Don’t tell me how I feel

I’ve been reading Controlling People by Patricia Evans, after hearing it recommended by a lot of other abuse survivors. I actually bought and started reading it quite a few months ago, but stopped within the first couple of chapters because I found all the warming-up text really tiresome. In general the more a writer tries to tell me how surprising and essential the insights they’re about to share are, the more skeptical and disengaged I become.

Eventually I got through that, and have found the meat of the book really helpful in the way it frames interactions that our society tends to treat as normal. Here’s an example, not from the book:

Them: You forgot to pick up this thing from the store even though I asked you to! Clearly you don’t listen to a word I say, and you don’t care at all about me if you can’t do this one little thing.

Me: I…. I’m sorry? But… I do care. But… I’m sorry. [goes away feeling both guilty and indefinably violated]

I’ve had exchanges like this since childhood, and in most of my formative relationships. Sometimes it’s about small everyday executive function things like remembering to do something I was asked to do, or arriving somewhere on time. Sometimes it’s about bigger relationship issues like not communicating about something effectively, or not realizing how hurt my partner would be when I did this-and-such.

Big or small, though, it always takes this form: they express how upset they are AND they say some things about my state of mind that they assume to be true based on what I did. And I end up feeling like I can’t say anything. Because yes I did screw up, and they have a right to be annoyed/angry. But their expression of hurt came with lots of statements about who I am and how I think and feel, statements that are almost never true.

It feels really awful to hear someone telling me, wrongly, how I feel and how I’m thinking, and it also damages the relationship. And yet I don’t feel like I can argue against because, after all, I’m the one who did something wrong.

What Evans does is treat it as completely incredible and absurd that anybody would think they can know what’s in another person’s mind. She points out the logic of that: of course nobody outside my head has better access to what’s going on inside it than I do. Of course any statements they make about my inner state are completely imaginary, made up, not based on real knowledge they have. But in my world it’s so normal for people to make such statements. It took me several chapters of Evans matter-of-factly labeling this dynamic as ridiculous and irrational before it really started to sink in.

For me, this was harder because I grew up in a religion that had gaslighting at its very foundation. I was taught that my mind and heart were entirely sinful and corrupted. It didn’t matter that I cared about other people so much it hurt — by definition, I was selfish and depraved, and if I didn’t believe this, it was a further sign of sinfulness and pride. I was never taught to know myself and trust my internal knowledge. I was always told that some outside authority knew my inmost heart and mind much better than I did.

In my teens, having somebody else tell me what I was really thinking and feeling was my ideal of intimacy and romance. Someone who understood me better than myself, who could see into my heart (and love me) — that was the dream. I can see now, looking back, that my relationship to myself was broken. My overwhelming desire for a romantic partner was largely because I did not feel I had permission to know and love myself. I needed someone else to know and love me — I craved it.

In adulthood, I started to develop a good relationship with myself and being alone became more comfortable. But I still had those long years of conditioning, that made me very vulnerable to someone telling me what I was “really” thinking and feeling — especially when the “real” thoughts were bad. That has been a factor in all of the badly-ending relationships I’ve had in the last several years. Over and over, a partner would tell me, not just “you hurt me,” but “you hurt me and you did it for this reason” or “you hurt me and that is a sign of these essential thoughts, feelings, and qualities in you.” And I would be left trying to figure out how to apologize and make amends while also asserting the truth of who I am. (I never did figure out how. I tried, a few times and a few ways, but only ever met with resistance and doubling-down.)

It took a while but I’m down to a pretty much zero-tolerance policy for this kind of nonsense. The people I’m close to now are all really good about taking responsibility for their own thoughts and feelings, and letting other people be the authority on theirs. Someday I hope I can be like Evans and look at somebody telling me how I feel as if they’re telling me I have two heads. But for now, the plan is to stick close to people who respect me as the authority on myself, and avoid people who don’t.

