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Cycle of Violence

Feminism

abusers and the good times

I bought Adele’s 21 album spontaneously. A few of her songs were coming up somewhat regularly on the Pandora station I listened to at work, so when I spotted her album standing in line at Starbucks while on a road trip up to New Jersey I couldn’t help myself. That afternoon was the first time I heard “Someone Like You” and I did not understand it. At all. Later, some colleagues were talking about their favorite breakup songs and after sharing mine– “King of Anything” by Sara Bareilles–  someone said “Someone Like You” was theirs. I snatched at the opportunity to understand what the hell “Someone Like You” is about and why it’s not really really creepy. The conversation didn’t really help, but the last thing they offered has stuck with me:

“Sam, you probably don’t get it because you’ve never broken up with someone you were still in love with.”

I wanted to argue– but I couldn’t. I was still in love with my ex at the time he broke our engagement, but the heartbreak only lasted about a month and then I was nothing but pissed at him. Since those days I’ve come to appreciate the blinding fury that propelled me through the early months of escaping an abusive relationship. For me, there wasn’t any redeeming quality to that relationship. There was nothing worth holding on to, nothing I could remember fondly. He was an abuser, a rapist, and that was all there was to him and our “relationship.”

***

One of the most common statements I hear from people recovering from abusive relationships is something along these lines:

It would be easier if they’d been horrible 100% of the time, but they weren’t. Sometimes, they could be so sweet and caring. It makes me second-guess whether or not it was abuse– how could they be an abuser and be so gentle and loving sometimes?

Here’s the thing I want every abuse victim and survivor to understand: your abuser was horrible all of the time. Yes. Even when they brought you soup when you were sick, or bought you flowers for no reason.

Being “nice” is part of the abuse.

I think we all understand this intellectually. Lenore Walker created the “Cycle of Abuse” model all the way back in 1979, and the pattern she identified hasn’t changed in the decades since she wrote The Battered Woman Syndrome. Most of us are familiar with the three phases: tension building, event/episode, and the honeymoon period. On one level, we probably all know that the times when our abuser is being nice to us is the honeymoon. I bring this up every single time someone asks “why did you stay?” Abusive relationships are not actively violent every single second of every single day, 100% of the time. If it was unremitting agony, no one would stay. Abusers are absolutely dependent on the honeymoon phase — however brief or long it is– to keep their victims with them.

However, there’s more to it than that. Yes, abusers have to be “nice” sometimes or we’d quickly realize there’s nothing to keep us in a relationship. Why Does He Do That? isn’t a perfect book (for one, it relies on gender essentialism for significant parts of its argument) but one thing I do agree with Bancroft on is that if there’s a universal quality in abusers, it’s entitlement. Whatever abusive tactics they use, the goal is to guarantee their victims give them what they feel entitled to. The reason why we can identify similarities and patterns in abusive situations is that abusers are only doing what’s the most effective at getting another human being to cooperate with their entitlement.

On top of guaranteeing cooperation, abusers use “niceness” in the same exact way they use emotional or physical pain. There is not a single shred of genuine care about you and what your needs are. They are not bringing you soup because they were motivated by compassion during your illness. An abuser, by being nice, is getting what they want from you the same way hitting you or demeaning you gets them what they want. Sometimes they want you cowering in fear, but sometimes they want to be worshiped.

Something all survivors understand is that abuse resets your expectations. What you consider acceptable changes to accommodate the escalating abuse, and after a while the constant anxiety and hypervigilance becomes our baseline. When we get any relief from that, or any glimpse of kindness from an abuser, there’s a tendency to fall to our mental knees in gratitude. We’re used to violence and disparagement, and suddenly we’re offered a ray of hope.

Abusers know this.

They’re looking for it. They feel entitled to that gratitude; they crave it. Victims, like anyone else when they’re offered what looks like kindness, express their thanks in one way or another. Except that thankfulness is heightened because we’ve been trained not to expect it, and the end result is that an abuser does something “nice” in order to bask in our gratitude for their mercy. They’re doing it because it allows them to feel magnanimous and noble– look at them, doing something good for the miserable little worm they live with. Their victim certainly doesn’t deserve their kindness, but aren’t they just the most good and loving person for bestowing it?

