At a recent routine doctor’s appointment, I sat across from a nurse with incredibly long eye lashes. Between her animatedly telling me her source for lash extensions and efficiently taking my blood pressure, she asked me a list of routine questions in a monotone voice.
Did I have any specific health concerns?
Did I drink or do drugs?
Was I being threatened or hurt at home?
That last question stopped me, because I’ve been thinking a lot about domestic violence aka intimate partner violence (IPV) and the devastation it leaves in its wake. Frankly, I was surprised that she was asking, and I wondered if anyone actually ever answered yes to her question – a question that would expose someone’s most vulnerable spot. I imagined she might have better luck if the patient were wrapped in a blanket, held close, and asked in a gentle voice, “Is anyone hurting you at home?” How many people might say yes?
Domestic violence is a hidden issue within the LGBTQ+ community. According to the CDC’s 2010 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey released again with new analysis in 2013, 44 percent of lesbian women, 61 percent of bisexual women, 26 percent of gay men, and 37 percent of bisexual men experienced rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner in their lifetime. According to The Williams Institute, 31-50 percent of transgender people experience intimate partner violence. Abusive queer partners are driven by the same desire for control as heterosexual abusers and use the same weapons of physical, sexual, emotional, verbal, and financial abuse, but have the added arsenal of societal discrimination and often threaten to out partners to employers, family members, etc. Additionally, it’s a mistake to assume that only masculine presenting partners are the perpetrators in LGBTQ+ relationships; gender, size, and presentation have no bearing on who the aggressor might be.
When outside of a situation, it’s easy for a random person to shake their head and say, “Why do they stay?” Even people experiencing abuse sometimes have a hard time explaining why they stay. But there are a number of documented psychological processes at play that create an emotional trap that makes it hard to admit or accept what is happening, much less get the wherewithal to leave – and the emotional ties that bond are formidable.
Lance, a gender queer Asian butch in a lesbian relationship, didn’t realize that she was the victim of gaslighting, a systematic emotional deconstruction of the victim’s reality that tips the locus of control into the abuser’s hands, and causes a dangerous power imbalance. Many times, it’s hard for the victim to see what is happening, because it’s a progressive process that often starts with excessive praise and affection, aka “love bombing,” and eventually degenerates into a strategic campaign of undercutting another person’s grasp on reality, turning random occurrences into crises that can be blamed on the victim. The perpetrator often offers justifications for their abusive behavior that further destabilize the victim’s perceptions and reinforces the cycle of violence. Lance shared her light bulb moment when she was finally able to see that something was terribly wrong, and that it wasn’t her fault.
We were sitting in a restaurant and I saw someone I hadn’t seen in a decade. I was excited to reconnect. When I brought him over to the table to meet my new wife, she was mean. She told me I was wrong for talking to him, because he knew me when I was married to my ex-wife. She was outraged and made a scene in the restaurant. I think it was seeing myself and her through his eyes. He knew me to be a strong, confident, loving partner. Here I was being berated in public for something that could not possibly be in any way deserved.
The back and forth shift between love bombing and denigration is what causes a process called intermittent reinforcement. Initially the perpetrator may be charming and loving, and the victim innocently comes to expect that this behavior will continue. When the abuser withdraws the positive attention, the victim tries to behave in ways that will win back that love reward, and falls into a disempowered dynamic. It’s an emotional trap that is set incrementally so that the victim often doesn’t even see it developing, making it harder to extricate oneself.
Further complicating the matter is a process called trauma bonding, where the intense experiences of either feeling extremely validated through love bombing or entirely denigrated through emotional abuse causes a bond to form that only deepens. Whether the experience is positive or negative, it is intense and the victim and perpetrator live through it together, causing a connection of shared lived experience that only the two of them know about. Rather than breaking the bond between them, it’s like a rope that ties the victim closer to the perpetrator. Much like Stockholm syndrome, where a kidnapping victim develops a psychological attachment to their captor, because they view them as their only means of survival, an abuse victim can become so deeply entrenched in the emotional control of their perpetrator that they develop a similar dependence and lack of self-determination and selfhood.
It is exactly this either/or dichotomy that is so dangerous. If a victim believes their behavior can shift a perpetrating partner from abuse to love, then they are caught constantly trying to please them, not only for their safety, but because they have a tenuous grasp on reality because the gaslighting is so insidious and intense. Especially in the case of emotional abuse, the key to freedom is to break the dichotomy and accept that the perpetrating partner is both bad and good at the same time. They aren’t entirely bad and they aren’t entirely good, and there is no amount of good behavior from the victim that will shift an abuser to acting “good” all the time. When a victim can finally accept this reality, they can then begin the arduous road to freedom.
If you suspect or know that you are in an abusive relationship, the first step is to tell someone you trust, whether it is a non-judgmental friend, a therapist, or spiritual leader. Sometimes seeing your experience through someone else’s eyes is what you need to see more clearly when your reality has been disrupted by an emotionally abusive partner. Be kind to yourself, and know that being a victim of abuse doesn’t make you a weak person; in fact, some perpetrators prefer to choose strong, successful people to prey on because they like the challenge.
J.D. Glass, a survivor of intimate partner violence, is the author of Drawn Together and Red Light, novels that educate and cast light on the often hidden topic of abuse in the queer community. She told me,
Probably the best advice I can give is, once you know you have to go, you have to plan and watch for the opportunity to find some way to secret a few dollars away somehow and plan an escape route. And on the day you know the moment has arrived, hide anything that can be used as a weapon, and maybe have a friend you can text with a code in case things go horribly awry, someone you know will either come help ASAP and/or call PD if necessary. It sucks, because it feels like lying, but it will save your life.
Lance adds, “We are blessed with strong minds and bodies but as I learned, you can be strong and smart and still fall victim to abuse. Freedom is forgiving yourself.” Since leaving the abusive relationship Lance has again found her own gravity and is enjoying healthy intimate relations with others.
Self-blame is useless in this journey to freedom, and self-love is everything. If you are or have been a victim of abuse, you are still wonderful, intelligent, creative, and strong and you can regain your life. You can shift from victim to survivor. If you need help contact:
The National Domestic Violence Hotline 1-800-799-SAFE (7233)
The Anti-Violence Project for LGBTQ and HIV affected communities 1-212-714-1141
The Network/La Red a survivor led organization to end LGBTQ partner abuse 1-800-832-1901
FORGE for trans and gender non-conforming survivors of domestic and sexual violence 1-414-559-2123
Gay Men’s Domestic Violence Project 1-800-832-1901