Abusive behavior runs on a spectrum. On the far end are the cases so obvious and egregious that the hardest heart would have to admit abuse took place. On the near end is the shift from ordinary bad behavior into what can reasonably be categorized as abuse.
The confusion arises when the behavior itself is comparatively mild — certain forms of violence or sexual acting out are always abuse. Over on the milder end of the spectrum, in contrast, we have to use discernment. Some of the distinguishing characteristics of someone who is behaving poorly but not being abusive include:
- Admitting to the bad behavior.
- Apologizing in a sincere manner.
- Accepting responsibility.
- Making amends or reparations.
- Showing a clear change to avoid the behavior in the future.
It’s important here to reiterate: No amount of resorting to an apology cycle can cause rape, molestation, beating, starvation, etc. to be non-abusive. But I want to talk about an aspect of life on the other end of the spectrum, where it is very, very easy for abusive behavior to be tolerated, excused, and even justified.
Several years ago my family was party to what ended up being low-level abusive behavior. Ironically, the incident that sparked the subsequent abusive response was, as best I can tell, a case of someone making a poor judgment call under distressing circumstances, but with no intention of harm.
To give it an analogy, think about the near-drowning incident at our community pool. Obviously the lifeguard-on-duty in that story wasn’t doing his job as well as one would hope. We don’t know the reasons for that, but there is no evidence he was being willfully negligent or choosing to put a child in harm’s way — even if it turns out he just really stunk as a lifeguard. That would be a bit like the triggering incident in the situation my family dealt with.
Where the abusive behavior came in was after. Imagine if (and this did not happen at the pool in real life) the other witnesses of the near-drowning closed ranks and tried to pretend no rescue had been necessary. Imagine if the manager of the pool had attempted to deny there was a problem. Imagine if, faced with a fear of a lawsuit [we in no way considered such an action in the real event], the owners of the pool resorted to a variety of legal maneuvers to declaim all responsibility, and some of those moves involved blatant lies.
[Again, reiterating here: The pool example is an analogy. Nothing of the sort happened at the pool. We’re doing a thought exercise to help you create a fictional scenario for the purposes of the message that follows. I will observe that in both the real story and our fictionalized pool story that stands in for a real-life situation involving innocent people who deserve to have their privacy protected, no children ended up harmed.]
When we think of “abuse” we don’t think of these kinds of actions right away — we think of the battered spouse cowering in the corner with a bloody nose, or the child locked in the basement for days on end. But abuse runs on a scale, and on the milder end of the spectrum, it often involves behaviors which, in a different circumstance, would not be abusive.
So. On the milder end of the abuse spectrum, it is much easier for those engaging in the abusive behavior to pretend everything is fine. And, now I am getting to the message of this post, one of the ways those people will do it is to shift blame.
If you are going through a nasty divorce from an abusive spouse, you can expect the spouse to blame all your faults, and pick apart every tiny lapse in your managing the divorce in a less-than-saintly manner. If you are dealing with an abusive professor, you can expect the professor to blame all your weaknesses as a student. If you are dealing with a sexual abuser, you can expect that person to blame your clothing, your choice of friends, or your dubious morals. Blame-shifting is the language of abuse.
It is important to remind yourself that your failure to handle the situation absolutely perfectly in no way excuses the abuse.
By definition if you are dealing with a horrible situation, you are under duress. It could be a horrible situation like the real pool incident, where no one in particular was to blame and yet still something bad (only nearly, in the real-life case, thank God) happened. It could be a horrible situation where someone makes a terrible decision but does it without meaning harm. It could be a horrible situation in which someone under pressure chooses the “easy way out” and throws someone else under the bus in the process. It could be a horrible situation where someone’s addictive behavior or mental illness causes them to harm others. It could be a horrible situation in which a cold-blooded predator seeks to steal, kill, or destroy.
Regardless: It’s a horrible situation.
People in horrible situations don’t always handle themselves with impeccable poise.
If you cuss out the pool manager just ’cause, that’s on you. If you cuss out the pool manager in a situation where the pool is evading responsibility for gross negligence that put a swimmer in danger? Well, maybe you shouldn’t be cussing, but that doesn’t change the fact of the pool’s responsibility for its own operations.
[FYI: Proud to report I don’t think I cussed very much in the real pool incident. I probably would have cussed if the pool had evaded responsibility, which they did not. Also my kid turned out to be fine, so it was easy to move on.]
So that’s my message for the day: If you’re in a horrible situation, and other people want to blame their abusive behavior on your failure to respond in exactly the perfect manner, don’t let them.
People who respond poorly because you are angry, disorganized, or otherwise handling the situation badly? If those people are not abusive, they will seek to work things out. They will recognize their own part in the problem, they will make allowances for extenuating circumstances, and all they will ask is mutual forgiveness as the two of your move forward in solving the problem a better way. That’s not abuse, that’s just human frailty.
Abusive people, in contrast, will find fault no matter how well or poorly you handle things from your end, they will persist in claiming their own innocence and blaming others, and they’ll do this as cover or justification for their abusive actions.
In our fictionalized pool incident, imagine I cussed out the manager, and the manager cussed me out back. That’s just mutual bad behavior. If we are both otherwise innocent, we could move on from that. We calm down, each apologize for our outbursts, and begin discussing what went wrong at the pool and how to rectify it.
Now imagine I cussed out the manager, and the manager stayed cool, calm, and collected, but also carefully put into place a set of legal evasions to avoid the pool’s real responsibility (whatever that was) for what had happened (however we imagine that in our fictional scenario). The manager might say nothing about my bad behavior, or might blame me: “Obviously the pool is innocent! You can see by Mrs. Fitz’s temper tantrums this is a mentally unstable person!”
That’s how predators act to cover their tracks.
Don’t accept it.
Don’t second guess yourself.
Review the cold hard facts of the case: Did the predator engage in objectively dangerous actions? Is the predator behaving in a deceitful manner to justify those actions?
If yes, that’s not on you. Don’t let the predator blame-shift.
Artwork: Poster for masked ball circa 1924, via Wikimedia, Public Domain.