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Understanding & Breaking Free From Relationship Violence
- Chat Transcript

The Pandora's Aquarium chat room was thrilled to welcome Lundy Bancroft to chat with survivors on September 25, 2009.  Lundy is an author, workshop leader, and activist on trauma, abuse, and healing. He offers dramatically new ways to understand the behavior of abusers and strategies for holding them accountable. He also brings fresh insight into the emotional injuries that trauma and abuse cause, their lasting effects, and how best to get ourselves free. He believes that all people have the right to live free from abuse and oppression. Lundy is the author of books well loved by survivors at Pandora's Project, including Why Does He Do That?  Visit his website here: www.LundyBancroft.com

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Louise: Hi everyone! I just want to extend a big welcome to you and our guest speaker. Thank you for coming! Lundy Bancroft has 20 years experience working with men who abuse women, as well as the women and children they harm. He is the author of several excellent works on relationship abuse and its effects. We are very pleased Lundy agreed to do a guest speaker chat, and we know it will be an asset to members who’ve survived relationship abuse, or those living with it.

This chat is expected to run for 90 minutes. We'll be asking pre-submitted questions during the first half of chat. During the second half, Lundy will answer your questions, and if time and space allow, we have more prepared questions. Feel free to ask questions throughout the chat, though they will not show up until later.

Louise: Lundy, your work focuses on the fact that abusers have control over their actions. How much control do their victims have over their partner's actions?

LundyBancroft: This is a crucial question, Louise. The abuser tends to make the woman feel that if she would just work harder, be more perfect, take better care of his needs, be sensitive to his every emotion, and so forth, then he wouldn't explode and turn mean. But it doesn't work. You can only manage an abuser for brief periods of time. Working hard to cater to him may get you through this hour or this day or maybe even this week, but sooner or later he's going to get mean and start bullying you again.

Louise: You've written that abuse has more to do with an abuser’s mindset than with his history or his feelings – for example, you say abusers aren’t abusive because they’re angry, they’re angry because they’re abusive. Could you expand on that and why it’s so important for women to know?

LundyBancroft: The anger issue is closely related to the previous question. Many people believe that if they can figure out what is making the man so angry, he won't explode. But his anger isn't his problem -- in fact, there are people with huge anger problems who don't get mean or abusive -- they're just angry all the time. (Which isn't good either, but it isn't the same thing as being mean or controlling.)

His problem is that he thinks he has the right to control the woman's life, that he looks down on her as inferior to him, and that he thinks her life should revolve around doing things for him -- that she shouldn't have needs and a life of her own. So making him less angry isn't going to change how he treats his partner, because he'll still have all those terrible attitudes. Some abusers can be extremely cruel without getting angry at all. So the anger is really a red herring.

Another way to think about it is this: If you expect a woman to be a perfect, servile, unquestioning person whose life is completely devoted to meeting your needs, and who has no needs of her own, aren't you going to be angry all the time? Because no woman could live up to that (and no woman should have to).

Louise: Why do you think abuse often starts or worsens around pregnancy/new birth?

LundyBancroft: Because a pregnant woman, and the mother of a newborn, has to focus on her own needs and the needs of the this new growing life. She can't be devoting her life to taking care of her man. He's got to grow up and take care of himself during this stage in life -- but the abuser often refuses to do that, and continues demanding attention and catering. So he becomes worse than no help -- he's actually contributing to the stress and demand of this difficult time.

Louise: Mothers who stay with their abusers face a lot of victim blaming, what are your comments on that?

LundyBancroft: There's no easy answer for the abused mother. Children don't want to lose their father, they just want his abusiveness and violence to stop. If she leaves him, she also faces economic hardships that could drag her away from her children - she might have to start working full time, for example, which could be a big loss for her and her kids if that wasn't the case before. Children who are living with an abuser in their lives NEED THEIR MOTHERS.

And what if leaving him would actually mean she has less time to spend with the kids? It's hard to say if that's best. And then, the abuser is going to get visitation time, so suddenly the kids will be away from her whole weekends, half the day on their birthdays, half the day on holidays including the big religious holidays, and so forth. And finally, when his visitation starts, he's suddenly getting all this time alone with them where she has no way to keep an eye on what he's doing with them. So I think there are good reasons to leave and good reasons to stay, and we really need to respect the choices mothers make in these horrible binds.

Louise: Why is sexual assault/abuse a frequent part of abusive relationships?

LundyBancroft: And, unfortunately, it definitely is - almost half of abused women report having experienced some kind of sexual assault from the abuser, even if it wasn't outright rape. I think there are many factors, but a few are:
1) Sexuality is one of the key ways in which power-oriented men act out their power (men rape other men in prison a lot, for example, to set up their hierarchies).
2) Sexual abuse is powerfully devastating to the target of it, and abusers get this, so they know that this is one of the most hurtful forms of abuse they can use, so they reach for it when they want to do big harm.
3) They often consider a woman's body a personal possession belonging to the man, so an abuser uses sexual assault/abuse to establish his ownership. It is all so oppressive and dehumanizing, and we really need to cry out loud against it. And we really need to support women to heal who have been the target of these kinds of assaults.

