To recover from an abusive relationship, I had to release my innocence. What might sound like releasing white doves to the wild has turned out to be like scraping and rinsing owl droppings from the concrete walk below our barn peak – stubborn icky stuff. While the process has been unpleasant, it’s turning out well.
Staying in an abusive relationship for 30 years required that I cling to my innocence. Innocence said we were good people who just needed to communicate better. We needed time to grow into the relationship, and we’d turn the corner at the next milestone: buying a house, paying off the next credit card, or retiring from the job. I confused everyday conflicts about time and money as reasons for abuse.
But it was never about time or money. We built a world from our perfectly dovetailed dysfunctions. He was motivated by a need to control me, and I by a compulsion to save him from himself.
While I didn’t see it at the time, when that 35-year-old aggressively pursued this naive 19-year-old, he coveted my innocence. No matter how I frame it, I cannot relate to the theft of innocence. When I hear of adults desiring sex with a child, I’m both horrified and confounded. What deep-seated darkness would drive someone to rob another of innocence?
I relate instead to protecting my own innocence, something I clung to so tenaciously that it almost frightens me to think of it now.
My innocence told me that with compassionate understanding:
- Everyone brings their best to every situation
- No one sets out to hurt others.
- Everyone wants a community of supporters.
- Deep down, people are basically good.
- It’s my job to foster the best in others.
And, it’s no surprise that I believed all of these things. Practically every novel or Hollywood movie develops a dark character who ultimately reveals a good heart.
When I left the abuser for the final time, I recognized that I was giving up on the idea that he had anything good to work with. I wasn’t only leaving him, I was abandoning my entire belief system. Who was I if I didn’t believe in the good in people? Did I even want to live in a world where I assumed others were selfish, controlling, and without compassion?
Viewing the world as good people who were simply misunderstood gave me control over my environment. If I could be generous enough or nice enough, I could control the behavior of others. Organizing the world in terms of good and bad gave me order. If I did this, I could expect that.
Unbridled from the control of an abuser, I slowly recognized how he manipulated and lied to first snare me into the relationship and then keep me captive. By sharing experiences with other who had been abused, I began to recognize patterns among abusers and targets. I discovered that having a strong belief system made me a target for abuse because I was predictable. My belief that people are good but simply misunderstood made me a perfect target of abuse. A strong sense of forgiveness gives abusers room for error.
I began to notice that abusers avoid those with critical thinking skills. Someone skilled in questioning and reasoning makes a poor target for abuse.
Innocence was easy and familiar, but it had brought me great pain, so I needed something else. Critical thinking didn’t appeal to me at first because I associated it with being jaded or skeptical.
But, the tradeoff was false. I thought I had to choose between assuming people are good or bad. My new partner surprised me with a third choice: assuming that people are capable of about anything and instead of judging them for their choices, preparing myself for unexpected outcomes.
To make the third choice, I would have to set aside my good-bad reference system and my belief that I could control others by being nice. Judging others was how I evaluated the world, and being nice was how I influenced it. Change has been hard.
General James Mattis once told his soldiers, Be polite, be professional, but have a plan to kill everyone you meet. While his point is extreme, I appreciate his sentiment. Our ability to control others is limited. Do we spend our time on others or do we invest in preparing ourselves for contingencies? Of course, many people will return kindness with the same. But, some people suspect hidden motivations behind kindness, and they’ll return it with manipulation, control, or blame. Their suspicion might be rooted in fear, but that’s none of my business. Whether they know it or not, they’re formulating a plan. Why would I judge them for making a plan?
My default mode is now to first offer polite, but have a fall-back plan if it’s not returned. Many times my fall-back plan is to simply disengage. When they have a better hold on their issues, I might be ready to re-engage. With 7 billion people to choose from, surely they can find a better match for their issues than me.
Instead of thinking of my innocence as lost, I think of it as transformed. Acknowledging the limits of my influence is liberating. It’s not my job to change others.
Be kind, be prepared, and have a plan.