Content Note: Emotional abuse; victim thought processes/mindsets
It is easy to find posts on feminist blogs, or women’s rights blogs (the two are not always synonymous, unfortunately) explaining why abuse victims stay in abusive relationships. If you have an ounce of empathy, you will be able to appreciate and understand it.
Recently, I encountered a situation in which a person online was using against me the same emotional abuse tactics that abusers used successfully in r/l many years ago. In dealing with the aftermath of this recent situation, I have been stunned, though not actually surprised, to find myself saying the same things that those “why they stay” articles describe. Except today, it’s not a “them”, it’s “me”. It’s no longer about empathy, it’s understanding through living.
Because it’s the internet, and there are very few places where I’ve used the same details (like, I set up an email address especially for that site, with a username I use only in two online spaces and one of those isn’t searchable), it is relatively easy to avoid the person (for the sake of reference, I’m calling him Abe; not a real screen name, and I don’t know his r/l name). So in all events this is likely to be over already, after just a few days. In that respect, I am not living what an abuse victim lives (and it is not what I lived in the past).
Abe had already demonstrated a consistent demeanour towards me: dismissive and contemptuous. I left every interaction wiuth them feeling really crushed. In the space where this took place, I present my most female self and am accepted that way (that is, it’s a way to embrace that side of my genderfluid identity, and people accept the virtual version of me that I present). Abe escalated that to direct attacks.
Is it still gaslighting, if you might genuinely have misremembered things? Is the important element the way in which a person is made to doubt themselves, accused of lying, making things up, and so on?
Here’s some of the things I said, and felt, afterwards:
“My friends here all say he’s a good guy, so maybe I’ve misjudged him?”
“If I say who it is who’s upset me, people will defend him and think badly of me.”
“If I say who it is, this person will put their side, and will increase their assaults on me. I will not be able to put my case coherently enough or carefully enough to convince others that he, not I, was in the wrong. Others will start to hate me as well and I will be hurt even more.”
“I don’t want to spoil other people’s friendships when I can see this person makes them happy.”
“Actually, I did make a mistake and screw up. It’s just that he overreacted. Maybe it’s just a misunderstanding and he’s alright really.”
If you put those feelings into a r/l rather than online social situation, and you can see how escape becomes almost impossible to contemplate. (In my past situation, I didn’t even recognise what was happening to me as abuse so I didn’t have that dilemma then.)
* * *
I believe that Abe is not a predator abuser hunting for victims. Based on what I know of his other relationships on the site, and background from people I trust, I believe that he is not likely to be a threat to others. Another feeling/thought/thing I said (once I’d protected myself with the block button) was, “I don’t see anything good coming from pursuing disciplinary measures, I just want this done with.”
But, it doesn’t matter to me whether he intended to do the harm that he did. It doesn’t matter to me whether the consistent demeanour is deliberate and planned, or just an accident of personalities clashing and my difficulties interpreting social situations. It doesn’t matter to me why he responded to my screw-up the way he did.
What matters is how it left me feeling. Crushed, bad about myself, and in the final account, fearful of crossing this person in any way or expressing even the slightest hint of dissent from his point of view (of course, he accused me of, among other things, not tolerating other points of view).
So this piece has become yet another of those articles trying to explain why abuse victims stay with an abuser, and once again, if you have empathy and understanding, you’ll get it. But I don’t know how to convey the understanding that having lived through these emotional logic sequences has given me. I don’t know how to explain it’s not just the words survivors say, but the emotions, the genuine feelings of compassion for their friends, even for the abusive person. That the feelings aren’t mistaken, or false, or wrong. They just are, and maybe they’re not helpful but they are genuine.