An Abusive Relationship and Race Relations

Let me tell you a story. There was a man and a woman who were married. They were married for 15 years. But it was a horrible marriage. The husband was very abusive to his wife. His abuse was mental, physical and even sexual. The wife withstood this horrible situation for as long as she could. At the end of those 15 years, she told him that their marriage was at an end. The husband realized how awful he had been. He decided that he would not be abusive anymore. He told his wife he would stop his pattern of abuse. And he did. So the couple could live happily ever after.

Wait, that is not realistic. Does anyone think that a marriage which has undergone 15 years of violent abuse will just become normal simply because the abuser stops? The sort of relationship and psychological damage that has occurred must be accounted for if that marriage has any chance of surviving. The most logical outcome to this story is that the wife still leaves the husband with unresolved anger and bitterness at all the years she has lost in this terrible relationship.

So let us try again. There was a man and a woman who were married. They were married for 15 years. But it was a horrible marriage. The husband was very abusive to his wife. His abuse was mental, physical and even sexual. The wife withstood this horrible situation for as long as she could. At the end of those 15 years, she told him that their marriage was at an end. The husband realized how awful he had been. He decided that he would not be abusive anymore. He told his wife he would stop his pattern of abuse. And he did. But naturally that was not enough for the wife. Because of all the damage he had done to her, for her to stay in the marriage she demanded that he learn about the needs of abused women. She would be free to hound and berate him to do what she wants for at least the next 15 years since she had spent 15 torturous years with him. He saw her request as fair in light of the terrible way he had treated her, and so now they could have a happy marriage from this point forward.

Wait a minute. I do not believe this one either. Do you? Yeah the guy is awful and probably does not deserve his wife. But will taking away any sense of autonomy really save this relationship? Do we really believe that those who have been victimized cannot then go on to victimize others? If that was true, then why do abused children often grow up to be abusers themselves?

So let us try this one last time. There was a man and a woman who were married. They were married for 15 years. But it was a horrible marriage. The husband was very abusive to his wife. His abuse was mental, physical and even sexual. The wife withstood this horrible situation for as long as she could. At the end of those 15 years, she told him that their marriage was at an end. The husband realized how awful he had been. He decided that he would not be abusive anymore. He told his wife he would stop his pattern of abuse. And he did.

But that was not enough. The husband and the wife had built up a decade and a half of dysfunctional relationship patterns which needed to be reformed. The husband had the lion share of the work to change his ways. Not only did he have to refuse to engage in abusive behavior, but he had to learn patience and sensitivity to the needs of his wife. His years of abuse took away his rights to engage with his wife in ways that other men had. He had to go the extra mile to work towards regaining her trust. In his communication with her, he begin to learn and appreciate the work he needed to do.

But the wife also had to work to do. She had to deal with her anger in healthy ways so that it did not fester and grow poisonous in her. She learned that she could also be unfair to her husband and that communicating with him was better for the long-term health of their relationship than manipulating his feelings of guilt. Indeed with this careful communication, she learned when her reactions were justifiably based on reasonable fears and when they were unfair emotional blackmail.

Now, and only now, after a lot of hard work and tough communication with each other could the couple rebuild the damaged marriage. Now they were able to establish a relationship of mutual respect and love. Now it became possible for them to live happily ever after. Yes, I believe that only this last scenario is truly possible.
It is probably pretty clear to you that this story is a metaphor for our race relations. The husband is the white race and the wife is people of color. The 15 years represents the history of racial abuse we have seen in the United States. The dilemma of the marriage is the dilemma of how we are to deal with race relations after so many years of racism. How do we overcome the poison that has developed from all of these years of racism?

The first approach is to just ignore the damage that has been done. This is the approach of colorblindness. We are told that yes, historical racism was wrong and sinful. But that sort of overt racism is rare today, and it is certainly not legal in any official setting. So the answer to dealing with racism is simply to accept this new reality and to avoid discrimination. But as the example shows, this is not truly feasible. I stipulate that we no longer have Jim Crow or internment centers (Praise God!!) but like the wife in the example, people of color are left to live with the pain of this past racism. We cannot just wish it away in our memories and in its effect on our communities.

