This manual is about attorneys working with clients who have experienced domestic violence, and it has a lot of good advice, but might not be particularly relevant outside the area of law. Probably all attorneys should read it, though, because you probably encounter abusers or domestic violence survivors in your work. I worked at a clinic that represented survivors of domestic violence in getting restraining orders against their abusers. It was a great experience. I think women who leave abusers are real-life super heroes, and I am just in awe of them. People ask why women stay with abusers, and I think that is such a weird question. To me, a better question is, how anyone would have the self-possession and humility that it takes to leave her whole life behind, reconcile herself to friends and family who will hate her for disrupting their world, and start an entirely new life? That is truly remarkable to me, and there are millions of women everywhere, who we see at the grocery store, the mall, living under bridges and running giant corporations, who have that super-hero combination.
I’m going to talk a little bit about domestic violence, and a lot of what I’m going to say comes from this manual, but some of it just comes from my own thoughts about seeing tons of women be abused all throughout my life and seeing a small handful of super heroes stand up for themselves. I’m going to break my thoughts up into sections just because of the sheer impossibility of talking about this subject with any kind of brevity. The sections are entitled as follows: Leaving an Abuser, Being an Abuser, Gender and Abuse, the Law, Getting Help, and Helping. Choose your poison.
Leaving an Abuser
I get why women stay with abusers. I get why women stop talking, stop working, stop feeling and fighting and crying, and disappear. It is presumptuous of me to say that I understand those things because, really, I probably don’t understand them in the way I can never understand someone else’s experiences and heart, but what I’m trying to say is that it makes sense to me. It is logical. When women stay with abusers it is not because we are deficient or stupid or, the coward’s lie, because we want to be abused. We stay with abusers because we are smart and survivalists and often that is all that is left for us. It is not easy to get blamed for the way standing up for ourselves disrupts everyone else’s lives and expectations of the world, and that is what most survivors face if they try to leave.
Even with small arguments, many of us have told women, “I agree with you, but maybe you should just apologize to him anyway, or maybe you should just not tell him he’s wrong, because, you know, he’s sensitive and you made him mad.” How much more likely are we to question a woman when standing up for herself means saying that a son, or brother, or friend we love is such a coward that he needs to abuse the people he says he loves? Unfortunately, it is easy to react to women leaving abusers out of our own conflict averseness, rather than trusting that sometimes conflict leads to something better, or at least more brave and honest, than the status quo – rather than trusting the woman. It is easy to talk about a woman standing up to a faceless stranger, but that is never who she is standing up to. I think it takes someone specially strong to leave because she is not just leaving one person, but friends and family who are very unlikely to thank her for the conflict she’s “causing.”
The other thing I do think, though, is that most women do have a super hero in them and the ability to leave. It is a terrible thing to have to do, but not impossible.
Being an Abuser
I think I get abusers, too. They’re fucking crazy douchebag cowards. What’s not to get? And I'm sorry to talk about you or your sons and brothers and fathers and friends that way, but I think abuse is by definition crazy, douchey, and cowardly. But, I can see how you'd be generally a good person and be that at the same time. I get that you grow up being abused, abuse becomes normal, and then you’re too cowardly to change the cycle, so you justify treating the people around you like shit. Or, worse, you grow up with a narcissistic sense of entitlement and you think that gives you the right to treat people, usually women, like your slaves. People do not abuse because
they drink or do drugs. They might use drugs and alcohol as an excuse to abuse, but that is not why they do it. No one acts the opposite of how they feel when they are drunk. They might act weird or silly, or exaggerate their normal characteristics, but they do not do the opposite. And if all someone needs is to be slightly less inhibited in order to start hitting other people, that person needs some serious help – and not help that comes in the form of the people around him being super apologetic and understanding.
Shameless plug: Caris’s book, The Egg Said Nothing is a completely brilliant look at the psychology of being an abuser. I love it.
Gender and Abuse
According to this manual (based on statistics from 2000), 1.3 million women and 834,000 men are physically assaulted, and 25% of women and 7.6% of men are raped, by a domestic partner in their lifetimes. While those statistics are slightly outdated, statistics consistently show that women experience abuse far more frequently than men, are less likely to report it, and have far more difficulty getting out from under abuse. That is not to say abuse is worse when perpetrated by men. Abuse is an ugly wart on the face of an abuser no matter what gender that abuser comes in. Often, it is difficult to provide services to male survivors of domestic violence because victims’ services offices so frequently see men coming in to complain about how a woman’s face hurt their knuckles. But, providing services to men is very important, too, and no one deserves abuse.
Even though it feels like there is shame, as a female or male survivor of domestic violence, in reporting abuse, there really is not, no matter what people say to you. There is shame in being an abuser, but that shame does not transfer to the abused. And, it is usually true that someone who has been abused has made mistakes, or even been mean, in a relationship. It is usually true because most of us have done those things. But, that does not mean that you are in the wrong or deserve to be abused. No one deserves that. You could be wrong most of the time and mean most of the time, but you do not deserve to be abused.