Toxic Communities

Trigger warning for emotional abuse

This post over at Amusing Nonsense left a bitter taste in my mouth, but not because of anything he said. Word by word, everything he said seemed pretty accurate and made sense. It’s just that it was a defense of New Atheists, and my sister’s two abusive exes were the first New Atheists I ever met, and that association, for me, will probably always be there.

The comments over there are consistently excellent discussions. On that particular post, a recurring topic was whether or not atheists are in danger of falling into the same traps of groupthink and extremist, mindless passion as most other groups. I don’t think it’s a danger; it’s an inevitability, because I have never met a political subculture where some factions didn’t fall into this trap. Feminists, liberals, queer communities, social justice advocates… every one of these groups that I (proudly) belong to has also contained rather sizable groups of people who I just have to avoid because of horrible petty bullshit.

In all of these cases, I have heard defenses that a person’s feminism/atheism/Christianity/-ism of choice had nothing to do with their overall shittiness, and thus shouldn’t reflect on the group they are a part of. For the most part, I agree with this. Any sufficiently large group will contain some awful people, and the group as a whole shouldn’t necessarily be blamed for this. However, I want to go a little deeper.

When you have someone clever, mean spirited and engaged in some sort of movement, they can often find ways to twist an ideology to serve their own purpose. For example, a New Atheist behavior I frequently saw was using religion as an excuse to separate a newly-deconverted atheist from their former friends. Religious people often come from circles where nearly everyone they know is religious. Often some former friends will cut a friend who lost their faith off, but usually some people will be interested in maintaining a respectful friendship. New Atheists can shame a lowercase new atheist for still having religious ties, or belittle their remaining religious friends to their faces and take said friend’s offense as proof that they are intolerant of atheists and bad, bad people. This is a classic predator tactic; cut the victim from their former support network, so they have no one to help them and may even be completely dependent on the abuser. In certain politically idealistic communities, it is common to have a reflexively derisive attitude towards those unenlightened outsiders, so this kind of behavior may not even be noticed as unusual, while some shy newcomer is being harassed or even beaten up behind closed doors.

Again, this is not a problem of ALL NEW ATHEISTS ARE EVIL!!! It’s an example of how even a good idea can be twisted. (Good ideas like “atheists should be as free to be open about their lack of belief as Christians are about their having-of-belief, and also religion should either get out of the public sector or be willing to share the space with everybody. And that’s actually everybody, not ‘epic Nativity scene plus a menorah in a corner somewhere’ everybody.”) And the trouble is that while communities are great at recognizing abusive tactics when they are shrouded in an ideology that isn’t theirs, they are terrible at recognizing the exact same tactics when the language used is their own.

So what’s the solution to this? I don’t think there’s a perfect one that will eliminate this happening ever. That would be like expecting weeds to not show up in your garden. You can spread down some mulch to minimize it, but sooner or later something will pop up. The only solution is to be aware that it happens, even in your garden. If you’re somebody who has the power to weed, then make sure you check for weeds.

And for those who don’t have that power, let me tell you what I wish somebody had told me and my sister. If you like the ideals that get passed around in a group, but often find yourself feeling belittled, bullied and ignored, or if you’re not but you feel like you constantly have to live up to high standards of behavior in order to not be treated that way, that means you’re in one of those weedy subgroups. Leave. It’s okay. If these ideas are as awesome as you think they are, somewhere out there is a group where people live those ideals without being total assholes.

A voice and its uses

This has been a really great week. Last Friday, my first article on abuse in polyamory went up on Everyday Feminism, which got great responses and brought me a lot of new followers (a belated hi and welcome! to all of you.) On Wednesday, The Toast published my piece about my relationship with my best friend. I’ve been wanting a way to share this story for a long time, and I’ve been a huge fan of The Toast since they started (this was the first piece I read and it’s been pure and devoted love ever since), and I was BONKERS excited that they wanted to publish my piece.

