Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Power and Control

Have you ever just sat down and thought about why someone would choose to abuse another person? I’ve wondered about it for a while now. I have trouble fathoming why anyone would want to cause another person physical or emotional harm, especially when they profess to love that person. I’ve heard the desire to abuse referred to as a sickness, and I sometimes wonder if that’s correct. It would seem to make sense in a way, wouldn’t it? This compulsion to harm might be something that the abuser can’t control.

But wait a minute. Does that really make sense? Think about it. Abusers don’t harm everyone they meet. They usually only harm the people closest to them; their girlfriends or boyfriends, their children, their wives or husbands. If the desire to abuse is a sickness, then wouldn’t it follow that it would be uncontrollable, that the compulsion to abuse would be the same across the board? The abuser would walk down the hall at work the same way he walks down the hall at home; punching walls, screaming, and finally kicking the office manager before he enters his office and subjects his boss to a pointed, biting tirade including all the mistakes she’s made in the last year. I think we need to let go of the idea that people who abuse do it because they’re sick or because they can't control themselves. Holding onto the image of the out-of-control abuser only absolves him or her of taking personal responsibility for bad behavior and gives a free pass to abuse again and again.

Abuse is all about control. An abuser can blow through the house like a hurricane, slamming everything in his path, but let the neighbor knock on the door and he's all smiles, totally in control -- because the truth is, he's in control the entire time. Abuse is about the abuser’s need to feel bigger, stronger, smarter, better than his victim. Imagine the following scenario. A woman is getting ready for a test the next morning. Her boyfriend asks her to come over but she tells him she has to study. He insists that she come because he doesn’t want to spend the evening alone. She gives in because she knows if she doesn’t she won’t hear the end of it for weeks. But she also brings along her book because it is important to her that she pass her test. She sits and studies while he sits and drinks. He is getting more enraged as she tries to concentrate on the coursework. By 11 pm, when she finally sets aside the book, he is fuming. Throughout the night, he’s done a bit of everything to get her attention, from shouting, to stripping, to accusing her of not caring about him anymore, but she has done her best to remain focused on her work and ignore his ranting. She is tired and has to be up early, but he insists that she watch porn with him and then have sex before she can go to bed. Does this sound ridiculous to you? Well, that’s because it is ridiculous. It’s also abuse, and it was planned. The point is not to get her attention, though that’s a nice byproduct of the childish behavior. The point is that she will not be allowed to prepare for her test; her failure the following morning will be extremely gratifying to this little man, who can’t bear to think that she might have a life of her own, intelligence of her own, and prospects of her own. But the story doesn’t end there – there’s more to it than that, because abusers are rarely satisfied, even when they get their own way.

The woman says she isn’t interested in being intimate. She’s tired and needs to sleep – her test site is an hour away and she has to be up by 6 the next morning. He doesn’t care and insists that she comply with his wishes. If she doesn’t put out, he says he’ll drive out and find someone who will. Well, he’s drunk, and of course that means driving drunk; she points this out but he insists that he doesn’t care. If he hurts someone else it’ll be her fault. And if he gets picked up for a DUI then that’s her fault too. She’s heard this before and has given in before; she remembers the revulsion and self-hatred that come afterward and isn’t eager to go through that again, though she knows she can’t let him drive drunk. But this time, instead of begging him to change his mind, saying, “please, not like this,” something snaps. She tells him she’ll call the police and report him if he walks out the door. He can sleep it off in the drunk-tank.

Suddenly he is raging, screaming at her, calling her a whore and telling her she ruined his life, but she doesn’t care. She gets up, picks up her purse and keys and says, “I’m through. I’m done. This is over and I won’t be coming back.” And on the way out the door she tells him a few home truths about his behavior and what he can do with it. Before he can get to her, she’s out the door and gone. And he doesn’t follow, because he’s already naked – he stripped about an hour ago while he was still trying to get her to drop the studying and have sex with him. She goes home and goes to bed, but has only been asleep for an hour when he starts calling. At first she ignores the phone, but it continues to ring. She can’t turn it off because her children are with their father – her ex-husband – and one of them has a medical condition; she needs to be available by phone. Finally, after an hour of listening to the phone ring, she answers it. He says he hates her. He says she’s an evil bitch. He says she’ll come crawling back the way she always does but that he isn’t going to be there. He’s going to find someone else. She says she doesn’t care, she isn’t going to hang around and take his abuse anymore, and she hangs up. Two hours later, she’s just gotten back to sleep when he calls again. This time he’s choking and gagging, says he’s terribly sick and thinks he’s dying. She holds firm with her anger, but after talking to him for a few moments, she decides she should go check on him. He did drink a lot and even though she doesn’t want to be with him anymore, she doesn’t want him to die of alcohol poisoning either. Before they get off the phone, he stops talking and she wonders if he’s passed out as she puts on her jeans and a coat and heads for the door.

At his house, she finds him in the bathroom. He’s throwing up. She waits for him to finish and then sits down on the sofa. He lies down with his head in her lap and goes to sleep. In an hour she has to leave for her test; she’s gotten about two hours of sleep total – but that’s nothing new. It has been three months since he allowed her to sleep for more than five hours a night. She doesn’t go to sleep and she doesn’t touch him. She just sits there, trapped. At six, she gets up, heads home, and takes a shower. She’s on the road in an hour and sitting for the exam. On her way home, he calls her to tell her he feels terrible; he is extremely contrite and blames his behavior on the alcohol and his “loneliness”; he says she knows how much he loves her and enjoys their evenings together. She isn’t buying it anymore, but doesn’t argue. She is just so tired that at this point, it doesn’t matter. He begs her to “come home”, and she does, mostly because the weeks of emotional abuse have worn her down so far that she just can't fight him anymore. That afternoon, she receives word that she passed her test, in spite of the late night and lack of studying. When she tells him the news, he stares at her for a moment and says, “They probably made a mistake grading it or you got really lucky. There’s no way you’re that smart.”

Control. Power over the other person. The need to feel bigger, smarter, better than the victim. That’s what abuse is about. And if you’re wondering if something like that could ever happen in real life, rest assured, it could. It did; it happened to me.

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