Saturday, 20 April 2013

A Few Things You Might Want To Avoid Saying To An Abuse Survivor...

This isn't the clearest image, but my tattoo says: "This world will not impose its will.  
I will not give up and I will not give in."  

There are many things I've done in my life that I'm proud of.  There are also many things I'm still yet to accomplish.  However, one thing I never expected to have to do, is survive an abusive relationship and recover from the damage it did.  Still, here I am, in that position and using the knowledge it gave me to attempt to raise some awareness.  

On average, abuse affects 1 in 4 women and 1 in 6 men.  That means that you almost certainly know somebody who has experienced it in some form.  And yet, on an almost daily basis, I see people discussing the subject and using language that will only ever offend anyone who has experienced abuse.  Why are we so bad at talking about it?!  It's my belief that it comes from a lack of understanding.  And that's not surprising; abuse is an incredibly complex subject and awareness needs to start earlier, with discussion in schools.

Since I began speaking out against 50 Shades, I've obviously encountered a lot more discussion on abuse than I might otherwise have done.  Some of the discussion/debate has been genuinely fascinating, with respect on both sides.  Some...  Yeah, not so much.

With that in mind, I want to explain a few things that you might want to avoid saying to an abuse survivor and why...

1. Why the HELL didn't you leave?!

Leaving a relationship is a complicated decision at the best of times.  Finances and the presence of children might be a consideration in the decision-making process.  But when that relationship is abusive, there are suddenly dozens of other factors at play.  A person might be afraid of what their partner will do to them - physically or emotionally - if they try to walk away.  They may be concerned that the partner will harm themselves.  Never forget that emotional manipulation is present in all abusive relationships and therefore, the person trying to decide whether or not to leave might not be thinking rationally as a result.  I know from looking back at my own relationship, that there were several points where I should have ended it.  But I also know that it's easy to say that now, when I'm no longer being manipulated.  At the time, I believed my ex couldn't help his behaviour (because he told me, frequently, that he couldn't).  I believed him when he told me he loved me and needed my help to change.  I had also been manipulated into thinking much of what was happening was my fault and that he was simply a vulnerable man with a terrible past, who needed me.  The thought of leaving him made me feel like I would be abandoning him; selfishly putting my own need to end what was happening, over his need for my support.  That made the act of walking away almost impossible for a long time and that's without the added fear that comes with a relationship that involves physical violence.  

Also, as hard as it is to believe, people stay in abusive relationships because they love their partners.  I loved my ex.  Even when he was calling me "weak and pathetic," I loved him.  I realise that's almost impossible to understand, but it's the simple truth.  I'd never have stayed as long as I did, had I not loved him unconditionally.  When things were good, they were great.  And I really believed that some day, it'd be good all the time.

Often, the person being abused believes all the nasty, cruel things their abuser says about them.  They might think they're unlovable, or that they'll never find anyone else.  Abuse sends your self-esteem plummeting and sometimes, as surprising as it sounds, a person will feel grateful that their abuser stays with them, when they're so unworthy.

To summarise: It is NEVER as simple as "just leave."  And not being able to leave does not EVER mean that a person "deserves" the abuse they get.  Walking away is one of the hardest things a person will ever do.

Victim blaming is just a load of waffle.  But less tasty than this one.

2. You must have done SOMETHING to piss your partner off...

For the last 9 months, I've been having counselling sessions with a support worker from a women's abuse charity.  Every few sessions, we fill in a questionnaire, to see how well I'm progressing (and since my next session is my last one, I think we can say I've progressed pretty well...).  To each statement on the questionnaire, I have to decide whether I very much agree, or very much disagree (or am somewhere in between the two).  One of the statements is: "I am not to blame for my abuse."  The highest response on the questionnaire is "5," which means "I very much agree."  I have never been able to answer higher than a 4.  Why?  Because victim-blaming is so embedded in our culture, that whenever I tell myself "no, I was not at all to blame," someone makes a comment that trips me up.

It's so easy for someone outside a situation to casually judge it.  "Oh, if he didn't like you wearing a low cut dress, why wear one?!  You were asking for trouble!"

The fact is, there is NO excuse for abuse.  Ever.  If dinner is burnt, it does not give your partner the right to slap you.  If you wear a short skirt, it gives nobody the right to rape you.  No one is perfect and we're all capable of doing or saying things that piss off our partners.  But it never gives them the right to abuse us.

Also, bear in mind that in an abuser's eyes, we will never get it right.  What is deemed acceptable behaviour one day, will incur their wrath the next.  As a case in point, my ex used to tell me I was "weak and pathetic" for not standing up to him.  The point was, of course, that I didn't stand up to him because he had manipulated me into feeling sorry for him and thinking he knew no better than the way he behaved.  I viewed his callous outbursts, or his sleeping with other girls, or his constant turning attention back to himself, regardless of my needs, as symptoms of his terrible childhood.  Because that's exactly what he wanted me to think.  But he saw my failure to call him on his behaviour as "disgusting."  So I decided to try to be tougher and the next time he told me he was going out drinking and was planning to fuck someone else, I told him to sort his act out and grow up.  There I was, standing up to him, just like he said he wanted me to do.  And he told me I was an ignorant c*nt and said I clearly didn't understand him and he'd do as he f*cking well pleased.  I could never get it right, because he would always move the goalposts.  That's a common feature of abusive relationships.