One of the biggest reasons, to my understanding, that women stay with abusers is that we don’t realize that what we’re experiencing is actually abuse and that the law, even, sluggish and nostalgic as it is, recognizes what we’re experiencing as abuse. Countries have different definitions of abuse, and within the United States, the states have different definitions of abuse, so check your state laws on this. I’m going to give you a couple of examples of circumstances that are usually abuse, though.Physical Injury
Obviously, if your partner hits you or hurts you physically, if he wasn’t acting in self-defense, that is abuse. Self-defense is, for example, if you swing to hit him and he holds your arm to prevent you from hitting him. Self defense is not
if you do something he doesn’t like and he hurts you to teach you a lesson. That is abuse.Coercion
If your partner forces you to do something that you don’t want to do by threatening to hurt himself or another person or you, that is abuse. I have known a lot of women in relationships like this, where a partner will threaten to hurt or kill himself (or herself) if the woman leaves, or hangs out with friends, or gets a job, or what have you. The thing is that if someone is going to kill himself because you are trying to live a happy life, he’s probably going to kill himself anyway. The other thing is, he’s not going to do it. Of the people I know who have threatened this, both men and women, exactly zero have done it when they’ve actually found themselves alone. Exactly all of them, instead, have gotten on the internet and found someone else to abuse. Don’t worry, the new victims can figure out how to leave, too.
If your partner forces you to do something you don’t want to do by breaking your things, hurting pets, or withholding money or food or shelter, that is abuse. You are probably getting the point that people don’t get to control you or hurt you, and you don’t get to control them or hurt them. And usually, the law protects people from that. If you feel like you might be experiencing abuse and you don’t have someone you trust to talk to about it, you can google “domestic violence shelter” or “domestic violence hotline” in your city, and you can call them. If the people you talk to don’t believe you, or they try to control you themselves by making you do something you don’t want to do, including leave your abuser, you can tell them no. Most likely, they will just listen, though, and let you decide.
If you live in the U.S., and you think you are going to abuse someone in your household, please call 911 instead. They will help you avoid abusing people. Another option if you think you are going to abuse someone is to visit the website www.thehotline.org, or call 1−800−799−SAFE(7233) or TTY 1−800−787−3224. If you have survived abuse and you are ready to not be abused anymore, those are also good resources for you, though your local hotline and women’s shelter might be able to provide more immediate services.
If you experience abuse and you don’t feel like you can leave because you don’t have money, there are people who can help you with that. If you don’t feel like you can leave because it is too hard to abandon your old life and start a new one, that makes a lot of sense to me. But, it is probably still worth it. If you don’t feel like you can start a new life because you don’t think you are strong enough, I can practically guaranty that you are wrong. Life is a struggle, and it is always a fight to look for happiness, but it is worth it. Standing up for yourself doesn’t mean yelling or hitting or breaking things or controlling other people, but it can mean starting a new life.
Actually, I’m sure all of us know a lot of people who are in violent relationships. And there are a lot of things that everyone can do to help them.
If you are worried about a friend who is in a violent relationship, be a good listener and don’t say judgmental things about people who stay with abusers. Don’t reprimand women who stand up for themselves about small things because it perpetuates the idea that women should not stand up for themselves about big things. Don’t reinforce the idea that a survivor is weak for staying because it is probably factually and observably wrong. And when women believe the lie that they are too weak to leave, that helps nothing.
If you see people being abusive, it is okay to respectfully tell them they are wrong. I do think that abusers are typically weak people, but that doesn’t justify the abuse, and the pity you feel for them does not make their actions okay. Abusers are adults, too, and regardless of the mental illness or history of abuse that might have led to them abusing, they deserve the respect of honesty. They deserve the respect of other people telling them they are wrong when that is true.
If you have excess energy from worrying about a friend, use it by volunteering at a women’s shelter. Those places are so amazing.
And, if you are a woman, stand up for yourself if you feel disrespected. If you are a man, I am making the sexist judgment that you are already standing up for yourself on a regular basis, but if you are not, you should too. People are usually not so fragile that we can’t handle respectful disagreement, and if we are, then we will get used to it.
So, this is so long, and about a book that probably five people have heard of, and I fully expect no one to read this review. But, that is fine. I also realize that it might be entirely unhelpful to post this information here because if you are in a seriously abusive relationship and the words "protective order" show up in your browsing history, no good will come of that. So, don't forget to erase your browsing history if you need to do that.
I guess I am acknowledging that I am mostly writing this selfishly. It was pretty emotionally exhausting to work in this clinic with women who have been told for so long that it is not okay to disagree with men that they need constant affirmation that, to the contrary, it is absolutely right for them to stand up for themselves. I do not blame them for feeling like that at all - I feel like that for sure - but, it is nice to rant for a little while. Abuse is bullshit, imo, regardless of whether it comes in a physical, emotional, spiritual, economic, or other form. I hate it. I don’t think people should whisper about it as though it is a shame for the survivor. And if the abuser is too fragile to handle confrontation, that is just too fucking sad. He’ll have to find a way to grow a pair.