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.

5 thoughts on “The cycle connecting abuse, racism, and sexual violence

  1. The “power of vulnerability”. How do we teach that to our children and our youth? How do we teach that to ourselves. I am working creating a blog about my odd encounters in the church, and how I held on to God because I new even if some things in a church were bad experiences (no posts on that topic quite yet – Not sure how to protect the guilty), God is good. God is my friend, God is on my side, and guides me when I listen. I have always been tough. My dad called me “fireball”. I put myself in situations where I could have my values questioned when I was learning my place in this world, and where I would fit in). I was strong enough to stand up and say “no” and mean “no”. Yet, I was always curious enough to try some things that could have destroyed me by being vulnerable. God was there in every situation. Sometimes I was too curious to acknowledge God’s presence and my role. And – I am a white female. And I made my share of mistakes.


    1. Sorry it has taken a while to get to this, there are a variety of possible ways to go with a response and I’m not sure I have the time to adequately say what I would want to say. The shortest, best answer I can offer is that I think you’re asking the right questions.

      To touch on just one aspect of follow up, have you read/watched much by Brene Brown? Her work on vulnerability and shame has been really transformative for my understanding of most things. The idea of vulnerability and its power relies heavily on recognizing how often we put up walls between ourselves and our feelings or ourselves and the world. To put up walls protects us from feeling shame for falling short; but it also prevents us from finding hope or joy or contentment. It is not good or safe to simply let everyone see the deepest parts of who we are; but it is only in the experience of being seen and of seeing our own feelings and experiences as they are (as opposed to how we would prefer they exist) that real joy and hope are possible. Taking down walls often requires us to push past our idolization of safety and be willing to experience things outside our normal boxes. Until we do so, I don’t think we’re capable of 1) embracing who we actually are or 2) acknowledging the pain we might cause for our self or others. The greatest power in the world is found when broken, imperfect selves see the walls torn down of idealized self perception or willful ignorance and instead find healing and wholeness in the practice of mutual vulnerability. The cross is God’s creative, healing act of vulnerability showing what it looks like when power is made perfect.


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