Abuse, Boundaries, and Magical Thinking: A Guest Post by Piny

Newsies dancing

I know, I'll solve this abusive situation by asking myself "What would Newsies do?"

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.

Piny here.

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.


So why wouldn’ t I bet big on myself now? I am not the whole problem in my family, but I am half. And over the last year I have described multiple situations where I was half the problem.

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.

  1. emilymoreton said:

    I work in domestic abuse. I work with women who stay because they’re terrified and go back because that’s safer for them than leaving (if I’m still there, he won’t kill me, and I can protect the kids). I worked with a woman who went back, knowing social services would take her kids (they did) because she felt that was the only way to keep her kids safe.

    Those are reasons to stay in an abusive relationship. Penelope’s nonsense about blame and being better at not causing abuse aren’t reasons, they’re excuses for all the people who tell abused women (and men) that they should stay because it must be their fault, they should try harder. She makes me feel sick.

    Also, she’s wrong about the kids being better off if parents stick it out together. My dad was and still is emotionally abusive to my mum, me and my sister. My mum did, and is, sticking it out with him. There are very few ways in which my life, her life, and my sister’s life, wouldn’t have been better if she’d had the support to leave when we were younger. I’m 30, and I hope for my father to leave or die; I would give up almost anything not to feel that way, and I feel that way because my parents stuck it out together. I don’t blame my mum – I can’t imagine contemplating being a woman who gave up work to have kids and being alone, even assuming my dad would have reacted well, which he wouldn’t. I blame society, and people like Penelope, for telling her to stick it out and be better.

    • itsybits said:

      This really speaks to me right now. I am living at a refuge with my kids after leaving my abuser. At first I felt terrible about staying away and breaking contact, but after getting a bit of perspective I started to understand that safety is actually a MAJOR issue, and that I had just become adept at techniques to minismise it, and that now was the time I needed to be super careful. And at one stage those were similar to the justifications Penelope seems to be using at the moment. As other people have mentioned, it is both a survival strategy and a way of maintaining some sense of control. And now that I am out, I wonder if there is any way to speed up that process of cycling through stages – denial, self-blame, trauma bonding, leaving and going back. Also, because I love my kids so much, I felt terribly guilty about staying, but could not – for practical and emotional reasons, leave. So I told myself that the reason it was hard to leave was because he was a great dad, and that the kids needed him. That needed to be entrenched really, really deep in order to cover my guilt – so this is the thing that has been the hardest to break. So I get where how she got to that stage, but I really, really hope she gets to a different one as soon as possible.

  2. xenu01 said:

    Hey Piny, thank you for writing about this.

    I get so freaking defensive about the “why didn’t you call the police/it’s your Duty to do so/you’re terrible” thing that comes up when I discuss my own situation that I forget there still exists this whole other bizarro world where abuse is constructed as the fault of the victim. Of course, when you are being abused, you sometimes tend to think so (IMHO from my own past experiences that is a way of getting power out of a situation where you have no power, ie if I change this way that I am bad, this person won’t want to hurt me anymore). I am glad that you are not blaming her for buying into that tripe- it’s just upsetting to see what she says because there are a lot of people who read her stuff and believe her.

  3. kathleendonohue said:

    I’ve been following the Penelope Trunk train wreck and what this has shown to me is even if a million people read one’s blog and one has started a bunch of what I understand to be successful businesses, one can still be a profoundly confused and terrified individual who struggles with everyday life.

    It’s a reminder to engage critical thinking skills whenever reading something like a personal blog.

  4. Ace said:

    It’s painful to read her blog. She’s so far down the rabbit hole…

    Especially about all the bullshit reasons you shouldn’t get a divorce. ‘It’s worse for the children, Highly educated women (!) don’t divorce anymore, You’re just a quitter’

    It’s just… painful.

    Thanks for writing this.

    • JenniferP said:

      I can tell you exactly when my “agnostic feminist awakening” was –

      -Age 13 or 14
      -In church
      -Priest gave a homily about a woman who stayed with an abusive addict for 50 years…and eventually he got help and was better and not-abusive anymore and wasn’t that a great story about faith and hope and the sanctity of marriage and why you should never, ever give up on it? Her faith had turned his life around!
      -Inside my head, I thought “Yeah, but what about HER life?” I guess she got the consolation prize of “Not burning in hell for all eternity because: divorce”?

      And just like that I was done.

      Seriously, you get to fucking LEAVE people who hurt you and don’t make you happy. Even if you signed a paper somewhere that says you promise not to ever do that.

      • piny said:

        “The best is yet to come, and babe, won’t it be swell once i stop pummeling you in alcoholic rages,” doesn’t really scan.

        • JenniferP said:

          Ha, I totally heard that in Shane McGowan voice for a second though?

          • piny said:

            i think we might be about to burn in hell for all eternity?

            really, though, it’s shocking but not really that people never think of the abuser as having broken their marriage vows by attacking their spouse. what about the sanctity of her marriage?

      • toretha said:

        It’s not always that easy to just leave. It can be incredibly dangerous, if you have a teenage son, many shelters will not let him stay with you, you may have no resources to support yourself, and leaving without them may put you at risk of losing your children-potentially to the abuser. That leaves aside the vulnerability of women alone at bus-stops and work.

        Although theoretically, god, yes, leave, we live in the real world, where leaving may not be the best choice. Make safety plans. Understand the decisions, the risks and the repercussions, and then let the woman decide. Otherwise, by telling her she has to leave, you are, to a certain extent, taking away her choices and revictimizing her.

        • commanderlogic said:

          Hi Toretha.

          Yeah, that is true: leaving is not always easy or the best choice at a given time.

          I think what the Cap was getting at in her anecdote is that staying in an abusive relationship because SOMEDAY in the magical far away land you will be paid back somehow for sticking it out is a cruel and toxic thing to tell people.

        • JenniferP said:

          Yeah, I was getting at “Fuck the church for telling people they HAVE to stay and telling that story like it was a happy motivational one.”

          • The churchies I know don’t say that. Of course that’s my bias of “people who would say things like that don’t get to be in my life” but my stepmother-in-law is really strict and devout and even she left her husband for pummeling her in alcoholic rages. If she hadn’t, she wouldn’t have met my father-in-law and my kid would have one less grandma.

      • meh said:

        Sure, theoretically in the happy world where the police actually protect you and you can get a job and find a place to live and the system won’t threaten your children, leaving is an option. But this isn’t that world, and it isn’t for us to tell women what to do or not, but to let them make their own choices and respect that.

        Leaving can be a terrible, dangerous option. It makes the abuser most likely to escalate to new and dangerous levels. Shelters will separate you from teenage sons, and they have their own dangers. You may have no source of income, and leaving without that puts your children at risk of the system taking them, and giving them to the abuser, without you as a protective factor. You are vulnerable and the police and protective orders don’t mean very much when you’re alone at a bus stop going to work (and that assumes you can get a job, which frequently you can’t.)

        There’s a whole variety of factors that can make a DV victim decide that staying is the better alternative, and make that decision reasonable. Safety plan. Understand the options, the risks and the repercussions. Then let her decide and try to help. It smacks of revictimization to decide we know best and tell her what her choices should be.

        • commanderlogic said:

          Agreed on all points, but as I just said to Toretha above you: the narrative “If you’d only stay and say the right things and believe in Deity enough and clap your hands really really hard, then your abuser will change (in maybe 50 years)! Won’t that be worth it all?!?” is a bullshit narrative that needs to be called out as bullshit.

          My mom was sold that very bill of goods in her first marriage. She finally went to her mom in tears saying she wanted to DIE rather than stay married to that guy. My Grandma, a staunch Catholic, told her, “Jesus wants to to be HAPPY. Divorce that son of a bitch, and stay here while you do it.” GO GRANDMA.

        • JenniferP said:

          Yes, I wasn’t saying people HAVE TO leave (and agree with you 100% that it’s unhelpful and toxic to say so), I was saying, Fuck St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Charlton, Massachusetts for telling women they HAVE TO stay and for dressing that horrible story up as a happy parable of why you shouldn’t leave.

          That comment wasn’t about you or prescriptions for you, it was about someone saying some bullshit in the past and me being upset about it as a small kid.

    • piny said:

      well, one other reason i don’t want to castigate her for buying into that narrative is that it’s sound strategy on it’s own terms. assuming the fact of an abusive relationship, accepting your abuser’s perspective on everything–and some share of the blame–is in many ways safer than disagreeing. she isn’t only giving herself the sense of a measure of power in an untenable situation; she’s shielding herself from her partner’s anger, which is an intelligent choice.

      i don’t agree with her decisions; i don’t think they’re healthy for her or for her family. but i empathize with them and i can understand why they are, in their own way, eminently sensible and responsive to her circumstances. why doesn’t she just leave is cruel, but it’s also inhumane and insulting. people in abusive relationships are smart, sensitive, resourceful people with excellent survival skills. they just don’t have good options within the context of abuse itself, because nobody does.

      • rory borealis said:

        Precisely. Also, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if her abuser vets her columns before she posts them. So while I am horrified by the things she is espousing, toeing that hideous line might be what she feels she has to do in order for him not to escalate the violence even further. It’s…a really broken survival instinct.

      • Ace said:

        I’m sorry If I looked like I was saying that she should just leave. Yeah, she should, but when she’s ready. And when that time comes, I hope she has all the support she needs, but in the meantime? Reading about her personal train wreck is painful.

      • Anonymous B said:

        Yes, yes, yes, especially to this: people in abusive relationships are smart, sensitive, resourceful people with excellent survival skills. they just don’t have good options within the context of abuse itself, because nobody does.

        I think about this a lot with regards to abused children especially, because they have so much less power outside of the family than adults do. My partner and I both grew up in abusive households. We both did weird, fucked-up shit to survive those situations. And we both formed habits that we’re now having to unlearn and replace with habits that are healthy for people who are in healthy relationships — even though we learned them in the first place because they were the healthiest options at the time.

        On a similar note: People in abusive households sometimes do stuff that looks destructive and antisocial — like lying or leaving home — in order to survive. But, especially when kids do these things, all outside authority figures see (teachers, police, other parents) is a misbehaving kid, and that means that kid often gets punished and then betrayed to their abusive parents. I cannot put into words how angry this pattern makes me. It takes a village to raise a child … or a clueless village to help abuse one.

        Similar lessons apply to adults in abusive relationships, as these Trunk posts and recent court decisions show. Thanks, Piny, for NOT falling into these victim-blaming, abuse-reinforcing, and condescending traps. And sorry for diverging away from the romantic-relationship abuse topic a little, but child/family abuse is where my experience lies. Plus I do think it’s important, when we’re talking about general things like “how there’s no magical way to change an abuser’s mind,” that other abuse formations do happen.

