Thursday, December 22, 2011


Today is the shortest day of the year. I want to wish everyone a Happy Solstice, and share a few reflections about this time of the year.

First of all, the December holidays are a notoriously difficult time for people who are lonely or who are in painful life circumstances. Because of my work, I especially think at this time of year about women who are involved with men who are tearing them down; and I think about the fact that those men may be dragging children into the pattern of selfish and cruel behavior as well. I also think of those mothers who have been pulled away from their children by an abusive man and by the courts. So if you are a woman living in this kind of atmosphere, please know that you are in my thoughts and I'm wishing all the best for you and your children.

Next, I want to draw our attention to the power of Solstice as a healing time of the year. The period when the days are short and the nights are long has traditionally been viewed as a time for reflection, rest, and renewal. The spirit turns inward and enters a dormant state, making space for deep changes and new growth to take place. The mind calms but does not stop working; in fact, moving below the surface, as in a dream, it may find solutions to problems that our more active, conscious, deliberate kind of thinking was not able to solve. Yes, energy slows somewhat at this time of year, but more importantly it changes forms and works in different ways.

This time of the year more than any other we speak of peace, of kindness, of everyone deserving to be well. During these weeks, a woman whose partner mistreats her may think to herself, “Do I really deserve to be talked to in these horrible ways? Is it really right for someone to be so mean to me? Don’t I deserve kindness as much as anyone?”

One result of this inner shifting and reevaluating around Solstice is that a lot of women take significant relationship steps during the months of January. As the New Year comes in, and the darkness begins to ease, people feel ready to start on new initiatives, to take greater risks, and to reach for the life that they know they deserve.

So even for people who feel despair at this time of year, the potential for a hopeful turn of events is great. Our lives revolve around the sun, literally and figuratively.

Last, I will say a few words about history. The solstices (both winter and summer) used to be among the most revered times of the year spiritually. Women played a huge role in most cultures in shaping and carrying out the spiritual observances. But a few thousand years ago, as spiritual practices came to be more and more controlled by male-dominated religious institutions, women’s spiritual leadership and spiritual vision were pushed more and more to the side. Now in much of the world the solstices are barely commemorated; and in some communities, it is considered ungodly even to celebrate the solstices. Pressuring people to remove nature-based observances from their spiritual practices was one of the ways in which women’s power and insights were systematically undermined.

I see a close link between the individual woman who is trying to get her power back from an oppressive partner and the efforts of women in general to regain their full say in creating, defining, and carrying out our spiritual visions, beliefs, and ceremonies. Personal and spiritual empowerment are interwoven. So listen carefully at this time of year to what your inner voices are telling you on many levels, including about the spiritual truths that you hold most dear. To my male readers, I want to say that these next few weeks are an especially important time of the year for us to be respecting women’s thinking and supporting their independent leadership.

I wish you all a Solstice of light, freedom, power, and kindness. The year ahead holds great promise.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Practicing Patience With Children

When an angry and controlling man lives in the house, his demeanor can set the tone for everybody. His outlook at home is focused on judgment, criticism, and demands. The message he sends constantly is, "You should be doing better! You aren't okay the way you are -- something is wrong with you! You need to be hammered into a better shape!" The mother has to focus huge energy on how to keep his hammer from falling on her -- meaning how to stay out of the way of his put-downs and snarling and aggression.

A woman living in this atmosphere is pushed, often without even realizing it, toward adopting an outlook on her children that is similar to the one the destructive man takes toward her. She can start to view her kids as bundles of problems and faults, as broken items that need to be fixed. She may spend the day yelling and criticizing. Part of why she may fall into this stance is that she sees how her partner reacts -- with ugliness -- every time the children inconvenience him or don't meet his image of perfect kids; so she starts to work doubly hard to mold her children into people that will please him.

If you see yourself in this picture, let me say that I get it that you are trying to do the right thing; you want to protect yourself and your children from harm. But trying to crunch the children down to keep them from upsetting their father can lead in some directions you don't intend, where the tyrannical man starts to creep inside you and make you become like him.

So it's important to balance your short-term urgency with an awareness of your long-term goals. Down the road, what is going to help the most to keep your kids safe from their father's ugly behaviors and attitudes?

1) Believing in their self-worth
2) Experiencing patience and forgiveness
3) Witnessing fairness in action
4) Feeling what it's like to have their voices heard and their opinions taken seriously
5) Learning to defend themselves and to stand up for themselves

Their father is not going to help them develop in these ways, unfortunately; in fact, he keeps modeling the exact opposite by tearing you down, and sometimes tearing them down too. So they are hungry for kindness, patience, and encouragement from you.

