Aug 042010
 

Dr. Ruthie:

Not sure how you feel about being the first person I think of when I come across an internet article about battered spouses!  Anyhow, Cary Tennis (popular advice columnist for Salon.com) receives and reviews a letter from a woman who has been hit by her husband several times.  She wants to make it work.  Frankly, her letter itself gave me the shivers and made me want to hug her through the wires.  Tennis often has a very meandering, indirect tone and he uses it here. I’ll let you form your own opinions on his advice.  Jezebel did a commentary on Tennis’ advice, too.  What are your thoughts?

S.

Thanks for writing, S!  I’m glad you thought of me, even on topics like this.

And this topic is a rough one.  There’s a lot to balance and I see both of their points.  On one hand, I’m aware that pushing her to leave makes the pusher yet another person who is seeking to control her.  While the pusher may have her best interests at heart while the husband is working toward increasing/securing his power and control, they’re both trying to control her.  On the other hand, this could be an emergency at any moment and has already been an emergency.  Her brief description still manages to cover a lot of risk and potential lethality factors.  He has hurt her in front of friends, while pregnant, with restraint, in the kitchen (a very dangerous place for violent fights), he has special training in harming others and has possibly done it to others before, they’re young, it’s happened more than once, etc. This is nothing less than an urgent situation, even if he hasn’t raised a hand to her in months (or years).  And it remains very much unresolved.

There is very little research out there on what happens to survivors of intimate partner violence over the long run.  Some studies suggest that most will leave within a few years.  Other studies on those who have stayed suggest that the acts of physical aggression reduce over time, but the dynamics of emotional abuse and imbalanced power remain.  This is because violent relationships are about a lot more than battering, they’re about a systematic pattern of power and control.  From my own research, I learned how important it is that survivors are able to maintain or rediscover a sense of their identity apart from spouse/survivor/victim/property/partner/etc.  This self identity needs to be supported by those around them, too.  And so, simply telling a person to leave isn’t enough.  It’s much bigger than that to survivors.  Heck, it’s bigger than that to most of us who aren’t in abusive relationships but are in crappy ones, so why should it be any different here?  In addition to all of the reasons we stay in unhappy nonviolent relationships, those surviving a violent relationship are also nearly always dealing with many destabilizing factors in addition to the battering including emotional, financial and/or sexual abuse.  Some experience no battering at all, but it is still abusive due to these other factors.

But what about telling her to stay?  It’s clear that she is hoping to hear about ways to stay, as are many other people in her shoes.  I know very little about their relationship, so I’m grabbing and expanding upon what I have.  And, what I have is the fact that she really wants us to know that (1) she is in love and (2) they are in love with each other.  One of my professional peers once noted that individuals and couples clients who are in the worst shape are those who begin by declaring that they are still together in spite of it all because, first and foremost, they are in love.  She pointed this out years ago, and it has been true in every incident I have encountered with my own coaching clients and also my friends.  Love is the cornerstone.  It must be there by default and needn’t be trumpeted.  Strong couples list a myriad of reasons why thy’re still together, and “of course, we’re also in love” comes as almost an afterthought.  I’m going off very little information here, but I still think that point is worth making.  And yet, it can work.  Yes, it can.  There are stories of couples who have eradicated the physical violence in their relationship (the emotional is unknown) and moved forward with accountability, mutuality of influence, and so on.

I propose telling her that we care about her and that many of us have been in her shoes (and many still are).  Every one of us deserves a relationship in which no one is seeking to establish power and control over the other, regardless of the past.  And, this peaceful reality really is possible for everyone.  I suggest encouraging them both to actively peel back the secrecy and isolation of abuse to increase accountability for him and safety for her.  I would also encourage both of them to become more informed about abusive relationships, what they look like and what it is like to build a nonviolent relationship.  These things can be done as a couple or as single people, and I hope that she is able to navigate to a place where she (or they) can come to a wise decision about their unity for the immediate future as well as the long term.  I’m scared for her, and she is also scared for herself.  My hope is that she can come to a place where she can make these decision out of wisdom instead of fear.

What I hope for her and what I think she should go out and do are pointless right now.  Even if she asked me, I don’t get to make or attempt to impose that decision on her.  It is our place to nurture a situation in which she can more readily choose to be safe, and in which both of them can grown to be peaceful partners, whether or not this is safe or possible with each other.

A few resources that I strongly recommend:

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