“My partner abused me for four years.” is a statement I sometimes make about my life.
“What do you mean, ‘abused’?” some people ask when I make that statement.
“Oh,” I say. “Um. They were mean to me.”
“Is that all?” they say, raising their eyebrows, violent lines of incredulity etched in their foreheads.
“Well… they were really mean.”
“That’s not what we’re asking!” (Now they’re exasperated with me). “What did they do? What did they say? What even constitutes ‘abuse,’ anyhow? Does your analysis align with my own, subjective definitions of words? My mom used to lose her temper and yell at me to shut up, would you consider that to be ‘abusive’? Because I, for one, WOULD NOT! Was your partner worse than that? Did they hit you? They always seemed fine whenever I saw them. What were you doing to provoke them? Why didn’t you just break up with them if they were so bad?”
It’s almost funny to me, at this point. Except it isn’t.
Like … you know better than this, by now, don’t you? You have to!
Every time someone utters the word “abuse,” it seems that everyone within earshot panics. Like, you immediately throw a burlap sack over this person’s head, stick ‘em in an unmarked black SUV, drive them out to an abandoned warehouse somewhere, and interrogate them Jack Bauer style, torture and all. You pick apart their words, examine the spaces in between syllables for any discrepancy in the story, like this is part of your job now, like this is your duty, like you’ve been empowered by the freaking state to go after this apparent rash of fraudulent abuse victims.
Why? What’s the point? Who appointed you? Do you yourself even know why this is your knee-jerk reaction to someone’s admission of the worst, hardest-to-talk-about thing that has ever happened to them? I know you’re good people, so I know you can’t possibly grok the damage you are inflicting on the people you love when you speak to them from the baseline assumption that they are lying, or exaggerating, or somehow, insanely, misunderstanding something!
My partner threw a stapler at my head. I didn’t misunderstand.
But even if they hadn’t provided me that nice little example to quell the skeptics, they were still abusive, for years, without physically assaulting me in any way. Life in that relationship was walking on eggshells, except the eggshells were suspended over a pit of hungry tigers. One wrong step, and I was a goner. Living like that for even a week is unbearable. After four years, that kind of constant tension is just baked into you. It’s part of your whole genetic makeup. It’s never going away. I will always have it. I will never respond “normally” to certain situations — like someone getting mad at me, even in the mildest instances — ever again. Just one of the many scars you can’t verify with your eyes.
But whatever. You know that already. Right? I mean, you’ve definitely heard people like me say all this before. So the fact that I’m still repeating myself is, at this point, a you problem. You aren’t listening. That doesn’t make you bad, but it does signal all your closest friends that you cannot be trusted with their stories. Is that the message you want to be sending people — that you are not a safe person to confide in, that you will be unreceptive to our traumas? I doubt it.
If you want my advice, the next time someone opens up to you about something terrible that happened to them, you should consider tamping down hard your first reaction to cross-examine. Maybe try just listening. Because whatever they are first telling you, I guarantee that they are merely scratching the surface, my friend. And trust me when I say that we need to be heard, and we need, most of all, to be believed.