  5. KarenElhyam said:

    I truly do not understand Ms Trunk’s logic on any level, but specifically when it comes to her anecdote about her parents.

    If it’s really true that both parents were utterly horrid to each other, then it’s in absolutely everyone’s best interest to leave. Isn’t it? I am young, I’ve never been married, and my parents lived together fairly happily until my mother’s passing. But despite that, if there was constant misery, I would have hoped my parents would have moved on to try and find happiness, regardless of me or my sister. I can’t imagine that miserably stable is better than unstable but happy, or at least with less daily, constant conflict.

    • jenfullmoon said:

      I honestly think the woman is Just Plain Crazy. Once I saw that classtastic photo she posted of herself with a bruise, with no pants on, and the artful posing of barely seeing her vulva…and isn’t this on her professional advice work page, again?–I decided that the woman must be utterly insane. Why the hell you’d post a picture that seems to be saying, “I’m abused! Please fuck me!”, I truly don’t understand. That was gross. I just don’t think that anyone with a grain of sanity or self-preservation would do that.

      I guess given that she’s crazy, it’s not a surprise that she would totally be up for staying in an abusive marriage no matter what (and I fear that on some level she uh…likes it?!). But I really really hate that she’s advocating doing so to so many people. God, it’s hard enough to get someone to leave an abusive marriage as is without an “expert” telling them they have to stay even if he bashes her head in. ARGGGGGGGGGGH RAGE!

      • I don’t like your ‘She’s crazy, crazy people be doing crazy things’ argument. This is usually used to easily dismiss everything a person does, even if it’s born out of a survival instinct, and that’s … no way to go. I get that you don’t want to watch these painful events. So, uhm, don’t.

        You comment also sounds like victim blaming (she likes it? wtf?).

      • staranise said:

        Whoa there, could you not make a bunch of slurs about people with mental illnesses? “Crazy” is not some amorphous state that means you get to give up trying to understand a person and just write them off as a lost cause. Penelope Trunk isn’t “crazy”, because “crazy” isn’t a thing people actually have. It’s a thing other people accuse them of having. That I know of, Penelope has Asperger’s and she’s in an abusive relationship, so her way of dealing with the world is a little off-kilter when yoy look at it from the outside, and she probably has other issues that screw with her sense of self-worth and ability to tell what’s safe or not. She is trying to make an unsafe system work for her–trying to deal with an abuser and her need to survive–which means doing and thinking things that look “crazy”.

        But I’m “crazy” in that I’ve been dealing with depression, social anxiety, and OCD for years now. Sometimes that made me do things that looked totally batshit, like washing the invisible bugs off my skin. None of it made it okay to deny me basic human dignity or empathy.

        If you hate what she says, argue with what she says. Leave her alone.

        • Falcon said:

          She has borderline personality disorder(she has been diagnosed with it, it says on her blog, I am not doing the net diagnosis thing) which is relevant to how she is acting. I can see what you mean about the term crazy but she is acting like a BPD person doing BPD things. Not at all a reason to deny her dignity or empathy! Is just useful to know in order understand what is going on and perhaps a good therapist where she is might be able to help. Having an utter terror of abandonment makes it even harder to leave and to understand that leaving isn’t the worst thing for the kids.

          I think she is getting two things terribly confused when she says that she is half the problem. What he does to her is not her fault, none of it, *ever*. The only meaningful boundaries she could set to stop that is to stop being there.

          The part that she is responsible for is to stop is her own abusive behavior: violent self injury as a manipulative tactic, refusing to let someone leave the house with threats and blocking in his car, pursuing and refusing to back away…those are all things that would have me in a shelter and calling 911 if my husband acted like that. She is making a huge, huge mistake if she thinks that that makes it ok to hurt her.

          He needs to set some decent boundaries and get the hell out rather than escalating. It might not be easy for him either but I think he’d might be less scared and have more resources. I might be totally wrong on that but it sounds like she is really stuck and since he is the one who took it up to bruising her like that, I think he really ought to walk away and stop hurting her at least for as long as it takes for them both to learn how to stop acting like that.

          • staranise said:

            Thanks for pointing that out. Somehow, magically, (okay I can totally tell you how) as a teenager I ended up with three supergood friends with BPD in a row (and they all dumped me sequentially) so to me even BPD isn’t “crazy”. It helps me to think more, “Personality formed by an environment of abuse and emotional privation.”

            In my experience Aspergers + Borderline = “I must have a bunch of externally-derived rules for my life, and if I don’t follow them, I am a terrible person!” which is… basically what she seems to be doing now. So you’re right that she seems to be doing a bunch of BPD things. I really, really hope she gets someone to help her rewrite those rules in a healthier fashion. It seems like people talking on the Internet don’t help her at all, so I really hope she gets someone in her life who helps her see that there are alternatives here.

          • Shaenon said:

            The part that she is responsible for is to stop is her own abusive behavior: violent self injury as a manipulative tactic, refusing to let someone leave the house with threats and blocking in his car, pursuing and refusing to back away…

            None of which, incidentally, sounds like the behavior of someone who understands setting or respecting boundaries.

            Glancing back at her older posts, it looks like most of her fights with her husband follow the same pattern: he does something hurtful/dangerous/just-plain-weird and refuses to explain himself, she follows him around picking at the issue and demanding he talk about it, and he explodes, screams at her, and sometimes hits her. Or she hits herself. Which is not the dynamic of two people who understand how boundaries work.

            And by the way, the boundary thing? Only works if both people are willing to respect those boundaries. If you’ve got one person setting rules and the other person ignoring them, that is not a relationship with good boundaries.

            And now I’ve just read the post where she talks about how her husband complains that in her posts about their marriage she doesn’t talk enough about how much she sucks, and she then makes a list of ways her husband wants everyone to know that she sucks, and I just feel sad.

      • Uh… I recall her saying she thinks she deserves it, but I gotta tell ya, “I deserve this” is a whole lot different from “I like this.” It can feel vindicating and satisfying, and is sometimes a relief, to get what you deserve, and all those things can feel good, but it’s still nowhere near walking into your best friend the dog breeder’s house and being swarmed by puppies. Just sayin’.

        • This is assuming you like puppies and aren’t afraid of swarms, of course.

      • piny said:

        i’m honestly not sure how you’d photograph your own naked upper thigh in a hotel room in a way that couldn’t be called provocative. i don’t think it’s fair to castigate her for the way in which she chooses to manage her own revelations about abuse, or to complain that she’s too exposed or too secretive, or that her tone is off. of course her tone is off; that’s normal for someone trying to incorporate a horrendous event into the fabric of her daily life. my issue is with her feelings about abuse victims protecting themselves.

      • JenniferP said:

        Hey JenFullMoon, I was asleep and didn’t see this when it came in, but this comment is WAY out of line.

        Comments like this are one of the reasons I sat on Piny’s guest post for…two weeks, was it?

        I don’t want to tell a woman who is struggling – honestly, vulnerably, and publicly – that she is doing it wrong. Also, you can have a mental illness or disorder and still have a lot of cool shit to say, which is why I put her blog in my sidebar COMPLETELY UNIRONICALLY (and will continue to link her, without patronizing “warnings”) when I started this blog. Trunk was one of my heroes showing me how to be honest and vulnerable and be yourself in your writing and at work, even if you’re struggling with a mental illness. Even if you’re imperfect. Even if you’re in a shitty situation. Even if you’re in the middle of that situation and don’t have perspective on it. So if we can keep our comments to her arguments she’s made in things she’s written and NOT armchair diagnose her (as other commenters have pointed out, she is very open about her Aspergers and BPD) or discount what she says because of those diagnoses.

        She makes me nuts when she does the whole “Women, just conform to patriarchy SMARTER, NOT HARDER” bullshit thing, as in the “blueprint for a woman’s life” post I wrote about on Feministe. And she enrages me sometimes with how she uses research – psych/anthropology research is descriptive of something that has happened/is happening, not a prescription for how things *should* be or how you should be. If some study (and I did NOT click the link and read the study) says “some women have a pattern of multiple abusive partners in their lives” it does not follow that “You shouldn’t leave your relationship, you’ll probably end up with the exact same kind of dude.” Because she has such a platform and gets so much attention for dressing up conventional wisdom as something new, it’s worth calling it out when it crosses over. But this is not the We Hate Penelope Trunk club – We’re all mad here.

        • S.E. said:

          I am potentially misreading this, but would you mind clarifying what you mean by, “without patronizing “warnings””? Do you mean it’s patronizing to her, or to your readers, or what?

          • JenniferP said:

            Someone below in the comments asked me to post some kind of warning on the link to her blog in my sidebar. I’m not doing that.

        • “some women have a pattern of multiple abusive partners in their lives” it does not follow that “You shouldn’t leave your relationship, you’ll probably end up with the exact same kind of dude.”

          This is a great point that I’ve not seen made exactly this way before. I was in a relationship once at about age 18 where I often felt the urge to strike my girlfriend who was 16. I never touched her in anger but I did a lot of abusive things, belittling her, etc. It was a terrible, abusive and dysfunctional relationship.

          Research suggests that after we broke up we would continue to fall into these patterns again and again. However, I’ve never experienced anything like that again, and I didn’t stay in touch with her (for obvious reasons) but I certainly hope her future relationships weren’t like that either.

          Tendencies aren’t rules. Yes, people in abusive relationship will tend to fall back into abusive relationships. No, that doesn’t mean if you’re in an abusive relationship you should stay in it and try to fix it because that’s the only way to fix yourself. The opposite is true. Get out, and use the experience to guide you in not returning to that dark place again.

          • solecism said:

            “Tendencies aren’t rules.”

            This. Also, statistics don’t really apply to individuals. I guess this is what I was trying to get at by sharing my entirely too long and probably too detailed story. I was in one abusive relationship, but the subsequent relationship is extremely supportive and rewarding. It is with someone struggling with mental illness, so “(s)he be crazy” really doesn’t automatically justify, explain, or cause abuse either as aggressor or victim. It doubtless plays a role in the situation and the risk analysis and decisions the victim makes, just as many other factors do: children, pets, resources, etc. But the label is used to stigmatize and dismiss, which is its own enormous problem.

            I was also trying to share that the symptoms can be quite different from the classic descriptions and still be abuse, in the same way that symptoms of heart attack in women often are quite different from the widely publicized symptoms usually experienced by men, thus leading to underdiagnosis and consequent greater mortality in women. The common factor seems to be the abuser’s desire (inescapable need?) is to control the victim’s beliefs, thoughts, feelings, actions, body, sexuality, relationships, identity in some unique combination, which can manifest in very different ways. In my case, the focus was on controlling my feelings and sexuality, and to a lesser degree my relationships. There was no belittlin, physical violence, intimidation or direct domination, which is why I was so slow to recognize that it was indeed abusive. Plus, my own violent resistance made me think *I* was the abuser, instead of realizing that I was the poor trapped camel frantically flailing in the tar of La Brea.

