The most eye-opening moments of my graduate program came during my stint as a mental health counselor at Planned Parenthood. It was in the clinic, working with patients where what I was learning in class came alive, challenging me and my assumptions. A perfect example: on my first day I met a patient preparing for an abortion procedure and was surprised to see her wearing a wedding ring. I remarked to my supervisor with surprise, “she’s married!” “Yes, well, married people have abortions, too,” he explained. (Picture me smacking my own forehead over my ignorance and narrow understanding).
Because our patients were from widely varying demographics, I had a chance to counsel many different women and learn about circumstances beyond what I might have imagined, or thought I knew. As I’ve explained in previous posts, much of the pertinent information about a patient’s situation (and implications for counseling) came out during the medical history intake process, a holistic set of questions that included sections on mental health, partner relationships and current living situation in addition to the standards about STI and pregnancy history. Nothing had quite prepared me for the client who marked yes to the questions “I feel unsafe with my intimate partner” and “my partner has been physically, emotionally and/or verbally violent towards me”, who explained that she had been beaten up after hitting him on numerous occasions.
Wait, what? Why would a woman ever initiate physical violence in her relationship? I didn’t understand. Like, if you were in a violent relationship, wouldn’t you just tiptoe on eggshells, hoping to avoid another confrontation? I had understood victims of domestic violence to be cowering, frightened shells, living from incident to incident, covering up to save face, often taking blame and going to great lengths to protect their abuser. I’d had a close friend in undergrad whose boyfriend had been horribly, publicly verbally abusive to her, drunkenly screaming in her face at parties or calling her and yelling into the phone for hours while she listened quietly, tears streaming down her face. I watched her shrink away from him, cowering and crying as he pummeled her with his anger. It was my first brush witnessing partner abuse, and it was gut-wrenching. I had another friend who had left a physically abusive relationship right as we became acquainted and she told me horror stories of bracing herself, waiting for the blows to land, trying to dissociate until it was over.
I simply lacked a framework for a dynamic where a victim would initiate a conflict with her abuser, and found myself at a loss for words with this particular patient. I asked her to describe a typical incident.
She explained that her live-in boyfriend had anger issues, that he didn’t have stable employment and felt bad about himself a lot of the time. He liked to go out with his guy friends and get drunk, often staying out all night. Mostly things were ok between them, she reported, but when he got in a bad mood, he tended to get angry over every little thing. She could be cooking dinner and drop a fork and he’d start yelling at her for being a slob. Or she’d have the TV on and he’d come flying into the room, shutting it off and screaming at her for making too much noise. After he he’d been yelling at her for a while, coming closer into her physical space with menace, she would take a swing at him, striking out and hitting him. The floodgates would open and he would hit, kick and shove her until she was on the floor. She explained that usually he would not get physical until she did, using threats and verbal abuse as his usual modes of violence. She related her relationship dynamics to me in a matter-of-fact way, and I sensed she was being honest, not covering for his behavior with the “I started it” line. All I knew to do (and all we really could do) was ask her if she needed community resources or a referral to a DV shelter.
Concurrent with my months at Planned Parenthood I was taking a class in the school of social work called simply, Domestic Violence, geared toward professional competence working with clients living in this system. We were introduced to the power and control wheel, a visual diagram for understanding the behaviors used to perpetuate DV. We explored the insidious nature of DV, that it almost never begins with say, a punch to the face. It creeps up slowly, one exertion of power and control at a time, until it infects all aspects of the relationship, escalating into terrible episodes of violence. Thus we came to understand the warning signs, the patterns, the cycle and could alert our clients to danger, and educate others.
I went right to my professor about my patient, asking her how to make sense of the episodes that had been described. I was struggling to wrap my head around why, if you knew your partner would beat you, you would initiate. My professor explained that often times the tension during a confrontation is so great, a victim will use behaviors to provoke a certain reaction, as an exercise of control. In other words, the stress of anticipating the first blow is perceived to be greater than absorbing it. Accelerating the violent conflict can be a victim’s way of exerting a small measure of control over the perpetrator. I feel like I need to note here that in no way was my professor engaging in victim blaming, the stuff abuser-apologists claim about victims “asking for it”, insinuating that my patient and others like her bring it on themselves, absolving the abuser of all responsibility. She was suggesting that people vary in the ways they react to and manage crisis situations.
I sought a more nuanced understanding of DV victims, in the hope that I could become a more competent counselor. I never wanted to be caught like that again, surprised when the reality of a person’s situation didn’t mesh with my preconceived notions. My patient had exposed my dearth of understanding, along with my biased views on the dynamics of domestic violence. Working at Planned Parenthood did that to me–confronted me time and time again with my unexplored assumptions, my limited awareness. It was crucial to my goal of becoming a more open, accepting, less judgemental person. Never again did I expect to understand everything about someone simply because I had read one case study in a textbook, or worse, a paragraph in the media. And so when I hear people saying stupid shit, like “she shouldn’t have provoked him”, I’ll be calling them out with a dose of what I’ve learned.