When a relationship is emotionally safe, the partners trust each other and routinely give each other the benefit of the doubt in questionable situations. When emotional safety is lost, the partners are inclined to be distrustful, looking for possible hidden meanings and potential threats in each other’s words and behaviors. Wikipedia
I have been ruminating about abuse for the last couple of years. Physical abuse. Emotional abuse. I’ve been reading and bringing together my thoughts. I recently read No Visible Bruises by Rachel Louise Snyder which investigates domestic violence in great detail. I follow Center for Relationship Abuse Awareness: Action and Education on Social Media. I read an article about the US DOJ’s definition of domestic violence change in a way that excludes any violence against women that doesn’t qualify as a misdemeanor or felony and no longer recognizes Emotional, Psychological, or Financial abuse within the definition.
[Current Definition, Previous Definition]
Though I have been ruminating the last couple of years after my own personal experience leaving an emotionally unsafe relationship, I have thought about abuse since I was quite young. In high school I wrote a report on Domestic Violence in same-sex relationships and how it is often dismissed by law enforcement. In Snyder’s book, she recognizes that while domestic violence does occur in non-binary relationships and isn’t always with a man as an abuser and woman as a victim, the focus of the book follows stereotypical gender lines referring to victims as she/her, and abusers as he/him. Unfortunately, Domestic Violence is still not well studied or understood, and is even less well understood in non-binary domestic relationships. Domestic violence occurs between parents and children, within same-sex relationships, and women are capable of abuse, despite the stereotypes. Abuse victims are not restricted to heterosexual women, and this is an often ignored part of the conversation. Abuse victims also often recant their statements out of fear of retaliation, which makes domestic violence extremely hard to track.
While presenting my high school report, just over 15 years ago, a fellow classmate told me that they personally don’t care about abuse in same-sex relationships because being gay was against their religion. What my classmate said that day proved the point made in the presentation that domestic violence is often ignored in non-binary domestic relationships. And this is the world we’re facing. Where one person can dismiss another human’s rights for safety completely for religious reasons, personal biases, etc. This overwhelming sense of injustice brought me to tears that day as I left the classroom to consider what just happened. This sense of injustice continues to bring me to tears. Because of this, I try to use gender-neutral terms to be inclusive of the various experiences of Domestic Violence victims.
Over the last couple of years of ruminating, I keep going back to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. This theory, when taught in business courses, is primarily focused on what motivates people. First, one’s basic or physiological needs (food, shelter, water, sleep, safety, etc.) must be met before someone can be motivated through more psychological needs (love, friendships, prestige, feelings of accomplishment, etc.). Likewise, psychological needs must be met before someone can be motivated via self-fulfillment needs such as self-actualization. This hierarchy of needs is often visualized via a pyramid visual with the idea that as individuals, we’re working our way up the pyramid throughout our lives. I’ve put together the below visualization from various resources.
All of this to say, Domestic Violence does not usually start with a gun to the head and a call to the police. It is written in many books and articles, and nearly common-knowledge that the cycle normally starts with harsh words, threats, familial alienation, or something else that the victim will quickly see as a one-time-thing and forgive their abuser. It starts with things like name calling or belittling or putting-down one’s other-loved ones. I would argue that Domestic Violence normally starts out as some form of breach of emotional security, which may lead to a breach in other safety needs such as health and well-being, personal security, or safety from harm. It may also breach into physiological needs such as shelter, sleep, food, etc.
Breaking down one’s safety and basic needs is a cruel way to stop someone from pursuing higher needs such as social belonging, esteem needs, self-actualization, or transcendence. If a victim doesn’t have emotional safety with someone that is supposed to be safe, it will be hard to put any effort into realizing your social belonging. That is to say, if you can’t trust the one you love the most, you may stop trusting everybody. If an abuser breaks down a victims relationships with friends or family, then you may stop them from realizing their esteem needs. Meaning, if a victim is isolated from friends and family, they may not have any way to gain a sense of accomplishment or prestige.
It is important to see these signs early. These signs are often something a victim is too embarrassed to talk about. There is a sense of deep shame that follows the signs which prevents a victim from seeking help in the early phases of the abuse cycle. I hope that as you read this, you are not suffering from any form of domestic or emotional abuse. There are some things you can ask yourself every day in your relationships. Do I feel safe with this person? Can I trust them with my thoughts? When I need help solving a problem, is this person someone I trust to help me? What feeling do I get when I think about my relationship with this person? Do I feel inferior to them? Answering these questions honestly may provide you insight into whether you’re in an emotionally safe relationship.
When I was in a an emotionally unsafe marriage, the signs came early and they came often. The signs got bigger and bigger over time. I am reminded of one time very early in the relationship when I heard a song on the radio, American Idiot by Green Day I believe, while riding in his truck. We were going shopping for groceries and he quickly turned the station. He didn’t like it but I enjoyed the song so I changed the radio back. He became so angry and we had our first really big fight. I was so embarrassed. I thought I caused his anger and that I needed to change. He told me once he should have left me at that grocery store and never looked back that day.
Later on in our relationship, we were at a party the day before we got married and he was so angry at someone else for flirting with a woman that he considered “taken” and he told that guy to “Fuck off and die”. In that moment, I didn’t know if I could marry him. Those words were so harsh. I was so embarrassed that I brought this person into my circle of friends. I was always so passive. I avoided fights. Many people that night told me they were concerned for me and that I didn’t have to follow through with marrying him the next day. I chalked it up to his personal insecurities as he was getting ready to deploy to serve our country and he was worried someone was going to try to flirt with me when he was away. I explained to them that he loved me and would never mistreat ME. I was embarrassed and never spoke with anybody about this after that night. And I didn’t feel like I could speak with him about it. All of these embarrassing moments, hidden away, heavy in my memories.
These moments didn’t stop after we got married. Because of some agonizing sense of altruism, I thought I could help him get better and release his anger. I thought it was my purpose in this world. I thought that God would reward me for being loyal to this man who continued to tear away at my sense of emotional safety. All of the moments that should have been glaring red-flags to me, stashed away in my shame filled memories and avoided, because I thought that was what was best.
Besides, who could I tell these things to? My relationship with my family became strained, especially my mother. If I told her about any of these incidents she would surely try to convince me to get a divorce, and I was convinced it was my duty to make it work. I had no idea how my father would react since he always seemed to like my now-ex-husband. I didn’t want anybody to think less of the person I had chosen as my spouse out of fear they would then also think less of me. So I buried all of these moments deep in my soul carrying the burden alone. It was the burden I had chosen, so it was what I would live with. Until I realized one day, after being called a terrorist, that if I didn’t release myself from the burden, it would crush me completely.
I think back to that time and wonder how I could have stopped all of that pain. I was so naive and didn’t know what to look for in a partner, or even who I was as a person. I thought I could make marriage work with anybody if I wanted to. Hindsight is 20/20, of course. I think recognizing your own need for emotional safety is a good first step in recognizing the signs. It is much easier to change course after the first red-flag, than it is after a decade+ of marriage and a couple of kids. It will never get easier.
I know I have grown because of my experience, but my hope in life is that I can help others avoid the kind of emotional trauma I experienced. I want to live in a world where when someone is choosing a partner, they know how and when to walk away. I want to live in a world where both of my children treat others with only respect, and know when to walk away if they are not treated with respect. I want to live in a world where there is so much abundance of love and kindness, that we no longer have to have conversations about domestic violence, because the home is a safe place for everyone. I want to live in a world where everyone can find emotional safety in their relationships. Until then, I will continue to share my truths so others may have a way to connect and understand that they are not alone.