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Zero Tolerance

Monday, July 1, 2013
The latest tabloid rumour (with photos) is that Nigella Lawson's cooking tools have been carted out of the Saatchi house. It seems that the restaurant altercation was not a case of celebrities fighting in public for their amusement but of a marriage in serious crisis. And I'm sorry about that because divorce is awful and domestic abuse even worse, and it is very sad that Nigella did not remove herself from the situation until photos of her husband's rotten behaviour were splashed across the newspapers and televisions of Britain. Finding oneself in an friends-and-family intervention must be quite painful and embarrassing (if ultimately a relief); I can only imagine what an all-UK intervention must be like.

One of the saddest aspects of domestic abuse is that the abused person may still very much love the abuser. That is the hell of it, really. It can be very hard to summon up the great liberating burst of contempt that gets you out the door. For one thing, abusive people can be terribly good at turning on the charm and affection the people who love them crave so much. Domestic abuse is often cyclical: the abuser being really sweet and kind, and then becoming rather irritated, and then building up to some horrible outburst of either verbal or physical violence, and then becoming really sweet and kind again afterwards, right when the abused person needs comfort most. Ugh, horrible.

We read stories of battered women or (more rarely) men and wonder uncomfortably if we are "the sort of woman" who ends up abused or "the sort of woman" who ends up battering her husband. My feeling is that all kinds of women can end up in an abusive relationship, as either the abused or the abuser, or both. There are men who violently take out their frustrations on their wives---and battered wives who then take out their frustrations on their children. But apparently there are also women who tyrannize over husbands and children in such a way that husbands and children creep in fear before them, even if the only weapon employed is the tongue. What a mess sin makes of life.

I see in myself both the potential for caving in to abuse and for verbally abusing others, and I try very hard to remember and guard against that. Fortunately, I'm married to a kind and reasonable man for whom I have a lot of respect and who respects my decision not to socialize with abusive people. I have zero tolerance for people who try to put me down. It's okay to warn me when I err (to employ a sentence from Wheelock's Latin grammar); it's not okay to put me down. And meanwhile, I have a lot of affection for my husband, and don't want to make him feel badly. And thus, when I am grouchy, I try to say as little as possible.

Many people who know me would be surprised to hear that I have the potential for caving into abuse because I have "a strong personality." But like almost everyone else, I desire respect and affection, especially from outwardly attractive, admirable people. And if an attractive, admirable person suddenly gets nasty, I am just as likely as the next person to think that it is I who am to blame.

But I do have my limits, especially now.

I best like couples who act like buddies and who can joke around like buddies. My brother seems to have a lot of married-couple friends like that. I'm less comfortable around couples when one half gives voice to sudden public bursts of irritation with the other half, or where one half is obviously trying to placate the other half. The inequality inherent in their relationship flutters out like a big red flag, frightening me away.

My parents never, ever speak disrespectfully to each other (at least, never in front of their children), nor do they make timid plays for each other's attention. They are great friends. And because my parents are great friends, I have a switch in my brain that sometimes goes off when a man says something nasty to me and I think, "My father never speaks to my mother like that."

Sometimes the switch gets stuck, though. Such is the power of wishful thinking over reality: "I wish this man didn't speak to me like that when I have invested so much emotional capital in him. Oh well. Maybe if I say the right thing, he'll calm down. Maybe if I act in a different way, he'll admire me again. He was so sweet yesterday! Maybe he'll be sweet tomorrow. I just have to survive right now."

I think about all the "strong women" who don't put up with disrespect from their female friends, or their  female enemies, or from a boss, or from employees or students or their children, and yet put up with all kinds of disrespect from the men they admire.  I think that is terribly sad, and I wonder what can be done to combat it. Could it be the terrible burden of Woman, an inordinate desire to be loved, that is to blame? Yes, of course, the men are to be blamed for making the nasty remarks or for cultivating an enjoyment of humiliating women, but ultimately women are responsible for ourselves and our safety. So why do so many of us put up so long with emotional and verbal abuse?

(Sex & the City watchers may remember the episode "The Caste System" in which Charlotte is so overwhelmed by catching the eye of a movie star, she quickly goes from being confident and happy to being obsequious and confused. Only when the star becomes over-the-top disgusting does she regains her sanity. I won't link to a video, but here is their relationship in a nutshell:

Wylie Ford: Oh, Charlene, you're so hot, I can't wait to get you to bed.
Charlotte: Charlotte. My name is Charlotte.
Wylie Ford: I prefer Charlene. )