Abuse. It’s a dirty word, one most of us would prefer not to hear or think about. But the media spotlight is on abuse lately, with the Rihanna and Chris Brown situation. But he hit her — how could she go back to him?
What do you do? It’s your friend, or a neighbor, or a coworker, or maybe just one of the moms at school. But you notice something … different. You think something is going on that shouldn’t be. You see her with her spouse in public together, and it doesn’t feel quite right. Something’s off. There’s a strange sort of tension there. You can’t quite put your finger on it, but something’s wrong. You think there might be abuse.
What do you do?
Most of us would say, “She should leave. Get the heck out of there. Look what it’s doing to the children! Why doesn’t she leave? Who would stand for that, anyway?”
Alternet published a discussion about this, and Robin Givens spoke to Larry King Live guest host Joy Behar about her own experiences, and both discussions show that abusive relationships are far more complicated than we realize unless we happen to be in one (and even then, things get so mixed up that it’s almost impossible to sort out reality sometimes, and you don’t know what to believe. You want to believe that person you love isn’t so bad. You want to believe they really love you. You want to believe it won’t happen again). So while it can look very simple from the outside (Bad Situation = Get The Heck Out), there is so much more going on inside.
So what do you do?
Saying something may not help. She (and I say “she” only because it’s our perception that it’s the women who become abused in relationships, but there are plenty of abused men in both gay and straight relationships) may not even realize it’s abuse, may not have been able to admit that fact to herself. There is shame in abuse. We try to look the other way, pretend it’s not happening, even when it’s us. It took me over a year after the relationship ended with my former spouse to realize what had been happening all along. I didn’t realize that abuse doesn’t always mean hitting.
But you still want to help. She may be unable or unwilling to talk about it. You may lose a friend by saying something, or you may save one. Every abuse story is different. All you can really do is to try to have compassion for the complexity of what’s going on. A lot of abuse is a two-way street. It’s not black and white, He vs. She. There’s a dynamic that’s perpetuated by the actions and reactions of both sides. My mom always used to say, “It takes two to tango.” Leaving may not solve the problem, and it may create others (like: where does she go? what about the kids? what about money? how does that affect her legal standing? does she really want divorce?) that are just too overwhelming to consider.
In abuse support groups they tell you that every person has their own tipping point, their own line across which they will not walk.
All you can do from the outside, then, is to stand there with her and wait with her until she gets up to her line. What that waiting looks like for you, how involved you get, if you even get involved beyond simply being there, will depend a lot on who you are (and if there are kids involved, it’s a whole new story).
Have you ever known someone in an abusive situation? (and if that person was/is you, I’m sorry. I know.) What did you do?