And this morning, my brother (and co-blogger!) Lane and I presented at the Philadephia Trans-Health Conference about dealing with partially-supportive family in the process of coming out and transitioning. We had an astonishing turnout, especially since it was at 8:45 on a Friday morning, and it was awesome to get to stand up with him and share with a group about the experiences we’ve had. A lot of people said our talk was helpful to them, which always makes me happy. (We may write up some of our talking points here at a later time.)

So it’s been a great week for sharing my stories and using my experiences, some of them pretty awful at the time, in ways that are helpful to others. But life can’t be sunshine and rainbows all the time, and today a thing happened that I’ve been braced for since October… my ex-boyfriend, who was emotionally and sexually abusive, posted one of his many attacks on my ex-husband Shaun, and used the fact that I left Shaun after he hit me as part of his ammo.

He was able to do this because I mention that in the piece about my best friend. I thought long and hard about including that, but decided to go ahead because it is true, and that’s a part of my story that I have every right to tell when and where I want to. I don’t want to tiptoe around what happened, regardless of how it might make others uncomfortable or be used by people who hate me. I’ve been finding my voice this year and I’m not willing to throttle it back.

But I’ve always known that one consequence of doing this would be that my ex-boyfriend would immediately pick up on it and use Shaun’s treatment of me as another example of why Shaun is an evil person who should be shunned by everybody, while still shrugging off and making excuses for the abuses and assaults he perpetrated on me. And there’s no way I can effectively stop him from doing this, nor am I going to try. I’m just going to say, publicly and for the record, that I utterly repudiate this person’s use of my experiences, which I never shared or discussed with him, against my former husband. It is appallingly disrespectful to use (and distort) my voice and story when it suits him and ignore, minimize, and attack it when it doesn’t. It’s also exactly what I expected of him.

I’m not going to link to the post; in addition to the disrespect he shows me, what he writes is false and misleading in several respects, and continues his pattern of discussing sexual encounters without the consent of the other people he names as involved.

Also for the record, if I believed Shaun to be a danger to other women (in the way I do believe my ex-boyfriend to be a danger to women and communities), I would speak out about it; not because as a survivor I owe it to my community, but because I have found power and healing in speaking out, and because I do think it helps for those of us who are willing to share openly about our experiences. I don’t believe that, so I haven’t said anything. I don’t feel unsafe sharing a space with him or attending a conference he will also be at. I did and do feel unsafe sharing a space with my rapey abusive ex, and I will continue to avoid any conferences or social groups where he is welcome. If anybody wants to hear more from me, I am willing to be contacted with questions (except by the ex-boyfriend I’m discussing; any contact from him, I will continue to view as harassment.)

Anyway. I have, as I say, been finding my voice this year. And one thing I’m learning is that when I speak, other people may choose to use my words in ways I didn’t intend and don’t appreciate. That doesn’t erase the value or power of my voice — that’s not something they can take away from me. But it’s one more thing for me to speak about.

My Original Sin

As a young Christian, I had a problem. I was too good.

I know, what an arrogant thing to say. I’m rolling my eyes at this moment, so let me take a moment to clarify. There were times I did bad things. I would promise to do something and then forget. I would leave my chores undone even though I knew mess really bothered my father. I, um… sometimes even though I knew God wanted me to give up something meaningful for Lent, the only thing I could think of that I loved enough to give up was Doctor Who, and I really didn’t want to give up Doctor Who. It made me happy when everything else felt empty.

See, that’s my problem. I’m trying to think of things that were bad, and that I would have considered bad at the time. There are things that I thought were right, but now regret. All the times I was arrogant and judgmental, all the times I proselytized at people who just wanted to get on with the theater rehearsal, all the misinformation I spread, all the gay-bashing I participated in. I also had shitty social skills and said hurtful things sometimes. Also, if you’re looking at, say, my childhood before I was seven or eight, there were plenty of times I lied or broke things or even stole. But I really wanted to be good. I was very motivated to live according to the rules that were taught to me. Recently I discovered a British comedy called “Would I Lie To You?” where contestants share weird anecdotes and their opponents have to figure out which are true and which are lies. While I was watching, I realized that from ages 7 to 17, I have no memory of lying. My sister can’t remember me lying either. I remember telling truths when I was terrified, when I felt certain that honesty would get me punished. I even remember telling the truth when I thought honesty would get me punished unfairly. The idea of lying was so terrifying to me I feel like I would have remembered it if I had. It’s hard to say for certain, but I’m fairly sure I went for about a decade without telling a lie.

