This post was originally published as “What Do You Want out of a Relationship? An Alternate Method to Reaching Abuse Victims” on January 25th, 2020.
CN: extensive discussion of the experience of being in an abusive relationship, discussion of physical abuse and the painful process of recovery after abuse, brief discussion of Dissociative Identity Disorder, mention of sexual abuse.
Being able to recognize that you are being abused, while the abuse is still happening, is mind-bogglingly difficult. I say mind-boggling because even though dozens of people trying to tell me that my relationship was abusive was completely ineffective for me, it’s still my first instinct when someone’s partner exhibits abusive behaviors to just try to tell them that. I know that this extremely straightforward tactic doesn’t work, but what other choice do I have?
During a long stretch of my abusive relationship, my ex did his best to only show his good side to my roommates while abusing me in private. But they saw too much of what happened when my ex wasn’t there: the demanding text messages in the middle of the night, the elaborate meals I’d cook to “make it up to him” when he said I messed up, the way I’d put myself down based on things he had told me. They knew something was wrong.
One of my roommates tried to talk to me:
“It looks like he’s abusing you.”
“No, he isn’t abusing me. He treats me well. Really! He does!”
“….That’s what someone who was being abused would say.”
At the time I felt frustrated because it seemed like there was no way I could convince her that he wasn’t abusive, but actually, our exchange perfectly encapsulates the paradox of trying to convince someone to leave an abusive partner.
The problem with naming abuse in order to convince someone to leave is that they have to agree with you that those behaviors are inappropriate, unreasonable and/or harmful. Most of the time, the victim doesn’t think they are inappropriate, unreasonable, or harmful, otherwise, they wouldn’t be putting up with them. Since our culture doesn’t really give us a clear definition of abuse, labeling something abuse comes down to a judgment call.
It’s very easy to say, “Their judgment is wrong. They just don’t understand my relationship,” and therefore dismiss any concern about abuse. But we don’t want to just sit back and do nothing when we see our friends being mistreated! What do we do instead?
Abuse or Not Abuse?
A few months ago, I stumbled on an online conversation with a woman whose partner had been neglecting her for a long time. The situation was so dire and showed so little evidence of resolution that many people joined the discussion to offer the opinion that her relationship was abusive. She responded the way most people do in these discussions: by defending her partner, saying we didn’t understand, that he wasn’t like that, etc. By the end of the thread, she didn’t seem terribly convinced and the others in the discussion were very concerned.
The conversation struck me, though, because it was unclear from the information we had how much the neglect she was suffering was the result of strategic decisions her partner made in order to manipulate her, and how much was the result of truly dire life circumstances that were not in her partner’s control at all and her presence in his life was just badly timed. If her partner was neglecting her out of desperation of navigating his own life, not to intentionally hurt her or use her, was it still abuse?
But this line of questioning actually points out an important flaw in our go-to strategy for reaching abuse victims. By dividing behaviors into two categories, abusive and not abusive, and aligning those two categories with the decision of whether or not to stay in a relationship that’s hurting you, it actually makes it much harder to clearly identify abuse and it makes it much easier for a victim who’s not yet ready to accept the label of abuse, to dismiss external observations about their relationship.
Discovering a New Strategy
During this same online conversation, someone offered an unexpected resource: a book called “Too Good to Leave, Too Bad to Stay,” by Mira Kirshenbaum. The book was offered as a way to help a person navigate the question of whether their relationship was abusive or not on their own.
You can read the book as an ebook for free online. The formatting of the ebook is somewhat hard to read. I recommend narrowing the size of your browser window to the typical width of a book page.
Soon after hearing about the book, I dove into it. I was surprised to find that the book said very little about abuse, and yet is probably one of the best possible tools for someone who is being unknowingly abused that I have found to date.
The premise of the book is that in her 30 years of experience working with couples in therapy and additional research, Kirshenbaum developed a set of guidelines to determine whether you’d be happier if you stayed in your relationship, or if you left. She described the all too common feeling of uncertainty around the future of your relationship like so:
“If you’re in a relationship that seems both too good to leave and too bad to stay in, every time something happens that clearly points to staying or leaving, you probably find yourself saying, “No, it can’t be that simple. There’s so much more for me to think about.” Then a dozen memories and feelings creep in and you say, “I’d better not make a decision until I see what’s best for everyone.”….But thinking about leaving hasn’t helped either. It’s not that you don’t know how to go about it, at least in general. It’s just that you aren’t sure you’ll be better off leaving. Even when you’re fed up with the person you’re with, it’s still not clear that leaving will be better than your entire current life with that person.”
