shit out of their partners. (Nor are all abusers invariably men: the same issue applies to abusive women, of which there are probably a lot more than you hear about because of the toxic masculinity that scorns a guy who’d “let” his wife beat him.) Abusers come in all shapes and sizes.
Yet the problem I have with the “abuse == intent” model is that it implies to people who do get involved with this “reclusive loser” style of abuser that “If s/he doesn’t mean to do it, s/he’s not really an abuser.”
And the problem with that model is then victims often stay because they’re convinced their abuser doesn’t intend to be an abuser. They just lose control sometimes. They drink a bit much. They had a bad childhood.
They mean well. God, every abuser I’ve ever heard talked about meant so fucking well.
So I think it’s worth noting that lots of people stumble dimly into the patterns of abuse – maybe acting on instinct horrifically gifted to them by abusive parents, maybe because domestic violence breeds in isolation. But not everyone had a plan to be an abuser, going in, and every day people who mean very well (I’m told) are rediscovering a pattern as old as time: isolate, hurt, kill.
They may not know where they’re headed.
But you should.

1 Comment

  1. Ellixis
    Jul 10, 2015

    For years after I left my abuser, I couldn’t shake a sense of quiet guilt about it. Had he known what he was doing to me? Maybe he hadn’t ever meant to, I thought. And it took me a long time to realize that that didn’t matter.
    It took years for me to come to the thought that if he didn’t mean to do it, or if he didn’t notice what he was doing, he was still hurting me deeply — and if he really cared about me and my well-being, as one’s partner should, he would have seen how much I was hurting, and it would have mattered to him. Either he missed my pain, or he didn’t care. And either of those options makes an unhealthy and dangerous relationship.

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