I was at a dinner party where the hostess was full of righteous indignation. Her next door neighbour had left a violent husband – the episode leading to her departure had been the talk of the very genteel street. Now they were back together, playing ‘happily ever after’.
“Hasn’t she got any self-respect?” my hostess snapped. (Underpinning her indignation was a belief that ‘things like that don’t happen in streets like this, to people like us’.)
I carefully sheathed my claws and replied, as neutrally as I could:
“You know, it is not quite that simple.”
My hostess, who is blessed with a very happy marriage, interrupted, warming to her theme. “How could she let anyone…? I would never… Blah! Blah! Blah!”
I can remember saying the same thing myself; and really believing it.
In fact, I actually said it to my mentally abusive husband.
And I didn’t have the slightest idea of the irony of it!
I said as much to my hostess, who was still firmly astraddle her high horse, and wasn’t budging.
So, I explained to her that most times we don’t recognize abuse, for a couple of very good reasons:
- First, because domestic abuse is incremental. Abusers, generally, start in a small way, get compliance, and then up the ante every time, so they ‘break you in’ – relatively - gently. (Think, if you will, of the school of thought that suggests starting a lobster in a pan of cold water, and gradually bringing it up to the boil.)
- Second, we were probably pre-programmed to accept abuse.
I can’t tell you how many times an abused woman has expressed disbelief that a partner could be violent towards her; and grown up with a violent parent. Or else, she has been stunned that a partner could ‘speak to her that way’, when one, or both, parents ‘groomed’ her, by the way they treated her.
My hostess huffed and puffed a bit, and then said: “Well, I would never…”
In my most polite, British way, I pointed out to her that she had grown up with parents who were loving, supportive and indulgent of her. She agreed. She wasn’t convinced, but she had the good grace to agree.
But the story does not end there.
A couple of days later, I had a call from a client who I have worked with for some time, first individually, and then through the Healing Journey Teleclass Program. She said she had some exciting news.
This client, I’ll call her Mary, has spent 7 years trying to make an abusive relationship work. Mary was pretty good at:
- Making excuses
- Overlooking the evidence
- Giving her partner one last chance after another
- Settling for crumbs
- Misplaced forgiveness
You know the behaviours as well as I do.
Mary’s ‘story’ was that she was addicted, and could not let go of this man. Most abused women have a touch of the limpet about them – do we not? – but Mary was in a class of her own. Still, I did not buy the ‘addiction’ story. It’s a great line to get you off the hook. Mary’s argument was, basically, one of diminished responsibility, because of her addiction.
All the work we did individually, and in the teleprogram, never seemed to develop strong roots.
And then she made an appointment to speak to me. Boy, did she sound excited.
She told me a tale of her partner reverting to his usual (unlovable) behaviours. True to form, he started attacking her about her children. Then he said he couldn’t take her somewhere nice for dinner, because of her shoes. And then he threw a spectacular – but not uncharacteristic – tantrum.
And Mary walked away, once and for all.
“Why?” You might ask. “What was different this time?”
What was different was that she finally understood – at all levels of her being - that this man was abusive; and she is not prepared to accept abusive behavior.
It reminded me of how my own marriage ended. As soon as someone, whose opinion I could not dispute, told me that my marriage was abusive, the decision to leave was easy.
I’ve worked with many, many women who have put up with extraordinarily bad treatment from their partner, and managed to excuse it. Either the poor little poppet had a hard time as a child, or he was stressed at work, or it was the drink, or it was her fault, or he had ‘so much potential’, or whatever.
As long as it was purely an interpersonal thing – a difficulty in the relationship – it was possible to stay and work it out.
Once the cold, hard, ugly judgement of abuse kicked in, it became a whole different ball game.
And, strange to say – or not – self-respect kicked in.
So I do not share my hostess’s opinion about a lack of self-respect.
I believe that something different occurs in abusive relationships. I believe our needs, wants, dignity, personality, and sense of self, all become increasingly compressed, by an abusive man, into the smallest possible space.
We lose sight of them in the struggle for survival.
We try so hard to accommodate to our abusive partner’s whims, wishes, and demands that we completely lose sight of ourselves.
Still, somewhere in that tiny space, our self-respect remains. And the day comes when something finally triggers it.
When that happens we respond from an entirely different place, from a strength and a clarity we didn’t even know we had.
So, in answer to my hostess – who will not be reading this: Yes, we do have our self-respect, it never leaves us. Compressed though it may be, it remains, and one day something will trigger it and cause it to unfurl.
Bring it on!
And what of Mary now?
Well, like all abused women Mary is a tryer. She is not prepared to give up, even for a while – as I would like her to – on the search for a relationship. Happily, she sees the need to learn how to do a relationship very, very differently, from a place of enlightenment, and personal power.
She will be joining my 7 Secrets to Successful Relationships teleprogram also.
I hope you will, too.