Monday, 1 July 2013

Zero Tolerance

The latest tabloid rumour (with photos) is that Nigella Lawson's cooking tools have been carted out of the Saatchi house. It seems that the restaurant altercation was not a case of celebrities fighting in public for their amusement but of a marriage in serious crisis. And I'm sorry about that because divorce is awful and domestic abuse even worse, and it is very sad that Nigella did not remove herself from the situation until photos of her husband's rotten behaviour were splashed across the newspapers and televisions of Britain. Finding oneself in an friends-and-family intervention must be quite painful and embarrassing (if ultimately a relief); I can only imagine what an all-UK intervention must be like.

One of the saddest aspects of domestic abuse is that the abused person may still very much love the abuser. That is the hell of it, really. It can be very hard to summon up the great liberating burst of contempt that gets you out the door. For one thing, abusive people can be terribly good at turning on the charm and affection the people who love them crave so much. Domestic abuse is often cyclical: the abuser being really sweet and kind, and then becoming rather irritated, and then building up to some horrible outburst of either verbal or physical violence, and then becoming really sweet and kind again afterwards, right when the abused person needs comfort most. Ugh, horrible.

We read stories of battered women or (more rarely) men and wonder uncomfortably if we are "the sort of woman" who ends up abused or "the sort of woman" who ends up battering her husband. My feeling is that all kinds of women can end up in an abusive relationship, as either the abused or the abuser, or both. There are men who violently take out their frustrations on their wives---and battered wives who then take out their frustrations on their children. But apparently there are also women who tyrannize over husbands and children in such a way that husbands and children creep in fear before them, even if the only weapon employed is the tongue. What a mess sin makes of life.

I see in myself both the potential for caving in to abuse and for verbally abusing others, and I try very hard to remember and guard against that. Fortunately, I'm married to a kind and reasonable man for whom I have a lot of respect and who respects my decision not to socialize with abusive people. I have zero tolerance for people who try to put me down. It's okay to warn me when I err (to employ a sentence from Wheelock's Latin grammar); it's not okay to put me down. And meanwhile, I have a lot of affection for my husband, and don't want to make him feel badly. And thus, when I am grouchy, I try to say as little as possible.

Many people who know me would be surprised to hear that I have the potential for caving into abuse because I have "a strong personality." But like almost everyone else, I desire respect and affection, especially from outwardly attractive, admirable people. And if an attractive, admirable person suddenly gets nasty, I am just as likely as the next person to think that it is I who am to blame.

But I do have my limits, especially now.

I best like couples who act like buddies and who can joke around like buddies. My brother seems to have a lot of married-couple friends like that. I'm less comfortable around couples when one half gives voice to sudden public bursts of irritation with the other half, or where one half is obviously trying to placate the other half. The inequality inherent in their relationship flutters out like a big red flag, frightening me away.

My parents never, ever speak disrespectfully to each other (at least, never in front of their children), nor do they make timid plays for each other's attention. They are great friends. And because my parents are great friends, I have a switch in my brain that sometimes goes off when a man says something nasty to me and I think, "My father never speaks to my mother like that."

Sometimes the switch gets stuck, though. Such is the power of wishful thinking over reality: "I wish this man didn't speak to me like that when I have invested so much emotional capital in him. Oh well. Maybe if I say the right thing, he'll calm down. Maybe if I act in a different way, he'll admire me again. He was so sweet yesterday! Maybe he'll be sweet tomorrow. I just have to survive right now."

I think about all the "strong women" who don't put up with disrespect from their female friends, or their  female enemies, or from a boss, or from employees or students or their children, and yet put up with all kinds of disrespect from the men they admire.  I think that is terribly sad, and I wonder what can be done to combat it. Could it be the terrible burden of Woman, an inordinate desire to be loved, that is to blame? Yes, of course, the men are to be blamed for making the nasty remarks or for cultivating an enjoyment of humiliating women, but ultimately women are responsible for ourselves and our safety. So why do so many of us put up so long with emotional and verbal abuse?