My point is, once I was neurologically developed enough to have a reasonable amount of self-control, I followed the rules really, really well.

This was a problem because I was supposed to be a sinner. I was supposed to be overwhelmed with gratitude at the great love my redeemer had shown me in dying for my sin. I was supposed to understand that all had sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, and that if I thought I was perfect, that just meant I was full of pride. All week, I would struggle to do good, and then on Sunday, at confession time, I would wrack my brains to think of something to confess, and the fact that I couldn’t think of anything filled me with guilt and terror.

This post reminded me of that. As a Christian I thought I was alone. I thought everyone else was easily caught up in this beautiful cycle of sin/forgive, and I was left out, because either I was too good to be forgiven, or too sinful to see my own sin. I wanted to confess my pride, and sometimes I did. It never felt adequate, because it was not a genuine confession that came from understanding that I had sinned, just a desperate prayer to cover my ass. Now, coming out of religion, I see my experience reflected so often. So many decent people, told again and again that they were bad.

Thoughts on Being a Bystander of Abuse

Abuse is a hot topic right now, in our culture generally, in the world of feminists and sexual minorities specifically, and in the lives of people I care about particularly. For these past few years I’ve been on the awkward sidelines of an abusive relationship. I saw some things that worried me, but I also liked some of the people who were exhibiting these worrying behaviors, and I was torn between my desire to support my sister’s family and my fears for her well-being. While there has been a lot of good information put out there on the topic of abuse, there isn’t much about what to do if you aren’t abused yourself, but think you might be witnessing it.
As it happens, my boyfriend Grant was in a similar situation a few years ago. He was living abroad and subletting rooms in his apartment, and one of his college friends (who will be given the fake name Dave) asked if he could rent a room and share it with his girlfriend (who we will call Selena). Grant was fine with this, but when they all started living together, he discovered Dave was a textbook abuser, complete with the abuse/gaslight/sugary aftermath/abuse cycle and the escalation of intensity. It was mostly emotional abuse, but as it escalated it began to include shoving, grabbing and other warning signs of impending physical abuse.
Grant and I have been comparing notes on how we handled our respective bystander experiences, and we agreed there’s still a lot that we don’t know. Still, we came to some similar conclusions, and I thought I’d share them, as a conversation starter if nothing else.
There is an ugly trilemma that goes along with abuse. First, people who are abused are, by definition, being hurt and need to get out. Second, abusers do things to keep their victims from escaping. This can be as overt as making threats to them and their loved ones, or as subtle as gaslighting them into believing they aren’t being abused at all, that their own hurt is a sign of mental illness or instability. Third, removing an abuse victim from their abuser without their consent is nigh impossible. Part of valuing consent is allowing people to take their own risks, to make their own assessments about their situation, and to be free to exercise their own judgment, even if you are afraid of the consequences of that self-determination. Furthermore, people who are abused but don’t want to leave their abusers, either because they don’t realize their situation or they don’t think the risks are worth it, will just go back when they have a chance. There are exceptions to the third part of the trilemma, child abuse for example, but often bystanders are stuck seeing that something bad is happening, seeing that help is needed, and yet being unable to directly remove their loved one from the situation.
This was in full play in my relationship with my sister. I knew that she was coming out of a fundamentalist religious culture that damaged her sense of her own autonomy, and her ability to make her own decisions. I also saw a lot of signs that she was unhappy, and that some of the people she was around were having a bad effect on her mental health, but she kept maintaining that she wanted to make her new family work. At the time we were pretty isolated from the rest of our family, and as I contemplated the situation I kept coming back to the conclusion that, in this case, the most important thing to do was support her ability to make her own decisions. So I was friendly to the family she had chosen, and even became fairly good friends with them. There were times when I even considered them extended family.
