I’ve told you all before about my past abusive relationship. I’ve also been doing a lot of work in how to be more accepting of people. It’s a strange and new thing for me – to stand up for myself, to know my Self well enough to NOT be trampled on, not in a way that requires blustering or forcing respect.
I had wanted to tell you a story. But that’s not something that’s allowed in these situations. Our social and legal systems prevent me from talking about what, specifically, happened1. I don’t believe in unexamined support, and so asking people to express solidarity when I can’t express all the details (nor do I particularly want to, in the interest of the other person maybe… changing… one day?) is pretty weird. So let’s say this: I had to cut someone off recently for abusive behavior. Not one of my wonderful partners2. And while the situation is being handled, I wanted to talk a bit around what the experience has been like, socially, and how I think it can be handled responsibly.
Of those people I can talk to about it (for legal and social reasons), their responses are aiming for protective, seeking understanding, and solidarity. But these can easily end up instead falling into one of the following buckets: infantalizing, dismissive/justification, and overkill. While in this situation, it’s more difficult for me to do affective labor (cognitive and emotional processing) for other people. I need them instead to help me with mine. So here’s a general breakdown, in the hope that it helps me out, as well as others (if it fits with them/you as well).
- “I want to help you deal with this” / “You shouldn’t have to deal with this any more than you already have” can quickly shut out the person from the process of their own restoration. A big part of what sucks about abusive/bullying/harassing situations is being disempowered. Further removing someone from the process of recovery and justice does not help. The person on the receiving end very well might end up wanting to not have to deal with it… but it needs to be by explicit choice.
- “How long has this been going on?” can come across as questioning or justifying rather than for understanding. Maybe it’s not real, or as bad as you think, etc. Coming forward about these things is HARD, and not a pleasant experience at all. Even if the individual asking these questions is doing so to better understand and assist, much of our culture is based upon being dismissive of the person coming forward. Many times the affected person will explain the context in a story format as a way of processing. If they don’t offer details or a story, ask yourself how important it is that you know details not readily offered.
- “I will destroy everything that person has ever held holy” is honestly my knee-jerk reaction as well, but now having been on the other side, feels like having to manage even more people. Will this person I’m talking to take actions which later make dealing with everything less effective? Expressing upset is one thing – expressing a desire to act in anger can be disempowering for the affected person. And so much anger has often already been managed in unhealthy relationships.
To me, what it takes to be a good ally in these situations is to simply say “I am sorry” / “that sucks” + “What do you need right now?” That gives space to decide what is needed, in relationship to the person asking. Often the same places are gotten to, but together. And remember, listen to the person who is affected. Just like codesign. Just like anything else in life. The person living it is likely the expert in their experience.
So far as the person I cut off, I went through these steps, which I find important: expression of care, re-statement of disregarded boundaries (and how those had been crossed), new boundaries (ie, “don’t talk to me, on any platform”), consequences for crossing those new boundaries (legal action), and recourse (“until/unless you’ve completed an abuser program”). This leaves no ambiguity in the situation, and I’ve also laid a path to action for myself that I can read and stick to when/if things get complicated.
- Although support from some will be contingent upon my explaining myself, the other, etc
- See, even here I can see how I want to caveat and manage. How to express things in a way that doesn’t seed distrust, but still encourages people to consider the people they spend time with, and their responsibility to not take part in bystander effect.