Kirshenbaum’s guidelines are meant to switch your focus away from what she calls, “the Balance-Scale Approach,” in which you are constantly trying to measure qualitative aspects of your life in a quantitative way in an attempt to find an answer. Instead, she asks a series of deep and searching yes or no questions which are meant to give you clarity about your relationship in a way you probably haven’t seen before.
How This Book Could Help Abuse Victims
The reason this book is such a perfect resource for people who aren’t sure yet if what they are experiencing is abuse is exactly that the book doesn’t discuss relationship issues in terms of abuse. Every guideline in the book is framed as behavior that normal everyday people sometimes embody, even though many of the behaviors mentioned align clearly with abuse. This framing is so clever because it allows those behaviors to be discussed without judgment or hard labels, and instead, it focuses on whether those behaviors will make the person happy or unhappy long term, and how that should influence their decision to stay or leave.
Here are my paraphrases of some of the guiding questions Kirshenbaum provides that might be most helpful to ask an abuse victim who isn’t ready to acknowledge the abuse:
- Look back on the best parts of your relationship, the good times. What made them good? Were they genuinely good through and through or has there always been conflict to some degree?
- When there is something that you want, how difficult is it to get it from your partner, even when it’s something small? Does it ever feel like getting your needs met isn’t worth the effort or the potential fallout of asking?
- With your current balance of relationship give and take, would you be content to give the amount you’re currently giving to your partner, indefinitely, without ever being paid back?
These are just a few of the questions Kirshenbaum explores in greater depth, but there are over 30 “diagnostic questions” included in the book, which Kirshenbaum recommends you answer in order. If your answer suggests you’d be happier leaving the relationship in the earliest, more fundamental questions, then there’s no point in answering the later ones. Kirshenbaum’s strategy provides a surprisingly high level of clarity in what can be a very muddy process.
Of course, the book does not address the logistical and financial angles of leaving an abusive relationship, which on their own, can prevent a victim from leaving even if they know they want to. The book instead addresses the problem that even if someone is starting to recognize that their relationship has toxic elements to it, they still have to make the decision that leaving is what they want. And making that decision is incredibly hard to do.
Addressing Physical Abuse
Kirshenbaum does have one hard boundary regarding abuse that she names explicitly: if a partner has physically harmed you on more than one occasion, then statistically speaking, the overwhelming majority of the time, you’ll be happier if you leave, and you should as soon as it is safe to do so. One single instance of physical aggression is absolutely enough to merit leaving a relationship. If that’s your boundary, enforce it, no hesitation, no apology needed. And also, Kirshenbaum explains that heat-of-the-moment mistakes do happen even for non-abusive people and they do not always predict an overarching pattern of physical aggression. She says that if your partner has engaged in this kind of aggression on only one occasion, it’s possible that they will never do it again. That doesn’t mean you should stay to find out, only that statistically, one act of physical aggression does not definitely mean that it will repeat itself. But if they’ve done it a second time, then it will not be the last time.
Kirshenbaum says that according to research, there’s really only one circumstance where a partner who’s engaged in physical aggression more than once might actually stop, and even then it’s not a guarantee:
“Tell him he’s got to find a program for abusive partners within the next two weeks. He’s got to begin participating in it within the next four weeks. He’s got to maintain active consistent participation for a full year, going to at least one meeting a week. If he’s not willing to agree to this and keep to it, tell him that means to you that he’s not serious about eliminating all threats to your physical safety, and that means your relationship is over. If he leaves the program before a year is up or if he ever hurts you or threatens to hurt you again, that means your relationship is over.
If you’re afraid to even issue this ultimatum, that by itself means that your relationship is over and you must do whatever’s necessary to contact women’s shelters or spousal abuse resource centers to figure out how to leave your relationship both quickly and safely.”
The reason this one direct reference to abuse still works as a guideline is that it is so clearly defined and the actions recommended for how to respond are simple and require very little subjective analysis; no value judgment, just statistical facts.
Ask, “What Do You Want in a Relationship?”
I got to use these tools, strangely, on myself, a few years ago. Some of you may know that I was diagnosed with DID in August of 2020, a mental health condition that causes me to dissociate memories, emotions, and personality traits into separate identities. Why is this relevant to this article? In DID, each identity processes their emotions separately. So, even if one identity has processed and moved on from a specific trauma, if another identity was also impacted by that trauma, they may react as if no processing has been done at all. This means that I had to wrap my head around the idea that my previous relationship had been abusive more than once.
