I don’t want this to be a political post, but it will probably turn into one.
A friend who I haven’t seen since my honeymoon messaged me last night. She wrote,”We share a lot of experiences (as unfortunate as that may be) but I appreciate you in a way you may not know. I appreciate the fact that you had the strength to get out and not just survive but strive…..You are a special person and anyone who has the benefit of your friendship is graced. I mean these words whole heartedly. I have spent the last few days in a deep depression and crying because of this election and all the triggers but I am trying to come out in the same way I have in the past. Being responsible for my own energy. It is hard, but I am trying.”
I immediately wrote back with all that I appreciate about her, but I also thought a lot about her words. She knew the before Kelly, and I am now the after Kelly. I wondered if she would like the after Kelly as much as the before Kelly?
In my twenties, I was very earnest, very tender, and very naive. I am still earnest and tender, but I am no longer naive. I have a hardness to me now that I didn’t possess before.
I thought of her words, and I thought, Caleb would not agree. I thought, Caleb’s wife would not agree. I thought, Caleb’s friends would not agree.
For so many years, Caleb told me that I was awful. No matter how much my friends reach out to me, it is difficult now for me not to believe that he was right.
That is what abusers do so well. They make the victim think that she deserved it, and then they convince their friends that she deserved it.
I am too often stunned by who will take the side of an abuser. Those people are frequently women, and that, too, feels like a betrayal.
Other circumstances in my current life have put female enablers at the forefront of my mind. I told a friend the other day, “I am constantly amazed at the lengths that someone will go to in order to convince themselves that their friend is a good person.”
My friend replied, “I have done that.”
I have done that too.
When I left Caleb, a friend of his reached out to me with compassion. She told me that she supported us both, and I appreciated her thoughts. At the time, I wasn’t being open about the fact that he was abusive. Later, though, I wrote her and told her what he had done.
She wrote back a long message that I think she thought was compassionate. She told me to dig deep and examine what my triggers were that caused me to stay when things got bad. I read her message, and I was confused. At that time, I didn’t have the lexicon that I have now. I didn’t even know the term “victim-blaming.” Still, I knew that what she was saying didn’t feel right. I wrote back angrily. I wrote that she should be focusing on his triggers rather than mine. That was a huge step for me, and I’m proud of it. As painful as it was, that was the beginning of my healing.
She wrote more of the same to me. She wrote about the power of forgiveness. She wrote about how she believed that Caleb “could and would” change. I wrote to her that he was not even trying to change, that it was pretty presumptuous of her to think that she knew Caleb better than I did when she hadn’t even seen him in years. I sent her a list of resources. I told her to read Lundy Bancroft’s Why Does He Do That?
The exchange went on for a long while. Neither of us came to see the others’ viewpoint. Finally, she wrote something like, “Why are you so angry at me specifically?”
I wrote back, “Because I expected better from you.”
When Caleb and I were married, I was the one who kept in touch with that woman. When she had a tragedy, I was the one who reached out to her. Caleb was too self-involved to be bothered with her grief. He kept in touch with her because, out of my compassion for her, I made sure of it.
I knew how much she valued him, and in the end, she valued him more than she valued me.
Even knowing that he was a batterer, she asked him to officiate her wedding. In the grand scheme of her life, his violence to me meant nothing to her.
She is a rape survivor, and I expected better from her.
Three nights ago, I sobbed in my bathroom. Deep sobs that came from my gut. The bathroom has a door that connects to Reed’s room. I thought, “Dear lord, please don’t let him hear me.”
I had not felt pain like that since my divorce.
I did everything that I was supposed to do. I left my abuser. I rebuilt my life. I not only “survived, but strived,” and what did all of that hard work get me? I am once again living under the rule of an abusive man.
53% of white female voters voted for Trump, and this, too, feels like a betrayal.
But those voters aren’t the only ones who made Trump. All of the enabling women in our culture made Trump. That woman who enabled Caleb surely didn’t vote for Trump, but she still made him.
I have a theory about why women make excuses for abusive men, even though most of us have, at some point in our life, suffered at the hands of one. Bear with me here.
Women are raised to be compassionate. We are taught that kindness is the most important virtue that we can have, and we are rewarded for being kind. That gives us a little jolt of good feelings, right?
When my friend sent me that message last night, she also told me that she appreciated my “kind heart,” and you know what? That felt good. I felt rewarded. I basked in the glow of my own kindness. I even felt a little smug.
In the eighth grade, there was a new girl who was being bullied, but she was also a defiant student. She picked and picked at one of the teachers who was a man with a temper. He finally completely flipped his lid and threw a desk against the chalkboard, then sent her to the office. She was understandably sobbing and terrified. The rest of us were silent.
He followed her, then came back and chewed out the entire class. He said, “She told me that no one here is being nice to her. What is wrong with you all?” He said, “She told me that the only person who has been nice to her is Kelly.”
And I felt a deep sadness at that because I hadn’t even been that nice, but I also felt something click in the reward center of my brain. A “look how kind I was!” moment. I felt smug.
And then, one of the guys in class said, “Way to go, Kelly” in a patronizing tone, and the teacher shot me a glance that conveyed that he recognized my smugness, and I was rightly shamed.
Still, none of that involved that teacher accepting accountability for his own behavior. All of it involved conditioning two adolescent girls to believe that they should be kind and humble–even in the face of angry men.
But it’s not just the conditioning. It’s the reward that comes with being a “forgiving” female. When a woman is faced with a situation where an abusive man has hurt a woman, it seems logical that the woman would be angry at the abusive man and feel compassion for the woman, right? But which person challenges our capacity for compassion more? The abusive man or his victim?