Louise: Why are strange sexual practices a part of abuser's behavior?

LundyBancroft: The biggest cause is pornography. Abusers seem to be even bigger users of pornography than other men are. And pornography, like any addiction, tends to lead to more and more extreme behaviors in pursuit of elusive satisfaction. Pornography conditions its users into a lot of degrading and demeaning practices. But a lot of people like sexual practices that other people consider strange, and as long as they are consensual, that's fine. The problem is that the abuser doesn't care about consent much, so he can impose sexuality that his partner does not want or like, and that she finds humiliating or gross. And that is the key issue.

Louise: Why do many abusers use crass, disgusting name-calling that, as you say, often feels like an assault in itself?

LundyBancroft: Almost all of them do. The gross verbal attack seems to be so central to abuse. The abuser, to a great extent, knows what he's doing, and he knows how to reach for words and tones that will be as upsetting as possible, and that will have lasting effects.

Louise: You’ve written that you have worked with abusers who have children conceived by rape on their partners, and said that this has serious implications for mother and child. Can you expand on this?

LundyBancroft: Pregnancy and childbirth are among the most significant experiences in a woman's life, so full of joy, challenge, emotion, hardship, physical discomfort, loss of sleep, love, enjoyment, you name it. Imagine being thrown down this road by an act of violent degradation. The loss to the woman is huge, and all choice is taken away (except the choice to terminate the pregnancy, but some abusers take that away too - and anyhow, that is often not a desired or ethically acceptable choice for the woman). Yet she wants to love that child as much as she would love any child of hers, so it's wrenching for her. Plus if she leaves the abuser, he starts to demand visitation rights or custody - of a child that was born because of his rape! And she is not likely to want to raise the issue of the rape in court, because she would not want the child to ever find out that he or she came into the world that way. So it's an atrocity on the part of the abuser.

One of the issues we need to continue to publicize is the way in which abusers take away a woman's reproductive rights: their rights to use birth control, their rights to safe sex practices, their rights to reproductive choice (which includes not only the right to terminate a pregnancy, but the right NOT to terminate a pregnancy that she wants to keep.

Louise: Some of our members are really hard on themselves because they didn't recognize the signs of an abuser. Yet you've written that there is no one stereotype of an abuser - could you elaborate on that?

LundyBancroft: Abusers don't usually show themselves early in a relationship -- they can look pretty much like other men as dating is beginning. There are things you can watch for, but they aren't usually things anyone warned you about, so it's not your fault that you didn't know they were danger signs. Here are a few of them:

1) Jealousy and possessiveness -- which can be flattering, but are actually really bad news
2) Being controlling
3) Always making everything your fault
4) He seems to be on really bad terms with his former partners
5) He seems to have bad attitudes toward women in general
6) He gets really disrespectful at times, then makes excuses for it
7) He does things you asked him not to do, perhaps too many favors for example, and it's hard to back him off
8) He pressures you regarding sex, such as wanting sex sooner in the relationship than you do
9) He's self-focused, and doesn't show that much interest in your tastes or opinions
10) He gets intimidating when he's angry, and then blames that on you.

There are various others, but these are critical ones to begin with.

Louise: Okay, we'll have some member questions now

Kate: If a woman has worked up until the birth of the first child then becomes a stay at home mum is it common for the abuse to start or escalate during subsequent pregnancies?

LundyBancroft: I'm not sure how much her work history plays a role, in my observations. But it is significant when she becomes a full time mom, because then he knows that she is more dependent on him economically, so his abusiveness may escalate at that time because he knows he can get away with it. He also sometimes blames her for not bringing in more money, especially because he devalues so profoundly the importance and difficulty of her work as mother and homemaker. Finally, more children in the home means less attention for Dad, and the abuser wants to be the center of attention. He wants to put a lot of demands on her and the children, but he doesn't want them putting demands on him. And of course they are going to be demanding things from him - the bigger the family becomes, the more important his contributions of housework and childcare become. But the abuser is selfish at home, so his abusiveness tends to escalate when more is demanded from him -- he wants to live like a king.

Kate: I have been told by therapists and also read (especially Dr Phil; but even Maya Angelou) that we teach people how to treat us. If this is true, how much of this is my fault? By staying wasn't I teaching the person that it was ok to continually treat me this way?

LundyBancroft: These people are confusing abusers with other people. You can't significantly change an abuser's behavior. Leaving him is sometimes the best decision for you - that's a decision only you can make - but he will usually move on to find another woman to abuse. Maybe if a whole series of women leave him he'll start to change a little, but it tends to take more than that to make an abuser change -- it tends to take arrest, prosecution, an abuser program, and (according to the research) a spell in jail.

