Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Helping A Loved One Who Isn't Ready to Leave

A woman who has contacted me before recently sent me the following letter:

“I have a sister I’ve been working hard to support as she struggles with how to handle her abusive husband. I’ve been glad to be there for her, and it’s been a nice role-reversal because she’s older than I am, my ‘big sister’. At times I’ve felt that I was really helping, and all of those hours on the phone and email seemed worth it. She finally separated from him a couple of months ago, which was a huge step. She was proud and I felt proud for her.

"But here’s what I’m writing about: Recently I found out from other relatives that she’s gone back to seeing her husband and is thinking about moving back in with him; she’s been lying about it to me, continuing to say how good she feels about staying away from him and what a mean, selfish, intimidating asshole he is.

“So one issue is that I feel betrayed. But even more than that, I just don’t get why she would do that. I start to feel like she just doesn’t have the same level of desire that I do to live away from abuse. She’s already said that she knows he isn’t going to change. I just don’t get it. Any thoughts you have would be good to hear. I’m discouraged… Best to you, Renee.”

Here is my response:

Hi Renee,

I've been thinking about your letter about your sister.

First, I really appreciate how hard you have worked to be there for her. It can feel like a heavy load supporting a woman who isn’t ready to end contact with her partner – but she really needs that support. I believe that in some ways the worse the man has treated the woman, the harder it can be to leave him, precisely because of all the harm he has done. This is especially true if the man is of the style that turns nice (or seems to turn nice) for substantial periods of time, then goes back to being abusive. The confusion and drama that this kind of man can create is overwhelming. Many of these men have the power to create an endless nightmare through the custody process and through turning the children against their mother, and I don't blame someone who isn't ready to pay that price. Some guys get more dangerous when the woman leaves than they were before, so the physical risks are high. Some women are so badly shaken by the abuse that they don't believe they'll ever find a love that's better, and they'd rather have intermittent love than no love at all. Some abusers do change, and even though they are very few, the fact that the possibility exists is very tantalizing. The impacts of abuse-related trauma are huge, and we are only beginning to grasp their depth.

And these are just a few of the reasons why it is so hard to break away. There are many, many more. We live in a society that makes it very difficult for women to get away from guys that treat them badly, and then we turn around and blame her for having so much trouble breaking free. I know it can be frustrating to support a woman who isn't ready to permanently end things, or who simply can't (because the costs of doing so would be too high to her and to her children). I think the best thing you can do as the helper is to go to someone else to get support for yourself about how hard it is for you to be there for a woman who is caught in that trap.

A wonderful book that I recommend is called Helping Her Get Free (former title: “To Be An Anchor in the Storm”) by Susan Brewster. It has great advice about supporting an abused woman, including supporting her through the decision not to leave (or at least not to leave yet). It’s the only book I’ve seen that recognizes how hard it can be to be the one in the helper role, and that speaks to the helper with compassion. The woman you are helping deserves understanding, but so do you.

And I understand why it’s upsetting to find that she isn’t being truthful with you. The thing is, she’s been so torn down by her husband that she is desperate for praise and approval from other people. So she is trying to tell you what she thinks you want to hear, so that you’ll be warm and kind with her. She needs, therefore, to discover that you are going to be warm and supportive with her unconditionally; that will help her climb up out of the shame (which her abusive partner has caused) enough to feel able to tell you the truth about things, during both the ups and the downs.

Thank you for being so thoughtful and concerned about your sister. She really needs you to hang in there with her.

Best to you,

Lundy B.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

A Healing Weekend

Twenty-two of us (twenty-one women and one man) just spent the weekend together at a healing retreat for women who are coming out of an abusive relationship. The retreat was called “The Life That Awaits You.” Some of the women had been out of the relationship for years. Others had ended the relationship only a few months ago. And a few participants were still living with the abusive man in the same house, although their relationships were over. Most of the women knew their relationships were over for good, while others were still holding a place inside of themselves for the possibility that the man would decide to take his behavior seriously and start working to change.

A few women felt that their circumstances were so different that perhaps they didn’t entirely belong at a retreat for survivors of abuse by an intimate partner. I won’t describe the differences, since someone might recognize their stories if I gave details. But what matters is that the group reached out and made each woman feel welcome, and by the end everyone knew they had a place with us.

This morning I feel the glow around me of all the love, courage, and outrage that poured out of the women over the course of the weekend. Women are beautiful. The human spirit is beautiful. The abuser tries so hard to destroy the woman’s spirit; in a way that is his central goal. But during these days women were able to look into each other’s eyes and see that the abusers had not succeeded. Despite extreme cruelty and degradation, these men had not been able to make women lose their fight, their belief in themselves, their fierce loyalty to their children. Yes, he had done incredible harm, harm that will take years to heal, but he had not squelched the flame, and it was rapidly gathering warmth and heat and roaring back up into a huge fire.

