I’ve always loved it when the thirteenth day of the month falls on a Friday.
Friday 13th, despite the negative patriarchal influence, has always been a positive day for me. Maybe somewhere in my DNA, there is the remembrance of the feminine importance of 13. The number of the divine feminine, representative of the thirteen monthly cycles our bodies turn through, with ovulation around the 13th day, in turn connecting in with the 13 lunar cycles and revealing the goddess that we each are in our energies and our innate wisdom. My maternal ancestors knew, and whenever I see the number 13, I try to remember too. Pulled by the moon, I am trying to honor my divine self. Some days it’s harder than others.
A friend of mine, some years ago now, confided in me that her ex was abusive. I am ashamed to admit that my very first thought, before even I thought to offer compassion and hold space, was one of resistance. A dark and instant denial. How could this man, who I thought I knew, who was charming and kind and seemed so attentive to his children, how could he be abusive? Despite coming from a place of personal experience, despite KNOWING that the abusive man* is generally only so when there is no audience, I still had that moment of disbelief. I held onto it longer than I should have.
And THAT, right there, is one of the many reasons why women stay in abusive relationships.
It is also one of the reasons why women, all over the world, close their mouths and keep silence on their experiences when they finally escape from the abuse. “I will not be believed” are the lyrics to all the songs that keep their stories trapped in the dark.
When everyone that you might confide in, everyone that might support you, has the potential to think those thoughts, or worse still, to voice them, to offer support to the abuser and not to you, to deny your experience, to doubt your truth – you stay. And if you do leave, brave, courageous woman that you are, you keep your silence. Because speaking out will just make it worse. You keep the peace. You don’t rock the boat. You tiptoe around the subject, hiding behind the lying smile of “I’m okay!” You conform to all the unspoken rules in our society that say you Must. Not. Speak. Out. That if you share your truth, you must be some bitter, twisted witch and out for revenge.
So we do not speak. We keep our silence even though by speaking out we could challenge all the unspoken perceptions our society has about domestic abuse. The unspoken ideas we have about which men might be abusive, and which men couldn’t possibly be. The unspoken ideas we have about the reasons women stay. The unspoken fear that anyone you confide in might carry your trauma right back to the very person who shaped it. The unspoken fear that your words will create a dangerous chain reaction in the person whose abusive behaviors you’ve escaped from, but to whom you are still, even now, invisibly shackled to.
But this silence serves only those who wish to continue in their abusive patterns. It certainly doesn’t serve the women who come after, still trapped in the same cycles. And why? Because there are not enough conversations, there is not enough education, there are not enough voices sharing stories. Not enough of us are listening. Not enough of us are hearing. Why? Because there is not enough safe space for women’s truth. And how we perceive women’s truth is clouded by the patriarchal notion that men’s feelings are of more value than women’s feelings. That we must do all we can to keep men comfortable, even if that means keeping our truth to ourselves. It’s too dangerous to speak out. It is not safe. We risk our homes, our property, our bodies, even our children. And so we shut our mouths, in exactly the way so many of us have been repeatedly told to do.
I was lucky. I had people, mostly women, around me who witnessed it. Who knew what it was I was living through even when I didn’t. Who stood beside me while I worked through the huge emotional upheaval of getting into a place of acceptance that my life with this man was a deeply damaging toxic soup that I needed to free myself from. Who believed, even when I didn’t, that I was worthy of a life of more than one of walking on eggshells. Who heard my words and carried them for me, while I worked out what they meant. Who held my hand and told me it would be okay. Who washed my dishes, brought me chocolate, cared for my children and supplied me with enough self help books to stock a library. All this and so much more. I am filled with gratitude for the support that carried me through those early days, support that surrounds me still. Life as a single mother is hard, but it becomes a lot easier when you are held by women ready to support you at a moment’s notice, ready to listen, and ready to truly hear you.
I could speak about my experiences, and begin to process them, because I had this support.
