the woman in the water: how domestic abuse is psychological abuse
“It’s very difficult for people to wrap their minds around the concept of a man actually balling up his fist and hitting a woman…The video forces you to take it in. There’s no escaping. You can’t dance around it, you have to deal with it. That’s why video really becomes crucial for this cause, the fight against domestic violence… People say: ‘That guy is so nice when he’s with me. What did you do? What did you say to him? He’s cool. I play golf with him. I can’t imagine him doing this.’ Women are simply not believed.” — Robin Givens
A woman with a famous and/or wealthy man is suspect.
I was a kid growing up in Canada when Wayne Gretzky announced that he was leaving the Edmonton Oilers for the L.A. Kings.
Let’s think about this: man decides to leave Edmonton, Alberta, to go live in one of the most exciting cities in one of the most charismatic states, and is paid an insane amount of money to do so. But rather than admitting that Gretzky might have been making a sensible decision, many people blamed –
his blonde, nubile, American-actress wife. I remember conversations on the playground in which kids denounced her as a slut and a whore. She was stealing Gretzky away from us! Never mind that Gretzky was a fully functioning, intelligent human being with a will and reason all his own. She was – say it with me, boys and girls – a golddigger, forcing him into the, uh, coal mines and general brutality of Beverly Hills.
I remember when Robin Givens admitted, on-air, that her husband, Mike Tyson, physically abused her. She was reviled and denounced as a – wait for it – golddigger. I remember thinking about Robin when a very pregnant Denise Richards left Charlie Sheen, practically fleeing in the middle of the night with a toddler in tow. Sheen had a well-documented history suggesting that he was, shall we say, a difficult personality. But in online forums and tabloid magazines, Denise Richards was the one at fault. Never mind his addictive tendencies: the gambling, the hookers, the cocaine. She was a golddigger.
Since the day that Eve manipulated Adam into eating the apple (no doubt by flashing her breasts and promising him a blowjob afterwards), women have been regarded as rather shady characters. If she’s not a virgin in white, she can’t be trusted. If she cries rape, she’s out for money or attention or revenge. If her sexuality is not safely contained within a monogamous relationship, she’s a homewreck waiting to happen. The combination of female sexuality, intelligence and autonomy especially unsettles us. There’s a name for those kinds of women: femme fatale. Whether it’s Jezebel back when or Glenn Close in the movie FATAL ATTRACTION, she will lure an innocent man to his doom (unless she’s thrown out of a tower window or stabbed and shot, respectively.)
Granted, Jezebel and the Glenn Close character are extreme examples – and fictional. Janay Rice is neither. She is a woman in an elevator who got cold-cocked by her famous boyfriend. Then he dragged her unconscious body out into the hall.
Reader, she married him. It happens everyday.
It is easy for some to say that Janay “shared responsibility” for this event. Because she went back to him, and stayed with him; because she was lunging at him in the elevator as if to hit him when he punched her in the face and knocked her unconscious; because this culture likes to make men out to be the victims of women, partly out of respect for all the good men out there and the acknowledgement that women themselves are no angels. It might even be easy for others to say that, hey, the real victim of domestic violence here is Ray.
(And let me stress that in many cases, the abusive partner is indeed a woman. For this particular piece, I’m not talking about those cases.)
But that is failing to understand – or refusing to understand – the actual nature of an abusive relationship.
Abuse is not just physical. Many abusive relationships don’t include physical violence at all.
An abusive relationship is not about violence; it is about power and control.
It is not about how many times you hit your partner, or insulted your partner, or whether your partner strikes back.
It is about the systematic use, over a prolonged period of time, of a variety of tactics intended to keep the abused partner in his or her place, which is wherever the abuser declares it to be (and always in a subservient position).
Not every psychologically abusive relationship culminates in physical violence.
But every physically abusive relationship begins with psychological abuse.
Dr Clare Murphy lists many of the tactics that male abusers use, in various combinations, on their female partners, and summarizes them in her blog:
• One-sided power games including behaviours that ensure he has his way at her expense
• Mind games including guilt trips and confusing her in ways that make her feel crazy
• Inappropriate restrictions including refusing to let her work
• Isolation including controlling incoming information such as what she reads
• Over-protection and ‘caring’ including dissuading her from going out alone in case she gets raped
• Emotional unkindness, violation of trust, Cyberbullying including promising to help and then ‘forgetting’
• Degradation & suppression of potential including criticising her strengths and achievements
• Separation abuse including stalking such as leaving flowers – this sends a threatening message that he can always find her no matter where she is. Whereas, an outsider might look at this act, and think of it as a caring gesture.
