When you’re in an abusive situation, it can begin to feel very normal to you. It’s what you know, and thus isn’t a remarkable subject. You present it as normal to outsiders, because it is normal from your framework of understanding, and they may not fully understand the depth of the problem unless they know which alarm bells to listen to. Which turns of phrase betray that there’s a serious problem going on. Moving from understanding to action can be difficult, especially when what you are experiencing is, to you, normal.
I was thinking about this the other day in a discussion with a friend about a story where someone talked about being made uncomfortable by a partner’s frequent drinking, but made it into a big joke. It was funny that the partner harassed the person, created feelings of unsafety, flirted with other people, couldn’t remember events. These were all just totally normal things that happened as part of the partnership, and the nondrinker in the relationship felt guilty in any situations that involved pushing back. Because that would ruin the fun, and everyone is having a good time, yes?
To me and my friend, this sounded like a pretty classic case of alcoholism or alcohol abuse, and a situation where the drinking partner needed some help. The other partner’s view of the situation as a joke was an example of adaptation, to make an abnormal and bad situation normal and funny, because this would mean that everything was okay. It probably wasn’t even a conscious adaptation; these things usually aren’t. People around the nondrinking partner also accepted the situation as normal, because they weren’t separate enough from the situation, and they didn’t recognize the red flags that stood out to me.
People in abusive or dangerous situations use normalising as one adaptation. Of course your partner hits you sometimes or shouts and screams, but it happens. You shrug and move on, because you probably did something wrong, or your partner was under stress, or something else was going on. It’s okay. You just need to stay out of the way when your partner is in a bad mood, and make sure the kids stay in their room and don’t make too much noise. This is normal, for you—everyone fights with their partners, right?
Naturally your partner forces you to have sex sometimes. You’re in a relationship, which means you should be available for sex even if you don’t really feel like it. Of course your teacher touches you in a way that makes you feel a little bit uncomfortable. Your teacher is an authority figure, everyone has told you so, this must be normal. You shouldn’t tell anyone because what is there to report? Sure, your stepparent likes to stand outside the shower and grab your genitals in the morning. It’s normal. It’s all normal.
It’s heartbreaking to me to think of how many people live in situations where something is deeply wrong and they don’t know it, or refuse to allow themselves to realise it, or are not provided with the tools to understand it. One of the hardest things for me about blogging on issues like abuse is the emails I get from readers telling me their stories, and the thread that runs through most of them is that they thought what was happening was normal. They assumed this was just how things were done, until they found out that, no, this is not normal, this is actually very wrong and not okay and needs to be addressed.
We live in a world where people talk about anti-bullying campaigns and domestic violence awareness like these things are generally understood, recognised as bad, and easy to identify. But they are not. Because we also live in a world where children are molested, adults know about it, and nothing happens. And we live in a world where people come to work with obvious signs of domestic violence, even talk about partner abuse, and no one says anything. And we live in a world where people think they weren’t ‘really’ raped, and people debate the semantics of ‘rape-rape’ and ‘true rape’ as though there’s some sort of line that can be drawn through sexual assaults, to divide them between actionable and just unfortunate.
If you are made to feel uncomfortable by people you are around, that is not normal. That includes people in positions of authority, or your partner. It doesn’t matter if you feel uncomfortable because they touch you in ways you do not like, talk to you in ways that make you feel bad, look at you in a way that feels weird, or just upset you with their presence, make you feel like something is wrong. If you feel like something is wrong and not okay, it is, and you can ask for help, and there are people who will help you.
And you are not a bad person for not knowing that these things are not normal, because our culture hastens to normalise so many of them. It works hard to keep you in the dark and to make you feel bad for even thinking that something about a situation is off, but you are not bad. There is nothing wrong with you for feeling uncomfortable in these situations, and there is nothing wrong with wanting to report and pursue them so they don’t happen again. You should not be forced to stay in a situation that does not feel safe, in an environment where you feel like you can’t fully be yourself.
You don’t need to turn these situations into jokes to make them seem less serious. You can admit they’re not normal.