I'm sorry that those kinds of woman-blaming and victim-blaming theories get so much air time in the media. Women do need to find ways to take more power, but the path to power isn't by blaming yourself for falling in a trap that someone else had no business setting in the first place. I would also want to say to Dr. Phil, and to Maya Angelou, "You, and all community members, contribute a lot to making it possible for abusers to get away with what they do, then you blame women for what happens.

If abused women share part of the responsibility, then their communities share even more of the responsibility for harbouring abusers, letting them off the hook, buying into their excuses, supporting their mentality, and so forth. I don't think Dr. Phil and Maya Angelou would be so open to looking at THEIR contribution to the problem, would they? But they are happy to say that you should look at yours. As far as I'm concerned, the victims of a social tragedy are not the ones that should be assigned the primary responsibility to fix it.

Member question: How does one get over the "If only I had done things differently he would have loved me as I loved him", mentality?

LundyBancroft: In most of what I've read and heard about healing from abuse, the role of GRIEF in the whole process doesn't get talked about enough. Certainly there is anger, and bitterness, and fear, those are all big, but there is also huge sadness, and we need to attend more to that. There is the sadness of the life we had hoped for, the sadness of being treated so terribly, the sadness on behalf of the children if there are children, the sadness that this kind of cruelty and selfishness exist in the world, and perhaps above all, the sadness that someone we loved turned out to be so mean, and that they couldn't accept and appreciate the love that was offered them. So I think there is a huge grieving process, and going through that (including hours and hours of good, deep crying) is the main way to be able to let go of the voices that say that maybe we could have somehow gotten through to the person.

Member question: If a previously isolated woman starts to make friends, for example through children's schools or other activities, is it unusual for the abuse to escalate?

LundyBancroft: No - this is a very common source of escalation. The abuser tends to want his partner to be isolated and dependent on him. His attitude is that if she has more friends and activities in her life, she won't cater as much to him (and he's probably right). Unfortunately, instead of valuing the richness that you get from being in a relationship with someone who has a full and exciting life, all he values is having a partner who is focused entirely on him. But there is another reason why he escalates as she becomes less isolated: he's afraid that if she finds more love and support in the world, she's more likely to realize how badly she is being treated, and more likely to figure out ways to get free from him. And, again, he's probably right. So fight valiantly for your right to a strong social network, and don't buy into the notion that his "insecurity" (it's really about his sense of ownership, not his insecurity) is a reason that you should give up your right to a good social life. I have an expression for this: "Just because you have a broken leg doesn't mean that I have to wear a cast." You might not want to say this out loud to him, but say it to him in your mind.

Member question: Why is it that some abusers seem to have two different sides; they can be
really nice and understanding at one time, but mean and violent at other time?

LundyBancroft: Most abusers aren't sadists. They don't take pleasure in doing harm. They do harm as a means to an end - to get the power and control they want in the relationship - and not because they enjoy the harm in itself. So during periods when they feel that they have the power that they want, including periods when they are not being stood up to or challenged in any significant way - such as during the early months of a relationship - they can act quite normal and loving. But they cannot function in an intimate relationship between two equals, with equal give and take. It has to be a lopsided arrangement, where he is getting way more than he is giving, and where the power is much more in his hands. So he'll keep switching back and forth between kind-and-normal mode and mean-and-abusive mode. The only way out for him is to dramatically change his thinking about relationships, about women, about his own responsibilities, and about his own sacrifices - and very few abusers are willing to make those changes.

Louise: One last question: What are the signs that an abuser is not changing?

1) He tells you that you should be appreciating how much he has changed
2) He says "I can't be perfect" as an excuse to keep doing abusive things
3) He thinks it's okay to keep being abusive, as long as the incidents are farther apart than they used to be (e.g. he says, "You are so upset with me, and I haven't done anything like that in a long time - I've been really good")
4) He tells you that now it's time for you to focus on the changes that you need to make
5) He is disconnecting from you emotionally -- in other words, the reason he is being less abusive is that he is simply not being anything very much -- he's withdrawn
6) He is continuing to make excuses
7) He says "We're getting along better," which means that as soon as you start to stand up to him or challenge him forcefully again, he'll be going right back to his old ways
8) He still gets impatient when you try to talk to him in a serious way about the things that are really important to you in life, including your desires for the relationship.

Louise: The hour and a half has drawn to a close and we need to finish up. Lundy, thank you SO much for coming and sharing your wisdom and expertise with us. Your answers were incredibly validating, and I know members will benefit. Have a wonderful day.

Kate: Thank you for talking with us Lundy!

LundyBancroft: Farewell from half way across the world. I'm so glad it was helpful. Good luck to all of you. Keep believing in yourselves. You aren't crazy. Wanting a safe and warm relationship is completely reasonable. Don't give up.


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