Recently I was talking to someone I don’t know that well and briefly referred to my previous experience in an abusive relationship. The person automatically responded with something along the lines of, “Well, maybe if you had realized what was happening sooner, you would have gotten out sooner.” After my eyes were done rolling out of my head (Please, tell me more obvious things about my own life, kind stranger!), I started to think about it. If this otherwise perfectly compassionate and reasonable-seeming person would react that way, this kind of thinking can’t be that rare. So I thought I’d talk a little more about why it is so hard to recognize abuse as it is happening.
I’ve already talked a little about this here: When Is It Okay To Call It Abuse? In addition to the pain of having to see yourself as a victim (and society definitely treats victims so well, amirite?), there’s also the difficulty in looking at your partner as an abuser. Abusers are monsters, and your partner is a human being, not a monster, so it can’t be abuse, right? Both abusers and victims have a huge incentive not to see view their relationship that way. The line is always just on the other side of what the abuser has actually done. Because if the victim admits what is happening, they are forced to uproot their whole world. If it’s abuse, they have to do something, like get therapy, find an apartment, or tell their abuse to kiss their entire ass.
But it doesn’t work that way. As you slowly become trapped, it is very much like the old metaphor of the frog in the pot. If you throw a frog into water that’s already boiling, it will do everything in its power to just back out and escape the obvious danger. But if you put them in cool water and slowly increase the heat, it won’t realize what is happening until it is already boiling alive.
And that is how abusers do it. No one smacks someone across the face on a first date. If they did, there would never be a second one. No. They slowly begin to isolate you from your family, friends, your favorite media, your talents, and everything else. Eventually the only choice you have is to invest even more into the relationship. It’s actually a bit like a reality dating show.
Let’s remove you from everything that makes you a full person. Your family, your pets, your hobbies, maybe even your job. Then let’s keep you isolated in a world where no one can be trusted. Let’s then dismantle your dignity by making you take part in strange, humiliating, and arbitrary challenges. But every now and then, in the midst of all the craziness, one person is nice to you. Not very nice, mind you. Just enough to remind you of the slightest shred of your humanity. Tell me you don’t become attached to that person, even if they’re also the one orchestrating it all.
And the way the contestants always cry when they’re kicked off? It’s not because they love Flavor Flav or Bret Michaels so much. It’s because they’re just had everything they are taken away from them, and now they’ve just gone through all this shit for nothing. But if they could have won, been handed the rose or the comically large clock, then maybe all this pain actually meant something. Maybe there was a purpose in the madness. Otherwise, they’ve just wasted a whole lot of time. They’ve taken on wounds that will take years to heal. And they have absolutely nothing to show for it.
Is it any wonder people stay?
Have you ever experienced those sunk costs? How did you cut your losses?