Abusers and the Good Times

Abusers and the Good Times June 29, 2017

Samanthafieldby Samantha Field cross posted from her blog SamanthaPField.com

I bought Adele’s 21 album spontaneously. A few of her songs were coming up somewhat regularly on the Pandora station I listened to at work, so when I spotted her album standing in line at Starbucks while on a road trip up to New Jersey I couldn’t help myself. That afternoon was the first time I heard “Someone Like You” and I did not understand it. At all. Later, some colleagues were talking about their favorite breakup songs and after sharing mine– “King of Anything” by Sara Bareilles–  someone said “Someone Like You” was theirs. I snatched at the opportunity to understand what the hell “Someone Like You” is about and why it’s not really really creepy. The conversation didn’t really help, but the last thing they offered has stuck with me:

“Sam, you probably don’t get it because you’ve never broken up with someone you were still in love with.”

I wanted to argue– but I couldn’t. I was still in love with my ex at the time he broke our engagement, but the heartbreak only lasted about a month and then I was nothing but pissed at him. Since those days I’ve come to appreciate the blinding fury that propelled me through the early months of escaping an abusive relationship. For me, there wasn’t any redeeming quality to that relationship. There was nothing worth holding on to, nothing I could remember fondly. He was an abuser, a rapist, and that was all there was to him and our “relationship.”

***

One of the most common statements I hear from people recovering from abusive relationships is something along these lines:

It would be easier if they’d been horrible 100% of the time, but they weren’t. Sometimes, they could be so sweet and caring. It makes me second-guess whether or not it was abuse– how could they be an abuser and be so gentle and loving sometimes?

Here’s the thing I want every abuse victim and survivor to understand: your abuser was horrible all of the time. Yes. Even when they brought you soup when you were sick, or bought you flowers for no reason.

Being “nice” is part of the abuse.

I think we all understand this intellectually. Lenore Walker created the “Cycle of Abuse” model all the way back in 1979, and the pattern she identified hasn’t changed in the decades since she wrote The Battered Woman Syndrome. Most of us are familiar with the three phases: tension building, event/episode, and the honeymoon period. On one level, we probably all know that the times when our abuser is being nice to us is the honeymoon. I bring this up every single time someone asks “why did you stay?” Abusive relationships are not actively violent every single second of every single day, 100% of the time. If it was unremitting agony, no one would stay. Abusers are absolutely dependent on the honeymoon phase — however brief or long it is– to keep their victims with them.

However, there’s more to it than that. Yes, abusers have to be “nice” sometimes or we’d quickly realize there’s nothing to keep us in a relationship. Why Does He Do That? isn’t a perfect book (for one, it relies on gender essentialism for significant parts of its argument) but one thing I do agree with Bancroft on is that if there’s a universal quality in abusers, it’s entitlement. Whatever abusive tactics they use, the goal is to guarantee their victims give them what they feel entitled to. The reason why we can identify similarities and patterns in abusive situations is that abusers are only doing what’s the most effective at getting another human being to cooperate with their entitlement.

On top of guaranteeing cooperation, abusers use “niceness” in the same exact way they use emotional or physical pain. There is not a single shred of genuine care about you and what your needs are. They are not bringing you soup because they were motivated by compassion during your illness. An abuser, by being nice, is getting what they want from you the same way hitting you or demeaning you gets them what they want. Sometimes they want you cowering in fear, but sometimes they want to be worshiped.

Something all survivors understand is that abuse resets your expectations. What you consider acceptable changes to accommodate the escalating abuse, and after a while the constant anxiety and hyper-vigilance becomes our baseline. When we get any relief from that, or any glimpse of kindness from an abuser, there’s a tendency to fall to our mental knees in gratitude. We’re used to violence and disparagement, and suddenly we’re offered a ray of hope.

Abusers know this.

They’re looking for it. They feel entitled to that gratitude; they crave it. Victims, like anyone else when they’re offered what looks like kindness, express their thanks in one way or another. Except that thankfulness is heightened because we’ve been trained not to expect it, and the end result is that an abuser does something “nice” in order to bask in our gratitude for their mercy. They’re doing it because it allows them to feel magnanimous and noble– look at them, doing something good for the miserable little worm they live with. Their victim certainly doesn’t deserve their kindness, but aren’t they just the most good and loving person for bestowing it?

A second side-effect of all of this is that abusers have to go barely out of their way at all to “earn” a worshipful reaction from their victim. In conversations I’ve had over the last eight years I’ve heard so many people talk about all the good things their abuser did for them like those infinitesimally small acts were fireworks in the park. Oh, but one day they did the laundry when I was so ill I couldn’t get out of bed! They cooked dinner that one time! They thought of me when I was giving an important presentation and sent me an encouraging text!