It’s the abusive man, which is why I believe that it’s ultimately more rewarding to be compassionate towards the abusive man.
After all, who is more compassionate than a woman who can find forgiveness in her heart for a monster? That woman is rewarded for her compassion. She recognizes how complicated people are! She recognizes that people can change! She recognizes nuance!
And the abuser is also rewarded for his enabler’s compassion because he is emboldened to keep abusing. After all, if this compassionate woman believes that he can change, then why shouldn’t everyone believe that he can change?
And though statistics show that abusers rarely change, compassionate, enabling women believe that their abuser of choice will beat those statistics. So, in terms of rewards, it’s a twofer–Look how compassionate I am! Look how he changed!
The person who is not rewarded is the victim–the woman sobbing in her bathroom late at night because she is wondering if what the abuser said about her was real. She is wondering if the fact that he found compassionate female enablers means that her own compassion was the problem.
Maybe her own compassion wasn’t boundless enough.
Another example from my own life. A woman, a survivor of emotional abuse who initially supported me wrote me recently to tell me that she thought I was too angry. She thought I was “hurting the cause.” She thought this because, in the year after I left Caleb, she had told me that a friend of his–I’ll call him “the boatman”–had told her that he didn’t believe me. He had told her that he heard that Caleb and I “beat up on each other.”
She was involved with the boatman at the time, and I was unsurprised by what he had said because he had never struck me as a particularly good guy, but it did give me insight into what Caleb was saying about me, and that was hard. My PTSD was fully engaged for the entirety of that year, and it was awful, and I knew that there were men out there spreading terrible lies about me.
This woman worked very hard to convince the boatman that Caleb had actually, truly abused me, and I will give her credit for that, but still, I eventually confronted him. I told him that what Caleb said had happened was not what had actually happened. And when I confronted the boatman, he turned on the woman because he felt that she had violated his trust in telling me what he had said. I can fully understand how that must have been hard for her because she cared about him.
[For some context, this woman also knew that Caleb had been with a prostitute when we were dating, and she did not tell me before or after the marriage. She told me after the divorce, and when I said, “I would not have married him if I had known that, ” she said, “Oh, I am so relieved to hear that” without, apparently, realizing that she should have been apologizing instead.]
When this woman realized that the boatman, who had implicated me in my own abuse, was mad at her, then she became mad at me. And she wrote to tell me that I was “hurting the cause.” She told me how she had worked side by side with the boatman in order to gain his respect, and she had finally earned it, but that, my confronting him had violated his trust in her, and she had almost lost his respect.
She told me that the boatman had not been Caleb’s apologist, and that he was a good man. Still, one of Caleb’s ex-girlfriends had told me by then that, when she was with Caleb, the boatman had thrown his then-girlfriend off of a hillside and broken her wrist. Caleb, himself, had told me a story of how the boatman’s girlfriend had once driven off while the boatman held on to the car door. Caleb told me that story in a Can you believe how crazy she was? kind of manner, and all that I could think was, “Why the hell was he holding on to the car door when she was trying to leave?”
So, in short, the boatman was Caleb’s apologist, and it’s pretty obvious why.
But what about that woman? Why did she feel so compelled to defend the boatman? Well, let’s break it down.
She said that he was a “good man” even though evidence indicated otherwise, which means that she was really challenging the limits of her compassion: Boom. Reward.
She said that he was not Caleb’s apologist, which means that she was making excuses for him: Boom. Reward.
She said that she had to work really hard to gain his respect: Boom. Extra Reward.
And, ultimately, in all of her commentary, she neglected the ongoing trauma that I am suffering. In her efforts to gain this man’s approval, she shoved my needs (and my story) aside. Her narrative became entirely about her relationship with a man because her relationship with the boatman was where the rewards were.
If I’m being entirely honest, then I have to admit that I think that women’s compassion for abusive men is deeply selfish. We all know that the way to the top is through patriarchy, okay? But combine that with the reward center of our brains that tells us that we’re extra special when we’re being compassionate to awful people, and then, combine that with the reward that we get from earning the approval of otherwise disapproving men, and it’s not so much about the men as it is about how we feel in that moment of approval.
On Facebook, I posted about talking to Reed about the election. I told him about sexism and racism. Someone from my hometown commented, “I respectfully disagree….” then proceeded to talk about how flawed of a candidate Hillary was. I didn’t read his entire comment. Instead, I deleted it and unfriended him, although I basically like that guy and think that he is a decent guy. But how could I make him understand that, to me, it’s not about Hillary being a flawed candidate? It’s about Donald Trump being a sexual assaulter. It’s about me being forced to live with Donald Trump’s voice in my home, even though his voice makes my dog, who also has PTSD ,shake. It’s not about her. It’s about him.
Later, another person from my hometown commented. It was a woman. I never liked her anyway, so I didn’t feel any qualms about not reading her comment or deleting it (she had already unfriended me), but I did wonder why I had more compassion for the man who had commented than I had for the woman? Truthfully, I think it’s just because I really, really didn’t like that woman already, and I did like him. But maybe there’s more to it than that. Maybe I’m being harder on her.
But, either way, they both voted for the abusive man, and a vote for the abusive man is a vote against me, and her, and her, and her, and her, and her, and her, and her, and her, and all of the other women who were sobbing in their bathrooms the other night.
And to the 53% of white women who voted for the abusive man: I expected better from you.