I was aware of AJ, the first alter I ever consciously met, more than a year before my diagnosis. AJ had spent most of our lives locked away so that she could not front (control the body and our conscious awareness) and she had only recently started coming out again. There were many aspects of our shared life that were effectively new to her. One of those aspects was processing the harm that our abusive ex had done to us.
It had been ten years since I left our abuser but suddenly AJ was flooded with feelings as if the relationship had just ended. She was still incredibly present with the experience of loving and caring about our abuser deeply, and with not wanting to have to end the relationship. As I tried to talk to her about why this relationship had been so bad for us, AJ responded just like I had when I was still in the denial stage: She wasn’t ready to call anything that had happened to her “abusive” and doing so just made her feel shut down and invalidated.
Taking cues from the book discussed above, I instead decided to talk to her about whether the relationship we had been in made her happy.
I asked her what she wanted in an ideal life partner and prompted her to compare that to what she imagined sharing a life with our abusive ex would’ve been like. What AJ imagined was terrible! We had never been able to do boring things with our ex like going grocery shopping or cooking a meal together because we’d always break out into a fight before the task was complete. Collaborating to make decisions about a household or plans for the week that worked for everyone would’ve been totally out of the question since everything had to go his way.
AJ also realized that trying to build a life worth living would’ve been impossible. We regularly had to cancel commitments or call in sick to work because we were expected to prioritize resolving conflicts with our ex which, long term, easily could’ve caused us to lose our job and make us financially dependent on him. There was no room for the life we wanted if he had to be our top priority in everything.
AJ considered what she loved most about the relationship and where her happiest memories were and realized that the best part had actually been the sex, not the partnership at all! The relationship had always had amazing chemistry, and before we left, we often thought about how much we would miss that if we ever did leave.
Of course, the sex was also abusive. Some of our most lasting traumas are related to what he required of us during sex.
But even if she set aside the abusive parts and only focused on the good times, I asked AJ, Was that the kind of sex you wanted to be having with a long-term partner? AJ considered this point. Yes, the chemistry was amazing, but consent was sometimes blurry, we didn’t feel empowered to ask for what we wanted and instead waited to be given whatever he felt like offering. The pillow talk almost always resulted in a fight as he took back control and the illusion of a happy relationship disappeared again. Was the chemistry really worth those trade-offs?
AJ’s answer was no.
It was only by being honest with herself about what she actually wanted in a relationship and whether our ex would have given it to us, even during the best moments, that convinced her that she would not have been happy with him and that it was the right thing for that relationship to end. It was that knowledge– not the basic fact that he had abused us– that changed her mind.
This experience with AJ made me wonder if focusing on questions like “Is this what you want in a relationship?” and “Will they make you happy long term?” could be more effective in reaching people currently in abusive situations.
Ongoing victims of abuse are often controlled by an internal set of rules, such as, Never upset your partner, or Always prioritize his enjoyment and convenience, or Never question her judgment. Describing your partner’s behavior as abusive almost certainly breaks one of those internalized rules (I should be giving them the benefit of the doubt!) making it a terrifying step to take.
Instead of trying to get someone to recognize their relationship as abusive, if you ask them, “Is this what you want in a relationship?” you’re encouraging them to shift their focus so that their goal is moving toward their own happiness instead of obeying the rules created and enforced by the relationship they’re in. What specific words you use to describe the behaviors in the relationship is irrelevant if those behaviors are making you unhappy with no sign of improvement.
Mira Kirshenbaum’s “Too Good to Leave, Too Bad to Stay,” truly changed the way I relate to people who I suspect might be ongoing victims of abuse. Ever since I read the book, I’ve made a habit of passing on the link anytime I encounter someone who is wrestling with the idea that their relationship might be more toxic or harmful to them than previously thought. I often skip labeling their partner’s behaviors as abusive altogether and just urge them to consider whether the relationship is right for them, using the book as a guide.
Something does not have to be abusive in order to be a deal-breaker. Identifying our experiences as abuse should not teach us that it was the label of abuse that gave us permission to feel angry and reject how we were treated. It should teach us that we are inherently worthy of respect and happiness and that fact never changes.
About the writer: Kella Hanna-Wayne is the creator, editor, and main writer for Yopp. In addition to creating a collection of educational resources for social justice, she works as a freelance writer specializing in content about her experience with disability, chronic illness, mental health, and trauma. Her work has been published in Ms. Magazine blog, The BeZine, Betty’s Battleground, and Splain You a Thing. You can find her @KellaHannaWayne on Facebook, Twitter, Medium, and Instagram.
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