“The first time anything violent happened my husband broke my nose and kicked me in the shins. We had been having dinner at a friend’s place and he had been drinking heavily all night. At midnight, after many attempts to get my husband to leave with me, I finally gave up, picked up our sleeping baby, put his coat on and said ‘Okay, I’m leaving.’ That’s when he lost it.”
by Shelle Rose Charvet
She is assertive, articulate, professional and warm. She runs a business, is raising two kids and sets an impressive pace – How could this have happened to her? Why did she stay? And how did she get out?
These are some of the questions I asked myself as I was working as a counselor with several women in abusive relationships. These questions held a real interest for me as I myself had been through the experience of escaping a violent relationship. After getting back on my feet and helping my kids recover and adjust to a new situation in a new country, I did a great deal of research and thinking because I felt compelled to address a lot of questions:
What is the difference between women who get into abusive relationships and those who don’t? How is it possible for someone to stay in a situation that ought to be intolerable? How can we help them? Then what? What about life after it’s all over?
Let’s start with the first questions. Much has already been written about patterns of violence and abuse being passed on from generation to generation. I wanted to take a new approach by exploring if there were differences between the women themselves; those who choose (or fall into) abusive relationships and those who do not. I feel that by doing this, we could find ways to help more women establish satisfying relationships with their mates and assist those who need it to change or end dangerous ones. While women who have experienced abusive relationships with their mates come from all walks of life, I believe that there is a fundamental difference between them and women who do not get into these kinds of situations. From my experience, women who do not seem to hold somewhere in their bodies a rule, or a statement that goes like this:
“If ‘x’ ever happens, it’s over.” For example: “If he ever hits me, it’s over.”
These women seem to have a firm bottom line about the minimum acceptable behavior in a relationship. If that rule is ever violated or comes close to being violated, they act immediately. And they communicate those bottom lines to their partner in a firm, congruent way. Should their partner’s behavior even start to enter the “warning zone”, they respond by confronting and making their position and desires very clear as well as the consequences of not meeting their needs.
They probably also hold a solid sense or vision of the kind of behavior they want in a relationship that is important enough that they are willing to work towards it or to walk away from situations where they cannot have it.
Women who have gotten into abusive relationships do not seem to have the same kind of inviolable bottom line. Since most relationships do not instantly become abusive, they get used to a gradual downward slope of behavior. Because they have no bottom line, their tolerance stretches and stretches as they adapt to the circumstances. They learn to “cope” with each situation that goes beyond what they had been used to.
“I tried hard to keep things on an even keel. I felt like I was always walking on egg shells, choosing my words carefully to avoid upsetting him. He also became abusive in other ways – he embarrassed me in front of my colleagues and then, I realize now, cut me off from the others who cared about me by getting me to move from Paris out to the country and criticizing my friends.”
“He told me not to trust one of my closest friends because she was only looking out for herself. My husband had some fine qualities and was committed to my marriage I had married this man for better or worse and I committed myself body and soul to him and our family, no matter what. I made my bed and slept with the crumbs.”
I am reminded of an old Jewish expression: “May God protect you from what you can get used to.” As NLP Practitioners, we encourage flexibility, meaning that if something doesn’t work, try something else. However, flexibility in the situation of women in abusive relationships usually means for them “figuring out a way to cope” with what is going on.
Using NLP, we also teach people to break through limiting beliefs and patterns. Perhaps we should also remember to encourage people to set limits; the limits of what they are willing to tolerate in their lives. While it is essential that people identify outcomes that they aspire to, it is also healthy to identify those things that are unacceptable and will not be tolerated.
“When I was pregnant with our second baby he beat me up twice. I never knew why he was mad at me. I started having contractions and was hospitalized for a few days and had to spend the last six weeks in bed.”
My second question was: How is it possible for someone to stay in a situation like this? The statistics on wife abuse do not discuss this much. My work with clients and my own experience shed some light on the matter, I strongly suspect that it is possible to stay in such a relationship provided that one stays focused on the day-to-day details of life. Get the meal on the table. Change the baby’s diaper. Cover up the incident. The women who I worked with were not perceiving the larger picture: i.e. “This has been going on for over two years and no matter what I have tried to do about it, it just keeps on getting worse.”
When the women complained of the abuse they had suffered, they treated each example of abuse as an incident. Few people would end a committed relationship over one incident.
Another contributing factor is the fact that the abuser is rarely confronted by other people about the abusive behavior. The women may get moral support, but no one seems to help. They end up feeling isolated and helpless, dealing with each separate incident as it occurs, rather than seeing it as a continually worsening pattern.
“We were staying with friends in England, spending the evening talking and playing cards. When I interrupted my husband by making a joke, everyone laughed. He glared at me and threw his wine in my face. I left the table and our friends each individually told me how disgusting that behavior was, though no one said anything to my husband.”
“Eventually I slept by myself on the couch, swearing that this was the last time. In the morning over breakfast he said that I was overreacting and that nobody in their right mind would break up a marriage over one incident like this.”
Women who are “coping” have essentially learned how to accept what ought to be intolerable. They often take the responsibility for his outbursts by jumping through hoops in the hope that they do not reoccur. Coping this way is not about making changes. They go through life day-by-day, feeling alone and exhausted by the effort needed to just keep on going.
Because they are too busy giving the details of life’s primary importance, they tend not to really consider the alternatives. One of my clients insisted that she had to stay where she was because she would never be able to afford a decent dining room table like the one she had then, if she were on her own.
After I had unburdened myself on the phone with a friend of my husband, he said that the situation was unacceptable. Soon after that a colleague of mine asked me how things were. I told her they were just awful. Then she asked me an amazing question: “So what’s stopping you from leaving?” I was dumbfounded. I had never asked myself that and what was stopping me from leaving?”
