October was Domestic Awareness Month. You probably didn’t do much about that, but worry not – your ability to help is not limited to a single month.
Domestic abuse and political violence are two related applications of the same problem in the human mind. Domestic violence is daunting. Most people think it involves shouting, bruises, blood, and constant fear of life-threatening danger, and that anything less than that doesn’t count. But there is a spectrum, and things less than overt, bloody violence can lead to those greater threats; and even if it never escalates to that point, it’s still scary, and the effects often last just as long.
To give you an understanding of what the “low end” range of abuse can look like: I was in a relationship in which I was made to feel guilty about making him feel bad about anything. If I didn’t want to do something he wanted to do, he sulked and bullied me until I gave in. He’d freak out and text me constantly if I went out with a friend. He was intensely suspicious of other men. I was slapped and softly punched for saying things deemed out of line. I was held against a wall for not calming down fast enough about something. I was to always be docile and agreeable.
And yet it wasn’t until years after the breakup that I realized that it had all been domestic violence.
Often, part of the problem is that there is a pervasive idea in society that the active member in an abusive relationship must be a bad person. The result is that if the receiving member doesn’t think their abuser is a bad person – as in my case – they think it must not be abuse. And if it isn’t abuse, they must either deserve the treatment they’re getting, or it isn't a big deal. In either case, there’s nothing to report.
Obviously this is not the case. But arguably the biggest problem is the lasting effects of abuse, which start in the relationship and are left to grow even after it’s all over. The psychological effects can do enduring damage. By now people are starting to understand that, in spite of the way they’re treated, the receivers often retain the same emotional connection to their abuser that they had when the relationship first started, and these feelings can keep the receiver in a bad relationship for years. But what people do not realize is that the consequences of hanging on to those initial feelings are incredibly complicated and incredibly far-reaching.
In the honeymoon phase of any relationship, there are no such things as flaws. Every annoying habit is adorable at first. After a while they become merely tolerable, and then, eventually, obnoxious. But you don’t want there to be flaws, you don’t want the person to be annoying, and that is why you convince yourself that the other person is perfect.
To be in support of personal liberties means that you have to step up and actively help that happen. The same is true in an abusive relationship, except that admitting the other person has flaws is not merely a concession that the other person is imperfect, but that they are dangerous, and that there is no love. So to protect themselves, receivers do what I did, and thoroughly convince themselves that everything is fine.
That self-convincing causes the most persistent damage. It means a restructuring of reality, a refusal to see anything but the false world created. It means unifying with the abuser, taking an “us against the world” view that’s stubbornly hard to eradicate. Any feelings of doubt felt towards the abuser are interpreted as disloyalty, which leads to guilt and even lower self-esteem than already exists. And nothing is more convincing than your own arguments.
Obviously all abuse needs to end. But how?
Sure, there’s legislation and whole government departments dedicated to ending domestic violence and helping those who have already experienced it: the Violence Against Women Act, the Family Violence Prevention and Services Act, the Family Violence Prevention and Services Program, the National Criminal Justice Reference Service, the Office for Victims of Crime, the Office on Violence Against Women.
But even assuming that things like this help, they seem so formal and aloof that a person who needs help may not see them as real options. I wouldn’t have. They seem like offices, not people. And even though a person is what hurt them, receivers need people in order to heal.
That means you.
Help with Your Life
You might think that an abuser deserves justice in the form of violence. The receiver might too. They might want you to say that you’ll beat the bad guy up if you see them. I wanted that for a while. It’s a knee-jerk reaction. But of the very few people I told, not one said they would do that. Instead they offered me protection, support, an ear, and a shoulder.
Most importantly, they offered me love. After a while the desire for revenge died because I forgot to keep it alive. Eventually I realized that the violence I had thought I wanted would not have helped. All I really needed was a feeling of safety, and words can accomplish that very well.
To be in support of personal liberties means that you have to step up and actively help that happen. Domestic abuse and political violence are two related applications of the same problem in the human mind. They both constitute applications of a failure to attribute to others the rights and dignity to which their very humanity entitles them. When this happens, there emerges a sometimes-subtle and sometimes-overt form of dehumanization that drains and eventually destroys the foundations of the healthy human personality.
It is not enough to simply say that liberty is a good idea, and then hope other people do the work for you while you enjoy your own personal liberties. It’s a humanitarian view, and that means you have to live as a humanitarian.
Live your life so you’re seen as an option for help to everyone whose life you’re in.