I am tired of watching the people in my life suffer at the hands and words of people who claim to love them.
And it does not escape my notice that it is more often the femmes, the women, the disabled, the neurodivergent, the vulnerable who are experiencing violence and abuse from their partners.
I am overwhelmed with listening to people who consult me for narrative therapy, and who consult me as a friend, talk about what has been done to them, talk about what has been said to them, talk about what has been said about them, and to hear them questioning themselves with the oppressive voices of our culture.
Was it really so bad?
He didn’t mean it.
Am I too needy?
He was drinking.
They were having a panic attack.
Everything I say makes her angry.
He really tries.
Maybe it’s not so bad.
Maybe it’s not so bad.
Of course they doubt themselves! Our culture chronically gaslights marginalized communities. Marginalized communities are often operating within transgenerational trauma, poverty, scarcity (if not in our families, then in our communities). Marginalized communities may also have to contend with other structural and systemic issues that make naming abuse and violence more challenging – Black and Indigenous communities are at such increased risk of violence from any system. Seeking help often means finding more violence.
There is so much normalization of violence in our culture. And although it is not an issue that only impacts women, or is only perpetuated by men, there are patterns. They are painful patterns to witness.
One of my friends recently posted this open letter to men:
Just wanted to let you know I am so over it. I talk to your partners every day. I see their tears and listen to their self flagellation in the effort to make you happy. I watch them cram themselves in tiny boxes so they don’t threaten you. I fume as they suggest, gently, kindly, if it’s not too much trouble, that you consider their needs, but your wants are more important. Men, I watch you casually ask for sacrifice as if it were your due. I seethe as your partners ask for the simplest things of you, and you just don’t even bother. I see you go through the motions and call it love, when it doesn’t even pass the bar for respect. And then, as it all falls apart you claim you need a chance, as if you haven’t been given dozens, that you didn’t know, as if you hadn’t been told relentlessly, and that you can change, as long as you won’t be held accountable.
Men, I am so over watching your partners unilaterally trying to fix relationship problems that are yours. I am tired of knowing your partners better than you. I am exhausted having to buoy them through the hard times because you cannot be bothered. I am tired of you cheapening what love means by buying the first box of chocolates you see (not even their favourite) and calling it an apology but changing nothing.
Don’t hurt my people. Men, do better or go home.
And still, the questioning. Maybe it wasn’t so bad? Maybe it wasn’t so bad. Maybe it wasn’t so bad. Because each incident on its own might not be so bad. Might be a bad day, a bad choice. Might be a bad moment. It’s not the whole story. Maybe it’s not so bad.
And on its own, maybe it isn’t.
Image description: The Ten of Swords from the Next World Tarot.
From the guidebook by Cristy C. Road:
This is the final straw, and the 10 of Swords is exhausted from counting. They have lost themselves, over and over, in the name of love, self-worth, trauma, post-traumatic stress, healing the body from abuse, healing the mind from manipulation, and unwarranted, non-stop loss. The 10 knows healing, they studies it and have been offered power, candles, bracelets, and messages from their ancestors through local prophets who run their favorite Botanica. They are listening, but they are stuck. Proving to their community that while they have known power, they have known pain they don’t deserve.
The 10 of Swords asks you to trust your pain, own your suffering, and don’t deny yourself of the care you deserve from self, and the validation from your community. That validation is the root of safety. The 10 of Swords believes now is the time to ask your people for safety.
I pulled this card after another conversation with a beloved member of my community about an incident of misogyny in an intimate relationship.
I had brought this question to the deck – “How do we invite accountability into our intimate relationships?”
I wanted to know –
How do we create the context for change without putting the burden of emotional labour onto the person already experiencing trauma from the choices and behaviours of their partner?
How do we deepen the connection to values of justice, compassion, and ethical action, for people who have been recruited into acts of violence and abuse?
How do we resist creating totalizing narratives about people who use violence and abuse? How do we resist casting them as monsters? How do we invite accountability while also sustaining dignity?
How do we, to use a quote by one of my fellow narrative therapists, “thwart shame”? (Go watch Kylie Dowse’s video here!)
In moments of distress, I often turn to the tarot. When I don’t know how to ask the right questions, and I don’t know what to say or do, I turn to the tarot. Tarot cards are excellent narrative therapists.
I flipped this card over and the image moved me immediately. These acts of intimate partner violence and abuse do not occur in a vacuum. It is not just one sword in the back.
A misogynist comment from a partner, directed towards a woman or femme, joins the crowd of similar comments she, they, or he has received their entire life.
A racist comment from a partner, directed towards a racialized person, joins the pain of living an entire life surrounded by white supremacy and racism.
An ableist comment from a partner, a transantagonistic comment, a sanist or healthist or fatphobic or classist comment – these comments join the crowd.
And so, how do we invite accountability while preserving dignity? How do we resist totalizing narratives of either victims or perpetrators, resist recreating systems of harm in our responses to harm?
See the whole picture.
Even though it is so painful to look at, see the whole thing.
Rather than locating violence and abuse as problems that are localized to a relationship, individualized and internalized to a single person making choices, recognize that these things happen in context. And for many folks, these contexts are incredibly painful.
It will take time, and patience, and compassion, and gentleness, and a willingness to do the hard work of both validation and accountability. It will take community to find safety.
We need each other to say, “it is that bad, even if this incident might not be.”
When the victim-blaming, isolating, individualizing voices start clamoring, we need each other to say, “this is not your fault.”
We need something more nuanced than “leave,” “report.”
We need to show up for each other, with each other. We need safety. We need validation.
Can we do this by asking questions like:
How did you learn what it means to be in relationship?
What examples of making choices in relationships have you seen around you? What was being valued in those choices?
Does what you’ve learned about being in relationship align with what you want for yourself, and what you value for yourself?
Do the actions you’re choosing in your own relationship align with your values or hopes?
Who has supported you in your values and hopes?
Do you share any hopes or values with your partner(s)?
What have you learned about violence and abuse in relationships? About who experiences violence and abuse? About who enacts violence and abuse?
When did you learn this?
Does this learning align with what you’ve experienced in your own relationship?
What insider knowledges would you add to this learning, from your own experience?
Have you ever taken a stand against violence and abuse in your relationship?
What enabled you to take this stand?
When violence or abuse shows up in your relationship, are you able to name it? Have you ever been able to name it? What supports this ability?
What have you learned about what it means to be accountable in relationship?
Do you have supports available to you that invite accountability while sustaining dignity?
Who can support you in being accountable for the actions you’ve taken when you’ve been recruited into violence or abuse? Who can support you in asking for accountability from a partner who has been recruited into violence or abuse?
Here are some resources if you’re looking for ways to respond to intimate partner violence:
Critical Resistance’s The Revolution Starts at Home zine.
(This post has been cross-posted to my narrative therapy blog. You can find it here.)