Today in the Guardian/Observer, some terrible advice. A woman who had survived a torrent of emotional and sexual abuse from a partner finally managed to leave, but her friends have behaved absolutely appallingly by blaming her for the abuse, telling her to get over it, and rallying around the abusive ex partner, with one of them even having sex with him. The woman feels angry about this and asks how she can get through this continuing ordeal and whether she must lose her friends.
Enter Mariella Frostrup, who is famous for something, but I can’t remember what. Mariella Frostrup advises this woman to stop “sounding petulant” because that won’t get her any support, saying she “cannot take sides” and that the sense of outrage may be due to the break-up. She advises the survivor to be “dignified” and be “independent” following this “unhealthy liaison”. All in all, fairly awful advice, completely trivialising the woman’s experience and legitimising the position of the friends and abusive ex-partner.
I have no idea if the woman presenting the problem actually exists in the world, or is a conceit for Mariella Frostrup to frame a column around. I hope it’s the latter, yet, just in case it is the former, here’s what I would have said were this someone contacting me:
Let me start by saying that I believe you. Now, I’m not qualified to give any advice, and neither is Mariella Frostrup, but I’ve had a remarkably similar experience which I got through. It sounds like this is totally shit for you, and you might find it helpful to talk to someone with greater qualifications and experience in helping you through it than me; this is a good place to get started. Remember, there’s no shame in seeking help, and after what you’ve been through there is a great deal of things that you will need to unlearn and unpack in order to heal.
None of this was your fault. I don’t doubt that your ex-partner told you it was, and I don’t doubt that he’s frantically applying his spin on your friends. Your friends’ attitudes are not informed by anything you have done: it’s not the way you’ve acted that has led them to blame you and rally around your ex. Unfortunately, we live in a society where there are a lot of unhelpful myths about abuse, violence against women and rape. What you experienced does not fall into the generally-accepted belief about what domestic abuse looks like: he didn’t hit you, so people find it harder to identify it as abuse. Frankly, I applaud you for being able to see through the veil of lies that he created and see what he was doing for what it was. It’s a pity your friends don’t understand this.
When someone has the misfortune of being abused by someone well-liked, unfortunately society has a hard time accepting this, too. We’re taught that abusers are evil monsters that we can spot immediately, but that simply isn’t the case. This powerful combination of circumstances: your ex’s spin, and how it maps on to widely-held beliefs has created exactly what they’re doing to you.
This is not to excuse their behaviour. I think you’ve been far, far too kind to them if anything. You continue to consider them your friends, despite their complicity in your continuing abuse. Ultimately, that’s what they’re doing, and no wonder you’re angry. It’s frustrating not to be believed. It’s frustrating to see people who you thought you could rely on taking sides with your abuser. It’s frustrating to be blamed. And it’s utterly infuriating to have been abused in the first place. It’s completely legitimate to be angry about this, and it is one of many perfectly normal reactions to having been through something so agonisingly awful.
There’s very little that can be done from your position to turn your friends around into the social support network you need in order to heal. What you need is people who will believe you, and people who are OK with you expressing your feelings. You need people who get it. This is why I started by advising you to talk to a professional who will get it: I was lucky enough to have some friends who understand. It doesn’t sound like this is the case for you. You can also meet new potential friends who are more likely to have a better understanding of your situation: feminists are often far better on this than non-feminists, for example. Are there any feminist groups in your area that you could join?
Whatever you choose to do, remember that none of this is your fault. I cannot stress this enough. They’re in the wrong, not you. Do whatever you feel you need to in order to heal.