CN: extensive discussion of the experience of being in an abusive relationship, discussion of physical abuse and the painful process of recovery after abuse, 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 try to tell them that. I know that this extremely straight-forward tactic doesn’t work, but what other choice do I have?
During a long stretch of my abusive relationship, I was living with several friends. While my ex did his best to show his good side to them while abusing me in private, 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 judgement call.
It’s very easy to say, “Their judgement 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? Is it That Simple?
A few months ago, I stumbled on an online conversation with a woman who’s partner had been neglecting her for a long time. The situation was so dire and showed so little evidence of resolving 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 into giving him care and support while avoiding the necessity of reciprocation, 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?
This line of thinking also raise questions about abusers: How many of them were abused themselves? How many of them are acting in response to their own circumstances? How much of their abuse was intentional? How much does that matter?
My questions are not intended to discourage anyone from identifying a given behavior as abusive or to undermine the level of harm done to victims of abuse regardless of the intentions of the abuser.
Instead, my intention is to highlight how 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, 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, a therapist of over 30-years. The person who posted the link said the book could help a person navigate the question of whether their relationship was abusive or not on their own, without judgement.
Fascinated by the topic, I dove into the book, which is available 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.) Despite being framed as a resource for abuse victims, 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 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. As part of the methodology of making such a complex decision, she introduced a new concept to me which was the idea of “relationship ambivalence.” As Kirshenbaum describes it,
“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.
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 because the book doesn’t discuss relationship issues in terms of abuse. It discusses everything in terms of behaviors and what is likely to make you happy or unhappy. She completely side-steps the problem of victims reacting negatively to a strangers’ judgment of their relationship by placing all of the responsibility of assessing the relationship on the person in it. There is no objective truth about whether your relationship is bad or good, there’s only whether or not you want to be in it and whether or not staying in it will bring you joy.
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 vast majority of the time, you’ll be happier if you leave. She explains that while a single instance of physical aggression is certainly enough to merit leaving a relationship, if your partner has only done it once, it’s possible that they will never do it again. Heat of the moment mistakes do happen. But if they’ve done it a second time, it is extremely unlikely that it will be the last time.
Because we always want to believe that our partners are capable of positive change, she lays out very specific guidelines for how to protect your safety if your partner has hit you more than once and you still want to give them one last chance:
“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.
Every other 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, and how that should influence their decision to stay or leave.
Whether their relationship is abusive or not is irrelevant. What’s important is giving them the tools they need to make the decision to leave or to repair their relationship so that it will be a happy place for them.
Ask, “What Do You Want in a Relationship?”
I got to use these tools, strangely, on myself, early last year. I had a major mental health break through that was a bit like uncovering my own forgotten memories, like half of me had been asleep during my trauma and now that it was awake, I had to process those experiences again. I simultaneously had all of the information I had gained from previous processing and was also moving through these concepts for the first time.
It had been ten years since I left my abuser but after this emotional shift, I was flooded with feelings as if the relationship had just ended. Back then, I still loved and cared about my abuser deeply, and I didn’t want to have to end the relationship. As I tried to talk to myself about why this relationship had been so bad for me, I responded like so many victims I knew when they were still in the denial stage: I wasn’t ready to call anything that had happened to me “abusive” and doing so just made me feel shut down and invalidated.
Taking cues from the book discussed above, I instead decided to talk to myself about whether the relationship I had been in made me happy.
I asked myself what I wanted in an ideal life partner and compared that to what I imagined sharing a life with my abusive ex would’ve been like. What I imagined was terrible! We had never been able to do boring things like go grocery shopping or cook 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 both of us would’ve been totally out of the question since everything had to go his way.
Trying to build a life worth living would’ve been impossible. I regularly had to cancel commitments or call in sick to work because I was expected to prioritize resolving conflicts with him which, long term, easily could’ve caused me to lose my job and make me financially dependent on him. There was no room for the life I wanted if he had to be my top priority in everything.
I considered what I loved most about the relationship and where my happy memories were and realized that the best part had actually been the sex, not the partnership at all! We always had amazing chemistry, and while the relationship was still going on, I often thought about how much I would miss that if I left the relationship.
Of course, the sex was also abusive. Some of my most lasting traumas are related to what he required of me during sex.
But even if I set aside the abusive parts and only focused on the good times, I asked myself, Was that the kind of sex you wanted to be having with a long term partner? Yes, the chemistry was amazing, but consent was sometimes blurry, I didn’t feel empowered to ask for what I wanted and instead waited to be given what he felt like offering. The pillow talk almost always resulted in a fight as he took back the control and the illusion of a happy relationship disappeared again. Was the chemistry really worth those trade-offs?
The answer was no.
It was only by being honest with myself about what I actually wanted in a relationship and whether my ex would have given it to me, even during the best moments, that convinced me (a second time) that I 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 me-- that changed my mind.
The experience 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 me 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 his judgment. Identifying your partner’s behavior as abuse almost certainly breaks one of those internalized rules (I should be giving him the benefit of the doubt!) making it a terrifying step to take.
But by asking an abuse victim, “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 the obeying rules created and enforced by the relationship they’re in. What the actions are called is irrelevant if they are making you unhappy and will continue to do so.
Wanting to Avoid Getting Hurt
After reading, “Too Good to Leave, Too Bad to Stay,” and seeing the number of ways long-term relationships can go wrong, it became apparent to me that long term partners hurt each other. A lot. People who love you do sometimes hurt you. And yet it’s still possible to have plenty of reason to stay in the relationship, without becoming a victim of that relationship. It helped me understand that hurtful and abusive are not the same thing.
I think that this idea is very important to recognize because once you’ve experienced and started to recover from abuse, it’s very easy to feel the need to search for that person who will never hurt you. I don’t think that person exists. And that’s not me being pessimistic!
Especially in romantic relationships, getting hurt is an inevitable side effect of making yourself vulnerable and the simple reality that we cannot read each other’s minds to accurately prevent any and all possibly hurtful behaviors. Sometimes we will hurt the people we love on accident, sometimes we will hurt the people we love not because we want to but because we have to make a choice of which a side effect is hurting them.
It took me years to learn that the goal in my post-abuse relationships was not to replace these toxic norms with a romantic relationship in which I never got hurt; the goal was to have a partnership in which both people are committed to reducing the harm they may cause each other, AND to working together to repair and recover in the event that harm was caused.
During my abusive relationship, the damage we did to each other was never repaired, it was either swept under the rug or used as an excuse to punish me over and over. When the purpose of a relationship is to maintain perpetual conflict, healing and resolution are impossible. The opportunity to reunite and resolve is intentionally left out of the structure of abusive relationships.
Abuse is when someone hurts you and then ensures that the two of you are never allowed to heal.
In an abusive relationship, it is your job to absorb all of the hurt done to you, try to ignore it, and justify it away. In a healthy relationship, after the hurt happens, you can acknowledge it, feel the emotions associated with it, seek a solution with your partner, heal, and move on. The difference is having a real opportunity for rehabilitation.
Of course, if the hurt your relationship causes you is consistent, repeated, or happening more often than not, it’s possible that the pattern makes it abusive.
Or it’s possible that the behavior is not abusive and the distinction is irrelevant because if the relationship is leading to your unhappiness and is not want you want, you shouldn’t put up with that any more than you should put up with abuse.
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.