On Discerning Abuse

I

For someone as sophisticated as myself, I can be quite slow on the uptake. I always wondered why, if a certain relative of mine really felt I were as evil as he said I was, he still extended social invitations to me. I always felt quite odd, like the poor cousin in a Victorian novel, as I had been informed I was only barely tolerated. I did not know why I was being contacted at all. But just now as I was opening Venetian blinds, it dawned on me. Abuse is intended, precisely, to destabilize its object, and to place that person in an abject position, to cast them down.

You have always done something wrong, and you do not know quite what it is or how you could avoid it, and must always be making up for it or being careful to head off any new onslaught.

What is so interesting about this last paragraph is, it is also what abusers say about being called on their abuse. “I do not know what I have done.” “You confuse me.” “You are putting me down.” “I do not know how to please you.” I often hear husbands say it about wives, when it is quite clear to the casual observer what they have been up to. A former friend used to say it about me, no matter how clearly I explained my complaint. There are also men who say it about women in general.

My former student’s Olympic-rated domestic violence counselor in Madrid said this is a typical pattern. It is not that you are also being abusive or are the actual abuser, it is that they want you to think so. The main problem with abusers, furthermore, is not what they do to you, but what they can get you to do to yourself. And that, of course, explains my infamous Reeducation.

II

It is worth remembering the general principle that abuse is designed to tie people to the abuser. The abuser’s objective is precisely not to alienate people. It also seems clear to me that that feeling of being in placed by someone else in an abject position in relation to them is indicative of an abusive relationship.

I have at various times successfully stood up to people who have done abusive things. Some people say they did not mean to be like that and will stop – and they do. Others say they want to be like that and will not stop. If they cannot be that way around me then they will find someone else – and they do. They know their game is up. A third type does not take no for an answer.

My Reeducators seemed to believed that abuse was an epiphenomenon of overindulgence in intoxicants. Indeed, some people get high so they can do what they are impelled to do – or in wars, what they are ordered to do. I have noticed, however, that the most skilled abusers need no chemical aids. They do it cold. It would be nice to be able to say that it was a psychological issue. I suspect it is an ideological one.

Axé.

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9 Comments

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9 responses to “On Discerning Abuse

  1. Tom

    “It is worth remembering the general principle that abuse is designed to tie people to the abuser. The abuser’s objective is precisely not to alienate people.”

    I do keep forgetting that. The worst person I have ever known personally was a fellow grad student. I just hated him and his behavior toward, e.g., undergrads he was TA-ing. There was no bond. But once his wife suggested that actually he and I had one of those really deep connections, one that went much deeper than our various disagreements, and we would probably keep in touch forever. I guess she must have gotten that impression from him. I left town and did not keep in touch.

    I miss her, though. She was very nice. She mentioned once that, until going out with this guy, she had had a pattern of dating assholes.

  2. Maybe what abusers want primarily is someone whom they can feel superior to. But first they have to put you into a position where you are literally in inferior to them — through incapacity or self doubt. Actually this is relatively easy to do if they have social authority over you — for instance a parent or a boss. In a more general sense, men are often given social authority over females in the sense that the gossip they spread about women will be more readily believed than vice versa. Anyway, all quite easy to do in a situation where females are not given much power anyway. Perhaps the general phenomenon of patriarchy as a whole came to predominate on the basis of this motivation — the abusive desire to create objects that are genuinely less, in order to feel superior.

    My father has been very abusive to me, throughout my adult life, and a lot of it, from what I can tell, stems from a desire to feel better than somebody else. He chose me to feel better than, and that was a mistake, because, once it became obvious to me that he wasn’t even trying to help himself, I fought back.

  3. profacero

    [Tom:] “She mentioned once that, until going out with this guy, she had had a pattern of dating assholes.”

    Oooh, freaky: she thinks she is not married to one now!

    My ex, the abusive one, was always trying to convince me that everyone I had talked to before him was an asshole … as well as a number of other friends, family and colleagues … This is also what my Reeducator did.

    The Reeducator’s theory was that since my father is an alcoholic I must be “sick” and so must everyone I associated with. Therefore it was his job to alienate me from all friends and colleagues who had not gone through Al-Anon. That was his line, but really what he was up to was isolating me from the world of health so I would be easier prey.

  4. [Jennifer:] “Desire to feel better than somebody else.” Yes. And I am convinced that this is the reason some people have pets and children.

