The cycle connecting abuse, racism, and sexual violence

There are at least two cycles that happen often in abusive relationships. One is well researched and is being endlessly repeated before our very eyes on a daily basis. The other is perhaps less obvious and less defined by research but certainly no less harmful, problematic, or uncommon.

The second cycle happens when the abused expresses a negative feeling about the abuse to the abuser and the abuser expresses that they are hurt that the abused would express being hurt by the abuser. A healthy person in a relationship knows that when someone expresses hurt feelings, the natural order of response is to listen first, apologize second, and work out any related issues or mutual hurt thereafter.

Part of the reason abusive behavior is so insidious and harmful is because abusers are so skillful at gaslighting victims into assuming that the abuse they have suffered is actually a response to their own actions and a source of pain for the abuser. When the reality of who is actually being harmed is called into question, victims often begin to blame themselves and find it all the more difficult to leave the abusive relationship. To seek outside advice is often to be reminded that both sides have contributed to the harm. While mutual harm is almost always present in some regard, the conflation of a broken nose with the bruised hand that broke the nose is a particularly cruel form of whataboutism.

This same dynamic is present in societal discussions of racism and sexual violence. Historically and systemically oppressed people groups are saying that they are hurt and the groups historically and systemically responsible for that hurt respond by saying that they are hurt that the hurt people are expressing their historical and systemic hurt. It is a pernicious form of societal gaslighting and abuse that we so often refuse to listen long enough for others to feel heard and valued, much less safe enough to fight through to the attainment of something resembling healing or justice.   

In our current moment, the historically and systemically oppressed have finally stopped backing down when the desire for change has been met by accusations that claims of being hurt are in themselves hurtful to those causing the harm. The day may come when phrases like #blm or #metoo elicit more compassion and change from the powerful than fear and retaliation, but we are not nearly there yet. If long term change is ever to become a possibility, one of the starting lines is for us white men to break this cycle that is born out of the fragility of our collective ego. Mistakes are a part of life – learning to grow and heal requires that we embrace the power of vulnerability rather than lash out when our self perception is challenged.

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