~ Helen Dallas
*Content note for abuse, victim blaming, denial of experiences*
Abuse is a doctrine, and it is collaborative. An abuser shapes it and teaches it, adjusts the lighting by which their victim sees the world, but that shape is maintained by the people external to a partner dynamic. Their doctrine lays out a perfect victim, tells you that a victim is certain things and an abuser is certain things. It does it all silently, and yet this doctrine holds immense power over a victim. One part of this belief system held onto by victims, abusers and onlookers alike, is that a victim must have passively accepted their abuse, that they themselves never did anything “bad”. But victims are panicked, victims do scream or cry or plead, victims do become jealous and frightened and beg not to be left alone. If someone slapped you whenever you displeased them and one day you hit them back, that would not make you an abuser too. With emotional abuse, though, for some reason, this seems harder to stomach.
An abuser can entirely undermine your self-worth and reconstruct you on their own terms. An abuser can isolate you from friends and family, perhaps blaming them for the problems you’re having – an abuser can look like your saviour when things align just so. An abuser can make you doubt your own judgements, make you hate yourself more than anything, even whilst they slip in kernels of praise amongst it all. Given all of that, given everything more that we all know an abuser can do, is a “bad” reaction from a victim really surprising?
So why does this make someone less of a victim? Why would knowing that an abuser was hurt by the reaction of their victim somehow shift the blame away from the abuser?
A response of “I didn’t abuse them; they abused me” is an uncomfortable situation, something that destabilises the falsely ordered system the abuse doctrine tries to create. Everyone questions facts, analyses behaviour. What can really sting, though, is the fact that this is exactly what most victims go through all the time. Because of the way an abuser can make themself the centre of their victim’s life, make the victim believe anything they say, make the victim hate themself rather than their abuser, the belief that they were the one in the wrong can be one of the hardest things to get free of. An abuser turning around and denying what happened, accusing their victim, is exactly what so many victims are afraid of, and this absurd doctrine of how abuse works makes it all too easy.
Abuse is about power. An abuser exerts power over their victim and enforces a change in the victim’s behaviour, mentality and wellbeing. If being abused makes the victim frightened and therefore the abuser spends a lot of time giving reassurance, that does not invert the dynamic. If the victim becomes jealous because the abuser has made them believe they are worthless, that does not invert the dynamic. If a victim shouts at the abuser because they are constantly shouted at themselves, backed into a corner and afraid, that does not invert the dynamic. It is so tragic that this needs pointing out, but the world likes to harm vulnerable people. If you ever question your victim status, or if anyone you care about ever does, ask yourself as objectively as you can where the balance of power lay, whether any “abusive” behaviours you exhibited would have happened without the stimulus of being abused yourself.
Every relationship is individual, and that means every relationship has its own power balance, not necessarily tied to the privilege each partner has (yes, men can be abused by women, it does happen, and the abuse doctrine makes it really hard for them to say so).
The doctrine is fundamentally wrong. It encourages people to deny experiences and to turn against victims. It creates an impossible template for an abuse victim, an unrealistically phantom-like template for an abuser, and hence allows real instances to be rejected. It encourages the victim’s actions to be examined to find something wrong with the way in which they took their abuse in order to invalidate their experiences, rather than acknowledging that it is not in most people’s natures to respond well to being torn apart emotionally by another person, and that what the abuser receives from a victim is by and large their own fault.
Someone’s experiences of abuse are likely to have shaped their identity, to whatever extent that may be. Denying these experiences is a rejection of identity. The fact that the abuser came away in a bad place too will never be enough to excuse something like that, whatever the fictional rule books says. But doctrine isn’t one single piece of legislation; it’s something formed by public opinion. And the more we discuss this, the more we’re able to engage with this sort of discussion, the more we can dismantle it and enable people’s experiences to be recognised.