    I have radar for the insecurity / pain they feel – because my parents feel it and I was aware of it early on – and my instinct is always to try to heal them so that they will feel better and not be so destructive. This of course is predicated on the idea of being five years old and not in a position to move out … and therefore needing at least to mollify people, if not cure them. But I always did want to cure someone, anyone, of the pain that makes them abusive. It was as though by doing this, I would somehow pay the debt I owed society (I owed one, obviously, otherwise I would not have been in an abusive situation in the first place) and not have to handle abuse any more.

    The person I finally picked, thought I could cure of abusiveness, was my ex. What I learned from it was really freaky. People like my family, who had learned abusive ways of interacting early on but who in fact did choose / would have preferred happier ways of looking at things when they could, are one kind of case. But these true classic abuser types are far, far more hardened than that and they really prefer to be as they are.

    And of course (as everyone has probably guessed by now) the reason I wanted to heal the pain of an abuser is that I had learned to care for them before caring for myself. I had this idea that if I could cure one I would erase the debt I mysteriously owed abusers. Then I would finally be authorized to care for myself without being berated as arrogant, selfish, and so on.

    I knew this was odd but I thought the alternative was to be like the character in Lars von Trier’s film Breaking the Waves … she gets herself tortured to death so that her husband will be able to walk again. [The frisson that film gives is that the viewer familiar with modern tragedies expects the recipe not to work - and then, it does. Brilliant film - scary ideology.]

    [Recap:] My theory was that rather than seek redemption through absolute martyrdom, I should try to obtain it by being a healer. I wanted to heal myself first but I had been informed I did not have the right.

  5. This post is acutely on track. I’m nodding.

  6. Incidentally (and way, way off topic), is this where I once saw a youtube song video of a Turkish (maybe) rock star/guitarist performing in what looked like a spaghetti western but included indigenous musicians, too, playing on old type stringed instruments? (I swear I didn’t make this up.) I want to share it with my students and I didn’t save it to my Youtube favorites…sigh.

  7. On track, good! Video, yes – it’s Uighur and this is the post:
    http://profacero.wordpress.com/2007/04/20/544/

  8. The insecurity and hurt is hard to deal with, because a normal person will try to attend to somebody yelping in pain, rather than just walk on by, obliviously. That is a feature of our normality, actually. It doesn’t define us a psychological victims.

    It can be hard to discern abusiveness because the abuser deliberately or unconsciously (the result is the same) subverts normal interactions.

    I think it is only very, very recently that I have begun to cure myself completely — and oddly enough (at least I am very suprised by it), my self-redemption comes from lessons learned in the boxing ring.

    Here’s what I discovered. In the boxing ring, the principle of energy (especially saving energy) is paramount. What you want to do is to use as little energy as possible, yourself, whilst making your opponent work for every point he scores. Whoever gets tired more quickly is more likely to be beaten, because of mistakes made, or a technical knockout, or whatever.

    So, somehow I have learned, by finally understanding this principle, that it is the same one that operates within abusive relationships. Only the abuser avoids declaring his inimical intent towards you, but rather declares his excellent intentions, indeed his “love”.

    But the process is the same, and he is trying to wear you down in order to knock you out.

    Suddenly the light has dawned upon me that this is how bullying works (and why I detected the operation even in the constant assertions that Sadaam Hussein has WMD, when he was doing all he could to prove he hadn’t any. The point was to wear him down; to make sure he made a mistake.

    Anyway, so what I’ve learned now is that whenever anybody is putting in less energy into a situation than you are (for instance, in proclaiming that, no matter how hard you try, your intentions cannot be understood by them, or that you need to keep working on something because it is not sufficiently perfect) then there is a probable element of abuse in that situation. They are happy to wear you down, and in doing so they are preparing to set you up for a knockout punch — after which, they presume, you will be theirs for good.

  9. Z

    “That is a feature of our normality, actually. It doesn’t define us a psychological victims.”

    YES. This is one of my main disagreements with Reeducation.

    “It can be hard to discern abusiveness because the abuser deliberately or unconsciously (the result is the same) subverts normal interactions.”

    Precisely.

    “But the process is the same, and he is trying to wear you down in order to knock you out.”

    Again, precisely.

    “…whenever anybody is putting in less energy into a situation than you are … then there is a probable element of abuse in that situation.”

    KEY.

    “They are happy to wear you down, and in doing so they are preparing to set you up for a knockout punch — after which, they presume, you will be theirs for good.”

    Ah, yes … which amazes me. I always escape sooner. Which surprises them. But I only recently figured out that the knockout punch was so you’d be theirs for good. Mais c’est vrai.

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