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Sarah Britten

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Thoughts on abusive relationships.

In an episode of the popular British comedy series Peep Show, one of the characters meets a girl he fancies. He’s hardly a success with women, but as luck would have it, she’s a hopeless mess of self-doubt, which makes her easy prey. “At last, just my luck,” he reflects gleefully. “The perfect combination of beauty and low self-esteem.”

I know all about that. Not the beauty part, obviously, but I do know exactly what it means to search for validation from others because it is impossible to locate that kind of affirmation from within – and, of course, how this makes one vulnerable to abuse. To the right kind of wolf, I’m the perfect combination of self-destructiveness and the inability to find self-worth except in the eyes of others. If there is something I am confident in saying I am good at, it’s mid level self-abasement. As a student I helped pay off the fat, chain-smoking psychic’s BMW; I swallowed my anger year after year while my ex-husband lectured me on my multiple failings; I’m still puppy-eager for the throwaway praise of people who are more interested in other things.

Now, I realise I am in another abusive relationship. Not with a person, but the principles remain much the same. Abusive relationships, after all, manifest themselves in every area of our lives. They don’t have to be with other people; they can be with groups or institutions too, like companies or governments or even countries. I entered this relationship willingly, at great personal cost, and it is partly that which keeps me there. How can I leave, having (stupidly) sacrificed so much? I should leave, I know it would be in my best interests, and yet I cannot. I stayed married five years too long and lo and behold I’m repeating the same pattern. Yet again, I’m dithering, yet again I allow emotional ties to overrule rational appraisal.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised. All abusive relationships, whether they are with individuals or institutions, whether they’re romantic or platonic, involve the same basic factors – the same drivers that keep us locked into situations we know are bad for us, but which we tolerate, and even crave.

Firstly, there is fear. Always, it’s fear that is at the root of everything that is bad for us. Fear of the unknown, fear of what will happen if we walk away, fear of not knowing how to live any other way. Also – and this is probably the most prevalent of all – fear of not managing financially.

Fear is at least honest, though. There is no positive spin on the venality of hope. Hope that things will get better is the yin to the yang of fear; hope is what keeps us sticking around. Every time we swear we’re going to walk out, there’s another possibility that things will improve, and so we say one more chance, just one more. Hope gives votes to the corrupt and incompetent. Hope leaves black eyes on the faces of battered wives. Hope stops us from getting on that plane and flying away.

Thirdly, there is the lack of faith in yourself, a lack of belief in the value of what you do or who you are. You allow the other party in the relationship to define your worth, and all abusers rely on a sense of worthlessness in the other. Not that abusive relationships ever start out this way: they’re more like the fat psychic, who told me I had a beautiful soul and, once I believed what he said about me and relied on him for more, turned the tables and spent the rest of the time telling me what was wrong with me. As a result, of course, you despise yourself for taking the abuse, so you end up utterly bereft of self-respect, more trapped than before.

A lot of us don’t know how to live outside of an abusive relationship. Even if it’s not conscious, we are drawn to those who will abuse us – cue Annie Lennox – and we replicate the same patterns over and over again. I know this about myself and it’s one of the reasons I now avoid romantic entanglements if I can help it, and why I am mistrustful of people in general.

There, too, is another reason we don’t leave. Because we know the truth about our weaknesses, we know that there remains the chance, ever-present, that the next relationship will be worse than this one. At least you know what you’ve got with the situation you’re in now. Better the devil you know, as they say.

And so we stay where we are, eaten away little by little, until one day there is nothing left.


Recent comments:

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    January 23rd, 2011 @12:18 #

    As someone who'd been in two abusive situations (one physically dangerous) by my mid-20s, I found the best pattern-breaker was happiness. When I lived in the UK, for my birthday one year I went walking alone on the Cornwall coastal path. Days of nothing but sun and wind and birds and rumbling surf. Then my sister, her boyfriend and I hitchhiked around Ireland. We had no money, we stayed in damp hostels, we laughed till we ached. I got home to find "birthday" letter from Manipulator No 2. It was full of bait and I was so freckled and fit and laughed-out, all I saw were the hooks and tangling lines. I never answered. I still remember the relief of sublime indifference. There are patterns I'm still struggling to break, but that one smashed to pieces somewhere in County Mayo. Probably the day I fell backwards into a hidden stream while piddling in a country field, and my sister laughed till she wet HER broeks.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">tiah</a>
    January 23rd, 2011 @20:19 #

    Just wanted to say that I read it and it touched me.


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