This morning’s paper featured a lengthy spread about the burden domestic violence places on the justice system. Clearly, this is an increasing problem, and it’s heartbreaking. But I had to stop and wonder… Are we too focused on dealing with domestic violence at a reactionary stage?
I’m a firm believer that actual violence is almost always preceded by other forms of abuse. (The most likely scenarios where physical violence is the first abuse an individual encounters might be where there is an incident involving substance abuse, or where a child is born into an already abusive relationship, or if there is a complication with mental illness – I’m guessing, of course, so don’t take my word for it.)
So while I am certain there are exceptions out there, I think most often people come to be physically abused as part of a process called “normalization”.
The concept of normalization is sort of like those painkiller commercials with the tag line that goes, “So you can get back to normal, whatever your normal is.” Things may start out looking rosey, then you notice something unsettling about your partner’s behavior. But over time, you gradually come to “accept” this behavior – like taking a painkiller, you start to become numb to it. This does NOT mean you are not being abused, demeaned, or devalued any less; this means that you are starting to internally adjust to this treatment somehow. Even though this inappropriate behavior is originating outside of yourself, you self-adjust emotionally in order to stay in relationship with this person. Then, your partner behaves even worse – and you normalize the behavior again. And again.
The more empathic a person is, the easier that person normalizes bad behavior, too – even to the point of defending their partner, after outright abuse perpetrated towards them in full view of other people. I’ve witnessed it more than once. It’s unbelievably sick. But it happens. I’ve been there, normalizing pure stupidity, myself.
And pretty much invariably, the victim increasingly turns the blame inward. They think they don’t deserve better, that they are as worthless as their abusers infer, that they are indeed LUCKY that even their abuser pays attention to them. So they stick around. Or maybe he treats the kids okay, so they think the sacrifice they’re making will be worth it – for the kids. Or maybe the partner is the sole breadwinner and… There are as many reasons a victim will stay as there are abusers. But one thing I’ve experienced and observed is that abuse usually just gets worse.
Apart from empathy, there’s another reason people normalize shitty behavior: they have lousy or non-existent boundaries. This, in my opinion, may be THE biggest reason people end up in abusive, if not violent, relationships. They (especially as adults) do not have a solid sense of themselves, of who they are, that their bodies are first and foremost their own, that they ultimately have the right to draw the line on behavior that can potentially harm them, even “just” emotionally. People with strong boundaries are a lot less likely to let an abusive person gain a foothold in their lives; they can better recognize when behavior encroaches on their personhood and feel empowered to extricate themselves early on. Having said that, even the strong are vulnerable sometimes.
Now for both the good news and the bad news: boundaries are a learned skill.
I had a bad time with boundaries because from the moment I started asserting and defining myself as a kid, my parents quashed that down. They did it to control me, even though it would be hard to call me a naughty kid. But still, I loved them, though I’d then become fearful of them. I became compliant. Boundary-less. It’s what I had to do to keep them off my case, but that behavior became so much a part of me that I behaved the same way with everyone else. They turned me into a lamb, ready for the slaughter.
Learning boundaries is a bitch, and it’s so easy to fall back into that sickening people-pleasing behavior under duress. It’s a process that is probably individual to everyone. I’ll leave my string of lightbulb moments for another post… And I’m sure there will be many more aha moments before I get around to writing it.
So, back to domestic violence. I think the most important intervention is early education. It doesn’t start with teaching teenage girls to walk away from a boyfriend who hits them even only once. It’s got to start way younger than that. And it’s got to start with education about boundaries. Not just physical and sexual boundaries, but psychological ones. The big problem I see is that most abuse originates in some form in a person’s family of origin, and that by the time a child starts school, it’s already almost too late; I know I was abused well before that, and as my family was all that I knew, I didn’t have a clue that anyone else grew up differently.
And it’s never too late for awareness. So those of you brothers and sisters out there who write about their narcissistic upbringings, BLOG ON! So many of you have been a light to me… We all need to get these skeletons out in the open, not only to heal ourselves, but to let others know they are not alone, especially before it’s too late.