When Being Wrong Is Worse Than Being Abused
How much are we willing to tolerate to avoid acknowledging a mistake?
The new friendship came with an expiry date, I knew that much. He's black; I'm white. He was African, Americanized after twenty-plus years living in the States. I, Canadianized, after fifteen years apart from the mother country.
It began with a friendly Twitter comment. We bonded over our mutual depression and loneliness, at the dawn of what politicians assured us was only 'a few weeks' of isolation to combat a new deadly virus refusing to restrict itself to Asia, not as easily controlled as SARS.
I was unemployed; he'd begun a new job but wanted to quit for reasons he couldn't quite articulate. I warned him this was a terrible idea as he was over forty-five, employers didn't know how to hire anymore, and the economy was tanking. He quit anyway and unemployment became another commonality.
His isolation encompassed more than stay-at-home orders. He lived precariously in Trumpistan, fed news stories of black men getting shot and killed by police or racist civilians. A few months later, the U.S. exploded with rage at, well, everything after an infamous knee-on-the-neck encounter. His unemployment deepened his depression and isolation. Friends slipped through his fingers. I knew he contributed somehow but couldn't figure out what. His criticisms of American blacks only went so far and, despite claiming he got along better with people who weren't black, he still had no close friends except me. For now.
I got a job; he did too and a few months later, mused about quitting because it wasn't working out, once again, for non-specific reasons. A little over a year after numerous text chats, phone calls and Zooms, our friendship ended over his new roommate. A young black woman moved in. "That's not a good idea, given how much you dislike black women," I said, but he assured me everything would be fine. It wasn't. She moved out less than a month later, accompanied by what I felt was his performative video walking around his house with a 'dash cam' on his head in case she 'pulled something'. He claimed she'd threatened him during an argument and he feared for his life. I asked repeatedly what the threat was and he 'couldn't remember' exactly what she said.
He was so afraid he wore a camera on his head yet he couldn't remember her threat?
She moved out post-haste after an argument, bidding him adieu by urinating on his bed. The dispute had something to do with money. His language about her concerned me; he became convinced she was a sex worker on the side and I asked if he'd been hanging out in incel forums; I recognized some of the language. He denied it. He emphasized repeatedly how he feared for his life but his 'fear' remained unconvincing. Who had the most to fear, I wondered, an out-of-shape 18-year-old girl or a 47-year-old man?
He'd precipitated something, I was sure. I believed his claim they'd argued about money; young people aren't always good at meeting their financial obligations. But something else happened. I don't condone what she did to his bed but it indicated red-hot anger over something deeper than money. I don't know whether he made a move on her or, just as likely, tried to make her his 'friend' in his desperate loneliness, and reacted poorly at an unwillingness to get close with her landlord.
Any conflict I'd witnessed, whether with his employers or roommate, reminded me of a book I'd read on abusive men, cataloging the vagueness these men expressed to court-ordered therapists about how their spouse 'provoked' an abusive attack with a lot of non-specific language about how 'she got all irrational' or 'I don't know, she went off on me again'. Drill deeper, twist his short 'n' curlies, and the facts begin to emerge: The 'crazy' spouse stood up for herself and her children in the face of his abuse and control when she unforgivably challenged him.
I don't think my ex-friend was abusive but I experienced what his other ex-friends must have when they challenged his self-image, consciously or not: Gloss over, attack, shut down.
When I received his WhatsApp breakup tirade, after which he'd blocked me, I understood the root of why he was depressed and lonely.
Everyone else wasn't always to blame. He couldn't tolerate challenges to his fragile self-image.
His narratives had begun to unravel and I'd gotten too close to his responsibility.
It's all YOUR fault!
We live in a world where we've become phobic about being wrong. About anything.
The only thing new is how rabid we've become at never acknowledging we might not be the best judge of things.
Even when someone is caught having committed some terrible destructive act, they offer endless excuses: It's someone else's fault! He had to kill that mofo who dissed him on the street; she made him beat her with her irrational desire to challenge him; he practically forced her to have an affair because he never listens to her.
We've enshrined victimhood so firmly in our minds it's a wonder it's not in the Bill of Rights.
The biggest liar in our lives is our self-image. As the Scottish poet Robert Burns put it,
“O, wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as others see us!"
We'll tolerate almost any negative impacts in our lives as long as we don't have to live with the shame of being wrong, of making a mistake, realizing we should have listened to others, failing to recognize the danger signs.
How much will you tolerate to avoid the shame?
It's hard to admit your woulda-shoulda-couldas.
I shoulda left that job sooner.
I shoulda left that woman sooner.
I coulda been a contendah. I coulda been someone.
I woulda been a great singer, but I listened to my parents and went into this boring field instead.
Why did I wait so long to...? Now it's too late!
I wonder how many people stay in abusive relationships because they don't want to admit to themselves--or others, by admission when they leave--they made a mistake. They chose poorly.
How embarrassing it is to think everyone must have been judging you all along, wondering why you stuck with your partner despite all indications s/he was toxic.
