I’m reading a lot of black and white analysis about abuse, and I don’t agree with it.
Because you can abuse intentionally and unintentionally, consciously and unconsciously. There are those who are complicit in perpetuating abusive systems, who “pay it forward”. Then again, some invent entirely new ways to abuse. These aspects of abuse are often conflated and tarred with the same brush. I am outspoken about my mother’s narcissism and my experience of abuse at her hands. I believe she was abusive, sometimes intentionally and sometimes unintentionally. I don’t believe she was ever conscious of it, but I still call her abusive
Child rearing is a fertile ground for abusive behaviours. We care for small beings who are ignorant of the world and how it operates and whom we try to raise to become adults. Our methods of protection and discipline range from encouragement and rewards to emotional blackmail and fear-mongering. We undermine our children’s powers of consent because we know better the repercussions of their desires. Which mother might not consider a threat or worse, to prevent something which we could conceivably justify as ‘for their own good’? Where is the line?
So my mother – whose hero back then was Margaret Thatcher, a superb example of a social climber – was raised in middle class England, where lack of social recognition would mean social death for us – for her and for me. To anyone who has lived in more liberal cultures, this seems baffling. And to anyone who has survived a physically dangerous environment it may seem trivial. But I assure you, social death was and still is in many places a very real and present danger. Suffering social death means shame and exclusion from everything that matters in your world. It can be devastating. My mother cared about me and my future. So I needed to do well in school. I needed to go to university. I needed to learn to play the piano. To socialize with the right friends. I had to be modest. I had elocution lessons and went to church, received communion, prayed. I had to suppress my natural gregariousness. I had to repent on my knees when I lost my virginity. I was smacked, which was the norm back in the 80s. All of these things might contribute to my ability to gain the social recognition that was so important in our world and the mold stifled me.
Did it result in my feeling abused? Yes. Yet as a crusader for this system, abuse was not my mother’s intent. She was an agent in that abusive system, whilst believing that it was the best thing for me. She like so many other parents, was a true believer. I don’t categorize her as an abuser for these things, even if I experienced abuse at her hands.
At the same time, I believe that my mother liked the power she held over me. She was dramatically unhappy and angry when I did something she defined as ‘wrong’. She appeared to glean satisfaction from seeing me broken in, from doing her bidding, from controlling me, like her dogs (even though she often said she appreciated her dogs more). Dominating me, it seemed made her feel better.
When I toed the line in certain areas, she always found other areas where I could make new mistakes. It was an endless exercise in self-improvement where she used emotional blackmail, guilt and fear in an attempt to ‘improve’ me. Where she told me what I should feel, and invalidated who I was and what I really felt. This is why I categorize her as an abuser. I believe she was also intentionally abusive to satisfy a strong need for power within herself but without being conscious that this was her desire. She did these things I believe, still thinking that she was doing the best thing for me. Because we live in a system which facilitates denial.
This system also enables patriarchy, privilege and rape culture but because it is how we were brought up, it is easy to remain in denial unless we ruthlessly question it. Abuse, coercion and lack of consent lubricate the social interactions of our day. Powerful orators brainwash the public. Friends wheedle reluctant favours from other friends. Supermarkets use psychological manipulation to pull our triggers into buying things we don’t need. Abuse rarely occurs in isolation. It is ingrained in the very fabric of how we interact with each other. And in the skills I’ll bet so many of us like me, learn from our environments at a very young age.
As a child I felt that I could never satisfy my mother in every area she wanted. I lived with the hideous anxiety and fear of rejection which was amplified by my adoption. I could not bear it. So I myself became intentionally but unconsciously manipulative. I accept that you might say even that I became abusive. I acted out, in so many ways, I undermined her position in society, I ran away and I slept around as she used ever more brutal methods to control me. I forced us to confrontation and precipitated a rejection. Eventually unable to live with me she sent me away to boarding school and I was happy to leave. Happy that she was unhappy.
So if she was the adult unconsciously but intentionally abusing me, I was also the child unconsciously but intentionally abusing her. I gleaned satisfaction from repaying my abuse. This had become my defense mechanism. This is how abusive behaviour is passed down, not only by example, but as a necessity. A way to take back power.
Later I repeated this pattern as an adult with a man who abused me, horrifically so. For two years I believed it to be a healthy relationship because it was the only relationship style I knew. It was the one I had played out with my mother. As he tried to control me and to mould me to his ideal woman, I initially bought into it desiring the acceptance that had always eluded me. But just as before, I became passively aggressive thinking it the only way to assume power and I pushed him to his limits, getting drunk in public, doing everything to embarrass him and eventually cheating on him to precipitate a bloody rejection.
We are at a turning point in our society where we are finally realizing that victim blaming is unacceptable. Abusers must answer for what they do even if, as in the case of that man, they do it with what they think are the best of intentions. Helped by our society he had convinced himself that he was helping me to become a woman who would be more respected by society. When it became all too obvious by bloodshed, that our relationship was abusive, that he was an abuser, he could no longer be unconscious of it. More importantly neither could I. But I don’t want it to get that far for others.
For me there is a striking difference between continuing to be an abuser when it is intentional and conscious and being an abuser when it is unintentional and unconscious. The difference has less to do with levels of culpability, and more with understanding which source to tackle in order to prevent further abuse even whilst acknowledging that all abuse has severe ramifications whether it is unintentional and unconscious or intentional and conscious. The goal must be to become conscious of it, in others and especially in ourselves.
As a clear victim of abuse, I will stand up and say that I have bought into this system of abuse in the past. I have played the part of responding to intentional abuse in a way I’m not proud of. I am personally responsible for this. It’s a pattern that I see played out again and again until there seems no end to the pain. The only way I have been able to stop the cycle is because I have and continue to become conscious of it, through education, through analysis, through therapy. I have become personally responsible for my own behaviour and my own reality. I do not buy into the system. I am acutely aware of abusive tendencies, that dangerous desire to assuage insecurity by having power over others. Some call me pedantic but I want to call out the tendency and the facilitating structures before abuse happens. I try to see where in happens in our parenting and society so that I can with others’ help, build a better system which does not – unlike the one I grew up in – function on coercion, emotional blackmail and psychological manipulation. I speak out, to stop the abuse before it starts.