Grant, in contrast, knew that Selena had a history of abuse and having trouble recognizing it. Most of the people around him at the time advised him to leave it alone, to avoid getting involved for his own safety. Instead, he started gently bringing up the topic of their relationship. His first question was whether he had noticed that her voice gets higher when she’s around her boyfriend.
“Yes,” she said. “I talk like a little girl around him.”
He went on asking her if she had noticed this dynamic and that, and affirming the worries she had but was afraid to talk about. Unfortunately, she was very attached to Dave, and afraid of hurting him by leaving. In this case, the coercion was Dave’s ability to make her think she was in the wrong if she ever hurt him. Grant wasn’t able to change her mind about that, but he was able to give her someone to confide in. Where before he had been Dave’s friend, now he was Selena’s. This was especially important because they were all foreigners, and Selena in particular did not have many other contacts in the country to support her.
I was also someone my sister talked to when something happened that really worried her. Often these were delayed reactions; something happened that seemed right at the time, but in retrospect she felt wounded and manipulated, or the outcomes were bad. There were patterns of behavior that made it hard for her to confront anyone involved without being questioned, beaten down and gaslighted, whether she was confronting in the moment or in the aftermath. She was held to a high standard of honesty, yet her honesty was not respected. Sometimes I felt like I was a release valve for all that tension and drama. At times I got so angry, I wanted to completely cut off some of the people in her life, but I didn’t, because that wasn’t what she needed from me. She needed somebody to trust her enough to handle her own affairs, and so I had to keep on being friendly and supportive of the people in her life.
Without realizing it, I was training myself to walk a tricky balance between both affirming her feelings and affirming her family. There were times when I didn’t do a very good job of that. For example, I can remember some conversations where I did try to mitigate some of what had been done, because I was getting attached to the people involved, and in retrospect this embarrasses me deeply. Still, I think the general approach was right for the situation. She was hearing over and over again that the hurt she was feeling wasn’t valid. She needed somebody around who would affirm that no, actually, it was, and people who hurt you repeatedly and then invalidate that hurt when you approach them with it aren’t doing the right thing. In order to do that, I needed to make her feel like my presence and influence wasn’t incompatible with making her own choices about who to spend her time with. In order to do THAT, I needed to not pressure her to leave until she was ready to do so.
Grant, luckily, didn’t need to wait around until Selena decided to leave. As the fights got uglier and uglier, and they started keeping him and the other housemates up at night. This meant Grant had an excuse to kick Dave out. Furthermore, as Selena was a good tenant who, unlike the abusive boyfriend, paid her rent on time and cleaned up around the house, Grant was fully within his rights to let her stay, which is what he did. He offered himself as a scapegoat; she wasn’t hurting Dave’s feelings, Grant was. Of course, once they were physically separated and Dave had to devote his time to mooching off of others, Selena was eventually physically and emotionally able to end the relationship.
Our situations were very different and required very different approaches, but we both came to similar conclusions about the roles of friends and bystanders. It’s on the victim to choose when they are ready to leave the relationship, but it’s the job of the people around them to create a space where that is something that can reasonably happen. Victims need a safe place to land. They need condolences, affirmations, and in some cases physical protection or financial aide. If that place isn’t there, they probably won’t jump, because jumping doesn’t feel any safer than staying put. However, part of being that safe space means not pressuring them too hard to leave before they are ready. Doing that can actually endanger them; an abuser might realize you are a threat to their power and try to cut the victim off from you. How to manage that balance is tricky, and the right mixture will likely depend on the specific situation.
That is all I have on the topic, so I want to know the thoughts and experiences of the rest of you. What roles do bystanders have when they think they’re observing abuse? How can circumstances affect what action is appropriate to take? How can we look out for the people in our lives, and what boundaries do we need to respect when we do so? When is it time to step in?