You can't be the perfect parent, especially when your partner is bringing so much toxicity into the environment. I don't want you berating yourself about the times when you lose your temper and yell at your kids, or about the days when you are too critical of them. But keep striving. Your kids are looking to you to be everything the opposite of what their father is: patient, supportive, forgiving, and affectionate (without being invasive). And they need you to set firm limits but without harshness.

Today, work to give them this quality of love to the fullest extent you can. You are hugely important to them, whether they allow you to see that or not.

"My children and I are on the same team. Whether today is a hard day or an easy one, I'm going to keep reminding myself how much my love and kindness mean to them."

Sunday, October 2, 2011


The man who abuses his partner tries to make her feel alone – and in many ways tries to make her actually be alone. He tends, for example, to work hard to damage the woman’s friendships and cause distance in her relationships with her relatives. He criticizes her if she gives too much attention to other people, saying that she should be focused entirely on him. He may even listen in on her phone calls and read her emails to keep tabs on her communications with the outside world.

Why does the abusive man want to cut you off from others? First of all, he knows it will increase his power. A victim who is isolated is more dependent, more afraid to stand up to the abuser, more vulnerable. If the abuser can keep you away from contact with other people he can make sure that his voice is the only voice that you hear, and that makes him become the Last Word, the Voice of Truth.

To his mind, isolating you helps ensure that you won’t get information that might help you. The more you have contact with the world, the more you might learn about your legal rights; or you might talk to someone who helps you realize the abuse is not your fault; or you might find out that he’s been lying to you about important things. If you are more in contact with other people, you will feel stronger. You will believe in yourself more, and you might take steps to get your rights back, or to get away from the abuser. He wants to make sure this doesn’t happen, so he tries to narrow your world.

The second reason why the abuser uses isolation tactics is that he wants you to be focused exclusively on doing things for him. And he feels that if you have your own life, then you’ll be putting more of your energy toward yourself, and therefore less toward him. This kind of “zero-sum” thinking is distorted; the reality is that the richer a life you are living, the more you have to give to your partner (and to your children). But the abuser doesn’t look at it that way. He wants to control your attentions, and make them all be for him.

His excuses for isolating you may be disguised as efforts to help you. He may say that you should spend less time with your family because they are too much in your business and are trying to control you. He may tell you that your friends are using you, that they are just after you for money or to get you to look after their children. He may say that people in your life are lying to you. Be on the lookout for ways that he is poisoning your connections while pretending that it’s for your own good.

In many cases a woman doesn’t realize that her partner is isolating her until the damage has gone quite a ways. However, it is never too late to reestablish your connection to the world.

Even if you aren’t with your abusive partner any more, his effects can live on; a woman sometimes finds that it takes a long time to recover from all the damage that the abuser did to her relationships – including damage to her belief that anyone would even want to be her friend. So the project of breaking isolation is an important one even if your relationship is over.

Look for ways to reach out to people. You may have to be secretive about it, you may have to be cunning, but don’t give up. If your abuser is monitoring your telephone, look for ways to send emails and then erase them after they’re sent. If he watches all of your electronics, see if you can get in conversations at the grocery store, or see if you can slip a handwritten note to someone who might be able to help you. If he lets you go to medical appointments, that might be your opportunity to tell someone what is happening at home, or to make a friend in the waiting room. Look for a chance to call a hotline and talk.

Reach out to people who have turned against you, and see if those relationships can be repaired. Try to help people understand how the abuse has affected you, and that you didn’t really want to drop out of contact; help them see how he caused rifts in your relationships. Make apologies where you owe them to people, even if that’s hard to do, and see if you can bring people back close to you. If he has created bad feeling between you and your children, see if you can approach them in a new way, saying things you haven’t said before, and get the door to open again.

Try not to let the abuser convince you that you aren’t a desirable friend. There are people out there in the world who will love you, who will appreciate who you are, who will take the time to get to know what is inside of you, below the surface. There are dozens of women and men whose lives could use somebody like you. Don’t believe him that nobody wants you.

I understand that you may feel that you can’t trust anyone, given how burned you feel by him and by other people who have sided with him. But if he can keep you from ever trusting people, then he wins again. Don’t let him do it. There are trustworthy people in the world, people of honesty and integrity, people who stick by their friends. In fact, there are boatloads of them. Keep your eyes open, yes; don’t trust recklessly. But do trust.

Every day, think of a step you could take that day, even if it has to be a small one, toward breaking your isolation. The world wants you in it.

(As I write this, I am also thinking about people who have been abused in other kinds of circumstances. You might have been abused by one of your parents, or by a boss, or by a same-sex partner you were involved with. Whoever it was, they almost certainly used isolation tactics on you and tried to divide you from potential allies. And they had no right to do that.)

