Hello, Captain Awkward here. A long time ago when Lauren posted her series on gaslighting on Feministe, she asked me to write a post about how there’s no magical way to change an abuser’s mind by some combination of using your words and being really plucky and having a lot of gumption.
I do believe that speaking up for yourself, setting and enforcing boundaries, choosing your battles, and learning to negotiate for your own happiness within your relationships can be profoundly transformative and empowering. You CAN often change the dynamics of even very difficult relationships and reduce conflict and tension as long as the other players are acting in good faith.
Abusers, though? They don’t play fair. “You don’t think that you get to leave and find out that you deserve someone better than me, do you? Come back here so I can yell at/hit you more and remind you that no one loves you except me and this is the best your life is ever going to be…GOD, ARE YOU CRYING AGAIN, WHY ARE YOU SUCH A FUCKING CRYBABY?” isn’t really a situation where “When you say x, I feel y” statements really help you. If you say “I really wish you would stop yelling at and hitting me, please, it makes me feel sad inside and is also ouchy” and the Evil Bees keep circling, it’s maybe time to fold ‘em and walk away (or run!)
So. After months of procrastinating, sadly Penelope “It’s the woman’s job to make the relationship work” Trunk gave us an extremely sad, extremely relevant, extremely cautionary “You can so fix domestic violence if you believe hard enough that you can!” tale. And stalwart commenter Piny came to the rescue with a guest-post.
Take it away, Piny.
I encountered Penelope Trunk through Captain Awkward. And when I first started reading, she seemed like a spunky, pragmatic woman who gave solid advice.
But then I kept reading, and I’ve learned something darker: Penelope Trunk is in an abusive marriage. Her husband hits her sometimes. A few months ago, she fled to a hotel room to get away from him, where she posted a photo of a nasty bruise and an open essay to her readers. Then she posted a followup about how she was not leaving her husband, partly because the abuse was her fault:
I don’ t think anyone is suggesting that if the guy hits you twice, the kids are better off living in a single-parent home and hearing their dad called an abuser. What people do say is that the odds are it won’ t stop. The odds are it will get worse. The odds are, the kids will be worse off, in the end, having lived with the dad.
But the truth is that we do not believe that men who leave two, visible marks on their wife should lose their kids.
I can improve my own half and see what happens. Have you been to couple’s therapy? There’s a saying that a marriage is a gear system. If one gear changes, all the gears change.
Blog commenters will argue against this idea by telling me not to change because It’s not my fault.
But really, how do they know? We know that I grew up in a home where there was lots of violence. So it’s likely that I will be in that kind of house when I’m an adult. And surely it’s possible that I am contributing to the mix since I am statistically likely to create a violent household. Here’s another thing: You don’t know what I did leading up to the bruise in the photo.
I’ll tell you what my mom used to do leading up to my dad hitting her:
One night they were wallpapering. They had been wallpapering the living room after work for a week. My mom got mad at my dad and threw red paint all over the wallpaper. Ruined all their work. He didn’t respond. He was stunned. Then she knocked over the table with the wallpaper and the glue. It ruined the newly varnished floors. He held her arms so she couldn’t do anything else. He held tighter and tighter. She kicked him to get loose. She left no mark. He hit her in the face.
And since then, she’s taken more and more contrarian positions on the subject of spousal abuse, because she’s more and more threatened by the idea that spousal abuse is a problem. Most recently, this post about how divorce is selfish and immature, and always wrong. She includes breaking up abusive marriages. I don’t agree with that thesis, but even if you believe that couples in conflict should stay together, you can’t lump disenchantment and extramarital crushes in with nasty bruises. Unless you’re in denial, that is, Penelope Trunk:
The person who says they are a victim of violence.
Two-thirds of divorces take place in low-conflict homes , and in those cases, the kids are much better off if the parent just stick it out.
So let’s look at high-conflict homes: It takes two people to fight. And there’s great research to show that if you picked an asshole the first time, you’ll pick the same type of asshole the second time. (Which is why divorce rates for second marriages are so much higher than first marriages.) So instead of getting rid of your kids’ parent, figure out why you picked a person like this, and then get good at drawing boundaries.
Really, good boundaries can save even the worse marriages. Taking care of your own contribution to the mess can single-handedly stop the mess.
This is especially true of violence. At this point in the history, where women have so much earning power, women are equally as responsible for men for the violence in a household. In fact, the US Centers for Disease Control reports that most domestic violence today is a 50/50 thing. Both parties are responsible. Which means that even if you have one of the worst marriages, you have the power to fix it.
And if you don’t use that power—if you don’t fundamentally change how you are in the marriage in order to stop the craziness, then you will not only recreate it in your next relationship, but you will continue to model it for your kids.
