I’ve been lectured today on how those who have been victims of domestic abuse are unfit to advise other people on the subject, and particularly unfit to becoming support workers, because they are obviously idiots. Only idiots would get themselves in a situation where their chosen partner is someone who wants to harm them. Only idiots squared would remain in said situation after the very first instance of even mildly unpleasant behaviour. Only idiots cubed would allow such situations to escalate to abusive levels.
It may not come as a complete shock to my faithful readers to find out that I disagreed with this position a teeny tiny bit.
I have personally known* a fair few women and two guys** who became embroiled in abusive situations. Each and every one of them was groomed into the situation very carefully and skilfully over a period of time. Their abusers did not manifest their intentions early on in the relationship. They did not show any signs of being less than ok, in fact, until they could do so without fear of repercussions, until my friends’ resources were eroded to the point that they could not easily fight back.
“But how does one erode someone’s resources without them realising?”, I hear you ask. And I wonder if the reason we fail to see it is that it’s so obvious and so unpleasant. A clever would-be abuser can take up control over time by acting like a perfectly normal, caring, committed partner. They do what most of us do, but with completely different intentions.
For instance, would you consider it a warning sign if your lovely and long-term partner asked you to move in? Would you see it as a noose tightening around your neck, or as a natural development in your relationship? Even if a move caused us to lose part of our resources (proximity to family or friends, employment, welfare support, etc.) we may still see it as a step forward for the relationship. To an abuser, that’s a deliberate step towards your dependency on them. Anything that makes it harder for you to leave than to stay is to their advantage – even things we consider sacrosanct, such as pregnancies, marriage, illnesses, or disabilities.
Abusers want you vulnerable and codependent. Relationships tend to require openness and interdependence. Unless your would-be abuser is a klutz, in the early stages of a relationship it can be difficult to tell where you’re headed. The problem at that stage isn’t what the abusers do, but with why they do it. And most of us can’t read minds.
The only commonality in my friends’ experiences was that their partners behaved perfectly nicely until the day they gained the upper hand. Their behaviour started degenerating when defying them or leaving them became too costly or risky. And yes, my friends always had the choice to go, but they were kept at the point where the fear of going was greater than the fear or staying – until something upset that balance, and they got away.
I’m not saying that’s always how it goes. There are plenty of people who purposefully select bad boys and girls, and also plenty of people who just don’t know what “bad” looks like. However, it’s how it can go. Some predators are actually good at what they do. That’s how they stay in business.
*Huge selection bias here – I do pick my people.
**I’m a woman. Women talk to me more about their private problems. The gender split is a reflection of my social group, not something from which to extrapolate statistics on abuse.