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Does social stigma against extreme emotions provide cover for domestic abusers?

March 12, 2012

This post is about an incident that may seem relatively inconsequential in the larger scheme of things.  But I believe it raises important questions about the society we live in, and who it is and isn’t safe for.

Feministe, a blog I’ve spent many enjoyable hours procrastinating on, recently re-posted the tale of a guy who wrote to an advice column about how to get back with his ex-girlfriend.  This was after an incident where the police were called in.  According to him (her side of the story is not known), she had announced she was breaking up with him, and he had in return threatened suicide.  They had gotten into a screaming match, and he had broken a plate.  According to him, the police originally came in planning to take him to the hospital, but when they heard about the screaming and saw the broken plate they instead arrested him on a domestic violence charge, against the woman’s wishes.  The assault charge carried with it an automatic restraining order.  The guy was sent to jail, then sent to the hospital after being released from jail.  The response of the Feministe community to this story was almost uniformly to paint him as scum.  Many did so in terms that not only disparaged him, but perpetuated extremely hurtful stereotypes about people labeled mentally ill.  Things like saying he had a “disorder” and needed “treatment”, by force if necessary.  Things like treating his suicide threat, all by itself, as proof positive that he was evil and unfit to be in a relationship with anyone.  My comment was one of only about three among a hundred-plus comments which pointed out that, if this guy was telling the truth, he had been arrested and jailed and hospitalized despite never physically harming anyone else, or even threatening to, and that that was really fucked up.

Is this guy an abusive scumbag?  Probably yes.  He mentions in his letter to the advice column that, while he and his ex were still together, he was negative and critical of her, and didn’t want her to spend time with her family and friends.  Both of these are classic control tactics used by abusers to demoralize and isolate their victims.  But I would still feel far safer around him than around many of those who denounced him on Feministe, simply because I feel better able to defend myself against violence done by one person than against violence done with the full backing and resources of the State.

Feministe is one of the few forums I’m aware of that, despite not being specifically about defending the rights of people labeled mentally ill, has nevertheless shown some solidarity with that cause.  They’ve recently had as a guest poster a therapist and psychiatric survivor who’s written some truly great articles about madness and oppression, and how mental illness labeling hurts kids.  (Articles are here, here, here, and here.)  If a commenter there calls someone else “crazy” others will routinely step in and say “don’t use that ableist language.”  But in this case the majority there seemed happy to perpetuate the myth of the Dangerous Insane Person.  I guess it’s kind of like the way the mainstream media will pillory someone who uses the word “nigger”, but routinely downplays the disproportionate police violence against black and brown people.

The discussion around this incident got me thinking about how American society seems to despise and fear displays of strong negative emotion, and how it promotes confusing and frustrating mixed messages about emotional dependency: pop musicians sing “can’t live without you”, while relationship advice gurus tell us neediness is horribly unattractive, and psychologists tell us that depending on anyone emotionally is a sign, not of a strong emotional bond, but of an underlying mental disorder that has nothing to do with the relationship.

And then I thought: could the way our society pathologizes emotional pain and emotional need be, in fact, making it harder for victims of relationship abuse to leave their abusers?

I’m thinking of two scenarios in particular.  One is where the abuser showers on the victim more attention and displays of affection than s/he ever receives from the people saying get out while you still can.  This is compounded by the warnings labeling behaviors the victim has also done as forms of abuse, i.e. saying suicide threats are a red flag, and the victim thinking “I’ve wanted to kill myself sometimes, so what’s the difference?” while ignoring the deeper patterns of control the abuser is building up.  If the victim’s feelings and needs have already been declared wrong by those around him/her, it becomes that much easier for a violent, controlling partner who unashamedly displays those feelings and feeds some of those needs to paint a picture in the victim’s head of the rest of the world as a cold indifferent wasteland, and of the abusive relationship as the only possible source of love.

The other scenario I’m thinking of is where the victim has a tendency to act “hysterical”, that is, to openly show strong emotion, and/or has a mental illness diagnosis, and the abuser is calm and logical-appearing.  This allows the abuser to convince the rest of the world that his/her victim is delusional, overreacting, paranoid, really the one at fault, and in general not to be believed.  Sometimes the abuser manages to convince the victim him/herself that s/he is all those things, a cruel control technique known as “gaslighting”.  Of course if the victim has already absorbed the message that s/he is “crazy” or “disordered”, and therefore unfit to be in a relationship and one step away from needing to be locked up for everyone’s protection, well, that makes the abuser’s job so much easier.

In a world where so many seemingly nice people are OK with you being taken away cuffed to a stretcher by the cops and locked up for an indefinite length of time, not because you’ve actually been violent to anyone but because they felt threatened (and they’re already predisposed to see you as threatening because of your history with the mental health system), an abusive relationship can feel, at least at first, like a comparative safe haven.

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