As I try on this new identity of “survivor,” I search for a vocabulary to make sense of my experience. Why did they do this? How did it happen? How can I make sure it doesn’t happen again — to me or to anyone I love?
And the best vocabulary — the one that nails it every time — is domestic. Lundy Bancroft dispels the myths of domestic abuse, fraught with empathizing with the bully and avoiding responsibility. We often say, with pity in our voice, that an abuser abuses because:
- He was abused as a child.
- His previous partner hurt him.
- He abuses those he loves the most.
- He holds in his feelings too much.
- He has an aggressive personality.
- He loses control.
- He is too angry.
- He is mentally ill.
- He hates women.
- He is afraid of intimacy and abandonment.
- He has low self-esteem.
- His boss mistreats him.
- He has poor communication skills and conflict resolution.
- There are as many abusive women as men.
- He is a victim of racism.
- He abuses alcohol or drugs.
And research just doesn’t bear that out. That’s not why abuse happens. Bancroft gives ten proven reasons why abusers abuse:
- He is controlling.
- He feels entitled.
- He twists things into their opposites.
- He disrespects you and thinks he’s superior.
- He confuses love and abuse.
- He is manipulative.
- He wants to have a good public image.
- He feels justified.
- He denies and minimizes the abuse.
- He’s possessive.
How does the abuser do this? He:
- Changes his moods abruptly and frequently, so that you find it difficult to tell who he is or how he feels, keeping you constantly off balance. His feelings toward you are especially changeable.
- Denying the obvious about what he is doing or feeling. He’ll speak to you with his voice trembling in anger, or he’ll blame a difficulty on you, or he’ll sulk for two hours, and then deny it to your face. You know what he did — and so does he — but he refuses to admit it, which can drive you crazy with frustration. Then he may call you irrational for getting so upset by his denial.
- Convincing you that what he wants you to do is what is best for you. This way the abuser can make his selfishness look like generosity, which is a neat trick. A long time may pass before you realize what his real motives were.
- Getting you to feel sorry for him, so that you will be reluctant too push forward with your complaints about what he does.
- Using confusion tactics in arguments, subtly or overtly changing the subject, insisting that you are thinking and feeling things that you aren’t, twisting your words, and many other tactics that serve as glue to pour into your brain. You may leave arguments with him feeling like you are losing your mind.
- Lying or misleading you about his actions, his desires, or his reasons for doing certain things, in order to guide you into doing what he wants you to do. One of the most frequent complaints I get from abused women is that their partners lie repeatedly, a form of psychological abuse that in itself can be highly destructive over time.
- Getting you and the people you care about turned against each other by betraying confidences, being rude to your friends, telling people lies about what you supposedly said about them, charming your friends and then telling them bad things about you, and many other divisive tactics.
Being held hostage to his feelings, gaslighting, creating pseudo-good will, demanding pity for the powerful, outright lying, and shunning — that’s the tactical list. Plain as day. We all recognize it.
Bancroft summarizes research on abuse to further knock those myths out of the conversation (75):
- Abuse grows from attitudes and values, not feelings. The roots are ownership, the trunk is entitlement, and the branches are control.
- Abuse and respect are opposites. Abusers cannot change unless they overcome their core of disrespect toward their partners.
- Abusers are far more conscious of what they are doing than they appear to be. However, even their less-conscious behaviors are driven by core attitudes.
- Abusers are unwilling to be nonabusive, not unable. They do not want to give up power and control.
- You are not crazy. Trust your perceptions of how your abusive partner treats you and thinks about you.
I re-read that last one over and over. Because time and documentation have proven that my perceptions were right. Even while it was happening, I knew.
Finally, to those of us who have survived abuse, he advises:
When I work with an abused woman, my first goal is to help her to regain trust in herself; to get her to rely on her own perceptions, to listen to her own internal voices. You don’t really need an ‘expert’ on abuse to explain your life to you; what you do need above all is some support and encouragement to hold on to your own truth. Your abusive partner wants to deny your experience. He wants to pluck your view of reality out of your head and replace it with his. When someone has invaded your identity in this way enough times, you naturally start to lose your balance.
That fits. Replace “partner” with “employer” and/or “pastor” and that really fits. That scarily fits with my theory of sectarian romance. That fits with my other theory of fundamentalism as patriarchy.
So now what? If my role in my previous life was a kind of ideological “battered wife” to an masculine administration hell-bent on preserving the hierarchy, where do I go from here?