I received an email from a friend two days ago that said my posts on abusive relationships had made her think. There were some people she knew that she was worried about, she said. What did I think?
I told her what I've always told people-- that it's better to talk to someone and offer support than keep quiet, even if you think they might lash out angrily or defensively. I have mentioned, in previous posts (here, here, and here), that I feel like I am in the minority when I say that. Much of the advice I have heard recommends that friends just watch and keep quiet, or make subtle inquiries, at most. A different (perhaps slightly cynical?) friend I spoke to hypothesized that this might be because most people can't be trusted not to say something rash or judgmental or make the situation worse (e.g. by saying something in front of the abuser or in a way that gets back to the abuser). But I think maybe we should give people more credit than that, especially if they're aware enough to notice and concerned enough to consider approaching a friend they worry about.
So it was very good timing that today I found two posts that discuss this situation very well. One is a post by a feminist who herself was in a violently abusive relationship. She talks about how the illusion of self-sufficiency can keep well-educated, independent, articulate women in an abusive relationship because they think they can handle it. She mentions how she said "I can handle it" to herself and to other people who cared enough to ask. And then she says she wished people knew not to trust her answers because relationship violence had changed her, affected her. This is important, so I'll say it again: abuse really does affect people physically and mentally (there is scientific proof of these biological changes), so while someone may be a perfectly smart, capable person otherwise, they may legitimately need help now, with this one situation. It doesn't reflect poorly in any way on their self-sufficiency in other situations.
This section of the post particularly resonated with me:
I needed the people around me to be more alert than I was capable of being. I needed them to not rely on my cues; I needed them to not take me at my word; I needed them to not treat me as though I were functioning at my best, fullest, most autonomous self. There’s a sentiment within the abuse-prevention community—- and the feminist community—- that we must respect victims’ autonomy, and it’s a necessary point when coupled with a solid understanding of abuse. But without that fuller understanding, respecting autonomy can too easily lapse into a hands-off approach. Which, when you’re concerned for someone who is in the fog of abuse, can lapse into the realm of danger.
I have personally experienced the hands-off approach, and I can say with certainty that it sucked. I spent months wishing that someone might notice, might care, might show they cared by approaching me.
The post also links to another article in Glamour that does a great job of approaching the topic of relationship violence as well. One thing I wanted to pull out from that article and state here is from the section called "Here's What You Can Say." Two simple phrases can do a whole heck of a lot.
- "I am afraid for you."
- "I am proud of you."
One last thing I wanted to end this post with: I wanted to reiterate that an abusive relationship does not have to involve physical violence to be abusive. Both the articles I linked to dealt with physical violence, but physical violence is just one of many criteria for an abusive relationship-- when a victim is already plagued by doubt, the last thing (s)he needs is to read something about relationship abuse and come away with the idea that it has to be physically violent to be considered abuse. Abuse can be emotionally or psychological as well. Threats, isolation, intimidation, and control are all signs of an unhealthy relationship. If it doesn't feel right, listen to your gut.