(Sex & the City watchers may remember the episode "The Caste System" in which Charlotte is so overwhelmed by catching the eye of a movie star, she quickly goes from being confident and happy to being obsequious and confused. Only when the star becomes over-the-top disgusting does she regains her sanity. I won't link to a video, but here is their relationship in a nutshell:

Wylie Ford: Oh, Charlene, you're so hot, I can't wait to get you to bed.
Charlotte: Charlotte. My name is Charlotte.
Wylie Ford: I prefer Charlene. )


Nzie (theRosyGardener) said...

I saw an article that quoted Nigella as saying she wants to please people as well. I don't know that we'll ever fully understood what happened, but it's a shame regardless and I hope all parties heal and have healthy relationships in the future.

As far as abuse goes, I used to work on a helpline for victims of domestic and sexual violence, and I can tell you any woman can be abused. Without going into particulars, this was driven home to me with one call from a woman who was well-educated and had a high level job. I imagine many people she worked with and knew socially would have been surprised that she was battered and at what her husband had done that finally precipitated the call. And sometimes it's not even about the support system - another woman told me her family was really encouraging and was trying to help her, but she felt so ashamed and hurt that she continued to say in a situation I'd consider life-threatening.

In our training for this we had a talk from a counselor about boundaries, and that's what I look out for in relationships -- where someone's identity is all tied up in another person or the relationship, that's unhealthy, and it makes them less likely to get out of it should abuse occur. Ladies, be careful.

Kate P said...

"So why do so many of us put up so long with emotional and verbal abuse?"

This is just my puzzling it out--I wonder if some women think they don't deserve better--or they don't think they will ever have anything "this good" in their lives again. You know, somewhere along the way they got the idea that they aren't worth of real love (or have no idea what real love looks like).

Seraphic, I have your "Don't rip yourselves off" oost printed out and hanging up at home, to remind myself that I don't have to choose the wrong things.

Kate P said...

That should say "post" not "oost" above. I've got glare on my screen. Sorry!

Jackie said...

It starts small. Crossing a boundary to test a reaction. A small broken promise or a gesture of disrespect.

And I think abusers have a kind of 6th sense at nosing out people who've been conditioned to accept mistreatment.

Nigella may be the queen of the kitchen and a television star to the world, but she is also the same person who described being abused by her mother (and rather neglected by her father). I think that some of the most "together" people I have known -- people who are REALLY with-it -- have had to develop a shiny public veneer in order to cope.

(Also, I think part of the reason that Nigella was so spectacularly successful was that her cooking was one area where no one was messing with her.

A lot of people whose personal lives are kind of in mass confusion will really go to town on their work. That may be the only place of their life that makes order and sense, where things proceed logically. Such a person, who has spent untold amounts of energy trying to cope with abuse that makes no sense, will possess a kind of superhuman drive in areas where they are at last unencumbered.)

As to how we can avoid such situations: It would be really, really great if abusers were as obvious as in movies, where it's about as subtle as an anvil and there are more red flags waving than at a Communist parade! But that is not the world in which we live, unfortunately.

Like I said, it starts small and the best way to sniff it out is to call someone *immediately* on it. "Hey, why did you [curse, use misogynistic language, treat that waiter like dirt]?" Keenly observe their reaction. Do they turn it around on you? Diminish your response? Or do they take responsibility?

I would also recommend studying up on the stuff my sister calls "manipulation 101"-- where someone is trying to exercise control over another person.

Most importantly, this kind of stuff --like mold-- thrives in secret and darkness. TELL PEOPLE what is going on. If you get a bad feeling about something, TELL. If you feel ashamed or duped, TELL someone anyway. Shame is a prime tool of manipulators; it's what they count on to keep you silent in a bad situation.

Thank you, Seraphic, for yet another great discussion of important stuff.

Elisabeth said...

Sadly, the same people who are willing to contort themselves into all manner of unseemly shapes to try to make their marriages work (think how powerful a weapon "you vowed before God to love and obey me" is) will do the very same thing to prevent anyone from knowing what is going on. When my "marriage"(now annulled) imploded spectacularly with police involvement and worse, people around me suddenly realized that I had been dropping small distress calls for years. If a friend you don't know enough about says something seemingly crazy like, "Oh, you know, he doesn't like homemade bread..." laugh, because it's unavoidable, but then ask the (obvious) probing question. "Really, when you make bread, he won't eat it?" 99% of the time, tears will follow, and you will have a chance to make an amazing difference in someone's life. Once upon a time, someone said to me, "You know, obedience unto death was not meant as a model for Christian marriage" and my life has never been the same.