          • I really like “Tendencies aren’t rules.” That became critically important to me after I left my first husband. I had a brief fling with a person who quickly started down the path of disrespect, criticizing the way I was currently wearing my hair, poking my stomach and saying “not flat” (this is the origin of my opinion that someone can be ruined by hentai). In a way, it was a gift that this person behaved that way, because it was a pale reflection of the belittling my first husband did, and my internal response was “O HO VIRGINIA MARIE, HERE WE GO AGAIN.”

            So I marched right out that door and took up a policy of Constant Vigilance that has served me well ever since.

          • Falcon said:

            “Tendencies aren’t rules” Thank you so much for that!! No one should have to think that zie is doomed because of a history of abuse. I have been reported to CPS by therapists, as a person to watch because I was likely to become abusive at some point, based on my childhood history rather than my treatment of my kids. Women who have been abused get the same fatalistic bullshit. If isn’t true and it is offensive as all hell.

  6. There is something very complex going on when she posts a picture of herself naked and in what should be an attractive pose, but highlighting the painful bruise she suffered when her husband slammed her into the bedpost, and in the context of explaining how she is not going to leave him. And she also in that post stated that her blogge readers are among the people she is closest to. I can’t even begin to construct theories that might explain all of this.

    • duck-billed placelot said:

      Well, the framing is all object-not-subject; not exactly ‘look at sexy me’ boudoir shots. She is reduced to bruise, fanny*, legs. Bruise that sent her away. Legs that took her away; legs that will take her back. Ass/pussy framed by those elements.

      In the essay, she says a therapist told her and her husband that their marriage was going to fail because ‘neither one could be vulnerable’. Then the blog readers=closest peeps comment. So this photo functions as a proof of her ability to vulnerable (sharing with her superclose anonymous blogfans), and a repudiation of her assigned position as ‘not vulnerable’. Cause that bruise looks like she’s been in some danger, yo.

      But yes, as a writer/teacher, this is something that I would object to in a work of fiction. “He slammed her into the bedpost? As in he abused her with their actual marital bed? If you mean rape, maybe you should say that.” In real life, though, it just makes me assume that the violence extends in that direction as well, and feel all broken and despairing about the State of Things.

      *Dialectical double entendre!

  7. Dorothy said:

    In my experience divorce was absolutely the right thing to do. My mother and I had a falling out after the divorce, as she felt that I should have stayed so that my son could have both parents under the same roof. After my son left for college, I happened to come across one of his school essays in which he stated that our marriage was like having to swim in the cold ocean for a long time until finally arriving on dry land (the divorce). It was sad to read that, yet I felt tremendous relief, as I thought that he was against the divorce. Then again, a lot of times kids keep quiet or talk among themselves, and the parents may never know their true feelings.

    I’d had it with my ex-husband. In fact, there were hints of anger and violence on our first date. Did I listen? No. After all, I’d come from an abusive family myself, and abuse was, in an odd way, the normal course of events. After all the put-downs, sarcastic comments, anger, holes in the walls, my love for my ex-husband vanished, never to return. I tried to be friends with him after the divorce, but the smoldering anger was still there and probably always will be. The crazy thing about all of this is that my ex-husband came from an abusive family as well as my mother, who went into unpredictable rages with us kids. And my mother’s mother was abused by my grandfather. So it just carried on down the line. And I believe that if I’d stayed with my ex-husband, my son would have learned to be abusive. He was already showing hints of it.

    My aunt continued to be married to her abusive, philandering husband and, when he passed away, called it 50 years of hell. No way was I going to have that.

  8. CoolNewAnonymousNickname said:

    The truth of the matter for me when I was being relentlessly emotionally abused was that I couldn’t believe I could leave until I did. I remember driving back to New York with my parents, in shock the entire time that I was really doing this thing. Being in shock when I *kept* doing it, being and staying gone. I stayed for twenty years, with the last decade being betrayal and abuse and more escalating abuse. I left when the idea of being alone, broke, and loveless forever couldn’t frighten me as much as the certainty that, one way or another, if I stayed with that man that I would surely die before another year had passed. Fortunately there were no children involved; my heart aches that women feel like they are forced to make a devil’s bargain of their own safety and happiness versus their children’s welfare. I completely understand the not wanting to be labeled a ‘quitter’, that was one of the biggest stumbling blocks for me as well. I’m sorry, I feel like I’m not really making a lot of sense, but I guess my point is–you will leave when you finally realize you can and not one minute sooner.

    • siobhanmkelly said:

      This isn’t entirely just abuse. When I left my ex-husband (we had been together 11 years at that point), I couldn’t believe I was doing it. I STILL don’t entirely believe I did it. And that relationship was not what one would call abusive.

  9. stephanie said:

    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.

    This concept is really important. Part of magical thinking is the idea that if we think about it it’s done, and if we don’t think about it then it isn’t done. Thinking (or mentioning) the boundary but not following up on it gives a person room to believe that they’re trapped and cannot leave, and abusers are often really good in reinforcing that. (And people in the situation can be good at reinforcing that, too)

    I discovered Penelope Trunk last week via the links on Captain Awkward’s sidebar and I didn’t react well and was very confused. I had been looking for more awesomeness like the Captain’s and didn’t realise until I was a few posts in (because there is some interesting commentary in Penelope Trunk’s posts!) that it was not actually awesome, and then I stumbled on the divorce post and had to get the fuck out of there.

    Is there some way there could be a warning on your sidebar? That it’s not necessarily a safe blog to click through to, or that links on the Captain’s sidebar aren’t necessarily recommendations? (I know I should have guessed from the link to Dear Prudence, but I thought that was ironic!)

    • JenniferP said:

      I’m not posting a warning. I keep a set of links to things I read and think are relevant, for many definitions of relevant, to what I do here. I link to Trunk plenty when she gives great advice and she was one of my models when I started this joint.

      No blogs are safe all the time for everyone, this one included.

      • stephanie said:

        Yeah, sorry about that, I take your point above.

  10. Shora said:

    I’m really sick of people trying to tell me I had the worst childhood ever because my parents divorced.

    I’m glad my mother didn’t listen to that bullshit because otherwise I would have grown up in a toxic household of constant fights and resentment and an absolutely terrible relationship model. No thanks.

    Being loved, supported, and safe; THAT’S what a child needs. Love and Stability. Not two people gritting their teeth and being trapped together.

    • Tosca said:

      Yes, thank you! Even to this day, I get the pity from my mother in law. She is miserably married to my father in law and hates him, yet she pities ME for my parents having divorced when I was twelve. My parents are each remarried to better matches for them and it worked out great. I get resentful sometimes, because now she’s starting on my niece (her daughter’s daughter). Her parents just divorced a year ago but she is handling it really well and honestly I think she is just relieved the fighting has stopped. Her parents seem to get along better now that they are apart. I just tell her, you are NOT broken and you will be fine, no matter WHAT mother in law says!

      • My parents were completely civil to each other, and it STILL would have been worse for me if they’d stayed together. Hello, people who think kids need two parents (always male-female parents, too, funnily enough) under one roof: My dad took a job in Israel specifically so that he could take two- and three-week long business trips to get away from my mom. I saw him maybe twenty weeks out of the year until they got divorced, and then poof–I had a dad again. Thanks, but I’ll take dad-under-another-roof over dad-who’s-never-there any day.

        Also, civility? Not actually a good relationship model. I mean, it’s better than abuse, but… I deserve to hold out for someone I actually like, not someone I tolerate. Who knows how long it would have taken for me to figure that out if my parents hadn’t shown me?

      • itsybits said:

        yeah…like the ‘broken home’ phrase. It really gets to me. My parents split, but were amicable – i never thought of my family as ‘broken’. I was loved, they did what they thought was best for me, and for the most part it worked. When I had kids, in an abusive relationship, and they witnessed that abuse – that was a broken family.

    • Tevarre said:

      Oh, abso-freakin-lutely. I laugh at people who tell me they’re ‘sorry’ that my parents are divorced – I’d been daydreaming about what it’d be like when they *finally* divorced for 5 years by the time it actually happened.

      The whole ‘oh lord, a broken home, won’t somebody think of the children?!’ thing really, really pisses me off. If you’re thinking of the children, then you make sure they’re not growing up in a toxic environment, and WEDDING RINGS AREN’T MAGIC.

  11. Also, as a child whose parents started having marital trouble (in a low-conflict way) from before I was born, and finally got divorced when I was 15: they should have fucking done it sooner. Maybe then I would have had a chance to see my parents happy, and actually in love with someone, and grow up with a healthy idea of family.

    • East said:

      This. I still have to sleep with earplugs and headphones since far-away voices sound like fighting and make my heart race.

      • I am okay asleep, but get really agitated if people are arguing near me! It really sucks, and even though I’ve worked hard at it, I still have a really difficult time NOT eavesdropping on them, because they freak me out.

      • solecism said:

        Raised voices are very triggering for my partner, another casualty of parents who divorced far too late. We also both get very anxious about conflict, our own or others’, so I can sympathize with this.

        • Wow. I’m just now realizing this is one of those “not actually normal” things. I think I’d been assuming that everyone feels this way?

          I mean, I’m sure not many people like being around an angry screaming person, but reading this thread I’m just realizing that the extent of my “cringe and try to hide” reaction to raised voices has something to do with my upbringing as well.

          • JenniferP said:

            I can’t be around yellers AT ALL. Oh god, shoulders-up-around-ears panic reaction.

          • staranise said:

            I knew a guy once who was from a family that argued as a method of communication. “What time is the movie?” “Oh, it’s at 7:00.” “No, it’s at 7:15.” “I remember it’s at seven because they show it every two hours.” “It’s 7:15!” Originally I did the equivalent of diving for the newspaper to find out what time the damn movie was at, before I realized that to them, conflict and arguing weren’t signs of things gone wrong. It was kind of a headtrip, and I couldn’t spend much time with them.

          • xenu01 said:

            Alas, I come from a family of loud, emotional talkers. We don’t actually yell, but there are heated debates and things can get intense. I think it would be difficult for someone who is conflict-avoidant/triggered by raised voices to attend a family occasion at our place, which is why I never brought anyone home before the guy I married.

            Of course, on the other side of things, because I am used to people being upset in heated and loud ways, I am panicked/trying to fix-it/not sure what to do when people don’t express their emotions directly. I am also really bad at figuring out someone is angry with me if they don’t tell me they are angry with me. Especially if they are acting normal and nice like nothing ever happened. This is part of what made me think I was a bad woman or didn’t like other women, because a lot of women in my life, including my mother and sister, act like nothing is wrong until it all comes out in a FEELINGSBOMB six months later. There are men like this too! It’s just that maybe women are not socialized to yell a lot? I don’t know.

