Thursday, 3 September 2009

trying out control

I had an amazing conversation yesterday with my colleague about control in relationships. I think about this stuff all day every day, keep thinking i’ve got a handle on it, then something else will come and disrupt what i think i know. Hence this blog, to try and order my ramblings...

My colleague has been through extreme domestic violence in the past, years ago. She’s been in relationships since. She started telling me about her new relationship and the little signs of control he’s started trying out, tiny intimidations, tiny put-downs, things that would seem like nothing, or even complimentary, to many people, but to her (and me) are huge flashing danger lights. He questions her about where she’s been out to with her friends. He’s ever-so-slightly sarcastic when he asks if men were there. He gently suggests that a pair of jeans are inappropriate. He leans in to whisper things to her when they are in public places. No violence, no abuse, no way, but he’s testing. How many people think this is unacceptable? How many people can see, clear as day, how if he succeeds in eroding her confidence at this stage, succeeds in having her change her jeans, he will chip away at her further, the control will increase as far as it can. Do you think i’m being dramatic? How do we talk about this?

My colleague and I agreed that either of us, at less confident times in our lives, would not have identified these behaviours as signs of a controlling person, even in the years we’ve been doing this job. Although we both felt that this behaviour was unacceptable, neither of us thought that it was grounds to instantly end the relationship, only to be vigilant – to measure his behaviours and her self-confidence, and to put her self-confidence at the centre of it all. If she notices she is changing her behaviour then the control has started.. but of course this is so difficult to measure and by the time you admit something like that to yourself it can be too late.

She did say ‘all men are like that’, and unwilling yet to come out as not-as-gay-in-fact-as-i-might-have-somehow-implied-sorry-to-be-so-confusing i kind of let that one slide. I didn’t know how, in the five minutes we had before people arrived for the group, to start talking about how women and genderqueers and whoever else try out control and often succeed, and how some men don’t, how to relate it back to my own relationships with people of different genders and the different kinds of control we’d tried to enact on one another.

My colleague said how unsettled she was by the fact this man was good and kind, respected, friendly; ‘you can’t spot them’. I said to my her ‘they don’t all start out evil, do they?’ and we looked at each other, acknowledging the pain of this. The pain of letting in the idea that we all use control, that abusers are human too, that there’s no such thing as evil. All of us, at some point in our lives, will try out controlling the people around us. When we are toddlers, for a start. And whether we find there are benefits, rewards, for this or whether we swiftly have to find other, healthier ways of relating, depends on the response of the people around us. If we kick off and get what we (think we) want, or if we kick off and the people around us recoil and condemn us. At any age, from the terrible twos to our first teenage relationships to lifelong friendships to... And we generally find that there is a lot more scope for control and/or kicking off to get results in the context of an intimate relationship. Kicking off in the queue at the post office will get us shunned or the police called: there are sanctions against this. Kicking off to someone we’ve been seeing a few months, who is invested in the relationship, might get them to change their behaviour in the interest of preserving the relationship. Result, reward, we get our own way. And there are so many ways to 'kick off', other than being violent or aggressive...

Oh god, again, so much more to say! Another time..

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