So yes, someone being abused is just as capable of saying or doing something to piss off their partner.  But bear in mind that a) that's NEVER an excuse and b) it's probably much more easily done than with a non-abusive partner, who doesn't have such ridiculous expectations.  Don't ever blame the victim for the actions of the abuser.

3. It's only abuse if they hit you...

If you think this, you are wrong.  If you SAY this to a survivor of non-physical abuse, you are beyond wrong.

Constant emotional manipulation = abuse.
Controlling you against your will = abuse.
Excessive possessiveness = abuse.
Making sexual demands you are uncomfortable with = abuse.
Belittling you and putting your needs second at all times = abuse.
Constantly moving the goalposts so you never know what to expect = abuse.
Coercive consent = abuse.
Stalking = abuse.

That's just a small list of non-physical forms of abuse, but there are many more.  If you genuinely believe that it's only abuse if a person is beaten, then I encourage, no implore you to educate yourself.

4. Your ex is a really nice person.

All abusers wear a mask in public.  Not a literal one (although that would make them much easier to spot), but a metaphorical "cover" for their abusive persona.  My ex could be charming, witty, intelligent and generous.  If you ask someone who's still close to him, those are just some of the positive adjectives they might use to describe him.  The fact is, someone can be all of those things and more in public, whilst remaining angry, bitter, manipulative and cruel behind closed doors.  And on a related note...

5.  Your ex can't even stand to hear your name mentioned...

Nobody who has been through the emotionally draining process of leaving an abusive relationship, coming to terms with what happened to them and trying to move on from it, wants to hear that their partner harbours anger or resentment towards them.  We don't want to be told that our ex is telling people we're "mad," or that they're turning the situation round to make themselves look like the victim when they speak to their new partner about us.  We're aware that it happens, but we've spent a long time learning not to put ourselves down or blame ourselves.  Don't open a can of worms that will inevitably wriggle into our brains at night and cause us to dwell on situations we're well out of.  If you know someone who has been through an abusive relationship and you also know their ex, do yourself a favour and don't tell that person anything about their former partner.  We don't want or need to know.  

Me on a rollercoaster.  Note I'm not quite over the edge.

6. Shouldn't you be over it by now?!

People are all different.  There is no standard response to trauma.  I'm sitting here, 20 months after leaving my abusive relationship, thinking: "Yes.  I'm ready to be with someone new.  I'd like to date again."  Some people might think that's far too soon to be considering starting afresh.  Others might believe it has taken me too long to get to this point.

There really isn't, however, a point where you're magically "over it."  Abuse changes you.  It can rob you of beliefs.  It can change your entire perception of the world in which you live.  Even when you're in a new relationship, happily moving on with your life, you may never be over what happened to you.  A word, or an action can trigger a memory.  A memory can trigger a feeling and you may find that years after leaving, you're still having bad days as well as good.  

Last weekend, I went to a show at a venue in the city my ex lives in.  I went to see someone we'd previously seen together, at that same venue.  I consider myself to be in a good place, emotionally and I know I'm ready to be with someone else.  But I still spent the time waiting for the show to start, obsessively scanning the crowd for my ex, with a horrible feeling of dread in the pit of my stomach.  What he did to me left me hating myself.  Wanting to die.  You don't just casually "get over" that.  A part of it will probably always be there, however well I'm doing with my life.

Never tell an abuse survivor that they ought to be "over" what they went through.  Never assume that someone who seems "fine" doesn't still have deep scars because of what they experienced.

7. I don't believe you.

Never, ever, EVER say, either outright or as an implication, that you don't believe a person's story of abuse. It takes enormous courage to speak out about what they've experienced and part of the reason for that is the fear that they won't be believed, or that their situation will be trivialised.  

One of the first people I told about my abusive relationship, outside of my immediate family and friends, was a man I'd known for a while and thought I could trust.  He took me out for lunch and we chatted about exes.  I told him what had happened.  He sat thoughtfully for a few minutes and then said: "Sounds like you just couldn't handle his rejection of you very well and you're quite bitter."

In that one sentence, he undid all the hard work I'd been doing to try to get myself into a healthy emotional space again.  The implication was that it wasn't abuse that I'd experienced and that in fact, there was a problem with me, not my ex.  As a result, it would be several months before I would get help through counselling and I began harming myself, thinking I was to blame.

Yes, people can lie and make things up.  But never assume that someone is.  If someone confides in you that they're being abused or that they have been previously, please show them that you believe what they're saying.  Just doing that will help them more than you know.

8. I wish I had my very own Christian Grey!!

I can't talk for ALL abuse survivors and I know that there are some women who've experienced abuse and still love 50 Shades.  But there are MANY of us who recognise all the signs of abuse that we experienced in the pages of this so-called "romance."  And telling us that you wish you had a man like Christian Grey comes across as though you're telling us you think our abusive exes are sexy, exciting and wonderful.  They're not.  They're poisonous and they came close to destroying us.  Enjoy the books if you like, but please don't ever tell us to believe they're anything but abuse-glorifying, dangerous tripe.