  12. solecism said:

    I was in an abusive relationship for 7 years. It was my first actual relationship, since up to that point I’d had fairly casual flings that ended when I moved (for several years, I moved every 6 months as part of my seasonal lifestyle). I tried to break up after the first year, but it didn’t stick, in part because he was so hurt and devastated and it was the first time I’d ever tried to dump someone, and the raw pain that I was directly causing was too much for me to confront. And I thought I should make a real effort to make it work, instead of running away from commitment. So we moved in together prematurely as part of yet another cross-country relocation, this time settling down for grad school.

    It too me a long time to recognize that the relationship was abusive, and that he was the abuser. In fact, I worried that I was the abuser. He was never physically violent, whereas at the end I was increasingly violent, breaking things and self harming. However, he was amazingly verbally violent, particularly when driving. My direct experiences of road rage were between him and other drivers. He didn’t try to destroy my self esteem, instead he always talked about how beautiful I was, and “thank you for you.” He didn’t try to dominate me. In fact, I tended to make all of the decisions and take the initiative for social and domestic activities.

    But. He was incredibly jealous and insecure. For awhile, I thought that I was getting the better deal out of the relationship because my needs were being met–being loved, cherished, appreciated, considered wonderful in an emotionally and physically intimate relationship and experiencing affection and so on–while his were not. There was no way that I could fill that gaping inner void of need, and I never tried. I wasn’t willing to say “I’ll love you forever and ever.” I could only say “I love you (now).” When he said “I love you,” I didn’t automatically parrot it back. When he demanded that I prove my devotion on demand like that, I said that I wanted to mean it every time I said it, and if it was an automatic and mandatory reply, then it couldn’t be sincere. I wasn’t willing to make some sort of guarantee, since people grow and change and who knows.

    He did isolate me to some degree. He was so threatened by my attention to other people, that he would break into phone conversations incessantly, like a toddler, until I gradually stopped calling long-distance friends. Those relationships have never quite recovered, and I still don’t talk on the phone much anymore, though it’s been years since I left him. He didn’t like me talking to men, so my platonic friendships in person suffered or just never developed in our new city the way they had in the past. And he also worried about female attention. He used to interrogate me every time I came home from the gym about women in the locker room who might have seen my naked body.

    It took me an appallingly long time to figure out that he was alcoholic. Not being a drinker, I really didn’t have a frame of reference, so had no idea how much beyond usual social drinking his daily intake was. He tried to quit once, maybe twice, while we were together, but I think that the withdrawal symptoms were too much, and he was never willing to seek help. Eventually, I began to tell him that as long as he drank, it was only a matter of time until I left him. Not if, but when, was the mantra of our last year or two together.

    He was an awful bigot: homophobic, racist, misogynistic, you name it. The misogyny also took me too long to figure out (again). For example, the only way he ever described a woman making love was “spreading her legs.” And he used the worst of slurs always to describe his ex (and doubtless me now). He was the one who made me finally understand what women meant when they complained about being objectified.

    When we first met, I’d had a long dry spell, so was ripe for sex and romance. At first, it was great. We had lots of sex, and we both enjoyed it. The problem was that when he had sex he only ever thought of himself, his desire, his needs, his orgasm. When he tried to please me, he just didn’t have the capacity to sense or understand my sexual response, even when I tried to direct him verbally or physically. He never was able to tell when I orgasmed and would have to ask me every time. He enjoyed oral sex but for his own sake, and eventually it made my skin crawl. In the end, sex was coercive. He never sexually assaulted me by physically forcing me. Instead, he would hammer away verbally, demanding and pleading for sex, grinding me down with the nonstop barrage. Eventually I would give in to get him to STFU. Enthusiastic consent was part of the distant past. When I left him, I thought I was broken.

    He always sexualized me–no matter what I was doing, or who I was with, I was first and foremost, his sexual object. That has the potential to be kinky fun when both partners agree and play with it, but when I asked him to turn it off, he was offended and told me I should be flattered and proud. And that was a lot of the problem–he had this vision of the perfect marriage and each person’s role. So he was always telling me what my feelings were supposed to be, what I was supposed to think, and how I was supposed to react to all of the many “wonderful” things he did for and to me. After all, he always “treated me like a queen.”

    Boundaries–he did not have them. Not in general, but especially not in an intimate relationship. He thought the union of man and woman meant no boundaries EVAH! And if I wanted time alone, there was something horribly wrong with me. When I went into another room and shut the door, he would immediately open it to find out what was wrong. He generally insisted on keeping the door open and would force it open if I closed it. That’s where he would get physically violent, I guess. When we were fighting and I got upset, I would ask for him to go away so that I could calm down. Instead, he would try to hug me and just physically invade my space (stay in my face). He would never back off or respect a boundary I tried to set until I was screaming myself hoarse or pounding my head into a wall or some comparable extreme reaction. He didn’t understand that it was a boundary and that I was serious about it until I was extreme, and then of course I was overreacting and why didn’t I just say so. It never got easier. It always required extreme reactions for him to take me seriously and believe me when I said something wasn’t okay.

    Being with him made me the worst person I have ever been. I was angry, frustrated, irritable, impatient, and all that was tense and negative. I was constantly defending my boundaries and trying to make him understand my pain. But he couldn’t see it. He was so convinced that he was treating me well that he simply couldn’t conceive of my profound unhappiness. And yet, there wasn’t any particular triggering incident that made me decide finally to leave. But one day I realized that as I headed home, I was gritting my teeth and telling myself that I could make it through one more day, just one more day. And that my spirit was dying, bit by bit. According to him, our problems were entirely my fault. I was the one with the attitude problems, creating problems where they didn’t exist.

    There were a lot of red flags. Some of them I saw and discounted. Some of them I didn’t recognize at the time. Some didn’t match the classic descriptions of domestic abuse. Some had nothing to do with abuse but more with fundamental incompatibilities in terms of personality and values.

    I gained a lot of things from this relationship. I learned what my boundaries were. I learned to communicate them. I learned some of my sexual needs. I confronted prejudice on a daily basis, which took me out of my little bubble of privilege and started me down the path of educating myself on social justice issues. When we sold our house, I was able to pay off my student loans and set up a small IRA. It sure as hell made me a more compassionate person, and more cautious. Was it worth the pain and 7 years of my life? I don’t know, but I won’t say that I regret those years either. My grad school experience would have been very different and my whole life here would have followed a very different trajectory if I’d been single when I arrived.

    Luckily, as soon as we sold the house, he moved back across the country. So I don’t have to worry about my physical safety. And he’s not very tech savvy, therefore I am not too concerned about online stalking. But I expect to protect my address and phone number for the rest of my life. Such precautions do limit some of my activities and roles in various organizations. Unbeknownst to me, when we were breaking up, he went through my personal addressbook and copied the contact information for some of my closest friends, who he proceeded to harass for a number of years, though I think that’s finally stopped. And he continues to contact mutual friends sporadically, though again, that’s on the decline. I haven’t received any harrassing phone calls (not since the first month after I moved out), so I assume that no one has passed that information along. And I hope that no one caves to his demands for information about me, though someone did tell him about my new relationship, because I got hate mail not long afterward. Hopefully, that’s not an option anymore because I’ve moved a couple times since then.

    It’s not a given that someone inevitably recapitulates abusive dynamics. My current relationship is entirely different. Sure, we have problems, but he listens and is willing to try (and I hope I do the same). We both work hard at communicating and setting good boundaries when needed. We rarely fight, and our conflict is usually limited to some tense conversations. We’ve been together over 5 years with only a few ripples disturbing our generally calm home. I begin to think that we will be together until one of us dies, something that was truly inconceivable for me.

    My parents divorced when I was 10, and I come from an extended family of broken homes, going back at least a couple of generations. So I tend to be a bit of a pessimist about the institution of marriage and the longevity of relationships. My parents’ divorce was a relief, because I do remember their bitter fights. It seemed to be an amicable divorce, and I think my parents worked hard to preserve a working relationship around visits, custody, etc. So much so, that my brother and I were quite taken aback to hear my father’s antipathy to my mother and complete unwillingness to be in the same room with her so that they could both attend my brother’s wedding. Both of my parents remained unmarried for the remainder of my childhood, though both dated to some degree.

    My mom remarried and is now in an extremely toxic and abusive relationship with an alcoholic that is poisoning her dynamics with me and everyone else. For a number of years, she and I bonded by commiserating about our miserable relationships. And in fact, she talked about leaving her husband before I even contemplated leaving my abusive relationship, but she quickly recanted and seems unwilling to reconsider the possibility. From what little she has said about her childhood, I gather that it was physically and emotionally abusive, and I suspect possible sexual abuse too. I am only now starting to think that this may have had repercussions for my own life. Certainly, I have had to struggle as an adult to learn how to communicate about important things and how to handle conflict. These were not things that were modelled in my parents’ homes. And I am currently struggling with my relationship with my mother. She can be emotionally abusive. But she’s also the victim in an abusive relationship and has few resources. I want to be a resource for her, but not sure I can, particularly when she turns that abusive dynamic on me and won’t/can’t talk about specific incidents or difficult things in general. We’ve gone from being very close to small talk, carefully backing away from any conversational tension. I am trying therapy now, hoping to find tools to talk to her and maybe unpack my own history. We’ll see.

    • solecism said:

      Sorry, totally forgot to put any sort of trigger warning on this. Plus, tl;dr dontcha know.

      • Falcon said:

        It wasn’t too long, it was a very helpful thing to get a perspective on. Not many people get a chance to hear about that insidious kind of abuse. Thanks for posting and I am so glad you got out.

  13. becla said:

    Thank you so much solecism for that insight into an abusive relationship. I admire your courage and wisdom and honesty. I work in the domestic violence sector in Oz and so much of what you (and Penelope) describe is an accurate reflection of abusive tactics, and the complex thoughts, feelings and processes that victims/survivors work their way through as they find a way to survive (and hopefully get out eventually).
    We (the posters and commentators) could also blame Penelope for contributing to the dialogue of victim blaming and tolerance for abuse, or we could accept the harsher reality that she is expressing some widely held and entrenched social and cultural beliefs about the role of women, the nature of violence, and the myth that the victim has some control over her abuser’s behaviour.
    On a personal note, my parents divorced when I was about 5 (I can’t imagine them together and still remember the fighting before they separated) and managed to maintain a civil and even collegial relationship. Now over 30 years later, they still voluntarily have contact with each other and acknowledge that they have a long and rich history together. On the other hand, my mother remarried an abuser and my late childhood and teens were marred by the experience. It was only a relief and a joy when that relationship ended – even though the abuse continues to this day on one form or another.
    Where there is not abuse, research indicates that divorce does not need to be harmful, and the factors that mitigate it (this is borne out by my personal experience) include parents working together in the best interests of the child(ren), and neither denigrating ther other. On the other hand, where there is abuse, the data is pretty clear – children do not do well when living with an abusive parent (including when they are “only” witnessing abuse against their mother). I use gendered pronouns deliberately – the research about 50/50 violence that Penelope Trunk refers to is the Conflict Tactics Scale and the methodology is deeply flawed. It is still virtually the only study that has reached the same conclusion, even though the MRA’s would have one believe otherwise.
    Thanks for a great post.