The abuse makes us lose sight of what an above-and-beyond act really is. The “nice” things abusers do are almost always things that any basically decent human being would do for someone they care about. I had to be married to Handsome for literally years before I understood this. Yes, I appreciate all the things he does and tell him so. But him doing the dishes? Not a spectacular thing. I cooked us dinner, he does the dishes. It’s not that he’s so awesome for doing the dishes, it’s that he’d be kind of a jerk if he never contributed.

So, yes. Even the good times were bad.

I understand clinging to the scant good memories we have– some days in the midst of the abuse it’s all we have to go on. Most of the “grandest” gestures my abuser made came during the darkest days, and I was just so awestruck at the time. I’d exclaim about how wonderful he was to all my friends and they’d look at me sideways because I was going on and on about a note he’d written on a 3×5 card. Just … Christ. That was not that great, but I’d learned to expect otherwise.

Them being “nice” to you sometimes shouldn’t make you question whether or not it was abuse. The tricks an abuser uses to keep you trapped or to bask in your gratitude aren’t niceness. It’s just more of the abuse.

moreRead more from Samantha Field

‘The Handmaid’s Tale” isn’t a Strawman, and Here’s Proof

~~~~~~~~~~

Samantha grew up in the homeschool, patriarchy, quiverful, and fundamentalist movements, and experienced first-hand the terror and manipulation of spiritual abuse. She is now married to an amazing, gentle man who doesn’t really get what happened to her but loves her anyway. With him by her side and the strength of God’s promises, she is slowly healing. Right now Samantha is attending seminary.

She blogs at SamanthaPField.com


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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Rachel

    This really reminds me of my most recent relationship, and it’s good that she is starting a conversation about this. My relationship started out so well (I thought), but when I moved closer to my girlfriend (it was a city I really wanted to move to anyway, I just thought having my girlfriend in town would be a bonus), I became dependent on her for a short amount of time as I was looking for my own place. I had already noted a tendency for her to take out her frustrations on me–if she was feeling depressed or stressed out she would start a fight so she could berate me and call me names.

    My depression escalated to where I would self-harm after a fight, I felt so horrible about myself. During the one week that I lived with her as I was finding my own place, she assaulted me. I tried to break up with her but she went hysterical and wouldn’t let me, so we kept the relationship going for a short time. You might ask why I didn’t break the relationship off after that first ugly fight, let alone the second or third. It was the good times. She could be so sweet and romantic, and we had a lot in common. During that week from hell when I was living with her, I got sick and she bought me ginger root to make me ginger tea.

    In retrospect, buying ginger root wasn’t that big of a deal. There are corner stones everywhere in this city that sells ginger root, so you don’t have to walk more than a block, and it’s cheap. I’ve gone to even greater lengths when my friends have gotten sick. Heck, a coworker I barely even like in the States went out of her way to buy me green tea and honey when I’d lost my voice because of a cough. I think I was just so used to getting berated over every little thing that it came across as this grand gesture and I felt guilty for being so unhappy in the relationship.

    Women need to be taught that we deserve to be treated with respect in our relationships, because it’s so easy if you’ve grown up under Christian Patriarchy/Complementarianism to get manipulated into thinking that abuse is the norm.

  • Nancy

    This rings so true with me. I was so happy with the little things that I overlooked all the big things my ex wouldn’t do for me. Several years ago my daughter had a birthday sleepover and she was excited because “dad bought me 2 totino’s pizza’s!”
    (cost a buck each). My older daughter just for her last birthday was happy her dad sent her a card. She’d lived in her apartment for over a year and he needed to ask for her address…..he’d never visited or sent anything to her in over a year. Both were excited for what I call “bread crumbs”.

  • Kathi

    Excellent post! Thank you for sharing.

  • Bravo Sierra

    I doubt all abusers are filled with a feeling of entitlement. I’m sure some are filled with self-loathing, and their punishing their victim (for whom they might likely feel love) is another way of punishing him- or herself. Either way, whatever emotions or lack of them motivate the abuser, it’s best to understand that the cycle is all part of the abuse, and to extricate yourself from the situation as quickly as possible.

  • Anne

    Rachel, I had to create an account just so I could reply to your comment. Your situation was almost identical to mine. I had a really rough few months at the end of 2016/beginning of 2017 (my foster child of 2 years was returned to her birth parent and my fiance cheated on me and broke up with me only a few weeks after). I met my most recent ex a couple of months later and same thing – we hit it off right away and things were so great and exciting. Then I got in a bit of a housing predicament and she offered to let me stay with her. Things quickly went sideways (extreme controlling, accusations of cheating, emotional and verbal abuse, etc) and just kept ramping up.

