Leaving an Abusive Relationship Isn’t Easy (part 1) — Will he hear my “no”? Should I let him down easy?
A member of my ex’s family complained when I divorced. She didn’t side with my ex saying he hadn’t done anything wrong — she admitted that ex had done wrong. Instead, she complained about my behavior. She claimed I wasn’t being nice in how I handled the separation and divorce.
According to her, I wasn’t being nice when I said “no” at my ex’s suggestion that instead of him leaving, he could live in the basement and we could just be “roomies”. I wasn’t being nice when he went to counseling and I didn’t encourage him by going along. I wasn’t being nice when he went to the church leadership and convinced them to coerce me into meeting with them — a meeting I refused to attend. I wasn’t being nice when I chose to not respond to his persistent emails, texts, and phone calls, but instead only had contact with him through my lawyer. In this family member’s eyes, I was guilty of not letting him down easy.
“Trying to let him down easy” — and why men often fail to hear “no”
“I was Trying to Let Him Down Easy” is one of the chapter titles of Gavin De Becker’s book, The Gift of Fear [*Affiliate link]. In this chapter de Becker explains that in today’s society women are not taught how to say “no” and men are not taught to hear “no”.
Now, I would like to add that in my opinion, the failure of many men to hear “no” cannot be attributed solely to the way they’ve been educated. Many men have received at least some messages in their education and upbringing that tell them: “you must respect other people”, “never hit a woman”, etc. Some men DO hear and respect the word “no”. It is a choice men make to hear, or not hear, the “no”, the resistance, the repulsion from those they are trying to influence. But I do agree that many messages society gives reinforce and condone men’s choice to ignore the word “no”, especially when it’s a woman saying “no”.
Hollywood is guilty of this reinforcing. Movies and televisions (and porn, from what I’m told) are notorious for teaching men that when a woman says “no” that is not what she really means. Hollywood often depicts the woman saying “no” yet the man hearing “not yet, give me time, keep trying” because when the woman says “no” she is portrayed as meaning “maybe, Hmm. . ., not sure”. Let’s look at an example from a movie. (My observations are in red.)
In the movie a man, while driving his car, unknowingly forces a lady on a bicycle off the road. The lady later confronts the man and he learns that she owns a local restaurant. Going to the restaurant he finds it swamped with customers and lacking servers, so he picks up a pad of paper and pen and starts taking orders. Later that evening after the restaurant has closed and the lady is cleaning up she says to him,
Lady: Here are your tips. You’re fired. (Woman says no.)
Man: [I was told] you grew up around here. (Man chooses to not hear no, rather he becomes persistence and keeps the conversation going by asking a seemingly innocent question.)
Lady: [You] are mistaken. I only visited [here] a summer with my mother. (Woman doesn’t want to seem rude by not responding so she replies — an attempt to let him down easy.)
Man: I use to spend my summers here. I wonder if we ever met?
Lady: What if we did? I hope I was unbearable. (Woman says no again.)
Man: You’re a local, you know the answer to this: Where would a young man who recently cashed up take someone for a drink? (Man continues to be persistent.)
Lady: Are you asking me on a date?
Man: It’s more like an apology. I just don’t want you to think I’m some sort of maniac who goes around running people off the road.
Lady: I’m not interested. Have a good night. (Woman says no for the third time.)
At this point the man leaves and the scene changes to the lady locking the front door of the restaurant. She turns around to see the man sitting by the fountain in the courtyard with two wine glasses and a bottle of wine. (Man continues to be persistent, yet notice his means of harassment are very sweet and nice.) She pauses, notices him, and turns to leave. She walks a few feet, pauses, and then turns back around and says,
Lady: Sunday night, 8 o’clock at [she names a restaurant]. Don’t be late.
Raising his glass Man says: I shall see you there.
The rest of the movie follows their relationship and, not surprising, the man gets the lady. No doubt, you can think of many other examples from movies and television shows that confirm de Becker’s belief that the Hollywood formula for a vast majority of its shows/movies is “Boy Wants Girl, Girl Doesn’t Want Boy, Boy Harasses Girl, Boy Gets Girl.”
What does this have to do with abuse victims and their perpetuators? Women are often taught to be kind, to respond when spoken to, and if we do need to say no we need to do so nicely. Additionally women are generally not taught how to get out of relationships, rather the focus is on how to get into a relationship. Add to these notions the influence of “c’hristianity (be kind, respectful, loving, forgiving etc) and you have a recipe for confusion and possible danger when an abuse victim tries to leave her abuser.
Leaving an abusive relationship is not easy, as many of our readers have described. The victim starts to see through the fog of abuse and courageously makes the decision to leave the relationship, but then what commonly happens is that the abuser apologizes and starts acting nice. These behavioral changes, which are often done with much persistence, send confusing messages to the victim. She’s already been taught to let others down easy and now she may begin to wonder if she wasn’t mistaken. Maybe things aren’t really that bad. Maybe he will change this time. And add to this confusion the fact that the church usually interprets the abuser’s new actions as an act of repentance, a sign that he is changing his ways and so the church pressures the woman to extend grace and reconcile.
It is my hope that if a victim could anticipate and more accurately interpret the abuser’s actions when she decides to leave the relationship and if she could learn some ways to respond to the abuser’s persistence that it may lessen her confusion — confusion which often sends the victim right back into the abusive relationship.
In the next post we will consider the abuser’s sudden change in behavior when he has either been told by the victim that she is leaving, or he suspects she may leave. And I am going to suggest that these new acts of kindness have nothing to do with a repentant heart, as the church often wants victims to believe.
Posts in this series
Part 1: Is this post.