  14. Copcher said:

    Holy Jesus, Penelope Trunk. I read one or two of her posts several months ago, and never went back. Until just now I had no idea that any of this stuff had was going on, but now it makes me just sad and angry. I think it really ties into the fallacy that you need a good reason to break up with someone. If you are not happy in a situation, you are allowed to change that situation, even (especially?) if the situation is causing you serious physical and/or emotional harm. Or even if it isn’t causing you any serious harm at all. If you’re unhappy, you’re allowed to leave. So even if you don’t see what your partner has done as abuse, if it makes you unhappy, you can go. Of course, in practice it’s much harder than that, but it’s at least a good principle to start with.

    I always really hate when people talk about love as a commitment, and say that you should honour that commitment even if it’s making you feel shitty. Love is a thing you might feel about something, not a contract you can’t get out of because maybe you once felt it or hoped you would. I mean, okay, having kids actually is making a commitment, but if you leave your spouse because they hit you, that doesn’t mean you’ve backed out of your commitment to your kids. If anything, you’re helping your kids because, 1) if your spouse hits you, what do you think will stop them from hitting your kids? and, 2) even if your spouse isn’t abusive, I would be willing to make a pretty serious guess that leaving will still benefit your kids, because they’ll have an example of someone choosing their own happiness over staying-in-a-relationship-at-all-costs-or-else-my-life-is a-failure. I don’t say this as a way to blame people who don’t leave their abusive partners if their kids turn out unhappy. The ones I’m blaming here are the abusive people themselves, and the people who try to convince victims of abuse to stay with their abusers. Seriously, those people are not cool.

    BUT ALSO!!!!! Here’s the other thing. Even if saying you loved someone (or marrying them) did actually automatically make contractually obliged to stay with them and at least pretend you love them (which it totally doesn’t, just saying), THEN THAT CONTRACT BREAKS IF THEY ABUSE YOU! It’s like one of the many wise things that Captain Awkward often says, that they’re the ones breaking the social contract by not respecting you boundaries and/or personal safety. Saying that a victim of abuse has any responsibility to try and help make it work is 100% victim blaming and absolutely not okay.

  15. RodeoBob said:

    Haven’t read Penelope Trunk, except for the quoted excerpts above. My $0.02…

    I don’t think I was ever abusive to my ex-wife. There was never any physical abuse or sexual abuse, and I certainly never tried to “break her” or (consciously) control her. I didn’t gaslight, I didn’t “neg”, I didn’t isolate or undercut. I don’t think I was ever abusive, but then, if I was an abuser, I doubt I’d have the self-awareness to recognize it. What I do know is that I was deeply manipulative, both of her and myself, in fundamental, profound ways that were both deeply coercive and persistent. So what I say next is from experience.

    When I was in therapy for depression, I learned the concept of “distorted thinking”. I felt awful all the time, even when my life was going well. In order to resolve the conflict between what I rationally knew and what I emotionally felt, my thinking became distorted to match my emotional state. Peoples’ acts of kindness became acts of pity, someone’s indifference became veiled hostility, and I assumed others displays of minor irritation were really just the tip of the iceberg of hate. The world I was perceiving was not the real world, but it matched my mood and emotions, so I valued it above reality.

    My thinking became distorted because of my depression. My ex-wife’s thinking became distorted because of me. I was not some mustache-twirling villain; I didn’t think “How will I make her doubt her feelings, how will I turn her fears and worries about me into a drive to do what I want?” But emotionally, I recognized what was happening, and said and did things (and didn’t say and withheld actions) that led to those results. What makes distorted thinking so insidious is that it’s a slow process that isn’t overt or obvious. People don’t realize that their view is distorted, and it isn’t always obvious to outsiders either. It’s easy to watch an interview with an anorexic who says “Look at how fat I am” and recognize the distorted thinking. It’s harder to read a blog excerpt where they write “I am not the whole problem in my family, but I am half.”

    I say all of this because the Trunk excerpts are full of these kinds of distorted thoughts. “if you picked an asshole the first time, you’ll pick the same type of asshole the second time” She didn’t “pick an asshole”, she picked a person who turned out to be different than she thought he was; people don’t come with warning stickers. (red flags, perhaps, but not even always then) But because of the need for our lives to make sense, we rationalize and distort our thinking, so that our choices of partners is assumed to be a fixed pattern: it’s normal to always date the same kind of person, over & over, and if the person you date now is abusive, you must like abusers, right? From the outside, it sounds like the anorexic talking about being fat, but when you’re in the middle of it all, trying to make sense of it, it sounds normal.

    So let’s bring this around to the call for action. Not just for one blogger somewhere, but for anyone, everyone. When you describe your relationship to your friends or parents or co-workers, when you relate an incident or an event, and the reaction you get is confusion, or shock, or horror, there are two things you really should do:
    1.) Recognize these reactions are coming from a place of support, friendship, and concern for you. They are coming from the most basic, primal well of connection, of empathy for another human being. This is not judgement or rejection, it is concern and compassion.
    2.) You probably already realize that other people have a different perspective than yours, that they are seeing the situation differently than you are. What you need to do, what could literally save your life, is accept the possibility that their perceptions might be more accurate than your own.

    I was out drinking with friends a few weeks ago. I stayed out later than I intended, and wound up having a few more drinks as a result. (6 drinks in 5 hours with dinner instead of 3 drinks in 3 hours with dinner) The next day, a friend made an off-hand remark about my behavior the night before, and I immediately asked follow-up questions. What did they mean? Did they mean to imply I was acting drunk? I didn’t recall slurring or stumbling or being loud, but I did drink more than I planned to, and I had to accept the possibility that my perception of the evening was not accurate, and look for the truth. (turned it it was an off-hand remark about my staying out late when I had complained about working the next day, and not about my drinking at all)

    Sorry if this was too long or too personal or too rambling, but I’m trying to serve some penance for past wrongs. Reading Ms. Trunk’s remarks, I see distorted thinking. I know some of how it might happen, and I don’t believe it’s possible to escape from abuse without confronting those distortions, or at least embracing the idea of doubt about one’s perceptions.

    • JenniferP said:

      Thanks for this comment, Bob, A++ for honesty and actual concrete recommendations.

    • S.E. said:

      This is a good comment. #2 is often brutally hard, but important.

    • Chay said:

      this really resonated with me, and i think was what much of what piny was driving at – the cognitive leaps and loops penelope has to keep spinning just to justify what is happening / explain it to herself (and by extension, the blogosphere) is pretty classic.

      this was the first i had read of her, and spent the last few days reading back through her blog. i admit i alternated between understanding sympathy (“wow, listen to the lies she has to tell herself to maintain this reality she’s in, that’s really upsetting”) and outrage rage (“blueprint for a fucking WHAT now?!”). her “love story” timeline with the farmer is disturbing, but SO honest, and as much as i don’t AGREE with her, i understand how she got there and how no amount of well-intentioned commenting will get her out. only she can do that, in her own time.

      the comments (on p.trunk) disturbed me the most. as piny said – its insidious. its true that even the smartest, savviest, most street wise, independent people can still find themselves in these situations and not necessarily see a way out. but when you have an entire internet (or, for example, the world at large) telling you “you’re so right! people SHOULD stay in abusive/unhappy/mental-health-deteriorating relationships because: commitment.” then its not hard to see how those thought processes are not only solidified in the current victim, but perpetuated by every single potential future victim who reads it.

    • Vir Modestus said:

      I was told some time ago (in a radically different context, but it applies): If three people tell you that you’re drunk, you should sit down. You may not be drunk, but *something’s* wrong.

    • Rosa said:

      Jumping in super late, but this is so clear and compassionate, thank you.

      I’d add, from the other side of a similar relationship, rule #3:

      It doesn’t take bad people to make a bad relationship.

      A person can leave, or back off, or whatever gets them out of a bad situation, without demonizing the other person. It can just be that things weren’t going well, not that the person was an abuser or a cheater or a liar or in some other way deserving of being broken up with. A relationship is not a prize for the deserving, and divorce/breakup isn’t a punishment for being bad.

      And as an example: after decades of dependence/codependence, when my parents finally divorced, the codependent one got to be independent and the alcoholic one got sober. That’s totally separate from how much better things were for us kids.

  16. I’m concerned that the harshness towards Penelope, while well-intended, could backfire. It creates the illusion that those reading this and nodding along are above these sorts of rationalizations. Perversely, that means that if they’re in the position of making these rationalizations, it might be harder for them to snap out of it and leave, because now they have an extra incentive not to sound like those abused women they look down on, even though they are, in fact, abused women.

    I imagine it will also confirm to Penelope that her abuser’s assessment of her—that no one can stand her but him, and then only barely—is correct. That, in turn, will make it harder for her to leave, because posts like this confirm her fears no one else will have her. Her brutally low self-esteem in her posts makes me want to weep; she’s internalized the abuser’s claims that she can’t do anything right and has this abuse coming.

    I don’t know the answer, but I hope there’s a way to discuss the rationalizations victims make before they’re ready to leave without reinforcing the already-existing social belief that victims are pathetic and unloveable.

    • piny said:

      i understand that you’re writing this from experience and from compassion, but i don’t know if this follows. the thing is, these dynamics and responses are common to most people. and i assume that most of us, even those of us who have never been in an intimate relationship that could be called abusive, have met dangerous, dishonest people. i’ve never had an abusive lover. (although i wonder if i should amend that to, except for some assholes i slept with.) i have had abusive roommates and coworkers, and toxic friends and family members. i have made some of the same basic calculations penelope trunk has, both the superficial and the underlying ones.

      and i assume that’s true of everyone here. all of us have chosen to accept blame rather than court reprisals or abandonment. and all of us have fallen for it, if it means someone else’s insistence that we are to blame for their mistreatment of us. this specific kind of abuse is also very common; i don’t know many people who haven’t at least dated an emotionally abuser.

      i didn’t argue that victims are pathetic and unloveable, or insult penelope’s intelligence. i just think she’s deeply wrong. and i didn’t argue that she was unwanted, either. i think that the greater likelihood is that she will dismiss me like her other detractors: as someone who is either deeply irresponsible or deeply ignorant, as someone who wants to avoid her own share of culpability in the abusive systems that we all live with. my harshness towards her probably won’t be received as proof that she’s wrong. it’ll be vindication.

