I am often frustrated in my quest to explain what domestic violence is like from the inside. There are so many misconceptions and myths surrounding it that to get to the point of explaining how and why we get into these relationships, what they're like from inside, why it's so difficult to leave, why it's even easy for other battered women to see that you should leave YOUR violent husband even as they can't walk away from theirs, we have to strip away layers and layers of misunderstanding and even resistance before we even start. Sometimes I think it's almost a deliberate resistance we have to break through. Who wants to identify with a battered woman, after all? To do so would put us in touch with the vulnerable parts of ourselves, those moments when our own self esteem is so low that someone crying, "I can't live without you" could really touch us and keep us in a bad relationship just a little bit longer.
Even without abuse, many of us were in bad relationships when we were young that we ought to have ended sooner rather than later. So I am asking readers to revisit those moments in their own lives, those regrets, those retrospective wishes that they had wised up sooner.
We would all love to think that we are immunized forever from getting into an abusive relationship. I feel that way too. I'd like to think that never again would I put up with an ounce of the crap I put up with. I'd like to think that if one day my loving husband turned into an abuser--highly unlikely but who knows--I'd pick up and leave.
But would I? I can't know for sure. I thought I would before I was abused, when a friend told me how her boyfriend treated her. Of course I would leave. And I did--but it took time.
That nagging self doubt makes all of us just a bit uncomfortable--at least--when we watch something like the "Love The Way You Lie" video. Sure, we wouldn't immediately sign up for a relationship that looks like that video. But these relationships don't start out that way, do they? They start out with that seemingly nice guy who's really into you, in a way that nobody has been in ages. They start out with all night talks with someone who seems to "get" you. They start out with shared dreams and a bigger-than-life feeling, a feeling you are soon hooked on. It usually isn't until you are firmly in love and the relationship is well established that violence begins. The early warning signs are there, but they are subtle.
That's what scares us. That's what makes us uncomfortable when we try to have this discussion.
The other thing that frustrates me about this type of writing is that the conversation begins with writing off the possibility that abusers can change.
All of the attention is then focused on the psychopathology of the victims. Why can't we get these women to leave? All the blame is heaped on them (us) and all of our frustration with the problem itself gets thrown into the mix. Can we just stop this? It's hard enough to recover from such a relationship without having a crowd gather to blame you for not doing so much sooner, to throw their darts and further shred your self esteem.
My other objection is that there will always be more victims if we don't do something to help the abusers change. Some will--and some won't--but we don't know how many can be helped if we don't try. I see it as much like alcoholism (and often batterers have substance abuse issues too). It may be a life long program, one day at a time, learning new skills to cope with feelings, learning to walk away and cool down, learning, ironically, to be more assertive with everyone so tension doesn't build up to the boiling point. (Abusers are often passive with others and aggressive with their spouse. That's why they look like nice guys.)
In the end, most batterers want the same thing we all want--to be loved and to have a lasting relationship. Sure there are the sociopaths and those who can't be saved. But we need to stop dehumanizing them and see the person behind the behaviors. We ought to start at the high school level, teaching basic relationship skills to boys and girls alike. We definitely need more than a program here or there, mandated by police. There should be as many treatment centers for abuse as for drugs and alcohol--and for both parties.
Both abusers and victims are dehumanized by our public discussion on the subject. We need them to be objects to distance ourselves. But we're never going to make much of a dent in the problem if we can't even allow ourselves to feel their humanity.