A second side-effect of all of this is that abusers have to go barely out of their way at all to “earn” a worshipful reaction from their victim. In conversations I’ve had over the last eight years I’ve heard so many people talk about all the good things their abuser did for them like those infinitesimally small acts were fireworks in the park. Oh, but one day they did the laundry when I was so ill I couldn’t get out of bed! They cooked dinner that one time! They thought of me when I was giving an important presentation and sent me an encouraging text!

The abuse makes us lose sight of what an above-and-beyond act really is. The “nice” things abusers do are almost always things that any basically decent human being would do for someone they care about. I had to be married to Handsome for literally years before I understood this. Yes, I appreciate all the things he does and tell him so. But him doing the dishes? Not a spectacular thing. I cooked us dinner, he does the dishes. It’s not that he’s so awesome for doing the dishes, it’s that he’d be kind of a jerk if he never contributed.

So, yes. Even the good times were bad.

I understand clinging to the scant good memories we have– some days in the midst of the abuse it’s all we have to go on. Most of the “grandest” gestures my abuser made came during the darkest days, and I was just so awestruck at the time. I’d exclaim about how wonderful he was to all my friends and they’d look at me sideways because I was going on and on about a note he’d written on a 3×5 card. Just … Christ. That was not that great, but I’d learned to expect otherwise.

Them being “nice” to you sometimes shouldn’t make you question whether or not it was abuse. The tricks an abuser uses to keep you trapped or to bask in your gratitude aren’t niceness. It’s just more of the abuse.

Photo by Roman Pfeiffer
Feminism

my abusive relationship was typical

while a student at PCC
[in PCC’s Student Commons, taken during the relationship]
{content note: abuse, sexual violence}

Last week, I wrote an article for xoJane and I shared some things about my past that I haven’t shared on the internet before. I don’t enjoy talking about my abusive relationship at all, and I especially avoid thinking about my last semester at PCC, which was nightmarish with exceedingly few good memories. I was extremely vulnerable in that piece, knowing that there would be people around the internet that would shit on it.

And shit on it they did. Thankfully xoJane actually moderates their comment section and they don’t allow rape apologia, so most of the truly horrific comments have been removed. However, several people expressed confusion about the events I had related in the story, and I was slapped in the face, again, with how much people just don’t know about what abusers do and how abuse functions in relationships. Most of them thought that the events, as I related them, falsified my story in some way and opened the door to some “other side” that could offer an alternate explanation.

Before I start talking about what these people don’t understand, I’m going to share a brief timeline so that the basic facts are clear.

  • I started officially dating “John” in February 2008, although we’d been casually dating since September 2007.
  • He’d always used emotional manipulation and coercion, but he escalated this in March.
  • The physical and sexual abuse began during summer break.
  • He proposed in August 2008.
  • He raped me in January 2009.
  • He raped me again in July.
  • We had a rather significant fight during the first week in September, and then another. On September 14 I told him that he could not call me a “goddamn fucking bitch” anymore.
  • He ended our engagement on September 25.
  • He began calling my dorm room/cell phone repeatedly, even after I told him to stop.
  • He began physically stalking me.
  • I was assigned a chapel seat near John at mid-terms.
  • I went to Student Life in early November, requesting a seat change. They refused.
  • I stopped going to the cafeteria for meals, afraid that he would be there.
  • He stalked me for six straight hours on Thanksgiving. The last two hours was a constant barrage of “why won’t you just talk to me?!” that ended with me screaming at him.
  • I started spending most of my time in my friend’s apartment.
  • I graduated in December 2009.
  • He sent me a facebook message on New Year’s Eve, which I ignored, which led to him sending me another dozen messages saying “Sam. Sam. Sam. Sam. WHY ARE YOU IGNORING ME.”
  • He sent me another facebook message during the summer of 2011, saying “I was thinking about you, if you ever wanted to talk…” I told him to never contact me again, then blocked him (again, not sure how he became un-blocked), blocked his entire family, and blocked  any “mutual” friends we had.