My story of abuse

For years I’ve had a blog that was not secret, but not linked to any of my main blogs or social media accounts in an obvious way. I have now used that blog to write a detailed account of the abuse and sexual assault I experienced in a former relationship. I name names.

I did not write it on this blog because I don’t want some of those details to be part of the permanent history of this blog. I also don’t want this blog to be the center of the personal storm that’s brewing around my and others’ accusations of this person. But the story is there, now, for those who want to read it.

[Edited 11/2017: I have now made the linked blog, with the stories it tells, private. No particular reason for the timing… I had a feeling I might want to do this at some point in the future, and that point has come. I am still willing to share my story with most people who ask, I just don’t want it publicly on display to anyone, at any time.]

When your partner is accused of abuse — some additional thoughts

So, hey there! My last-post-but-one got a surprising amount of attention, and there are probably a lot of you here for the first time! Welcome.

As is inevitable, some questions have come up about nuances in the whole “what do you do when your partner is accused of abuse” question. By far the stickiest is the case where you, the partner, feel that your accused partner is themself being victimized by these accusations. Eve Rickert of More Than Two (and it is cool to admit that I squee’d like a fangirl when Eve and Franklin reblogged my post?) messaged me directly to discuss that point, and ask for some clarification. So here it is.

Situations where a person (or several people) is self-identifying as an abuse victim, while simultaneously being accused by others of perpetrating abuse… these are hard. And not uncommon. How can you support victims and hold abusers accountable when you don’t know who is which?

The thing I think that was sticky for people in my original post was that I suggested that if you believe your partner is being victimized by accusations of abuse, you should support them privately, while still sticking to the victim-supporting behavior I had named above of not attacking the victim publicly. In general I think this is a good principle, but I want to make a couple of clarifying points and perhaps note some exceptions.

1) My advice is absolutely only meant to apply to intimate partners of the accused person. I do not think that a community needs to default to believing and supporting the first person to come forward with abuse accusations — that would be disastrous. I do think that an intimate partner of the accused person is likely to have some pretty strong biases toward coming to the conclusion that attacks on their partner are themselves a form of abuse, and that having intimate partners come out swinging at their partner’s accusers is not usually going to be conducive to truth or healing for anybody.

2) There are things I think it is completely appropriate for a partner to do, when their partner is being accused of abuse and they feel that this is unjust. If there are any facts that they are a direct witness to, I think it is completely appropriate for them to give their account. “X said Y punched him on the night of August 4th. I was there the whole time, and I never saw any physical contact between them.” Other people can make their own judgements about the reliability of the partner’s testimony, but it is completely reasonable to speak to things that you have observed.

I also think it’s appropriate, as I said in the original post, for partners to speak about their own perceptions and beliefs, as long as they are careful to frame it in those terms. “Based on what I’ve seen between them, I feel that Y has been hurt and controlled by X at least as much as X has been hurt and controlled by Y… and honestly, I think a good bit more.” That’s a very different statement from “Y never abused X!” (Which, again, is not something you can really speak to of your own knowledge, no matter how close you were to their relationship.)

3) I’m still thinking on this one. When there is an overwhelming tide of community support toward person X, such that their social standing and ability to move and speak freely are pretty well unaffected, while person Y is functionally ostracized… I think maybe it’s fine for partners, or anybody, to be more aggressive in defending person Y. I’m thinking of situations like the one described here. When the tide of public opinion is strongly in favor of one side, the power differential has shifted such that having a couple of partners speak more loudly in defense of the accused is not going to do the damage it might otherwise do. If it’s a situation like Shea Emma Fett describes, where the abuser had successfully manipulated the community into viewing himself as the victim, then you’re standing up for an oppressed person where no one else will. If, on the other hand, the community opinion has accurately and rightly weighed the situation and come down against your partner, your words in their defense aren’t going to have the same detrimental impact that they would in a more open playing field.