So look, I don’t see any reason left that makes divorce ok when there are kids. Personal responsibility always trumps running away. And yes, here are the links to my own marital violence and my decison to stay and fix it. I’m practicing what I preach. I’m working really hard at keeping my own marriage together. It’s a cold, lonely place to be in life. But it’s better than the alternative.
Because divorce is the ultimate example of just running away. And, while your kids probably will not pull out a gun in the school cafeteria, long-term sadness and a lingering inability to connect to other people is an irrefutable result of divorce. It’s something that you can prevent.
I actually wrote to Captain Awkward, one of those HELLO FAVE BLOGGER, HAVE YOU SEEN THIS YET?! DON’T YOU WANT TO WRITE ABOUT THIS THING THAT IS UPSETTING ME? letters. Of course, she did the smart thing and asked me to guest post.
I can’t speak to the personal experience of spousal abuse, and I’m hoping commenters will contribute.
I want to write about her conception of boundaries and personal responsibility. I couldn’t disagree with it more. I’m fascinated by how wrong it is.
I don’t blame this woman for her feelings about her marriage or herself. I also don’t hold her responsible for anyone else’s marriage; blaming someone in an abusive marriage for condoning abuse seems callous and unfair. But these things she’s saying are insidious, and it is important to say so.
Where to begin?
Instead of referring to spousal abuse as a real problem, she refers only to people who “say” they are victims of violence. It’s your mindset, doll, not the fact that your spouse hits you. Don’t wait for your abuser to rearrange your face–just turn that frown upside down! And stop being so irritating!
Then there’s the pessimism–women shouldn’t leave their abusers, because they’ll just end up with new abusers. Men can stop beating you up, apparently, but women can’t stop marrying men who beat them up.
And there’s her habitual reference to violence as a part of the atmosphere: “violent households.”
And…well, there’s her inability to treat the subject of spousal abuse, which does occasionally kill people, usually women, with any intellectual honesty at all.
I’m not going to make that mistake. There’s a big difference between loading the dishwasher wrong and punching your partner in the face. A partner who hits you is probably not a partner you can keep. Whatever laws you lay down, they won’t honor, because they hit you.
Apart from the real danger that physical abuse presents, and the lasting damage done by physical and emotional abuse, they are good indicators that this relationship will never improve. Your partner probably isn’t capable of treating you or anyone else (including your children) with care and respect, because they hit you.
You should probably leave. If you stay, you should understand that the prognosis isn’t good. That’s tragic, but it’s the truth, and it’s not your fault. Your choices are between staying in an abusive marriage and leaving an abusive marriage; it won’t get better; it will probably get worse.
But apart from the apologism–apart from her refusal to differentiate between miscommunication and spousal rape, between raised voices and death threats, her definition of boundaries is skewed.
And that’s what I want to focus on.
It reminds me of the way that abusers will often use self-help language in reductive ways, to normalize abuse. Look at Hugo Schwyzer’s use of the word “accountable”: according to him, his students “hold him accountable” for his abusive past by knowing all about how he used to screw all his students and witnessing his ability to go on teaching at his college as though nothing ever happened. (Captain Awkward note: Non-selfish asshole professors don’t have to bang a whole bunch of their students to know that it’s WRONG and GROSS to bang students.)
Her definition of boundaries places the onus on the victim to accept abuse as part of the process, and blames abuse victims both for suffering abuse (failing to shore up “boundaries” per Penelope) and resisting abuse (enforcing actual boundaries).
So, what are boundaries? They’re not words. Boundaries are words enforced with consequences. You don’t just tell people what you want out of a relationship. You make your participation in the relationship dependent on your happiness. If you can’t get an arrangement that works for you, then you’re done. A boundary is a policy, and policy is action.
That’s a general principle; it holds for grievances like wet towels on the bed.
It also holds for more violent abuse, but the consequences must exist in proportion to the serious, intractable nature of the problem. Usually, the only thing an abuse victim can do is leave, leave forever. And usually, that’s the one thing the abuser cannot tolerate. When you take that off the table, you’re giving your abuser hope that you’ll eventually stop resisting. Reasonable hope, because how vulnerable are you to your spouse? How much strength will you have left?
You’ve shifted the priority from your happiness–and the happiness of your children–to the relationship itself. The relationship has to survive, not you. In effect, you’ve given up on boundaries, and conceded the only thing your abuser really wants: you, in control, forever. As long as you stay, they can believe that they aren’t really doing anything unpardonable. It’s your fault, your failure.
That’s what I see in Penelope’s advice: as long as she doesn’t leave her marriage, her marriage is real. As long as she doesn’t run away, there’s nothing to run away from. As long as she keeps trying, it’s her inability to prevent abuse that must be the problem.
Like I said, it’s insidious.