I am so fortunate as a man to get the opportunity to be in the presence of these brave, kind women as they tell the truth of what was done to them and move towards the light. It is such a great honor for me. They give every bit as much to me as I give to them, though they sometimes find that hard to believe; years of invalidation have planted the idea inside them that their love and their example and their brilliant insights just couldn’t be as powerful and significant as what comes from the leader of the retreat. But I am walking around today so strengthened in my own life, so reinforced for dealing with my own challenges, so fortified in overcoming my own fears and sadnesses, from what I watched happen over these days and soaked up from it.

I want to express my deepest gratitude to all the women who came to the weekend. And beyond that, I want to say to all women who are fighting to get free from male violence and intimidation, and who are setting their sights on healing: the whole world owes gratitude to you, because your fight for freedom is helping all of us gain our own freedom.

[Written September 20, 2010]

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Why Do Mel Gibson’s Violent Tirades Matter?

If you haven’t listened to any of the tapes of Mel gibson’s violent and degrading verbal attacks on his partner (or, I assume, now his ex-partner) Oksana Grigorieva, you might not want to. They are disturbing for the level of potential for violent assault that they communicate; for their level of woman-hating; and for the intensity of the hatred he sounds like he feels toward Grigorieva in particular, for daring to be her own person. The tapes are, in a word, disgusting. (Links to them are available at the end of this blog, if you feel you must hear them.)

So why not just ignore them? Why do they matter? Much of the news coverage and commentary discusses Gibson’s threats and insults as if they are just the entertaining explosions of a fading celebrity. I have read articles from the New York Times and Los Angeles Times that focus on questions such as: 1) How his behavior is affecting his film sales, 2) How the Radaronline website is gaining in popularity by exposing his tapes, and, 3) How Gibson’s decline is connected to the overall weakening of the power of the Christian Right. I’m not saying that these articles mention the topics I listed; I’m saying that each of those topics was what an entire article was written about.

More important is what they aren't writing about. I haven’t succeeded yet in finding a single article that discusses what the Mel Gibson tapes show us about domestic violence, which is particularly striking given that domestic violence is the main issue that these tapes are about; they are acts of domestic violence in themselves, they refer to past domestic violence assaults by Gibson, and they contain threats of future assaults by him. The media response shows how powerful our societal tendency remains to avoid talking about male violence against women, and to try to change the subject to anything else under the sun.

Now I will answer my own question. The tapes matter because, 1) They show how terrifying Gibson’s behavior would be to a woman involved with him, 2) They show how an admired (at least by many, though certainly not by all) celebrity can be a terrorizer, and virtually a jailer, of women in private, and 3) They illustrate powerfully the mentality of men who abuse women, because Gibson in so many ways acts just like other batterers. What I most notice about Gibson is what an ordinary domestic violence perpetrator he is, not what a special one he is. Ordinary, that is, and very dangerous, as many ordinary batterers are.

There are multiple layers worth examining. Over the next several days, I will write more about this case and deal with the questions of:

  • How Gibson reveals the classic abuser mentality
  • How stunningly misogynistic his rants are (and I do not use that term lightly)
  • Why it’s important to understand the connection between his contempt for women and the rest of his well-documented bigotry
  • Why he should be considered dangerous
  • What this case shows about how our society needs to change in order to stop domestic violence (including a discussion of why Whoopi Goldberg’s comments about the case are so unfortunate)

And as I said, you really don’t need to listen to the tapes, especially if you’ve been through abuse yourself. But listen to them if you want to.

TAPE #1: Gibson Admits Hitting Grigorieva, Threatens To Kill Her

TAPE #2: Gibson Says He'll Burn Down House After Demanding Sex

TAPE #3: Gibson Screams Disgusting, Anti-Female Slurs and Vulgarities

TAPE #4: Gibson Tells Grigorieva That No One Will Believe Her That He Hit the Baby (But He Doesn't Deny It)