To anyone who has escaped an abusive relationship, or to someone who knows how abusive relationships operate, this will all seem very familiar. There isn’t a single thing about this timeline that isn’t shared by thousands of other intimate partner abuse victims. However, to commenters on xoJane and reddit and other places, this timeline makes me seem like a liar.

He broke your engagement?
Why didn’t you break it off with him if he really raped you?
Why would you be engaged to someone like this?
Seems like you’re just a bitter bitch because he dumped you.
Why would he want to talk to you if he broke it off?

All of these comments revealed that an awful lot of people have absolutely no clue how abusers work. Which, in one sense, I suppose is a good thing. I learned first-hand, and I would never wish this experience on anyone. However, the one thing that these people desperately need to understand is that my story is typical. There is nothing unusual, or in the words of one commenter, “fishy” about it.

There’s plenty of amazing resources already written on things like the Cycle of Violence/Abuse (first written about by Lenore Walker in Battered Woman Syndome). We also know that it can be extremely difficult for people, especially women, to escape intimate partner violence– and that many women have attempted to leave their abusive relationship six or seven times. Complicate all of those factors with the ingrained belief that you are literally ruined for any other relationship and no one else will ever want you, and you have something close to approximating my situation.

Most of the commenter’s questions oriented around what happened after he ended our engagement, though– if he broke it off, why would he follow you all over campus begging to talk to you? Couldn’t it be possible that you were exaggerating how bad things really were and he’d had a change of heart? That he really did want to be with you? That he’d changed?

First of all: there’s a reason why the Cycle of Abuse is so damn effective, and that would be it. Women don’t start believing in the Cycle of Abuse because they’re in an abusive relationship– they already believe it before the abuse even begins. Every single time the abuser apologizes and they enter the “Honeymoon Phase,” that is exactly what the victims says to themselves. It’s not actually that bad. Look, see, he’s trying. I just have to make sure he doesn’t lose control again [hint: abusers don’t actually lose control]. And we believe those thoughts because they are given to us by our culture.

Second, abuse is about dominance and power. Abusers abuse because they want to control other people. Just because John had ended our engagement does not mean that he no longer wanted to control me– in fact, it was the exact opposite. When he broke it off, his justification was “I just can’t trust that you’re going to be a godly, submissive wife.” He ended our engagement because I was finally only beginning to realize that I could stand up for myself. I looked him in the eyes and said no and enforced that no. That was why he ended it– it was a tactic in order to re-assert control.

For a month, it even worked. For four miserable weeks I was eager to prove to him that I could be submissive. That I could obey. That I would be what he wanted. For those weeks he manipulated me– encouraging those thoughts, telling me that he didn’t really want our relationship to end, that he’d consider getting back together.

But then I got angry. Furious. It was like I woke up from a dream and I finally saw all of his fucking shit and I got mad. I was angry at him, angry at my parents, angry at my friends, angry at the world, but mostly I was enraged with myself. How could I have let him do that to me! I didn’t understand anything I know now– that I’d been groomed basically my entire life for an abusive relationship by complementarianism and biblical patriarchy. So, one night, when he called my dorm room at one o’clock in the morning asking if we could have a “do-over,” if we could just “erase everything that happened,” if we could just get back together like nothing ever happened

I told him no.

I said fucking hell no.

And that’s when he started stalking me.

Because he’d lost control.

He knew that I’d woken up– that I knew who he was, and he was desperate to make sure that everyone believed that he was the victim, that I was the stone-hearted bitch that wouldn’t take him back, that I was the crazy one, that he was doing everything he could, but, well, I was the problem because I didn’t “want to make it work.” I became the bad guy, and he made sure everyone knew it. He’d lost control of me, so he’d control what everyone else thought of me. He would not allow anyone to believe me.

That’s what abusers do.