So how can we, as counselors, help these women? It is not my intention to suggest that the only alternative is getting them to leave the relationship. Here is an outline of the process I followed with my clients.
When they first came to see me, they apparently needed to vent. When I asked them what they wanted, they expressed sorrow, helplessness, frustration and anger at their situation, themselves and their mate, described through numerous examples of abusive behavior. I established the rapport while suggesting that after they had explained their situation we would move onto discovering what they wanted and how to achieve that. (I believe that if an authority figure shows too much empathy with a client in a stuck state, it only legitimizes that state in the eyes of the client.)
Once they had gotten their story off their chest, I changed the subject. We laughed about a few things and then I asked them about what is important to them in a relationship. The purpose of the question was to shift the level of discussion from the specific incidents to a more general overview of the kind of relationship they truly desired.
They each gave me a list of what had to be in a relationship and how would they recognize each item. This took some work, as most well-formed outcomes do. I tested the list several times to make sure that they got out the things that were really, really important. “If you had that, what else would then become important? And what else?”
I anchored this desirable relationship to a space about 1/2 of a meter directly in front of them. Then, pointing to the past area of their timeline, I asked them to compare this desirably relationship with the one they had been having with their mate. Shock and dismay registered on their faces, then confusion, disbelief and surprise. Most of them stated in an unequivocal yet astonished tone that this is not what they wanted at all. We sat quietly, letting this realization sink in.
Several of my clients began processing a stream of thoughts. When they came back to the present, I asked them what they wanted now. They sat up, looked at me as if I were crazy and said that they had to get out and create their own life, of course! They wanted to work on a plan to do that right away. We planned where, when and how they would go.
“After talking to those two people, a startling revelation hit me. Nothing was stopping me from leaving. This was not the life I wanted. I made a few phone calls and planned my escape for two weeks later when my husband was to be away on business. I hid our passports only to find them missing several days before we were to leave! I panicked and rifled through every drawer in the house, becoming hysterical. He was outside, what if he came it? But I had to find them! I finally located them after I had calmed down.”
“The next day my husband went out grocery shopping with our oldest son. When he hadn’t returned 5 hours later I went to look for them in the village bar. I found my three and a half year old son playing behind the bar and tried to slip him past my husband who was involved in a drunken conversation. He saw me and became quite annoyed. We fled and got into the car where the baby was in his seat. I watched my husband stalk out of the bar with his fists clenched, heading for home. Night was falling, the baby was hungry and my oldest was crying. All my friends lived 100 kilometers away. Where was I to go?”
The way out for these women is frequently not easy. Often they need to be crafty and sneaky. They may get caught preparing. Sometimes the safest way is to get them and their children to a women’s shelter right away. Many times they fall back into the details and get overwhelmed.
One client, who was not in physical danger, came to me in tears with a list of 45 things she had to do before she could leave. We narrowed the list down to four items. She completed these quickly and left.
“After my husband had left on his business trip, I had arranged for my uncle and aunt to come and pick us up. I packed 2 suitcases and we left the farm and drove overnight to London where we got on a plane to come home to my mother’s place in Canada. The whole time I didn’t know if I was doing the right thing or not. When we arrived I told my oldest son that we were going to stay here and why. He was very upset. Even the baby who was 8 months old felt the tension.”
“I had difficulty sleeping, alternating between berating myself for getting into such a mess in the first place, blaming my husband and feeling overwhelmed by what lay ahead. The welfare people were either sympathetic, which only helped me feel more sorry for myself, or they treated me like a case with a file number.”
Women who leave abusive relationships need practical support, not merely someone who will commiserate with them. They need, almost simultaneously, to mourn the passing of the relationship, to set short-term goals and get started on a plan to get their family’s basic needs met.
I found that once out of the toxic atmosphere they had been living it, most of the women I worked with had a sudden increase in their level of energy and focus. They accomplished amazing things very quickly, finding work, a new home, making new arrangements for their children. They also continued their counseling with me for a while to make sure they were on the road to healing and to stay grounded through the heady number of changes they were making.
“As I casted (sic) about for what to do next I found I had to stop reading the newspaper. There were just too many stories about single mothers whose kids were hungry. When I read the statistics, I kept feeling that I might as well give up and got a job as a cashier at the grocery store.”
“So I quit listening to the news. I was too fragile to handle it. I also had many weird and wonderful ideas about career options. Thank goodness I checked them out with family and friends before I jumped – some of them were just too unreal to make work. And having just jumped out of my marriage, I was a little to ready to jump at anything that seemed like a good idea at the time. I guess I felt I had jumped ‘out’ and needed to be ‘in’ something.”
“I finally found a good job in my field and was very excited about starting. I placed an ad and got an excellent baby-sitter, arranged transportation to school. This all happened very quickly, once I got started on deciding what I really wanted.”
Here the counselor can be useful as someone who can help a client focus on fulfilling her needs and evaluate options, while helping her heal the wounds and set limits.
“For the first few months after I left, I was very militant and intolerant of any form of transgression. I judged everyone and jumped in whenever I heard, real or imagined, anyone slight anyone else, particularly in couples. As I got over my anger, I calmed down a lot. Now I only comment when I think that someone has really behaved unreasonably. I never did that before, because I would have considered it interfering. Now I know that insulting someone’s intelligence, or ordering them around as if they were a subordinate is unacceptable. My own relationships are also a lot clearer, particularly with my children.”
There can be lots of ups and downs once a woman takes her life into her own hands, but all of the women I counseled felt that the best decision they had ever made was leaving the poisonous atmosphere they had been living in. Just taking that step and learning from it created a significant shift in how they now choose to live their lives.
I know. All the voices you have read in this piece are mine.
I hope that this article will be of help to those who know or work with women in negative relationships.
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