After an abusive relationship the victim often can be “triggered” by events that seem normal. The concept of triggering has been badly misused by some activists, but it is a real psychological concept. Things that seem normal can become tremendous burdens to those who are victimized. For example, romantic couples often playfully tease each other and jokingly tell each other to “shut up.” But such a joke becomes much darker to a victim of abuse who often heard a “shut up” accompanied by a slap. Only by working though the betrayal of the abuser and having the abuser recognize the type of work he will have to do to create an atmosphere for trust, can we expect a healthy relationship to develop. And he will learn how to sensitively work on regaining the trust of the wife.

Advocates for colorblindness miss this point. We cannot act as if the abuse did not happen. We cannot act as if the damage done to communities of color have magically disappeared. If people of color are going to be able to have that mutually respectful relationship with whites, then they cannot be told to “shut up” about racism. Indeed we need more communication and not less.

But the answer to this is not the second approach whereby those abused are given near absolute power of their abuser. This is the perspective that many in the “woke” community have. It is just as unrealistic as those pushing a colorblind ideology. It seems to be tied to a perspective that if we can show that individuals have been victimized, we should honor their anger, and perhaps even feed it. That those who have been guilty in the past have lost their rights to comment on present day solutions. Given what we know about human nature, this solution is also doomed to fail.

Individuals who have been victimized do not become angels because of that victimization. Sometimes they become abusers. Furthermore, my experience with people who have been abused is that they can become very controlling in future friendships and relationships. That is understandable, since they had a loss of control when they were being abused, but such a need to control still does not lead to healthy relationships. The wife is the innocent party as it concerns abuse, but she likely will still bring a lot of dysfunctional thinking into her future encounters with her husband unless she deals with her natural anger in healthy ways. Giving her freedom to control the marriage however she pleases is not going to help her deal with her anger.

Am I exaggerating about the desire of the “woke” folks to give people of color near total control? Let me ask you this question. If a person of color dresses down a white person is that allowable among certain cultural progressives? What if a white person dresses down a person of color? We know that for many, the former is not only allowed but welcomed while the latter is condemned. The reason such individuals will give is that people of color have been mistreated for so long that they should be encouraged to speak up, and whites must listen. But that requirement does not go the other way. Is this not allowing the person of color control of the relationship without the white person being able to hold them accountable to any degree?

In the short term, this does make sense. We do not handle someone who has been abused by immediately expecting them to listen to their abuser. We do allow them to vent their anger. But if we care about them, then we challenge them to go beyond that anger and not live in it. We help them to see their own missteps and to move towards a healthy relationship. If we fail to do that, we may set up the wife to become abusive in her own right. So the solution is not fifteen years of control by the wife.

Before I expound on the third story, and what I see as what we actually need to do, let me point out that in quite real ways, those advocating colorblindness and a woke philosophy are similar in their approach. When we get a member of each group on FOX, MSNBC or CNN, they fight against each other like cats and dogs. But in both groups they envision a solution whereby everyone else comes to agree with them and they do not have to alter any of their foundational ideals. I have engaged with members from both groups, and I have watched them on those aforementioned stations. The colorblind individuals are convinced that if everybody simply ignores racism, then we will have racial harmony. The woke community is waiting for whites to go and do their readings (some in this community do not even want to tell the whites what to read. They merely want those whites to come to the right conclusions) and then come join their cause. Both groups envision a solution they seek to impose on others and neither see any reason to change their ideals to accommodate those with whom they disagree.

I think this has led to a common problem they share. I often hear those pushing colorblindness complain about having to talk about race one more time. I also hear woke folks complain about racial fatigue. Both groups are tired of dealing with racial issues, and I suspect are wondering why other people have not gotten on board with their causes. Let me suggest that such complaints may have developed due to the fact that their approach to racial issues is not sustainable. It is not sustainable to try to force people of color to ignore historical and contemporary racism. We have been abused, and that abuse has to be dealt with. But it is also not sustainable to ask whites to shut up and just do what people of color want them to do. They have a right to be concerned about putting themselves in the hands of angry people who see little need to alleviate that anger. If you work towards an unsustainable solution, then you should not be surprised that you tire of the burden of implementing that solution.