My ex-partner stayed in a toxic marriage because his self-image centered around I'm not a quitter.
His ex-wife physically abused him, and I don't think he abused her. Not once did he ever make me feel the tiniest bit in danger. He was, however, a functioning alcoholic, and I never heard her side.
His family didn't like her; it pushed him closer to her. Even after he realized the marriage was finit he resolved himself to a loveless, unhappy roommate rather than acknowledge he'd made a huge mistake. It ended when she left him for another man, whom she eventually married.
She was the mistake to end all mistakes in a line of tragic choices. They bought a house they couldn't afford. They had a child in the midst of a desperately unhappy union. After the separation, she and the boyfriend abused their son and he and her family united together to get custody of the boy in a long, ugly protracted court battle.
All because he didn't end the marriage himself, and sooner. The grand irony is he was, in fact, a quitter; he'd quit the marriage and settled before his wife left him.
His self-image was more important than his personal safety or happiness.
How many women choose to stay in unhappy, abusive marriages rather than admit to themselves and the world they made a mistake? That they should have listened; should have acknowledged the warning signs; should have left sooner.
Woulda shoulda coulda.
Often, we only leave bad situations when they become intolerable. My ex's wife wasn't willing to settle like he was; maybe quitting did no harm to her self-image. I've stayed in bad jobs because I'm not a quitter, which came from my early professional history of being a too-quick quitter. My earlier reasons for quitting were, in retrospect, pretty stupid (i.e., self-image challenging). I rationalized my later reasons for staying in genuinely bad workplaces or dead-end jobs. Part of it was fear of what came next, but part was also I was a quitter when I was an ignorant child; now I'm a rational, personally responsible adult.
How much will she tolerate to avoid admitting a mistake?
I focus on how women can take back their power, especially if they're abused. I was raised to believe being abused was largely a choice, by a mother who never was - neither by her husbands nor her father.
We're largely finished with blaming 'patriarchy' and telling men not to abuse. One of the greatest lessons I learned from my mother is, "You can't change a man. Don't ever marry a man thinking you can change him. You can't." She failed to take her own advice. My father was never physically abusive but he could be emotionally abusive (as could Mom) and he was, like many men of his generation, remote and emotionally ignorant. She tried repeatedly to change him. When I was older, I reminded her of her own advice but she never listened.
Yabbut, it's always different when it's you, right?
It would be decades before I internalized the only person you can change is yourself.
Our self-image is the very heart of who we are, except perhaps for enlightened spiritual seekers. Buddhist psychology is all about stripping away the 'wrong views' we have, especially about ourselves. It's tough work. You can be committed but still feel like you're lost in a video game with no idea how to get to the next level.
Recognizing how committed we are to preserving our fragile self-image is terrifying. It opens up a whole can of worms. What choices did I make to bring myself here? Why am I with this partner? Why do I still hold this job? Why aren't I farther in life than I imagined when I was ten? Woulda-shoulda-coulda.
The hard work of confronting the lie of your self-image means realizing how different your life might have been had you not allowed it to rule. Even the rich and successful aren't immune. Why are there so many members of the 27 Club? Why has suicide spiraled in all age groups for thirty years? Why are so many rich people so damn miserable? I have never envied the rich; I've known too many of them.
Reading the books I have in recent years validates my belief that one of many pieces to the puzzle of why women tolerate abusive men is they don't want to admit they were wrong. They made a bum choice, especially after they invested a lot of time and perhaps children in their life together. Worse, maybe he wasn't a bad choice initially but later he changed. It's easier, I guess, to hope if you stay and love him enough he'll change back, rather than cut your losses and go.
I myself have never been abused but I have a personal stake in this seemingly incongruous journey. I explore the whys for women locked into the worst-case choice because I myself have made many bad choices to preserve my lying self-image. We who live in the Western world have a ton more choices than women in developing or undeveloped countries. We fancy ourselves victims when the person who victimizes us the most is ourselves. We tell ourselves 'it's not our fault' when we were at least complicit by making a bad choice and sticking with it. My own bête noire is not bad partner choice, but sticking with jobs long past their sell-by, and not challenging myself to grow professionally more, something I'm only beginning to do late in my life--and never as much as I think I should.
It was all choice. I made them, with no do-overs. I am an American, I am a Canadian, and I've made many choices in my life. Some were good, some were great, some were terrible. Some I made repeatedly because I was--am--a slave to my self-image. I say that only when I think about my consistent bad choices.
Reclaiming your power means taking responsibility for your choices. The older you are, the less excuse you have for claiming ignorance.
We are the architects of our own lives. Women's most precious freedoms came into our possession beginning only a century ago--the freedom and power of choice.
Let's fully embrace it, stop listening to our lying self-image and resolve to make better choices.
Don't be your own victim.
When I'm not dragging my self-image kicking and screaming to the next uncomfortable challenge I challenge others to reclaim their power on my website Grow Some Labia.