Sunday, April 15, 2012

Too Scared to be Afraid



Did you know that the fundamental difference between an intimate relationship and an abusive intimate relationship is that one party is afraid of the other?  That's it, nothing more complicated than that.

That said, what do I mean by "afraid"?  Well, unlike the way we sometimes use the word "afraid" in everyday speech, it's not a synonym for worried or concerned, as in "I'm afraid my partner is going to leave me for somebody younger and richer."  This is the kind of afraid that every child understands and that in its own way represents the turning of one person in a relationship back into a child.  "I'm afraid if I don't get my homework done before watching TV, my parents will ground me".

To be afraid of your partner means that you have learned there are consequences for not doing what you are told or what is expected, even if those orders and expectations change from day to day and minute to minute.  Here are some examples:

  • If the kids toys are not picked up by the time he gets home from work, it's not going to be a pleasant evening.  He might leave, saying "I can't relax in this dump, I'm going out to eat."  He might disappear into the TV room all evening.  He might pick a fight with me or the kids.  I just know everything has to be in its place when he drives in the driveway.
  • If my wife wants something for herself or the house, I've learned to just give her the money, even if we don't have it.  The silent treatment and mean way she treats the kids in front of me just isn't worth it.
  • He inspects my car odometer, my phone, all my shopping receipts.  There better not be anything on there that arouses suspicion....and there's always something.
  • When I get dressed I have a mental checklist of things I don't wear if he's going to be around.  Sometimes he tells me I'm too fat or frumpy, sometimes it's the other way, too sexy or trying to get attention.  Either way, I don't want to get him started.  It's too painful and demeaning.
  • I can go anywhere I want and I always have enough spending money, unlike some of my friends.  But god forbid I disagree with him about anything - politics, where we spend our holidays, what movie or restaurant we go to.
I'd be willing to bet that if you asked the people in the examples above if they are scared of their partner that the answer would be "no."  Maybe that's because when we live in a punitive environment, when our home is a place defined by negative consequences for actions somebody decides are unacceptable, there's no safe place to run to for refuge.  We can't afford to be scared.  We tell ourselves "If I just obey all the rules, I'll be okay."

(Image by Lyn Southworth)