    I’m not going to detail it all because I would be repeating your words almost verbatim. Things got physical several times and each time I told myself it would be the last. It went on for three months until last weekend I was finally able to get away (we were in a public place and a police officer happened to be there).

    I was in an incredibly vulnerable place when we met and she latched onto me. It’s embarrassing how I allowed her to treat me, but those good times made me question everything. She has also had a lot of trauma in her life that made me excuse her behaviour.

    I don’t have much else to add other than I’m so sorry you had to go through that, and you did the right thing to break it off, and maybe sometimes it helps to know that you aren’t alone. Sending hugs if you’re into that.

  • Saraquill

    One of the reasons it took forever to realize my turd of a now-ex is that he didn’t follow the patterns of abuse PSA handouts outlined. He never isolated me from others, kept up a constant stream of jerkhood rather than do honeymoon periods and eventually grew to lazy to keep in touch with me.

    Other abusers I put up with didn’t do honeymoon periods either. One was all gaslight all the time, and the other didn’t believe what they did was so bad it needed to be “made up” for. Not sure how atypical my experiences are.

  • This is a very well-timed post for me, because my granddaughter’s first birthday is next week, and my abusive ex and his wife will also be at the party. My ex is always in my face and in my space on these occasions, since he thinks we ought to let bygones be bygones and all be one happy family. I would actually be quite willing to let bygones be bygones, but the problem is, he is still an asshole in the present.

    I was willing to believe that the behaviors that annoyed me – following me around, getting in my line of sight, reminding me of events in the past – were just clumsy attempts to be friendly, until an incident last summer. Our granddaughter has a number of medical issues and needed an extended stay in the NICU before she could come home. My son asked if I could stay with them and help care for my grandson while they were at the hospital. My husband had out of town work commitments and couldn’t come with me, but I got myself there, to find that ex and his wife (whom I have no problem with) also showed up. Well, I can’t fault him for that. That’s his granddaughter, too. But two or three days into his visit, I came back from a trip to the hospital to have him tell me he had finished my leftover chips and dip from the day before. Okay, fine, no big deal. But then a little while later, he found a cookie on the counter (one of those large ones from Subway), held it up and asked if it was anybody’s cookie, and before I could say “That’s mine” (and I was saving it for grandson), he took a bite out of it. So at that point I told him it was my cookie and added, “Have you ever respected anybody’s boundaries”? At that point he got offended, said he didn’t want my cookie anyway, (Really? Then why is there a bite missing from it?) and gave me the look. I took my phone, went to the backyard, and talked to hubby until ex’s wife told me they were leaving to go back to their hotel.

    But this is obviously the plan. Do pretend friendly to try to elicit friendly behaviors from me, whether I want to be friendly or not. If that doesn’t work, look for some more overt way to cross boundary. If I don’t push back, WIN. But if I do push back, I look like a bitch. WIN again.

    The one thing that would have convinced me he was acting in good faith is if he had volunteered to replace the cookie, at which point I would have directed him to Subway and suggested he get everybody one. But he never did that. Just acted like he was the victim.

  • Rachel

    I completely understand those feelings of vulnerability and then being embarrassed after. I also feel like I “let” her treat me badly… but when you think about it, she should never have treated you like that in the first place. Nobody should have to teach their partner to respect them.

    I want to share with you an epiphany I recently had when talking to a friend. We were talking about a guy we knew who was really creepy and regularly crossed the line. I remember I said “He just doesn’t know how to respect people’s boundaries.” My friend corrected me and said “No, he just doesn’t WANT TO respect people’s boundaries.”

    I think we make the mistake of thinking it’s on us to enforce boundaries, and abusive people are almost helpless to their drives and emotions. It’s not that they don’t know how to treat you with respect and you have to teach them to… it’s that they choose not to.

    Thank you for sharing your experience with me, it really means a lot. Sending you hugs and hoping you are in a much better place now.

  • Mirlo

    Thanks for sharing this. I just took a training on domestic violence, and the question everyone has, of course, is why didn’t you just leave? But it’s not so simple as that, especially when you’re dependent on your partner for housing.
    Btw, only 1% of abusers actually change. They have to admit and accept that they alone are the problem. That’s almost impossible for a manipulative, self-centered abuser to do.

  • zizania

    I’ve been extremely fortunate in that I’ve never been involved in an abusive relationship, unless you qualify being married to a sweet-natured but completely unreliable alcoholic for ten years. I say “fortunate” because I’ve always had self-esteem issues and would have been a ripe target for an abuser. I was glad to hear that someone else doesn’t get that Adele song. Whenever it would come on the sound system in a store where I was shopping, I would just want to holler: “Get over it, already!” My personal favourite break-up song is “Ain’t Life a Brook”, by Ferron.