When Outsiders Do the Defining: Fighting Abuse From the Wrong Direction

In a recent Dear Imprudence column over at FWD/Forward, I wrote about some problems in recent columns written under the ‘Ask Amy’ byline. There was a lot to tease out in those columns, but there was something fundamental that I wanted to talk about separately for a moment, and that is the way we decide who gets to define abuse and identify abusive relationships.

As the Ask Amy columns illustrated, the words of certain people are weighed more closely when it comes to determining when relationships are abusive, and in evaluating degrees of abuse. There are some serious embedded social attitudes behind this, and they have very serious implications. People in abusive relationships suffer as a result of society’s view on who gets to define ‘abuse’ and people working to address abuse also experience harm as a result of these attitudes.

According to society, the people who are allowed to identify abuse are people outside the dynamic. Especially people in a position of power: an adult, rather than a child; a teacher, not a fellow student; a police officer, not a neighbour. The last person to be allowed to identify abuse is the person experiencing it. At the same time, people are told to ask for help if they are experiencing abuse, and to turn to people in positions of power for support and assistance. This creates a fundamental disconnect: People are not allowed to say they are experiencing abuse but they can’t get help unless they ask.

This contributes to a whole cascade of problems. The first is that, as a society, we devalue people who experience abuse. We make sure they know we think it’s their fault and we also make a point of blaming them for not being tougher or stronger. We also plant the seeds of doubt—what is happening to you is not really abuse, you don’t know what abuse is, your partner/friend/mother is so nice. By reminding people that they are not allowed to identify abuse when they experience it, we are also subtly telling them they are not really being abused.

They just need to toughen up. Grow a stiff upper lip and move on. If you don’t like it, get out of it. People are told that they just don’t have enough perspective because they’re trapped in the dynamic, so they don’t know what it’s really like. Or they don’t have enough experience, and someone in power does have the experience to determine if abuse is happening. People are beaten down at every turn, and then we act surprised when they do not seek help or do not know what to do when help is offered, become frozen when someone actually does listen to them and says ‘do you need assistance?’

Some people outside abusive relationships have experienced abuse and are quite adept at identifying it, whether they are in positions of power or not. But simply assuming that people on the outside know abuse when they see it isn’t fair to people trapped in abusive dynamics. For one thing, one of the hallmarks of abuse is taking steps to hide it, and even very observant people who know the patterns and know what to look for can miss things, because the abuser works very hard to make sure that these things will be missed.

Sometimes, yes, the perspective of an outsider is needed to identify abuse when someone is so mired in it that it is impossible to recognise. Sometimes an outsider does need to say ‘hey, this is not normal.’ ‘This is not how people express things.’ ‘This is not ok.’ And so I think it’s good for society in general to be alert to abuse and to be thinking about it, for people in positions of power to be trained to intervene, rather than doing nothing, when they identify abuse.

But that also needs to be paired with respect for people in abusive relationships. The words of people experiencing abuse need to be honoured, and that means that when someone identifies something as abusive, we need to accept that this person is experiencing abuse. People in abusive dynamics are usually told they are worthless by their abusers. They are trained to think that their lives have no meaning. They are told no one will help them. They are told that what they are experiencing is normal, and just the way it is.

Can you imagine how powerfully subversive it would be if someone said ‘I am experiencing abuse’ and people actually paid attention? If people in abusive relationships were told they did matter and did have value, no matter who they were? Right there, the careful groundwork of the abuser would be undone and pulled up, because the fundamental ‘truth’ the abuser has spent so much time drilling into the victim’s head has just been disproved. The victim is a person, the victim does matter, people will listen, and people will help.

Advocacy movements place a heavy emphasis on reflecting and respecting people who come to them seeking for help; when you call a domestic violence hotline, in an ideal world, the person who answers the phone is going to listen to you, restate what you are saying, and reinforce that yes, you are experiencing abuse, and yes, that person is there to help. But, unfortunately, as soon as the case moves beyond counselor and client, like into the news, the victim’s words will be attacked and undermined. The victim will be analysed for signs of untruths, and the work done, that fragile bond created where, for a time, someone listened and said ‘you matter,’ is undone.

There are many reasons people return to abusive dynamics even after having identified them as abusive. Too many to cover at the end of an already long post. But one of the reasons is that the people around them, and the media, tell them things weren’t ‘that bad’ and they fear what ‘worse’ might look like.