Be honest. When you think of domestic abuse, you think run down streets and tiny apartments. So many people do. We want to believe that this only happens in “the bad areas”.
We Want to See Monsters, Not Neigbors
The idea that abuse does not happen behind white picket fences or in beautiful old mansions is just something people tell themselves. It makes it easier to process. It means we can think of abusers as monsters, instead of as our neighbors.
In fact, a number of people have responded to my story with the remark: ‘but you grew up in a mansion!’ I did. I hated that house with its marble floors and its outwardly grandeur. The only redeeming feature was its many hidey holes.
The Public Lives of Abusers
Abusers are so determined to keep their dirty little secret, they expend an enormous amount of energy and money in establishing and maintaining an image. That is why you probably think they are very likable.
My parents are pillars of their community. They are devout Christians, do volunteer work, devoted their working lives to teaching and housed and helped a multitude of vulnerable people. They sound amazing, right? The kind of people you may look up to.
That image was their priority though. Not the safety or happiness of their children.
Abuse is Not About Location or Status… It’s About Power
Abuse is a very specific power play, one that is played around the world. By men and women, by rich and poor, by people of every ethnic and religious background.
There is no such thing as a typical socio-economic, cultural or religious setting for this.
It happens everywhere. Every time I hear someone’s story I am amazed at the similarities.
Whether they live around the corner or half a world away.
Whether their abuser was their parent, their partner, their manager, religious leader…
Abuse is not about the surface, it is about what happens behind closed doors.
Violence Is Not Always Physical
For most of us, our most immediate association with the word violence is of physical aggression. After all the definition for violence that comes up in Google is: behavior involving physical force intended to hurt, damage, or kill someone or something.
When it comes to domestic violence, and the aim to hurt, damage or kill someone, there are other options. You can utterly destroy a person, and never lay a hand on them. You can even give someone physical injuries and illness…
So, I ask you to let go of the notion that violence is only something physical.
We all know people who suck the happiness right out of us. They are intent on pushing everyone down, in order to make themselves rise up. Many of us encounter them in school or our work place, or perhaps in our community. The greater their influence and authority in our lives, the greater their impact.
I once worked in a place where I shared an office with a person like that. She constantly interrupted my work, and then would make remarks about how poorly and slowly I did my work. She would have outbursts of intense anger, and at the same time would be sweetness personified when any managers were around. I went to work with a knot in my stomach, and walked on egg shells every day.
As a result of stress I started crying at work, got migraines and fights with my partner. I had no energy for fun activities outside work. I lived in a daze. All because I shared an office with this woman. I did not even have to collaborate with her much. I loved the work, but I hated my job.
She very nearly destroyed me, and she sure never touched me.
An Abuser Can Be Anywhere
I have met toxic people in various situations. Of course my parents, but also the boss who hit me, and the girl who sat across from me polluting our office environment with her negativity.
It just goes to show that abuse can take place in many different situations. An abuser is never only one thing to one person. They are partners, parents, co-workers, managers, teachers, preachers, neighbors or community leaders… and they often come across as very well liked and successful.
Seem Being the Operative Word
“But I met your parents, they are such nice people!”
Do you know how often I have had to hear that? I know my parents seem perfectly likable when you meet them, seem being the operative word. They are pillars of the community, they are hospitable, the volunteer… Both have even received a royal award for their contributions to society.
Like any narcissist, sociopath or psychopath my parents are masters at playing you. These people are always nice on first appearance. They are charming, funny, committed people.They know exactly which buttons to push, which carrots to dangle in front of you… This is how they pull you in, and then it becomes how they keep you put.
Even when your abuser is not your romantic partner, love-bombing will be used against you. To isolate you, to keep the push and pull dynamic going…
Sometimes I explain to people: if someone punched you on the first date, would you agree on a second one?
Abuse is always a gradual process, although it works slightly differently when your abuser is your parent.
See, as a child you are completely programmed to accept your parent’s toxic behavior. Even if it hurts and makes you sad, you have no other frame of reference. And, here is the kicker: everybody tells you how lucky you are to have such nice parents. Such pillars of the community, so hospitable, so willing to volunteer their time… It must be wonderful to have such lovely parents, and live in such a nice house, and have so many guests and parties…
Well, if everybody tells me how nice my parents are, maybe they really are?
Besides, who are you going to complain to? Everybody knows your parents, and how they are such wonderful people!
Truly, abusers can pretend to be just about anything.
An Abuser Needs an Audience
Not for the abuse of course, that is all secret and hidden. They need admiration and applause; they crave people looking up at them. Stepping out to get that admiration also widens the pool for targets, and keeps existing targets isolated when the community looks up to the abuser.
When I was growing up my mother taught at the local high school. Whenever any one of us would run into one of her pupils they would ask: are you her daughter? To our affirmative answer they would respond: poor you! It always puzzled me, but I suppose her pupils were better at picking up the toxic behavior than I was. I mean, it was all I knew then.
The greater the position of influence, the more impact a toxic person can have.
Parents and partners often have the most destructive effect on their targets. Religious leaders and people in the workplace however can also be extremely effective in destroying their targets. It is about access to the target, and power over them. When a bully is well liked by management, they can torment a co-worker like no other. And your average toxic person knows how to play the system.
They know what boots to kiss, what carrots to dangle on the stick, which people are vulnerable…. They are excellent readers of people and situations, and play them like a fiddle.
In order to call these people out, we need to start talking about them. Even if that means admitting they are our neighbors, our employees, our community members…