I have been having some interesting conversations lately with a few of my female clients regarding the nature of submission. They came about because I realised, I was often hearing a very similar story from those who had been in abusive relationships.
In essence the conversation goes something like this:
‘Well, he’d be shouting at me, but you know I give as good as I get.’
‘What do you mean by that?’
‘I’m feisty you know? I wouldn’t just take it. I’d fight back. I’d argue with him.’
‘So, you would shout back?’
‘Yeah. Or if he pushed me, I’d push him.’
‘Yeah, so I wasn’t submitting to him, yeah?’
Duluth Wheel of Power and Control
According to the Duluth ‘Wheel of Power and Control’ abuse is centred on the desire of the abuser to dominate the victim. They use a variety of tactics to achieve this: intimidation; emotional abuse; isolation; minimizing, denying, and blaming; children as levers; exercising male privilege; economic abuse; and the use of coercion and threats.
Whilst all these tactics can be used independently in low quality relationships, when they are added to physical and sexual violence, they take on a qualitative difference. In these cases, the victim knows that there is a real risk that should they up-the=ante as it were, the results can be catastrophic.
Now recently I have been involved in reading and replying to some testimonies of women who are in highly abusive relationships. They share all the features as outlined by the Duluth model. Their abusers have done such heinous things as, threatened to expose intimate details about them; have told them the courts will not believe them about the abuse; have threatened to take their children away; have removed any access to money; have told their local communities that they are crazy and dangerous. They have basically set out to destroy these women.
However, the most heart-breaking thing is these women unquestioningly believe what their abuser is telling them. After years of being belittled and told they cannot trust their own judgment; whilst they ‘know’ what happened, their narrative has gotten all twisted over time.
Jeff and Janey
So, for example, let’s say:
Jeff, 6 foot 2, is pissed off. He pushes Janie, who is 5 foot 2. She falls and bruises her back and legs. She goes to her friend’s house. She is in shock. Her abusive partner begins to send her text messages. Firstly saying, ‘I love you’. Then, ‘come home’. Ultimately, ‘well I wouldn’t have done it if you hadn’t been so long talking to your friend in the supermarket’ (or some such random triviality).
Now sitting here as objective observers, we can think ‘holy shit that’s just crazy’ but remember that Janey has been listening to this day in, day out for months, years. Her sense of reality is way skewed at this point.
Instead, she thinks: ‘maybe he’s right? Maybe when I said ‘stop moaning’ to him, I caused it. Actually, I was rather a long time at the supermarket.’
Then Jeff adds: ‘If you go to the Police, they aren’t going to believe you. It’s not that big a deal and anyway, they’ll just say you are deranged and a liar. Cause you are, you are a totally crazy bitch’.
In this short scenario what we have then is an example of: male privilege – Jeff honestly believes he has the right to dictate Janey’s timetable; gaslighting – he has re-written events so she is to blame; emotional abuse – name calling and being demeaned; coercion and threats – if you go to the Police, they will write you off as a crazy person. Minimising the event – saying that the physical hurt she has suffered, is not relevant.
Now for sure at this point, Janey’s friend is trying to help her friend in any way she can, but after the 8th 9th 10th time it happens and Janey still does not leave Jeff; well, it is getting a bit wearing and her friend is just not so friendly anymore. So now Jeff has achieved isolating her – Janey has no-one to offer her alternative ideas and solutions. She is alone and trapped with nowhere to go.
So, you can see at this point Janey is in a sorry state. She is alone does not know her own mind and can’t see what’s real anymore, and for sure if they have children together, he is using them to create even more fear in her – whether by threatening to harm them or by saying the Courts will see she’s an unfit mother.
Ok but what has this got to do with submission?
Well, I have noticed a pattern in my clients; most of whom have some history of childhood relational trauma. This can range from: parents who had a truly awful marriage lacking in any warmth and typified by lots of verbal aggression and disgust, to full out being beaten black and blue as a child.
What they have in common is a misunderstanding of submission. You see their childhood has been modelled on very low-quality relationships. Relationships which are all about power, control, and winning. Now this results in them being fundamentally confused as to where submission happens. That means when my clients begin describing to me that they are ‘feisty’, my ears prick up.
I start to ask about specific episodes of violence and I am often told things like ‘oh well he pushed me out of the way, but well I was shouting at him’ or ‘he pinned me on the bed, but I was really upset, and he wanted to calm me down’ or ‘he cornered me in a room, but he was trying to talk to me, and I didn’t want to listen.’ These clients always minimise the physical nature of their relationship, unless they have a broken bone or blackened eye, they simply do not see the physical assault.
What instead they fixate on, is their own agency in the proceedings. They want to stress they fought back, by verbally standing up to their abuser. They want me to know they battled. They want me to know that they did not succumb until they were overwhelmed by a force, they could not defend themselves against. They want me to know they did not surrender. They want me to know even in the attack they were present somewhere inside and they did not submit.
And this is where the basic education starts because I need to explain to them the meaning of submission and why they have mis-placed it. You see submission is embedded in the unspoken contractual agreement to be in the relationship in the first place.
In those early days of a new relationship when the abuser is becoming increasingly controlling (Where are you going? Who are you going to see? Let me see your phone? Don’t go out with friends, stay with me); when the abuser is beginning to say horrible things (oh I’d love you more if only you didn’t talk so much); when the first bad mood happens and is placed at the victim’s door (I would be in better mood if you weren’t so messy).; when these things happen and the victim doesn’t leave, they are submitting to a contract of abuse. Submission is not in the heated moment; it is in the being in the relationship in its totality.
The Big Question and Happily Ever After
And that is what I ask my clients: what the hell were you doing there in the first place? It is usually the first time they have ever thought about it. They have been so caught up in the ongoing emotional nightmare that is an abusive relationship, going over and over incidents in their mind, that they simply have never stopped to ask: why didn’t I stop this at the first sign of trouble? That is where the real work begins.
My clients are normally emotionally beat up by the time they get to me and my job is to help put them back together so they can go on and have healthy, happy lives and relationships; so, a vital step in that process is fully understanding submission. They need to know that they have the right to walk away right at the beginning of a relationship when they sense they are being treated with disrespect. Those red flags are not to be ignored, they are to be taken as an intuitive self-protection system, that is saying, this relationship is not for you.
For my clients who have spent childhoods enduring many of the worst quality marriages, this is something of a revelation. They have watched their parents battle it out, often for years. The idea that when they sense something is not right in a relationship, there is NO rule which says they must ignore their own intuition and keep going, is something of a shock.
Having the permission to choose and walk away in those early days, is for many, the start of a new way of relating with others and the first step to healing. By learning what true agency is and by understanding what submission really means; they begin to understand that healthy, romantic relationship are a possibility for them.