Imagine you’re a heterosexual, twenty or thirty-something female, wanting a romantic partner, even a husband, maybe even children, but you spend more time looking at screens than interacting with male friends. Realizing the folly of your ways, you unplug a bit, stop taking your phone everywhere, start changing your daily routine so that you’re Instagramming less and talking to people your age more.
Then you read this essay titled “How Abusive Relationships Take Root” and learn:
“Roughly a third of women in developed countries report having been in at least one abusive relationship, defined by a partner or ex-partner who ’causes physical, sexual or psychological harm, including physical aggression, sexual coercion, psychological abuse and controlling behaviors,’ according to the World Health Organization.”
What do you do? Throw in the towel? Benedict Carey, the author of the essay, has an answer. Pay really close attention to warning signs.*
“The hallmark signs of the male abuser are well known to experts. He’s jealous. He exhibits a Jekyll-and-Hyde personality. He can be cruel with animals, to children. But often there are subtler, more incremental steps in the development of an abusive relationship, among men and women of all orientations.
‘It often starts in a very insidious way,’ said Patricia Pape, a psychologist in private practice in New York. ‘He says, ‘Don’t put Sweet-and-Low in your coffee, it’s poisonous.’ ‘Then, ‘When you wear that nail polish, it makes you look like a fallen woman,’ and ‘That skirt is too short, it’s too revealing.’ Or, ‘I don’t think you should see her, she’s not good for you.’ ‘You wind up in a situation where he’s telling you what to wear, what to eat, who you can see, how to behave.’ Each small adjustment made by the victim reinforces this control, Dr. Pape said. One of her patients had a husband who, when the couple was out at a public event, would insist she not look around at the crowd, as he felt it could be seen as flirtatious. ‘It came to point that when she walked around, she would look down,” Dr. Pape said. “It changed how she walked.’
In this case, as in so many others, no single request was offensive on its own — at least, not early on. Each person in a relationship makes room for the other’s quirks, to some extent, male or female: that’s what couples do. It’s the incremental ceding of control on one side that can prime someone for abuse, therapists said.”
The incremental ceding of control. The incremental ceding of control. The incremental ceding of control.
When he says, “Don’t put Sweet-and-Low in your coffee, it’s poisonous,” your inner voice has to say, “F*ck you.” Get up from the cafe table, walk out, and don’t turn back. When he says, “I don’t think you should see her, she’s not good for you.” “F*ck you, I will always choose my friends.” Nail polish makes you look like a fallen woman, f*ck you. Skirt too short, f*ck you. Swear too much, f*ck you.
At the same exact time you have to remind yourself that most men are not prone to dictating what you put in your coffee, that they don’t care who your friends are, what color your fingernails are, or how short your skirt is. Most men are not jealous, do not have Jekyll-and-Hyde personalities, and are not cruel to animals or children.
In fact, #MeToo headlines and popular culture depictions aside, a lot of men are secure, psychologically healthy, even kind and considerate, and they dig whatever friends, color of fingernail polish, and clothing make you happy. They willingly cede control to all-important things like what you put in your coffee. And they listen, consider your feelings, and seek to make most decisions together. They conceive of romantic love as a partnershp. Lots and lots of men.
So you overcome your understandable uncertainty and take chances with male friends, sharing more and more of your deepest thoughts, assuming that they are of the kind and considerate variety until they prove differently. At which point you promptly drop kick them and start all over again.
*I will be using this passage in future writing seminars. Brilliant illustration of specific details.