    • Perversely, that means that if they’re in the position of making these rationalizations, it might be harder for them to snap out of it and leave, because now they have an extra incentive not to sound like those abused women they look down on, even though they are, in fact, abused women.
      I agree with this part and it’s something I worry about a lot. Trunk may not be reacting to or talking about the abuse in the way we want her to, but she is talking about it.

      Saying “she’s saying dangerously wrong things about abuse,” without sending the message “so she should just shut up about it” is a tricky, tricky line to walk. I think Piny did a pretty good job of doing so?

      But some of the comments here, and some of the commentary I’ve seen about Trunk elsewhere, have definitely crossed the line from “smart women recognize and fight abuse” to “smart women don’t let themselves be abused.” That’s not helping.

      • piny said:

        well, and the cordoning off idea in particular…i don’t think you can have a discussion about the firsthand experience of abuse without introducing a lot of screwed-up ideas about abuse. that’s what abuse is: inculcating the belief that you deserve it and will never find anything else. leaving that component out cheapens the fact of abuse. and insisting that narratives–and i include penelope trunk’s current writing in this category–be cleaned up cheapens witnessing.

    • JenniferP said:

      Hey, Amanda, thanks for saying this.

      I think the “I’m a smart person, I can figure this out. I can just be better and maybe I won’t have to give up (my relationship/my dream of how my life would work out/my home/our friends)” is stage everyone goes through in a relationship that’s going south, and I wish I’d stated that more clearly and with more compassion in the OP.

      I think Penelope Trunk is a smart, smart lady who is publicly processing a terrible situation.
      I think she is TERRIBLE at how she uses research to support old school terrible arguments – No divorce ever? Really? It’s the woman’s job to keep relationships together? Really? With a huge audience of people saying “fuck yeah, Penelope!”?

      Personally, I hope she’s right about everything and has a happy, great life with her kids and her marriage and her farm. Personally, I read her her entire blog archives in the few months before I started this joint, and I think she opened a lot of doors for me in how I think about work, life, and Being A Lady (with a sex life and a mental illness) On The Internet. I write a lot of stuff here that probably won’t help me be employed in certain capacities and she’s helped me to be fearless about it – everyone has issues, everyone is imperfect, everyone makes mistakes, and when you are at work you are still a human, don’t apologize for that.

  17. Kate in VA said:

    I was hoping the Captain or and/or one of her Squad would have something to say about this sad, sad situation.What seems particularly sad to me, and I admit that I could be way off-base this is, is how self-destructive Ms. Trunk’s writings about her marriage seem to be. She’s positioned herself — “branded” herself, if you will — as a work/life advice/coach type expert, and as such she’s given some controversial advice — marry and have kids young, home school the kids, run your business as a sideline when you’re not busy homeschooling or keeping house for the hubby, never EVER divorce. And — gotta give her credit — she’s definitely walking the walk…

    And what has that gotten her? What she herself describes as a mutually abusive marriage (Husband hitting her: Not okay. Her behavior as described in Falcon’s post above — which I have to assume Falcon drew from her blog, so correct me if I’m wrong — also not okay.) in an isolated area with young children who are, every day, internalizing the message that this is a normal and okay way to live when clearly it is NOT.*

    Oh, and I guess she has a blog following and some money, but it seems to me that she’s her own worst advertisement for the lifestyle she so ardently advocates. I wonder — how many readers are still going to her blog for the advice, and how many just to watch the train wreck? And when the train finally does well and truly wreck — and it will — what then?

    Look, I agree that Ms. Trunk is in an intolerable situation. I also agree that it is absolutely her right to write and publish her truth as she sees it, and she owes it to none of her readers to sugarcoat that truth or live her life in line with anyone else’s values but hers. She may even help a few readers who read about her life on the farm and draw uncomfortable parallels with their own situations. But the disconnect between what she says and what appears to be happening is so great that I fear that her professional credibility is, to an extent, in jeopardy. Unless there’s a major shift somewhere, this can’t end well for anyone, on any level, and although I disagree with her views on pretty much everything, I do worry about her.

    I hope I haven’t put this too clumsily, and I do wish her the best and hope that she finds peace in whatever form that looks like to her.

    *Just so I’m as clear as I can be — early marriage and kids, homeschooling, and working part-time from home can be a wonderful and fulfilling option for some people! It’s her implication that this is what ALL young women (specifically women) should aspire to that needles me.

    • piny said:

      i don’t know. the thing is, her narrative about her life is not her life. and i think she probably realizes that herself–that is, she’s savvy enough to understand that jinking your resume is not the same as having a fantastic new job.

      but let’s assume for the sake of argument that this all happened to her–and keeps happening to her–because of some terrible flaw in her philosophy. let’s assume that the farmer is in her life because her worldview and strategy put him there. right? let’s not assume that she met a man who seemed like a nice man, and who in some ways is a thoughtful and caring and interesting man, and that he proved to be an abuser, and then for various fairly common personal and relational reasons she couldn’t leave. let’s assume that all of their dynamic was present in capsule form in the beginning, and that all her initial options still are available.

      and let’s assume that all of these things–running away to the country, taking the weight of your own life on your shoulders, branding your own idiosyncratic bravery–are always a bad idea.

      i don’t think she is what got herself here: i don’t think she’s even what’s keeping herself here. i think the relationship between her response to her situation and her situation is a lot more complicated, like it is for all of us. and i think the story she’s telling has complicated origins. her philosophy has evolved with her life, i think, more than the other way around.

      i understand what you’re saying about “advertising,” but i don’t know if even she has extended the logic of her brand that far.

    • G said:

      Let me start by saying I am not commenting in any way about Trunk’s current situation. I only know what I’ve read here and I have no informed opinion to offer.

      I just want to reply to this: “her professional credibility is, to an extent, in jeopardy”.

      If you review Trunk’s writings from before this current situation, you’ll find a collection of 1) interesting, provocative, and valuable business advice, 2) bigotry (both misogyny and ageism), and 3) brazen linkbaiting. The bigotry and linkbait destroyed her professional credibility a long time ago.

  18. Chris said:

    I am another one who wondered, before all this came up, why CA linked to Brazen Careerist, because I found her comments to be rather backwards and not particularly in-line with the Captain’s philosophy.

    Now that this has come up, I feel a lot of empathy for Penelope, because I have been in an abusive relationship myself, and because as a girl I watched my mom stay in an abusive relationship with my dad.

    I think it would have been much healthier for me to watch my mom leave, and make a better life for herself. Perhaps it would have helped me avoid the same patterns later in life?

    As someone who has been in this situation as an adult, I understand how hard it is to leave, and how complex things can feel. But as someone who has been in this situation as a child, I urge her, for her children’s sake, to get the hell out. She can do better, and for their sake (and her own sake), she should.

    • JenniferP said:

      Okay, the whole whhyyyyy does the Captain even ever link to Penelope Trunk line of questioning is officially pissing me off.


      -She’s HUGE in the field of advice-giving, esp. career advice, and I’ve found many of her posts to be downright helpful, engaging, I disagree but it made me realize this other thing that I DO agree with, etc. So, she’s relevant to what I do here. I think she has some stuff to teach me about writing honestly and vulnerably about sex, mental illness, work, the real messy stuff of life AND refusing to sacrifice one shred of professional credibility in return. I think she has some stuff to teach me about maybe getting PAID to do that. There is no this blog without the hours I spent in the Brazen Careerist archives when I found them late in 2010, feeling lost and like I wanted to write something real.

      -She sometimes gives great advice. Sometimes she doesn’t. All advice (mine too) is caveat emptor. If you don’t like her blog, believe me, I get it. I don’t write her blog. Maybe go read one of the 50 other places I link (and don’t read and necessarily endorse every single post of). My obligation to link to only things that you would like at my joint that is mine = ZERO.


      If you (global you, not Chris) think Penelope Trunk maybe gave some good advice before she went and got herself abused, but now that she’s living in an abusive marriage and not behaving exactly as you would about that so you want to discount everything she’s ever said as being unworthy of being linked to or even ever talked about because it’s all a freak show now and did you see that picture of her ass?…you and I have a problem.

      “Losing love is like a window in your heart/everybody sees you’re blown apart.”

      I think her advice that you should never leave abusive marriages because of the children and you’ll probably just end up with someone just like your abuser anyway so if you do leave you’re just a selfish-immature-child-damaging quitter is SHIT-TASTIC. And worth talking about. And worth uncomfortably and imperfectly talking about. As this thread unfolds I keep seeing where Penelope says “I am half the problem, I can control what I do so I will try to do that” and we say “haha, that’s crazy…wait, Penelope should totally do X thing, though?” and don’t talk about what her abuser should/shouldn’t do (DON’T HIT!) because that’s what happens over and over in our culture with any kind of abuse? We don’t have access to the abuser’s thought patterns or reasoning or control over their actions so we muck around in the victim’s stuff like management consultants like we could somehow fix abuse if the victims could just do something differently?

      I really don’t like the thought of contributing to that dynamic here? But the advice is so shit-tastic and dangerous and she has such a huge platform and 1,000s of people saying “Right on!” that piny felt like we should risk it? I don’t have a satisfying answer.

      Wherever this discussion goes, leave your “how can you even link to her?” pearl-clutching at home from now on. Jesus.

      • xenu01 said:


      • Shaenon said:

        As this thread unfolds I keep seeing where Penelope says “I am half the problem, I can control what I do so I will try to do that” and we say “haha, that’s crazy…wait, Penelope should totally do X thing, though?” and don’t talk about what her abuser should/shouldn’t do (DON’T HIT!) because that’s what happens over and over in our culture with any kind of abuse?

        Oh yes indeed. I see how it happens, because Penelope’s the one writing about her life, not her husband. And she encourages it by talking about her husband like he’s a weather phenomenon rather than a human being who chooses to do things. Look at the number of times she uses the passive voice. In her family “there was lots of violence.” Things happened “leading up to the bruise.”

        She’s trying to frame the conversation so that abuse is just a normal thing that happens, and the only options are to agree that she belongs in an abusive relationship or be a judgmental meanypants. She has to really bend reality to force this situation (because it’s not reasonable to expect people who care about you to want you to be hit), and one way she does this is by making it all about her and cutting other people out of the narrative.

        I have also struggled with depression, and I am also very, very good at arguing, and everyone in my life who cares about me has gone through the same exhausting rhetorical game that Penelope is putting her readers through now. I recognize it on sight. If you accept the framework she’s set up, you will lose. Giving advice or speculating about what she ought to do just feeds into the “everybody hates me and disrespects me” track of the convoluted feedback loop she’s created.

      • Falcon said:

        I really love it when people will blog about mental illness, especially parents. I am a mommy with PTSD and bipolar and it is rare to see people talk about it.