I still think it’s inexcusable in any circumstance to attack a self-identified victim in ways that are dehumanizing, shaming, or devaluing. You can say a lot of words to the effect of, “I don’t think that person’s accusations are true” and “I have suspicions about their motives” and “I actually think they treated my partner really horribly” without undermining their personhood. Especially, I think it’s never acceptable to attack a self-identified victim on the basis of their sexuality or mental health — which are two of the ways abuse and assault victims are most often discredited.

The overall goal of my “advice to partners” post was to avoid creating situations where a community rallies unfairly around an abuser at the expense of their victim, or where a victim fears coming forward because their abuser has several partners who will participate in counter-attacking them. We are naturally prone to support and defend our intimate partners against negative accusations, and I wanted to think and talk about some ways we can balance that impulse of loyalty against the need to create whole communities that support victims. One unfortunate fact, whenever giving advice of this kind, is that people who are conscientious, self-critical, and primarily concerned with doing the right thing may follow the advice even to their own detriment, while people who are blind to their own biases and/or primarily concerned with serving their own interests will ignore it or distort it in order to cause further harm. I don’t have a solution for that problem.

I will say, though, that “good behavior guidelines” and advice are generally best self-applied. Reading, reflecting, and deciding to hold yourself to a certain standard, is all great. Pointing to someone else’s behavior and saying, “See? See how they failed to follow this guideline here? That proves they’re bad/wrong/certainly less good than me, anyway” — that is not, in my opinion, conducive to building a better world and better relationships. Doubly so if you’re waving them in the person’s face to prove to them how bad/wrong they are, which can get downright coercive. (I grew up in a moralistic religion. I know whereof I speak.)

The larger question of how communities can and should respond when there are accusations of abuse flying around in multiple directions is — well, it’s a larger question. It’s also very timely, and I may or may not try to tackle it in a future post. I am encouraged that the poly community is so concerned with these issues, and I’ve been pleased to see people trying hard to do the right thing, and self-correcting when they recognize they’ve made a mistake. I’m confident that, as we keep talking and listening to each other, we can make our communities safe and affirming.

What to do if your partner is accused of abuse

There is a lively and timely conversation about abuse in polyamorous relationships, and the ways poly structures uniquely contribute to abusive situations, in both positive and negative ways. I have a lot to say about this. For today, though, I want to tackle one particular question: how one should behave if one’s partner is accused of abuse or consent violations.

One of the ways abuse in poly differs from many monogamous situations is that the abusive dynamics may be created and fed by several people in the poly network. While there may be a centrally abusive, controlling figure, often other members of the poly circle contribute in their own ways to creating a toxic environment that leaves one or more people feeling powerless and oppressed. This can operate a lot of different ways, but the simplest is when other partners of the abusive person insist that nothing is wrong, that the abusive partner is great and wonderful and thus any problems must be your problem. Whether this comes from a Stockholm-y place, or whether the abusive partner only operates abusively toward some partners (or some complicated mix of the two), this often leaves the abuse victim convinced that it must, indeed, be a problem with them. There’s no gaslighting like community-reinforced gaslighting, even when it’s completely unintentional on the part of most of the community members.

Despite the common (and appropriate) admonishment to “believe the victim,” when the accused abuser is someone that you love and don’t believe capable of abuse, I don’t think that you, in your heart of hearts, are obligated to believe the victim. I don’t think it serves anyone for people to try to convince themselves on principle to believe something they don’t believe. If you believe the accusation is false, for whatever reason, then you don’t need to pretend otherwise.

I do, however, think you’re obligated to behave and speak in victim-supporting ways. The only way to create a community that battles abuse and supports victims is for everybody to practice certain victim-supporting behaviors, even if they have doubts about the accuracy or severity of the accusations. The damage of siding with an accused abuser over their victim goes far beyond the immediate situation and the added pain caused to the victim; it tells all other victims of abuse that if they report, there is a danger that their community will rally around their abuser and they will feel further ostracized, victimized, and vulnerable. This fear, in turn, acts to protect and enable abusive behavior, as abuse goes unreported.

