29 1 / 2013
After the latest Lydia episode, tumblr is alive with people trying—desperately—to manage the cognitive dissonance that results when someone they love loves a douchebag. Do you love that person to? Do you hate them? How do you take sides? Do you take sides? WHAT DO YOU DO?
Trigger warnings ahoy for discussion of abusive relationships.
In order to parse out how this works, I’m going to use as an example an abusive relationship that is not a romantic one. The reason that I’m going to do that is because introducing sex and love makes people’s heads get all quirky. (Just see how crazy people get when talking about rape, a crime of consent, versus robbery, a crime of consent—one of these things is much easier to talk about rationally than the other.)
So let’s take an abusive relationship between a PhD student in synthetic organic chemistry and her advisor. The advisor yells at her, hits her, screams at her because she wants to leave, and then after one of those yelling fits, sweet talks the student and promises that if she just finishes one more project, he’ll sign off on her PhD. He promises. Honestly. (And did I pick synthetic organic chemistry at random? No, I did not.)
What does the student do? Does she stay? Does she go?
If she stays, she’s putting up with that abuse.
If she goes… Well, she’d have to start her PhD research over. She’s already put four years into this project. He can’t keep her forever. If she stays at the same school, she’ll see her old adviser—always—and there are no guarantees that she’ll be safe (or that he won’t poison her new adviser). But transferring…then, not only does she have to start her labwork over from scratch, but how is she even to do it? They’ll want to know what happened at her last school. Her adviser is well-respected in the community; they won’t believe what’s happening. And without a letter of recommendation from him, she won’t get anywhere.
If she goes, she’ll lose everything she’s worked for, and may well lose the chance to have her career of her choice. That’s the rest of her life. If she stays, she’s stuck with him.
She could try turning him in—but then she’d have no PhD AND she’d be blackballed because who would want to work with her?—or suing—but what she really wants is to get her PhD and enter her chosen profession, and suing can only give her money damages, not a degree and entry into the profession.
This is a heartbreaking choice.
But it is a choice, and that student gets to make it. If she chooses to stay, she’s not “weak” or “helpless.” She might feel that way, but she’s actually quite strong. There are things she might need to tell herself to get through those awful, horrible years… “It’s not really that bad.” Or: “He’s just stressed about the grants.” Or: “It’s my fault, I flubbed the synthesis in step four.” Or: “He’s a really great adviser. He really stands up for his students once they’re out in the world, and I know he’s going to help me.” Or even: “He’s only doing it because he cares about me.” Telling herself those things doesn’t make her weak. It doesn’t even mean she’s out of touch with reality, and needs a friend to bring her bakc to earth. Those are survival mechanisms, because your mind makes it possible for you to bear whatever it is that you have to bear.
(In three years, long after it’s all done and she’s out of that darkness, she might break down crying in a friend’s car, but hey, you know. She made it.)
She’s making a choice to stay in an abusive relationship. And she’s doing it for reasons that—even if you disagree with them—have some validity.
You can respect her agency in making that choice, and simultaneously recognize how heartbreaking that choice must have been for her.
You can also condemn the person who made that choice so heartbreaking. Because, goddamn it, nobody should have to put up with that crap to get a PhD. Yes, the student made the choice to stay there, but that choice shouldn’t have been so freaking hard.
Notice how easy it is to think about this when there’s no sex involved? Nobody “asks” to have an abusive adviser, or “deserves” to have an employer beat them. It’s easy to not blame the victim. It’s easy to respect the victim’s agency, to honor the choice that they’ve made. It’s easy to condemn the abuser. It’s easy to understand the mental barriers that someone will put up to make the unbearable bearable.
It’s only when we add sex (or the possibility of sex) in that people start getting freaked out.
The truth is, every abused person who stays in a relationship—any kind of relationship—does so for a reason, and that reason is very rarely “they’re helpless and unable to make decisions on their own.”
People stay in horribly abusive relationships because they know that restraining orders aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on, and they’re afraid that they will be less safe if they walk away than if they stay. People stay in horribly abusive relationships because they don’t have the money or the resources to fight a long, protracted custody battle (or sometimes, because they literally don’t have any legal right to their children—something that’s heartbreakingly true for gays and lesbians in states that don’t adequately recognize parental rights of nonbiological parents—which these days is nearly all of them). People stay in abusive relationships because they’re fairly certain the alternative is living on the streets, which has the potential for even greater harm.
Sometimes, people stay in abusive relationships because they think that their abuser loves them, and one person’s all-controlling, obsessive love is better than nothing.
These are heartbreaking choices to have to make—between suffering abuse and losing your children, between suffering abuse and risking death, between suffering abuse and feeling unloved.
These are still choices. It takes a lot of strength to go through that, and you can respect someone’s agency in making that choice even as your heart breaks because they must make it.
So yes, it’s quite possible to have your heart break for someone—and to still hate the fact that they’ve been put in the position of having their heart broken. All you have to do is separate out the respect that you give them for facing a hard choice from your dislike for the person who forced them to make a choice that should never be forced on them.
So yes. I respect Lydia’s choice. I understand that people do make the choices she does. It’s a hard situation to be in, and I’m so sorry that she had to experience it.
And I also hate George Wickham for making her choose between feeling loved and being treated with respect. Asshole.
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