So finally we are at the third story. We do not ignore the past. Nor do we idolize the victim. Instead we do the hard work of learning how to communicate with each other. We have to be willing to risk ourselves in this communication for we know at the end of the day, we will have to work out mutually livable sustainable compromises. If we do this we will tire, but we will also see progress. That progress towards healthy intergroup relations can keep us going.

This communication will not start out on equal footing. At first, there does have to be some deference given people of color as the abused wife. But it is given with the explicit goal of working towards healing and not to set up long term controls of whites. Let me be clear that I am not saying that there are equal responsibilities between whites and nonwhites. What I am saying is that both whites and nonwhites have responsibilities to each other. Those advocating colorblindness tend to dismiss the responsibilities of whites towards people of color while those in the woke world tend to dismiss the responsibilities of people of color towards whites.

I have written in the past about the need for active listening to deal with race relations. I am the co-author of a book where we make the case for improving interracial communications. So I am onboard with working towards having the wife and husband do the long painful therapy they need to gain wholeness in their relationships and in their lives. I know that colorblind and woke proponents will resist such efforts as they believe they have found the answers to our racial strife. Perhaps they are smarter than I. I do not have all of the answers of what we need to do. I simply think I have found the way to get to those answers – working with each other instead of against each other.

It is not sustainable to demand others to give up their solutions and merely adopt ours. Compromise is the only sustainable path forward. We are going to have to learn what compromises we can live with and which ones we cannot. We will not be able to do that until we talk with each other and listen to what others have to say. That is the only way that marriage gets saved. That is also the only way race relations in the United States will be redeemed.

If we do not improve our communication with each other, then the only solution is to gain capitulation from the other side. In this polarized society, that type of capitulation is not going to happen. Only if we work through our differences, do we have any chance of overcoming the racial animosity in our society. Truly the only possible path is the third scenario.


Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!


What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment

3 responses to “An Abusive Relationship and Race Relations”

  1. Thank you for this article. I agree with its main point about the need for communication to properly address “historical and contemporary racism” in America.

    I think, though, that the percentage of white Americans who are unwilling to listen to their black countrymen is far greater than the percentage of black Americans who are unwilling to listen to their white countrymen. The need for listening is greater among whites–just as it for the man in the abusive marriage.

    I propose that one or more of the television networks host a series of conversations about race with famous white and black people who would have calm, respectful, empathetic, and thoughtful conversations about issues related to race. The point of the conversations would NOT merely be to present opposing or conflicting points of view, but to inform and serve as models for private discussions. People who are unwilling to listen patiently and respond thoughtfully would not be invited to participate. Oprah Winfrey, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Daryl Davis are three good candidates for such a forum. Maybe CNN would be willing to have a series of town halls about race.

    Apart from this proposal: Seeing as Christians should be models of racial reconciliation, how should we further it among ourselves? Definitely through preaching. Also through national and local forums? The national ones could be recorded and shared via the Internet–the local ones could be organized by local churches. Maybe a parachurch organization could foster them.

    • Thanks for the comments. I am active pushing this perspective among Christians. I have a couple of speaking engagements over the next couple of weeks at churches trying to discuss these issues and talked to a Christian high school today. So I am doing my part to try to promote a more sane discussion on racial issues.

  2. The above article is a great article. It points to the fact that like abuse, racism traumatizes its victims so that the mere cessation of racism does not adequately address the deep wounds that need to be healed. However, one of the problems we face is to get many from the abusing group to admit to those wounds that past and present racism has caused. For admitting that one’s own group has caused that much damage challenges our sense of significance and pride.

    In addition, that victims may no longer be innocent due to the effects of abuse is both an important lesson and a reason why abusers are reluctant to change. It is an important lesson because sometimes that lost innocence is seen in how the victim may want revenge on the abuser. But lost innocence can also be seen in how the victim may take out their anger on a third party. As for the abuser being reluctant to change, we should realize that change for any of us is difficult enough. But when the victims of one’s own group have their own sins, that provides another obstacle to the need and desire for the abuser to change. And we should note this lesson about victims as applying to other situations than personal relationships and race relations. For example, how would we change our view of Israel and the Palestinians if we incorporated this view that victimization can cause the victim to lose some innocence? Would that lead to a more balanced view of Israel? Would it lead to a more balanced view of the Palestinians?

    Don’t want to distract any more from a great article. Will be referring to this article on my blog.