• Using social institutions including engaging in child custody battles to maintain power over her
• Using social prejudices such as saying to a disabled partner that she can’t even walk out the door – this reinforces his power
• Denial including refusing to take responsibility for the harm he causes
• Minimising by saying “it wasn’t that bad, get over it”
• Blaming by twisting the story so she appears responsible
• Making excuses such as blaming stress at work
• Using children for example saying he wouldn’t get so angry if she kept the children quiet
• Economic abuse including not allowing her access to any money, or putting her in charge of the budget, but then spending all the money and abusing her when the debt mounts
• Intimate Partner Sexual abuse including pressuring her to have sex when she is sick
• Symbolic aggression including threats to harm her family, friends, pets
• Domestic slavery including punishing her for not carrying out duties he claims she should have, while not carrying out his own
As she observes:
“Each behaviour, when looked at separately, could seem justifiable. Each singular behaviour could look like something minor. Each behaviour on its own could appear that the woman provoked it. Just one of these behaviours viewed from the outside — out of context — could appear like he was just having a bad day. However, look at this short list in its entirety. Now consider this mass of behaviours as a systematic pattern. Also know that women who are subjected to this pattern of abuse and control experience MANY of these tactics — every day, every week, every month, every year — for years and years. Then ask yourself if you think this systematic pattern of power and control is about the partner just having a bad day.”
Abusers are master manipulators. Nobody knows you like your intimate partner; nobody knows how to press your buttons, or reach inside your head – and your heart – in quite as much intricate detail. The abused partner becomes convinced that the abuse is her own damn fault. If only she can figure out how to fix her defective and offensive self, then the relationship will return to the glory days that marked its beginning: the whirlwind romance, the swept-off-her-feet candlelit magic.
Over time, this eats away at her self-esteem until she appears to outsiders just as fragile and unstable as her partner often depicts her to be.
To expect a psychologically abused woman to simply get up and leave her partner is like asking someone to run a marathon – after they’ve been standing inside a cloud of nuclear radiation. What is likely to happen is that the woman will defend the man who abused her.
If a woman went so far as to bring charges against him, she is likely to drop them.
This piece tells of a rather fascinating study that took place in 2011, examining how abusers will convince their partners to deny that the abuse ever happened:
“…a group of researchers published their findings after studying the recorded detention-center phone calls between 25 couples. In each couple, the man had been charged with felony-level domestic violence and was behind bars while awaiting trial in Washington. In each couple, the victim was a woman. Of the 25 couples, 17 women eventually recanted their stories. The phone calls show exactly how the attackers convinced their victims to do this. Attackers in domestic violence have an advantage most criminals don’t. They have an intimate relationship with their victim and know exactly how to appeal for sympathy. They prey on our capacity to forgive. In the detention-center calls, first the men downplay what happened, then they beg for help. They bemoan the horrors of incarcerated life, fret about their children growing up fatherless, worry about how their victims are doing without them, even threaten to kill themselves. They tell stories about the good times, how they first started dating, invoke the Lord, even Buddha. Finally, the attackers tell the victims to change their stories. It works.”
(The piece goes on to quote directly from those conversations.)
Abuse is a colossal mindgame as much as anything else. It is the slow, steady, extreme distortion of the abused partner’s sense of her identity and her very reality.
It deepens over time.
It can be (and often is) compared to a frog in the pot.
The relationship starts out with sunshine and romance. The water is lovely and calm.
But then the cook starts to turn up the temperature — slowly, so that the frog acclimatizes to the change – until the water is boiling and the frog too weak and disoriented to jump out. And if the frog should complain to the cook (stretching the analogy, I know, but bear with me here), the cook will tell it that it is crazy, or oversensitive, and in any case it’s all in the frog’s head. Water? What water?
My heart goes out to Janay Rice. Ultimately it’s her own decision what to do and how to live (and none of our business in any case).
But maybe one day we, as a culture, can deliver a message in a strong, unified voice to Janay and every other woman and man in her situation. We can say that yes, we see the water, it’s getting hotter all the time. It is not and has never been your fault.
And if you ever decide to fight your way out of it, we are here on the other side. We are waiting to help.