Jo said...

This may not apply to Nigella's situation, but I think another reason why a woman might hesitate to disentangle herself from such a horrible relationship and avoid getting help is that the cycles of charm and violence (whether physical or verbal) can trigger a sort of 'mother protectress' reaction, even if children aren't involved. Something along the lines of "This is bad, and I feel very threatened, but if I don't stay with him he will victimize someone else. It's my duty to try and shape him into a better person." The cycle of domestic violence is so vicious because the offender is only threatening part of the time, presenting a false sense of hope that 'maybe this is the last time he'll hit me.' It's not like getting mugged in a parking lot where there is clearly a bad guy to run from.

Anonymous for this post (again) said...

I agree with a lot of what's been said here.

One factor that increases a person's likelihood of being in an abusive relationship is growing up in an abusive home. My parents both grew up in abusive homes and when they got married my father abused my mom and us children. So if you grew up in an abusive home, I highly recommend getting counseling so that you can learn the warning signs and learn if there's anything in yourself that might draw in the wrong kind of man, and especially so that you can heal and be whole again after being torn down by the abuse. I am getting counseling right now to help me find healthier ways of dealing with these emotions and to move forward to a better place.

Another reason some women stay in abusive relationships is lack of resources to get out. If someone is a stay-at-home mom being abused, she probably does not have the financial resources to get out or file for a divorce. In some places there are women's shelters, but they do not serve women and children in verbally and emotionally abusive relationships.

I also agree with the person who said the victim often wants to shape the abuser into a better person. One reason my mom stayed with my dad for so long was that she felt if she "coached" him enough he would stop being abusive. I have to admit that I am still mad at my mom for tolerating abuse and thinking it could be "coached" away. In my mind, if someone is abusing your children, you get your children away from the abuser as soon as possible instead of staying and trying to reform the abuser. In my experience, it is very rare for an abuser to change his/her behavior.

I also have noticed that sometimes victims of abuse make excuses for their abusers. I know a woman whose father pointed a loaded gun at her mother's head, but this woman still insists that her father had a good heart all along. To be fair, her father repented of his behavior when he learned he had a terminal illness, but I think behavior like his is not indicative of "a good heart." Her excuse for him is that he was a much nicer person when he wasn't drinking.

I could go on and on, but more than this is probably something I should save for counseling.

Urszula said...

I used to think I could never be 'that girl', crying on her cell phone in the shopping mall trying to explain to her boyfriend why she was 10 minutes 'late' with her text message to him. After all, I come from a healthy family, not abusive in any way, I was popular and well-liked by girls and guys alike...

Until I found myself in that shopping mall, sobbing into that phone.

The problem with abusers is they can be charming. They can be victims themselves - of someone else's abuse. So you stay with them because you hope you can make it right, maybe your gentleness will help heal the wounds from his parents' divorce and the fact that his father emotionally and verbally abused him, and still does, to this day.

Abusers don't look like abusers - the man who verbally abused me was my best friend of many years, whose demons of jealousy and possessiveness only reared their ugly heads when we started being exclusive and turned my life into misery. But he also made me the best presents, took me out on the most extravagant dates, and showered me with attention and words (words! so many words!).

Part of it is guilt. That's why it's so hard to get out -because you end up believing it's your own fault - that's the way he's taught you, you've learned the lesson well. You believe that 'if only I change something about myself, become a better person, he won't be jealous about the bus driver anymore". You feel like you have to make the relationship better, because it's your fault it's not working.

Thank God for discerning and loving parents who knew how to swiftly and lovingly put an end to the insanity.

Seraphic said...

Dear me! Urszula and Anon, I'm very sorry that happened to you.

There's a lot of learning suffering brings with it.

Seraphic said...

Up since 5:30 AM, so hope I'm making any sense!

Anonymous said...

Is this not the curse of Eden again?

"Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee [all the days of thy life]."*

Surely the curse encapsulates the woman's predicament for all time? Men's capacity to rule over us comes with our "desire" for them, in a sense that is not quite reciprocally true for men with regard to women.

Alias Clio

*I can't find the translation with which I'm most familiar, so I added the ending in square brackets to complete the quotation as I remember it.