        Oh and I did say that he should get out of there. I may have been the only one though.

      • duck-billed placelot said:

        don’t talk about what her abuser should/shouldn’t do (DON’T HIT!) because that’s what happens over and over in our culture with any kind of abuse? We don’t have access to the abuser’s thought patterns or reasoning or control over their actions so we muck around in the victim’s stuff like management consultants like we could somehow fix abuse if the victims could just do something differently?

        Thanks to this comment, I can now see how this is like the ‘How Not To Get Raped’ checklists that everybody’s mother sent them when they were 18 and off to college in the Big City. (Which, ahem, could have used that checklist a couple years earlier? [Or, no, actually, none of it would have helped.]) And now we All Know that such lists are crap and horrifying and have lists of ‘How Not to Rape’, which are part whistling in the dark and part serious beginnings of serious advice on training up men to not rape. But part of this tendency, I feel, to tell the abused what to do, is because we (I) hold no hope for the abuser behaving/getting better. Any list presented to them will be a waste because they have no interest in change; I assume their violence/abuse will only get worse. Never better. And, honestly, once a person starts raping, I also assume that will never stop, that the ‘How Not to Rape’ lists are for those who might be rapists if no one explains to them what consent means in list, detail, and pictograms.

        Huh. This is a very unsunny view of the human capacity for growth and change. Need to think on it.

        • sasha said:

          But part of this tendency, I feel, to tell the abused what to do, is because we (I) hold no hope for the abuser behaving/getting better. Any list presented to them will be a waste because they have no interest in change; I assume their violence/abuse will only get worse. …
          Huh. This is a very unsunny view of the human capacity for growth and change. Need to think on it.

          You’re right, it is an unsunny view of the human capacity for growth and change, but from my own personal experience with abuse, the experiences of several friends, and from literature, I’m pretty much convinced it’s accurate in many (most?) cases.

          My mother, who has NPD, is emotionally abusive – always has been and, at 66, I’m sure she always will be. She took my father for granted and treated him horribly, even after having it pointed out to her many times, for the 40 years of their marriage until he passed away last year. She expressed regret about the way she treated him shortly after his death, but within a week was back to abusing those around her. In classic NPD fashion, she scapegoated me from, literally, the day I was born, while my golden child sister could do no wrong. Even now, at 39 – despite my being the classic overachieving scapegoat with a PhD, list of achievements and awards, circle of friends, loving relationship – she’s still convinced that I’m a worthless, difficult rebel who will never get anywhere in life, and takes whatever opportunity she gets to tell me so (“Mom, I got my PhD!” “So when are you going to get a real job?.” “Mom, look at my wedding photos” “Too bad the camera added more like 20 pounds”. Srsly). Someone who can continue to say these kinds of things to their own adult child – and fail to see where she did anything wrong even when called out on it – is not going to change.

          My longest relationship to date (6 years) was with someone who was emotionally and, rarely, physically abusive. The early red flags are apparent now with hindsight, but I got caught up in the “romance” at the time. Like most abusers, he did such a good job of gaslighting and destroying my self esteem that I was convinced I couldn’t do any better, and didn’t deserve it. I wasn’t perfect in the relationship, so like Penelope Trunk I would see (with his help) all the things I did wrong and could do better – and, like others have said, that gave me a feeling of control over our situation. Plus, after he started getting violent, I made the logical calculation that I was safer with him. I broke up with him many times, but every time he’d send me on a whirlwind of emotional manipulation and physical threats until he finally wore me down and I’d take him back. I think the last breakup only finally stuck because he found someone else to fall in love with and obsess on. But he still tried to come back and started threatening me a year later, and since has done similar things to other women. He hasn’t changed.

          One of my closest friends has been in a series of abusive relationships, and at least one of those abusers has gone on to abuse another woman after her. She has yet to break the cycle of violence. But I have – my current partner, while he has his own issues (thanks to his own emotionally abusive prior relationship), has always treated me with love and respect.

          In the end, these are just my own experiences: n=1 (or 2-3, if you accept secondhand reporting). But Lundy Bancroft has counseled abusers for decades and written a book about it: Why does he do that? (I can’t recommend it strongly enough for anyone in or recovering from an abusive relationship). In it he reports that abusers almost never change, even with therapy. It’s simply too much work, and why should they when they continue to reap the benefits? And if that abuser has a personality disorder – especially NPD – they may actually be incapable of change, as some of the latest NPD research shows.

          I wanted to and did believe for a long time that people were capable of change. But that belief kept me in the abusive relationship for years after I should have left, and kept me begging for attention and validation from my mother well into my 30s. It was only giving up the belief in change that allowed me to finally take care of myself and heal. There may be – and probably are – abusers who have and can change, but I really think they’re the exception rather than the rule.

  19. cendare said:

    Here is the thing I wish everyone believed about relationships: (addressed to the generic “you”, in case that isn’t clear)

    You don’t have to prove that the other person is bad, or evil, or abusive. You don’t have to prove that they deserve to be left. You don’t have to prove that they’re unworthy. You don’t even have to prove that you don’t love them. You can love them, and still it’s okay for you to leave. It’s always okay for you to leave.

    I know you don’t want to be “that guy”/”that girl”, the fussy picky immature one. You don’t want the blog commenters to roll their eyes and call you bad names. You don’t want your family to talk about you behind your back and say what a good one you let get away. And you don’t want to be alone forever. And you’re not sure.

    But, seriously, it’s okay for you to leave. Just because you feel like it. Hell, just on a goddamn whim. You don’t have a responsibility to “the relationship”. You do have a responsibility to the other person in the relationship, yes — the responsibility to tell them “Hey, this isn’t working for me, and it doesn’t seem to be changing, and I don’t feel like doing any more work to fix it, so goodbye.” You do have a responsibility to kids, yes — a responsibility to show them “this is what a healthy relationship looks like”. You don’t owe them two parents in a house. You just don’t.

    …Alas, I can’t make everyone believe it. It makes me sad.

    • Featherless Biped said:

      Oh wow oh wow. I wish someone had told me this years earlier. (I mean, I worked it out eventually, but nobody ever said it, not when I needed it.) I am going to repeat it to everybody I know.

  20. AMM said:

    really, though, it’s shocking but not really that people never think of the abuser as having broken their marriage vows by attacking their spouse. what about the sanctity of her marriage?

    During the divorce process, and for several years after, my ex kept harping on how I was dishonest and not to be relied upon because I had “made a promise” and then broken it. From what our kids said, she also had a number of talks with them where she said the same thing. I chose not to respond to this, having learned through bitter experience that disagreeing with her about much of anything was not a good idea. While she was not physically abusive, she was frequently verbally abusive and could be pretty vengeful in other ways when someone did something she didn’t like. (Before I filed for divorce, I made a point of moving everything I cared about into a storage facility.)

    There’s one aspect of the “blame” thing that I didn’t see being mentioned in this thread. One of the things that made it hard for me to decide to leave was that I was committed to the idea being a good husband and a good father (and she was good at playing on that.) I wanted to be blameless, and couldn’t bear “quitting” unless I could prove that even a perfect human being could not have made things work.

    What I didn’t realize — and what I still have trouble accepting — is that you can never be “blameless.” I could see how my own actions and inactions played into the dysfunction that was our marriage. What I couldn’t see was that at a certain point it was irrelevant. The relationship was (literally) killing me, I was no longer able to be the father that my children needed, and, in retrospect, it was not good for my wife, either, though she’ll never admit it. It did not matter, really, who was at fault. What mattered was that our remaining together was adding to the misery in all our lives.

    Maybe someone else could have made the marriage work. Maybe if I’d been married to someone else we could have made it work. But we were (and are) who we are, and I don’t think there was any way we could have.

    • Cassandra said:

      Well said.

  21. Chalk me up as Person Number A Zillion who wishes her parents had broken up when she was a child.

    Because instead of growing up in a “broken” household, I grew up in an “intact” household filled with constant tension and resentment, punctuated by screaming and sometimes violent fights, with my mother flying into bizarre rages at both my father and myself. I don’t think that was healthier.

    I also suspect I would’ve gotten to spend more time with my father if he’d had even partial custody than I did when he was working sixteen-hour days and taking months-long business trips to get away from my mom. And it would have been better time, as my father (like most people) is a lot more fun to be around when he isn’t living in an atmosphere of constant stress and fear.

    I also wonder if some of the things my mom had done to me as a child might have come up in the divorce process and gotten me out of my own abusive situation a lot earlier.

    So yeah, I have absolutely no sentimentality for “stay together for the children’s sake,” because that attitude did me and my sister no favors.

    • piny said:

      that study is outrageous. here’s why: the category all marriages that did not end in divorce contains all the marriages that were so happy that neither person quit. the category all marriages that ended in divorce does not, by definition, contain any joyous and loving marriages that lasted a lifetime. it’s like comparing terminal vs. non-terminal cancer. you can’t study the relative seriousness of the two as though “did kill the fucking patient” is not a major indicator.

      • Yeah, narrowing it down to marriages where people had considered divorce and then looking at differences between “considered divorce, didn’t” and “divorced” would be more indicative. Not perfect either (there’s a big difference between “considered divorce, but were able to fix our problems” and “considered divorce, decided it was evil commitment-breaking”) but better.

        Lumping happy and miserable families together as “intact” is just another way of saying that relationships matter more than people.

        • piny said:

          or maybe you could compare miserable children from divorced homes vs. miserable children from non-divorced homes, or…wait, that would also make no sense.

          you know lynda barry, right? she had a beautiful comic about the myth of resilience, when she questioned what it means when we say that children “forget.” i feel like this obsession with public acknowledgement is a way of forcing children to bear the burden of their upbringing: if we ignore it, they have to pretend it away too.

  22. My two cents on the issue, we often act like the abuse is the problem, if only they would stop hitting me or if only they would stop yelling and being so angry, we could get somewhere with this and be happy or whatever, but the abuse is only a symptom of the problem.

    As simple/complicated as it is to say and as complicated as it is to address, the problem isn’t that abusive people abuse their loved ones, it is that abusive people believe that their loved ones are people that it is *okay* to hit and/or yell at.

    That is the reason, in my opinion, someone who hits you or yells at you should not be given a second chance, they haven’t just hit you, they have opened a window onto what they believe, and once that window is open there is no way to know, for sure, proof-positive, that their belief has changed or will ever change or whether it is just lurking below the surface, forever, waiting to come out again and making your life fraught and uncomfortable.

    • JenniferP said:

      Hey, Merriblock, one thing you want to be careful about is saying “YOU SHOULD” or acting like it’s a simple choice.

      The thing that Trunk is going through, where she tries to make it work? She’s got REASONS for that. Not “she’s just crazy!” reasons. Her own reasons.

      The thing that piny (and I) are taking her to task for is not how she handles her relationship, it’s for extrapolating her own decisions into “YOU SHOULDs” backed up with “research” for other people.

