Friday, March 28, 2014

When your frame of reference is flawed/Supporting someone who's being abused

[Content note: abuse]

I was having a conversation the other day and I stumbled onto a topic that I've thought about and talked around before, but never really dwelled in for a second.

When you come from an abusive background, your frame of reference for relationships is quite often very, deeply flawed. It's simple for others to see, even when you can't.

I know that I've probably just stated the obvious and people cover this all the time, but it's so true that I need to reiterate it.

From my own personal experience, coming to understand that your family dynamic is abusive can take a really long time. When the abuse stems from a parent or other caregiver, it's literally all you've ever known. Someone who grows up in a healthy environment might see your home situation and immediately recognize that something is wrong, whereas you don't have that perspective to fully grasp it. And while I've never experienced intimate partner violence myself, I would say that the same can often be true...the person being abused in the situation doesn't always have the perspective to see the full picture.

It can be a scary, lonely, long process to come to fully realize what you've been living is not OK. Sometimes things hit a fever pitch and it's undeniable. Other times you get just inklings that things aren't "right." I recently shared this image on Tumblr, and I (sadly) saw many people reblog it with comments of scary realizations like, "Holy shit, this is my dad."

[Image text: a diagram of the cycles of abuse. 1) excuses, 2) honeymoon, 3) routine, 4) tension, 5) trigger, 6) abuse occurs]
Like I mentioned, my experience with abuse was within a family dynamic and it was usually emotional and verbal in nature. Talking with friends from my childhood now, as we look back, they share that they knew something wasn't "right" but didn't have the language to name it. Later, when my partner, Ronald, observed my family, he had the same impression.

I can't emphasize enough how lucky I feel to have stumbled into a happy, healthy, supportive, long term romantic relationship. Often, I think it must have been an accident, because my frame of reference was deeply flawed. Control and insults were normalized in my life. Part of me knew all along that I didn't want to treated like that anymore, but the fact that it ultimately worked out well is sort of a miracle. Really, the luck is that the first person I entered a serious relationship with had a healthier frame of reference and we built a partnership that aligned with that.

I can't help but wonder what would have happened if I had ever seriously dated someone whose frame of reference was a fucked up as mine. It's a scary path of hypotheticals to go down, so let's not.

Upbringings like mine are far too common, so I want to offer some suggestions for partners or friends of someone in an abusive environment. (I'm choosing this group to offer suggestions for because there are lots of resources out there much better than me for people who are, themselves, surviving abuse. But supporting someone who is in an abusive situation can take its own toll so here goes... Please also note that I'm not an expert and these are just things to generally consider.)

1) Respect their boundaries: As I said, it can be scary to be abused but also to realize you are being abused. If someone's not ready to call it what it is or talk frankly about what's happening, respect that and back off. I think it's fine to offer your own observations or ask tough questions (like, "It was really scary for me when he screamed at you like that. Does that happen often?") but when the other person sets a firm limit, don't try to push them beyond that yet. Do leave the door open ie, "OK, we don't have to talk about that right now, but I want you to know any time you do want to talk about it, I'm here."

2) Refrain from "Just do X" advice: Things like, "Just leave him!" "Just move out!" "Just tell her to stop!" aren't actually helpful at all. They reduce extremely complex, difficult situations down to an oversimplified action. They also can make the other person feel ashamed, embarrassed, or like they've disappointed you if they don't follow your very strict, directive advice to a T. This could result in further isolation for them. Do make sure that they know there are alternatives to the situation they're managing, like, "You know you can always stay with me for a while, if you want." or, "She was being really hateful, that's not OK."

3) Don't unintentionally add to the problem: Often well intentioned observers (both strangers and family/friends) try to step and intervene if they see something problematic. I totally understand this want to step in if someone is in harm's way, and sometimes that MUST be done to protect someone's physical safety. But make sure that you don't unintentionally bring more harm to that person. For example, if your partner's abusive parent is yelling something at them, and you jump in, you might actually escalate the situation and leave that person to deal with the fallout when you are no longer there.

4) Stay judgement free, listen to them, and believe what they share: When you bring judgments (or worse even victim blaming) into the situation, you drive that person away from you and become one less support available to them. Examples of judgement sound like, "I would never let her treat me like that." "How in the world do you put up with that?" Instead, listen to what they would like to share and affirm that you believe them. Doubting them sounds like, "It can't be all that bad." "Are you sure that's how it really went down?" Do share your genuine concerns like, "I'm concerned for your emotional health." "I'm worried about you."

5) Offer to help/lend support: Keep the door open so that this person knows you are there for them. If they need help with things you are capable of helping with, help...and if you say you are going to help, deliver on it. Examples might include checking in on them regularly, helping them move, helping them learn new skills, letting them vent about frustrating experiences, inviting them to holidays with you/your family if they are ending their relationship with theirs, offering up your couch for a few days.

6) Model positive frameworks and enforce your own boundaries: If this is your partner or friend, make sure you model a healthy relationship dynamic with them. For example, that flawed frame of reference they have might include things like trying to control you, or making fun of someone they are close to. (This is true in my case. Because my family mocked each other, I thought that's how you show love.) Ronald has done a really great job of tactfully and patiently reigning me in when it goes from more playful jokes to mean-spiritedness. He sets that boundary and reinforces it throughout our relationship as needed, when I backslide to old frameworks.

7) Know that it takes time: As I've alluded to in #6 above, even after years, I backslide. I had 24 years of my old framework, and that doesn't go away overnight. There's also the time that it takes to heal from the abuse in general and the time it takes to get away from the abuser (if they choose to do that.) It just takes a whole helluva a lot of time and patience, which brings me to...

9) Self care: I advocate for this in all things, but supporting someone through this type of situation is tough for the support system too. It can feel really powerless and obviously stressful. So make sure you are mindful of what you need to stay happy and healthy too.

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  1. I think I taught a whole co-hort of students last year who came from homes like that. They were absolutely unable (at first I thought unwilling or just stubborn, then I realized, as you said, their frame of reference was messed up) to simply admit wrongdoing. They could not simply say, "I did x, I'm sorry, it won't happen again." They had such weak egos from being abused at home that all they could ever do was explain, explain, explain defensively, which kept the cycle going -- I was unintentionally aiding and abetting the abuse by keeping on getting in their faces about what they did, demanding they own up to it, and then meting out a consequence. But they couldn't own up to it. Eventually what I did was to name the behavior, tell them I didn't like what they did but I liked them as a person, and then say, but when you keep doing this over and over, this destroys my trust in you to the point where I begin NOT to like you as a person. You need to earn my trust back, so stop doing x. That helped some. I knew something was off but had no name for it. This helps, plus some other reading I did helped. I'm glad I don't have this particular cohort this year, but I worry for them since they seem blunted and oblivious and are still, it seems, oriented outside themselves and still unable and/or unwilling to just accept blame, own their mistake, back down, back off the defensiveness, and move on. I finally told a few of them, admit what you did and then I back off; keep denying and then I REALLY start blaming you for what you did. What's it going to be? They taught me a lot more than I taught them. (I teach middle school and have done so for 20 years.) Cheers, I love your blog. -- K

  2. Absolutely spot-on. I've been through an abusive relationship and towards the end I heard a lot of "Just leave him!", etc. If only it were that easy. It took me several months AFTER he was put in prison (in my state, domestic violence is a third-degree felony...that and he was already on probation) for what he ultimately did to me for me to finally be able to break away.
    Breaking the cycle of domestic abuse/violence is never easy--especially for those of us who came from abusive homes--and I'm glad to see such an honest commentary on not only how to break the cycle of abuse but to try to help others break out of abusive relationships.


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