It’s bizarre to write about an abusive ex-girlfriend as part of a series of articles praising women who have made a strong impact on me, but I have found in my 30-plus years of existence that the best way to learn is through suffering. And I suffered a lot in one of my early relationships. While I am not grateful for the relationship, I am grateful for the lessons learned.
To be clear, I did not suffer due to any physical harm. I suffered because I cared, and when you care you’re often vulnerable—especially when you’re also young and naive as I was at the time. Unscrupulous people will try to take advantage of you when you care without boundaries. Some call this emotional abuse, which I define as “intentional and harmful psychological manipulation of another human being.” It’s even more pernicious than non-lethal physical abuse because psychological wounds often take far longer to heal.
Nonetheless, there is good to be found anywhere if a person is willing to look long and hard enough. Below are five insights I took with me into subsequent relationships.
- The victim-perpetrator dichotomy is often used as a shorthand for more complex power dynamics. For example, someone who is abused one day can abuse someone else the next day, while a person who is abused may not consider it abuse despite what friends and family say. Two individuals can also be abusive toward each other: sometimes the abuse from one is retaliatory, but at other times both individuals lack both the knowledge and skill to engage with each other in a healthy way. Pop culture certainly does not help the matter.
- People can come to expect abuse as if abuse is the nature of things and cannot be avoided. I attribute this unfortunate attitude to cynicism and learned helpless.
- If someone abuses a person once, they are almost certain to do it again if the circumstances do not change (and especially if the abuser is not held accountable). A healthy person does not experiment with abuse just as a healthy person does not experiment with cancer.
- Women are not the only victims of dating violence and abuse. I imagine this goes without saying to my intended audience, so I won’t belabor the point.
- Abuse must ultimately be identified and resisted by the person experiencing it in the case of fully competent adult victims (children are a different matter). This is a controversial idea, but it’s critical because any form of third-party intervention is extremely difficult and even potentially dangerous if there is no consent from the parties directly involved. Before I recognized that I was in an abusive relationship, I would have dismissed any effort to protect me or castigate my ex as misguided meddling. As a former crisis counselor, I have spoken to many women who defended the men in their lives for behaviors that I would label abuse if it were happening to me, but the point is it wasn’t happening to me. The role of a concerned outsider should be to provide resources and support—not to tell people how they should think or feel about their own experiences and protect them from things they don’t perceive as threats. This is paternalism and should be reserved for children and those who are unable to speak or advocate for themselves.
Love is the trickiest and stickiest of all things. Do not let it poison your good judgment. Moreover, don’t trust another person’s perspective over your own when it comes to matters of abuse, and don’t allow yourself to be either the abused or the abuser. Both are unacceptable.
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