      I think you’re right that you can’t change abusers, but “Well, you should leave (and if you don’t, I wash my hands of you, or if you don’t, you deserve whatever happens to you)” is toxic and profoundly unhelpful.

      • Falcon said:

        “Well, you should leave (and if you don’t, I wash my hands of you, or if you don’t, you deserve whatever happens to you)” is toxic and profoundly unhelpful.

        Absolutely not the point with that one!! No one could ever in a million years deserve to be
        abused. The place to go from “You are morally obligated to your children” is “How can we help?” Because mommies should leave and it is a terrible mess. It isn’t a matter of how could smart women(people keep mentioning smart) get into this it is what do we do to support women getting free? They need emotional and financial help and access to therapy and shelters and housing and security sometimes.

        I agree that is it a sad for anyone to think it is ok to hit them. We all need to let each other know that we are too valuable to be hurt and that we deserve better.

        It is hard not to react that way sometimes because I would just take someone down, but then I remember things like poor P is probably more afraid of being abandoned than anything else and many women couldn’t and others wouldn’t even think to try… So then I deal with them in their lives not me in mine.

        I wonder sometimes how women could get into a situation where they couldn’t defend themselves but then I realize that I am insane.(If someone wants to fuss about the term, specifically I have severe PTSD, most people with it aren’t like this though). It isn’t normal to have such a bunker vet mentality that the first thing I assess in any situation is who I could or could not win a fight with and where all the weapons are. I don’t usually date men I am not evenly matched with, um, I am guessing that doesn’t enter into how other people think even a little. I am not even slightly tempted to tell anyone they should act like me. “Don’t let anyone hit you by having paranoia eat your life”, is not worth it.

  23. Commander Banana said:

    I haven’t read much of Trunk’s blog, other than a bit or two that Captain has linked to here, so I’m not going to pretend to have an informed opinion and I’m not interested in picking apart her motivation.

    Howwwever, what really disturbs me (I mean, apart from the entire Disturbing Ball of Wax that is her blog) is that she’s advising people – women – to stay in abusive relationships and reinforcing the blame-the-victim trope. Setting aside any feelings of empathy or sympathy I may have, that is dangerous.

  24. Christen said:

    This might be somewhat off-topic, but I think some of the discussion here clarified a problem that has been chasing itself around in my brain ever since I discovered this blog and the link to Penelope Trunk’s post about writing resumes, which contained the mantra, “Change the story you tell about your life.”

    Even at the time I thought, That is potentially great advice that makes total sense in a specific context. But there was also something about it that bothered me.

    There is someone walking around in a city hundreds of miles away from me who, if he ever thinks of me, almost certainly thinks I am someone he had sex with once and it turned out to be her first time and the sex ruined everything because then she got a school girl crush on him and wrote him a love letter and then months later got mad at him and stopped talking to him and later made up some story about him “harassing women” and threatened to tell their advisor about it if he came back to work at the [campus organization] they had met working for.

    My story is: I was hanging out with someone who was at the time my supervisor at work (a fellow student working for a student organization but still, my boss) and we started making out and he asked me if I wanted to have sex. I said yes and meant it, though of course he was MY BOSS and had big temper tantrums at work sometimes and while I’d entertained a brief crush on him when I first met him I was by that time pretty over it. He didn’t provide or ask about contraception, so I didn’t either.

    Then [redacted: horrible stuff about cervical damage and Plan B], at work, he started acting strange. Sometimes he was nice to me and we had good conversations about impotant stuff. Sometimes he would pick fights about little things — one offhand comment could set him off — and storm out of the room (like the aforementioned trantrums, but way, way worse). Sometimes he flirted. I asked if we could Get Together and Talk and he was always too busy, so I was confused. A coworker I was friends with at the time (I am not anymore) who knew what had happened said I write a letter making nice. I told him I was sorry if he felt like I had hurt him or taken advantage of him — he had just gone through a big breakup and it was the only reason I could think of that he was being so moody and hostile toward me. I told him I loved him as a friend and always would (yes, really).

    Of course, instead of getting better, things actually got worse. After the quarter changed our positions changed and (for reasons that didn’t have anything to do with any of this) I was higher on the totem pole than him. That was good because I saw him less, but when I did see him the hostility was dialed way, way up to the point where everyone around us was silent and uncomfortable.

    I decided to leave the organization for a while and get some therapy. After I made that decision, I talked to a female colleague who asked me about what had happened and was also the first to use the words “sexual harassment” and “verbal abuse” and “not OK.” I cut off contact with the jerkface and got therapy and moved on. My final contact with him was telling him I understood he was considering applying for [a position more senior than he had had before] and told him I would write our advisor and the hiring committee about his behavior toward me. He told me he wasn’t going to apply for that job, but almost did just to spite me, because if I did go forward he had my love letter as proof of his innocence.

    Anyway, I guess the point is that for whatever reason, I made the immediate connection between that advice and certain abuse scripts. Knowing that abusers sometimes tell a story about their lives that is radically different than the material reality can make it really hard for me to talk about some aspects of my life without feeling a little squicky about it, like there’s little difference between putting a positive spin on stuff on my resume and constructing a rationale for my or someone else’s shite behavior. That’s there even though I know that’s not really true. I understand the difference between saying, “I parted ways from that job because while it was interesting in many ways, I’m more interested in helping people than I am in publicizing IT software” and “OK, that girl is just a weirdo who had a thing for me and got mad when it didn’t work out; IF I ever yelled at her while trying to do her job, it’s because she brought it on herself by getting an attitude sometimes.”

    I don’t know. Maybe it’s weird or out of line to make any connection between Trunk’s career advice and her sad rationale for domestic violence. The tl;dr is that I agree with the Captain’s assessment that some of Trunk’s advice is useful in very specific contexts, but I’ll always be weirdly sensitive to the connection between abuse scripts and the shit sandwiches we sometimes have to eat to get along at our jobs and because of that so much career advice just makes me go, FUUUUUUUUUCK. Even when I agree.

    • xenu01 said:

      I just wanted to say I’ll feel you.

      I’ve mentioned it before on this blog in TL;DR form, but there are two people in my life who have specifically changed the narrative of me and us and them in a way that was frustrating and hurtful. One of those people is still in my life, and listening and learning, and important to me. Another is no longer in my life not just because he was my abuser, but what ultimately made me cut off all contact with him was that he refused to believe that there was a narrative that didn’t make him the poor, put-upon Nice Guy. Every time he would manage to contact me (before I slammed up a wall of blockage) it would be the same story. “Why are you so mean? Nothing happened/I’m fine. Get over it! I still love you!”

      Everyone believed him, to the point where I slept on someone else’s couch for two weeks and had a nervous breakdown at work before my roommates finally accepted the idea that maybe, just maybe, a Nice Guy can also have a problem with alcohol and with violence, enough to meet with me and tell me it was my job to talk to him/evict him from the house. Which was less than helpful, but it was something. That claiming to be escaping from domestic violence is not actually a convenient way to break up with someone at all.

    • theLaplaceDemon said:


      There is someone out there who will tell you that I am the girl he loved unconditionally, the girl he would have walked to the end of the earth and back for. The girl who suddenly decided she didn’t love him anymore, and shattered his heart into a million pieces–breaking up with him, then after we decided to try to stay friends lied to him, broke promises, and said nasty hurtful things. I do no doubt that he believes this earnestly.

      And to an extent, those things are true. But what’s missing is the fact that this relationship was toxic, that his love did not make up for his emotionally abusive behavior, and that by the end my self-worth and perception of reality was so shattered I could only leave by telling myself that I was The Bad Guy, and I was okay with Being The Bad Guy – that was absolutely the only narrative I could find that fit my perception of reality and let me get the hell out of that relationship. It wasn’t until over a year later that I could admit to myself that leaving him wasn’t selfish. It was two years later that I could label his behaviors as abusive.

      • solecism said:

        Yep, that’s exactly the narrative of my ex…he loved me unconditionally, he treated me like a queen, he did everything for me and was happy to do it, but I was the gold-digging [expletive] who used him and then dumped him when I was done, throwing away 7 years of his life. And I knew about his drinking when we first started dating, so it shouldn’t have been a problem years later.

        I am glad that you were able to leave and process that experience.

    • Tevarre said:

      This. Every now & then I bump into someone (small, small town) who knows my dad as this guy who had a terrible industrial accident and nearly lost his hand, and then his marriage failed, and she took the house and poisoned the kids against him, and oh god it’s so sad, he *lost his whole family*. His narrative of his life doesn’t include being an abuser, but mine sure as hell includes learning to survive him, and there’s no place in his thinking for anyone who doesn’t drink the kool-aid.

      As a tool for understanding your experiences / asserting your authorial position re: your life, narrative is awesome. But I think it’s really, really important to recognise that abusers tend to be phenomenally good at manipulating narrative, whether it’s to make their victims easier to control, or in presenting themselves to the outside world.

      PT’s domestic violence narrative follows the pattern of her career advice (to control the story, change the way you tell it), and I don’t think it’s weird or out of line to make that connection – but it’s also really sad to be seeing this reminder of how the powerful tools are just as powerful in circumstances where they’re used to reinforce abuse.

  25. Razzby said:

    Trigger for abuse.

    I was at a point, once, like Penelope. I spent 13 years with my ex-husband. I had children with him. When I read her posts, it all sounded similar to what I tried to do to solve the abusive situation I was in.

    It gets to the point where any hope the abuser will change is exhausted, where you’ve tried every permentation of variables to somehow change their response to you. When that hope is exhausted, there really is only one option left – changing yourself. Blaming yourself.

    Because then, there’s something you can DO, rather than live in fear of the next blow up. It’s a backwards way of trying to empower yourself. It’s either desperately try to change your side of the situation or leave. If you don’t feel safe about leaving, if you know that leaving will make things much worse before they have a chance of getting better, this is the last bastion.

    It’s easy to discount how important you are compared “to the big picture” when you’ve been treated as incidental or damaged. It’s easy to minimize your own happiness for the illusion of stability – no matter the situation. Of course, nothing can be done, can ever be enough, in the end, to stop abusers from choosing to be abusive. Ever.

    I hope, for Penelope, she reaches that emotional critical mass sooner than later – for her sake, for the sake of her children.

    • xenu01 said:

      Yes. Thank you. I have encountered this with people who were abused as children. Sometimes, they have swallowed a narrative of their own badness and unworthiness, because yes, if it is YOU that is bad at least you can do something about it. You could, abstractly, be LESS bad, or not you, or less you. And this is what the powerless do to feel somehow less powerless.

  26. Frisian Jo said:

    On a (mostly) unrelated note, today (the 10th) is the 20th anniversary of the premiere of Newsies in theaters… 😀

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