Equity rescuing, and how it pertains to Phase Two of an abusive relationship
Megan’s post Stunned Again described three phases of an abusive relationship. I was going to add a lengthy comment on that post about something that can play out in Phase Two, but I’ve decided to make it a new post instead.
To refresh your memory, here is what Megan wrote about Phase Two:
Phase 2: I began to learn how to cope. I knew that divorce was not an option. My parents and church had been very clear about this. I believed God hated divorce (and, in turn, would hate me if I wanted out). I learned to tiptoe around things. I learned to thrive outside of his realm. At night . . . while he was at work, I got a Masters’ degree. It took 6 years. I found ways to still play the piano, even though he was terribly threatened by my gifts. I convinced myself that things would be OK. I turned a blind eye to the twisted-ness. I scampered behind him when he “disciplined” the children . . . re-directing them . . . re-teaching them . . . loving on them. All the women in his family did this. It became my normal. I no longer thought I deserved better, anyway. I had heard the lies so many times. Here is the point: my mind became re-wired. This life I led had become my normal. I had re-wired myself out of pure self-preservation. I was no longer shocked. Here was my self-talk for most of my marriage: ”Oh, I can deal with this. I know how to placate him. I am reading the signs and I need to walk softly. It’s not so bad. That is how his father is . . . . This is how all men are.” It was a slow fade; a slow death. Light bruising turned to dark bruising. We were the frogs slowly boiling in the water yet never noticing.
And here is a comment that Barnabas in Training added:
You had to find some way of normalizing the abnormal since you did not realize you had any other choice.
Finding some way to normalize the abnormal. Let’s explore this concept a little more. In their book The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse [*Affiliate link added May 7, 2021. Editors.], David Johnson and Jeff VanVonderen describe how victims modify their thinking to find ways to normalize the abnormal. Here is my understanding of what these two authors teach on pp 186-7 of that book (and thanks to the reader who pointed me to it):
Let’s assume that a person grew up in a relatively healthy family without abuse, but married someone who turned out to be abusive. We all know the frog in the pot analogy of how the abuse starts small and doesn’t seem significant, and how it can increase so gradually that each increase doesn’t seem significant either. But there comes a point where the victim is realizing “this is NOT okay”. One of the things that then becomes an impediment to the victim leaving is what’s known as “Equity Rescuing”.
Equity rescuing works like this. You buy a house (or a car) and it turns out to be a lemon. It needs repairs and remodeling, and then more, and yet more again, and each time you invest money to make the house more liveable (or keep the car on the road) you are investing equity in it. But that lemon just keeps needing more things done to it. And you’re thinking, “I’ve sunk this much money into it already; if I sell the house now, all my money will have been wasted; so I’ll do one more repair and see if it works okay then.” So you invest more. And you end up throwing money at it just to rescue the equity you’ve already invested.
Abusive relationships can be like that. We have invested so much, we don’t want to ‘waste’ everything we’ve invested. So we keep throwing more at it; we keep trying to fix the problem, we give the abuser ‘one more chance’. And we make an adjustment each time, a tolerance, an allowance, and each adjustment is further away from normal.
We don’t compare the most recent episode of abuse with normal behavior, we compare it with the abuse tactic he used on me a few weeks ago – which is already several increments away from normal, if not scores of increments away.
We often hear survivors say “I don’t know what normal is anymore.” Many times a survivor has described to me what her spouse (or her pastor) has been doing to her and I’ve told her “That’s not normal behavior,” and the relief the survivor feels is immeasurable: the lights come on and start staying on. I vividly remember my own tearful telephone call to a suicide line the night my first husband had yelled at me and thrown the remote control at our piano. The phone counselor listed to my account and my description of the history of my husband’s abuse over the years, and then she said “That’s not normal behavior.” Wow! Really? And I had had two protection orders against him by that stage, and been to one domestic violence support group, and fought and won custody in the family court, so I was not a newbie.
In my first marriage, I spent a lot of time thinking about equity rescuing, running the ‘balance sheet’ through my head and coming to the conclusion that I’d invested too much to walk out now. We’d got pregnant. We’d got married before friends and family, and how embarrassing it would be to have to tell them, “I made a mistake.” Then we’d had the baby. Then we’d bought a block of land. Then we’d struggled to agree on the house plan for about 18 months. But finally we agreed on a plan and had the house built – BIG equity investment there. Then I got a job locally, near the house that we’d built. So many components of life were a good fit, outwardly. Then our daughter was growing older and I thought she’d be so upset if mummy and daddy split up – she would certainly not be as oblivious to a marriage split-up as she would have been in infancy (or so I thought). How could I pull the plug on her growing up in a two parent family? She had developed friends locally, and found a lovely substitute Grandma and Grandpa just over the back fence, whom she adored… And my husband would never leave, so I’d have to leave if it was going to end, and that would mean …. what? too hard basket.