So much for the general principles. What are the victim-supporting behaviors that a partner of the accused should adopt?

1) Absolutely do not attack or question the victim, publicly or privately. You may have your doubts; you may be convinced the accusation is false; and in that case the instinct to rush to your partner’s defense may be strong. Resist it, for all the reasons stated above. By doing so, you’ll be harming not only that person, but any other current or future abuse victims in earshot.

2) Don’t try to put yourself on Team Victim if that’s not where your heart is. Being told “I totally support you” by someone whose behavior and words actually suggest that they doubt and question you sucks. It can become its own form of gaslighting and contribute to the vortex of powerlessness and self-doubt a victim feels.

3) If you must communicate with the victim, stick to validating their pain. “It’s clear this is a very painful situation for you, and I’m very sorry.” Their pain is real, and you can be compassionate toward that even if you disagree about the facts of the situation.

4) If you must express your own opinion of the situation, frame it very clearly in terms of your perspective. “He never abused you” is very different from, “I personally didn’t witness anything that I would call abuse.” This applies whether you’re talking to the victim or to outside parties. Keep in mind that you cannot actually know what happened within the privacy of their relationship.

These are victim-supporting behaviors that apply no matter what the situation is. The other side of creating a culture that rejects abuse is supporting the abuser. This set of guidelines will vary a little bit based on the situation you’re in.

Sometimes, accusations of abuse are themselves a form of abuse or manipulation. Your accused partner might themselves be a victim, in this case. If you believe that to be true, then it is absolutely appropriate to direct a lot of compassion and support to them — privately. “I believe you, sweetheart, it’s not your fault, I can’t believe they’re throwing these accusations at you on top of everything else they’ve done. I’m so sorry.”

It is also possible that the accused has behavior patterns that don’t function abusively for you, but do and did for other people. We are each vulnerable to different things, and it is possible to create an environment of manipulation and control without intending to. Also, people’s thresholds for labeling something “abuse” can vary, especially for emotional abuse. So maybe you agree that your partner treated another partner badly, but you feel that abuse is too strong an accusation.

In any of these cases — where you can see how your partner may be at least partially culpable, even if you don’t see them as abusive — you can support your partner and strengthen the community by holding them accountable in the areas where they are prone to cause harm. You don’t need to be their Personality Makeover Coach (I have a severe side-eye for relationships where one person is actively engaged in teaching the other to be a better person), but if they come to you complaining, “Can you believe X said that I was abusive because I did p, q, and r?” you can say, “I love you, but when you do those things it can feel really dominating/manipulative/invalidating to people, and I’d love to see you work on that.”

It is also possible that you, yourself, are being dominated, abused, and manipulated by the accused partner, and that at some level you feel or suspect this but are struggling with the conflict, fear, and cognitive dissonance that abuse victims so often suffer. If that’s the case, I’m so so sorry. You are in a really hard place, and my heart goes out to you. If you’re even able to acknowledge that this might be the case, you’ve come a long way. How to find your way out of the dark is way beyond the scope of this post, but know that if you keep coming back to the question, “Is there something fundamentally wrong with my relationship?” the answer is probably yes. Start reading these resources for abuse victims — maybe not for yourself, maybe just to gain a better understanding of what’s going on in your poly network and why community support for victims is so important. (But maybe also for yourself.) Follow the victim-supporting guidelines I wrote above (and if your partner is angry at you for doing that, or pressures you to go to battle for them, that is definitely a problem), but also, do what you need to do to be safe, and know that if you got co-opted into participating in an abusive dynamic, forgiveness waits for you on the other side.

*** Edited Feb 24th to add ***

I’ve gotten a few questions and requests for clarification, so I wrote a follow-up post which you can read here.