Friday, April 9, 2010

Expecting Magic From Abuser Programs

One of the questions I most commonly get asked at speaking events is, "Do programs for abusive men work?" My answer is that, when they are run well, they work as well as we can expect them to in the time they are given. A typical length for a batterer program is 52 hours -- that is to say, 26 weeks for two hours a week. Sometimes the meetings are only an hour and a half, so the total time is even less. In other words, we are talking about undoing twenty or thirty or forty years of destructive socialization that has made an abusive man who he is, all in six months! The expectation is far-fetched.
I encourage people to make the comparison to substance abuse programs. If a man (or a woman, for that matter) who had been drinking or drugging heavily for five or ten or fifteen years claimed to have licked the addiction through once a week counseling for a grand total of six months, most substance abuse experts would laugh the person out of the room. In the world of recovery from addiction, the common outlook is that if you go to three or four meetings per week for a period of a year, and work hard in the program for that year, you have probably finally gotten a good start on dealing with your issues; if you stick with it for a few more years, you might succeed in really turning your life around.
Why would we expect it to be easier for a man to overcome a problem with violence and psychological viciousness toward women than to deal with a drinking problem? Abusiveness is just as deep a problem as addiction, and every bit as destructive -- in fact, often more so.
If the society decides that it's time to send abusers the message that we take their crimes against women seriously, and that we refuse to live in a society that is shaped by domestic terrorists, we will start sending abusers to programs that they have to attend at least three times a week for two to three years. This will bring us in line with the kind of effort, and the kind of length of time, that it takes to make personal changes from deep, destructive, dangerous problems. Until then, we're continuing the pattern of slapping abusers on the wrist and sending them the message that change is optional. And it it's optional, very few abusers are going to choose to do the work, and make the sacrifices, involved in learning to respect women's rights.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Healing is Possible - A Thought for the New Year

In the depths of darkness, the kind of darkness that you can be cast into if you have a partner who tears you to pieces, it seems as though the light will never come again. But it is, truly, possible to scramble your way back to freedom and dignity, and to smile again. You can get there.

The human heart has an almost unlimited ability to bounce back from spiritually destructive experiences. Some deep part of us, the soul you could call it, fights not just for life, but for a good life, and a just one.

Your healing can begin even if the mistreatment hasn’t ended. Some important steps toward healing often happen for women while they are still mired in dealing with an abusive partner. In fact, if you get a little taste of feeling better, that can sometimes be the shift that gives you the strength to turn things around in the oppressive atmosphere that you are being forced to live in.

Certainly, you can heal faster if you can make the abuse stop, whether by calling on the police and the court system if they are helpful where you live, or involving your friends and relatives, or by threatening to leave the relationship (if you can do that safely), or by going through with ending the relationship (if you can do that safely).
I will be writing soon about strategies for making abuse stop. But my message for today is that healing may be able to start right away, and doesn’t necessarily have to wait until the big problems are solved.

Healing is stimulated by developing a kind and supportive relationship with yourself, and by developing similar relationships with other people. This is how you create the context in which deep recovery can happen, through myriad paths that we will be writing about here. Because you yourself are the closest and most accessible person to you, it makes sense to turn some attention now to ways that you can be a loving, thoughtful friend to yourself. I will write in the weeks ahead about various ways in which you can do this, but here is one way you might begin:

Stop believing anything he tells you about who you are or what you are like.

And that means don’t believe him even if he’s telling you supposedly positive things about yourself – abusive men know how to use praise as a control tactic, just the way they use criticism.
I’m not saying you have to argue with him about the mean or manipulative things he says. I realize that often it’s better, for your own peace and safety, to be quiet, or even to pretend to agree with him, so that he’ll feel triumphant and leave you alone. But in the privacy of your own mind, where he can’t hear what you are saying, keep reminding yourself that he is distorting and twisting everything, and he is so very wrong in his view of who you are.

You may be thinking, “But what about the criticisms he makes that I know are true?” Maybe your finances really are in a mess, or maybe you really have gained weight, or maybe your friends really have turned against you, and he’s throwing these things at you.

But even if he’s right, he’s still wrong. Why?

1) Because he’s exaggerating, even if there are partial truths to what he’s saying.

2) Because he’s telling you that everything that is difficult in your life is your own fault and shows what a weak person you are underneath, and that’s not true at all.

3) Because he’s ignoring how profoundly his mistreatment of you has contributed to these problems, or has even created them entirely.

4) Because people’s difficulties don’t – and shouldn’t – define who they are.


A man who chronically mistreats you is not a good source of information about who you are , including about your supposed weaknesses, or even your strengths. (Because even when he praises you, he’s doing that to try to mold you into who he wants you to be, rather than accurately reflecting back to you the person you really are – or he’s praising you to manipulate you emotionally.) His vision is too distorted, and too self-centered and self-serving, to have any useful clarity, at least when the subject is you. In short, it is impossible to abuse someone while also seeing them clearly.

Listen to yourself, and to people who treat love you and treat you well. Don’t listen to him.