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Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Is There Anyone Who Isn't a Trauma Survivor?

In recent years, I've noticed that we tend to divide the world up into "trauma survivors" and everybody else. But I'm not sure this distinction is entirely real; I think what we're actually dealing with is people who know they've been traumatized and people who have forgotten. Or maybe the division is between people who are visibly shaken by their trauma and those who look solid; after all, we live in a society that places an extraordinarily high value on appearances, where people get a lot of credit for acting as if everything is fine, and a lot of criticism (or pity) for letting their pain show.

Sometimes I wish that for each person that walks by me on the street, I had a way to know what has been done to that person over the course of his or her lifetime, the injustices and betrayals that have tied weights around that person's heart. It's true that people are traumatized by floods and earthquakes, but not nearly as often as their hearts are broken by cruelty or violence from other human beings, most commonly by people they loved or trusted -- their parents, their lovers and spouses, their neighbors, their mentors.

One of the messages I give to professionals in my trainings is that they need to stop thinking that they are different from abused women. Professionals, both male and female, often look down on abused women, thinking things to themselves like, "I'd never let someone treat me that way," and, "If she stays there, she's part of the problem," and many other disrespectful attitudes that dismiss the hard realities that a woman faces -- the hard realities that anyone faces who is in a situation where another person can get away with abusing power.

I ask therapists and police officers and child protective workers and judges to stop having that superior attitude. Everyone has been abused, if they are part of our twisted modern societies. If you haven't been abused by a partner, then you've been abused by a parent, or by an adult relative when you were a child, or by a tyrannical boss, or by a superior officer in the military, or by a dangerous bully.

But people often block out these kinds of experiences that they've had and forget what it felt like, which is part of why they can sometimes be so judgmental and impatient with an abused woman.

If we did better at recognizing and admitting that we've all been traumatized, that each of us has experienced betrayals and abuses of power, then we'd pull together behind abused women and stop letting the society blame them for what abusers do, and we'd stop letting abusers get off the hook. We're all in this together, and the sooner we realize it, the better for everyone.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Abuse Continues Long After Women Leave

by Susan

I saw a T-shirt that other day that said, "Domestic violence only ends when you leave."

If only that were true.

It's easy to think that the woman is free to leave at any time, and therefore she is choosing to be abused by staying. The reality is quite different. Ending an abusive relationship is only the first round of a boxing match with a blind referee against a heavyweight whose appetite for inflicting pain is never satisfied.

The woman risks everything, even her life and the custody of her children, when she leaves. She'll never stop looking over her shoulder. She alone knows what he is capable of because she's seen the ruthless violence that he saves for when they are behind closed doors. In public, he is very charming and no one will believe he is capable of doing what she says he's done. She'll look crazy.

The abuser will make the woman pay a steep price for her freedom. When she leaves, he will escalate the violence and abuse. He will call her night and day. He will tell lies to her family and friends. He will destroy her possessions. He will talk to her about all the ways he can take revenge, how no one will believe her, and how he always wins.

What she does after she leaves will not be based solely on protecting her rights or doing what is right for her. Rather, every single decision she makes will be agonizingly weighed against what the retribution will be from him. If I file for divorce, will he kill me? If I file for custody because he's abusing the children, will he try to get sole custody or falsely accuse me of child abuse? If I file for a protection from abuse order, will it only enrage him more?

He'll use the courts to continue his abuse. Instead of fearing being beaten when she gets home, she'll be afraid of being hit with more court motions. Our judicial system will allow him to make the divorce or custody process a living nightmare. He will delay the process, or bring frivolous motions. He won't answer her lawyer's letters, and he'll send dozens of his own. He will force her to use up what little money she may have fighting him in court over the simplest matters while the referee stands idly by doing nothing.

Or, worst of all, he will take her children away despite overwhelming evidence of his abuse toward them.

Is it any wonder she is having a difficult time leaving?

Now imagine a society that holds him accountable for his abuse. The referee doesn't just cry foul, but prevents the boxing match from even taking place. The abuser is arrested and prosecuted every time he violates a protection from abuse order or doesn't uphold his end of a custody agreement. Custody evaluators and judges believe disclosures of abuse from children, and she isn't afraid of losing custody for protecting her children. She doesn't lose everything she owns to break free; marital assets are split fairly. He is ordered to an abuser program for at least one year, and preferably longer.

It's time to stop blaming women for staying, because we as a society are the ones who let the domestic violence continue long after she's walked out the door. Instead, we need to start truly protecting women and their children after the relationship is over.