I was the only one in lab late one night on our last research cruise, so I put on some music. The volume wasn’t up terribly high; ships are terribly noisy, so it’s kind of hard to really blast music. I had it up just high enough that I could sing along with it twenty feet away.
And then Dr. Hand-Waver walked in the lab. (I hadn’t expected her there because it was pretty late, but on cruises we’re always on weird schedules.) Immediately I shut off the music.
“You can leave the music on; I don’t mind,” she said. But I couldn’t bring myself to turn it back on, even though I’d shut it off in the middle of one of my favorite songs.
When Dr. Hand-Waver heard that I had left my husband of twenty years because he was abusive, she was flabbergasted. “How can you have lived with a man like that so long?” she asked. (She’d asked for details, and I’d given her a few—enough to convince her that it was not a healthy relationship, but not the really nasty stuff that I’ve only told my therapist and a few close friends. Few people realize how toxic my marriage actually was.)
“You are one of the strongest people I know,” she said that day. “You handle pretty much anything with grace and a smile. How could you put up with that sort of treatment?”
I told her, with a big sigh, that I was so strong that I was willing to put up with more shit than I really ought to.
I’ve done a fair amount of introspection in the year-plus since I left my husband, and I’m not sure I would phrase it quite the same way any more. The truth is, I was clever enough, adaptable enough, to come up with coping mechanisms for just about anything.
Take, for example, the anecdote I used at the beginning this post. I’ve gotten good enough at self-analysis that within a few hours I understood exactly why I couldn’t turn the music back on: It was the wrong kind of music.
For my ex, that is. We had to listen to music he liked, or else. Of course, he always justified his musical choices. “The kids shouldn’t listen to anything but classical,” he’d say as he shut off my oldies. But he had no trouble playing a variety of music around our boys, like Enya (“It’s almost classical,” he said) or Weird Al (because everyone knows satire is good for developing a healthy sense of humor) or even The Doors (“I’m only making sure this CD is OK,” he said as he played a song for the fourth time).
Our marriage was one of double standards, so of course he wouldn’t be that lenient for my musical tastes. Which is why, any time I’m “caught” playing the “wrong” music, I quickly shut it off and adopt a deferential attitude. It’s kind of nuts, actually.
These sorts of behaviors and attitudes permeate my whole being. I still have the gut feeling that I have to be careful what I’m doing, because if he finds out, I’ll be punished. (Note: the abuse rarely turned physical. But anyone who’s been in an abusive relationship knows that physical abuse is not the sort that hurts the most.)
It’s August 2005. I’m curled up in bed, weeping. UnlikelyDad has just read me the riot act. It was nice that we got to see my parents this week, he said, but seeing my parents is always draining on him and I needed to pay dearly for that. [Insert punishment-to-be-administered-soon here.] Also, I should have told my parents not to rent a convertible, or at the very least told my children that they couldn’t ride with my parents to our mutual destination in that convertible. What kind of risk-taker am I, allowing our children to face potential death that way? [Insert another punishment here.] Oh, and one more thing—my community service is admirable, but in order to participate I’ve had to leave the kids with him. I really should know better. Now what would be a fair "payment" for that?
UnlikelyDad looks at my tears and scowls. He’s sorry that he has to make me cry, he says, but if he doesn’t put me in my place, I’ll never learn my lesson.
Being in an abusive relationship is a bit like living in a Communist country. You’re always looking over your shoulder, always fearful, because you never know what Big Brother is going to get upset about. You think: “If only I were better behaved…if only I would say the right things…if only…if only…” And it never occurs to you that maybe, just maybe, it’s not you, it’s Big Brother who’s at fault.
And even when you escape, you’re still not free. A year plus of therapy and I’m still working to change these silly habits and attitudes that carried over from my marriage.
People who knew me well were frequently aghast when they realize how bad my marriage had become. “We didn’t know,” they said. (No, of course they didn’t. Isolating the victim is a common tactic of abusers.) Or, “We didn’t want to interfere—we thought it wasn’t our business. What should we have done differently?”
I had no answers for them at the time, but now I see clearly what should be done; now, with the benefit of hindsight, I can see what WAS done that made a difference. And the thing that most helped me to leave was to be surrounded by people who treated me like an important person. You see, no matter how much you do, people won’t leave an abusive spouse until they feel ready to—until they feel like they’re worth enough to deserve a life free from belittling and shaming.
I was not able to leave until I was able to see that my concerns were actually valid; that my ideas were actually worthwhile; that I was, in fact, an awesome person. Not perfect—trust me, abuse victims are very aware of their imperfections—but good enough to contribute to society in a meaningful way.
I think of my friends back in California, who told me that my feelings did matter, even though I sometimes didn’t have logical reasons for those feelings. “Sometimes our unconscious mind knows things that our conscious mind hasn’t yet realized,” said one wise comrade.
I think of my co-workers on the CERT instructor committee: “Everyone has something to bring to the table,” our boss would say. “Think about what you can contribute.” It had never occurred to me before that I had anything to bring to the table that wasn’t immeasurably flawed. But in that environment, I was praised constantly by those around me and I flourished.
I think of SL, my first research mentor. “Wow, UnlikelyGrad!” he’d say enthusiastically, “This is fantastic! You’ve done way more than I was asking you to do!” I’d never realized before that I was anything more than average.
I think of one of the profs I worked with as a TA. I told him about a flaw I’d seen in the lab curriculum we were using and told him several ways we might go about fixing the flaw. (And I must tell you, this was kinda scary for me to do; I was sure he would look down his nose at me the way UnlikelyDad did when I had wild ideas.) I could tell he was skeptical at first, but he said he understood my concerns; he asked me to listen to his concerns too, and together we hashed out some ideas. He asked me to test the most promising idea, and it worked…and we made a permanent change in the curriculum for the following semester. It was so nice to have my concerns listened to and validated.
Even Dr. Hand-Waver, with her very matter-of fact tone, was helpful in letting me know that my ideas were worthwhile: “You handled that well” or “Interesting. I didn’t think of it that way before…” or “I’m dubious, but you might be right. Maybe we should test that hypothesis.”
And so this is what I would say to all of you: You will not always know when someone is being abused. In some ways, it does not matter.
Treat each person as if they were special. I don’t mean the wimpy, watered-down “special” that they tout in schools nowadays. I mean really special. Each person has talents and gifts that can be praised; praise them sincerely for these things.
I am not telling you to resort to dishonesty in order to make people feel good: quite the opposite. Dishonest flattery is not only easily detectable, it doesn’t help build someone’s inner strength the way that honest praise does. So be honest. Be sincere. Most importantly, be conscientious in getting a feel for who people are and what they do well, and let them know these things.
For example, one of my lab students was a gifted artist. I looked forward to her structure drawings and I always gave written or verbal compliments on them even though, otherwise, she was a solid ‘B’ student. I have had students who cleaned up their lab space thoroughly; I have always made sure to tell them how much I appreciated their cleanliness.
If the majority of people made an effort to give sincere praise, to make others realize that their ideas might have merit and that their talents can make the world a better place, then perhaps we would live in a world where no one would feel like they deserved abuse. Maybe everyone who was being abused would have the strength to stand up for themselves. Maybe.
We’ll never find out until we try.