I think a lot about the women without support. I think a lot about the silence around domestic abuse in our culture. I think a lot about the reasons for that silence. I think a lot about the plain fact that all the self help books, all the (amazing) support groups online/in real life and all the domestic abuse charities that exist, only really become accessible, or ping up on your radar once you are in a position to need them. I have learnt more about domestic abuse, red flags, and maybe even myself in this last year than I ever did before. And that single fact really has made me think. What if…
What would happen if women started speaking about their experiences, in safety, in anonymity where needed, to empower and educate, so that in the future, one day far away in the distant dark, domestic abuse is simply no longer tolerated. By anyone. What if all the red flags were common knowledge? What if the definitions of abuse – financial, emotional, coercive, sexual, physical – and how they manifest, are discussed openly and therefore become easier to recognize and resist? What then? What if we could all tap back into our gut feelings, our divine feminine and learn to find the confidence to hear and see and feel. To believe our worth and stand up against abuse. What if we refuse to be manipulated, controlled, coerced?
The abusive behaviors of entitled men won’t just stop because of such action, but surely women and girls would stand a better chance of being able to walk away faster, and with less damage to process in the aftermath? Because what I have learnt this past year, is that while the behavior of abusive men is NEVER the responsibility of women, men who are abusive don’t want to change. There is no reason for them to. Their abusive behaviors get them everything they need. But what if we can step into our power and recognize these men for what they are? What then?
I realize that I’m still in the early days of processing my experiences, and probably naive to think that such huge, deeply entrenched issues can be tackled head on in such a manner, but it’s a thought process I can’t step out of yet.
So I’ve started a textiles project around this very emotive subject, partly as a way to process my own experiences, but also as a way to support, hear, witness, believe and hold other women in their experiences. I’d like it to be a collaborative project – though I’m not sure yet how that will work – as it feels important that the voices of other women can be woven through it. So if you have been affected by domestic abuse in the past, or feel called to be part of this project for any other reason, please get in touch, in confidence – my details are at the end of this post. The project is called #redflagsproject and my first piece, the first “flag”, is completed. You can see it here. It feels like the most important work I have been called to and yet still, I’m stepping into it unsure of how it will turn out, what impact it will have, whether it will make a difference. When I began writing this piece, I was so afraid of what the repercussions might be that I left it unfinished, so that it could remain unpublished, silent. It sat here, waiting, in the fearful quiet for so long. But I’m stepping into it now without fear, because fear lives in the silent spaces. I have finally found my voice, and have all the words, and all the courage that I need.
For clarification: Violence against women, means “any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life”. United Nations (1994) A/RES/48/104
For further clarification, if he has repeatedly destroyed or threatened to destroy property, if he has put holes in your walls and in your furniture, if he has called you names, if he regularly slams doors and throws things, if he has tried to isolate you from family and friends, if he tries to make you afraid of where you live, in order to move you further away from your support network, if he refuses to pay for household essentials, or discuss fairly sharing the economic load, if he regularly gives you the silent treatment, if he sabotages your attempts to work, if he refuses to care for the children or meet their needs so you can’t easily go out, if he threatens to hurt/kill himself, if he threatens to leave, if his mood swings dramatically shift from angry and aggressive to loving and kind from one moment to the next, if he does things to make you feel like you’re going crazy, if he denies or minimizes his behavior, or expects you to just forget about it and move on, if he blames everyone else (his parents, work, the children, you) but himself for his behavior, if he behaves in an entitled way, expecting you to put his needs ahead of everyone elses’, if he makes “jokes” that question the paternity of your children, if he threatens to loose his job on purpose, if he agrees to putting essential household purchases onto credit cards in your name but then refuses to bear responsibility for the debt, if he refuses to look after you or the children when you’re ill, if he nags you for sex even if you’re not feeling like it and refuses to take no for an answer, or gives you the silent treatment when you won’t give in, if he tries to make you watch films or online media that he knows will scare/upset you, and pressures you to watch even when you’ve said no, if he refuses to let you leave a room or contact help when an argument escalates, if he creates arguments and then shames you when you finally react, or digitally records your reaction as “proof” that you’re the abusive one, if he tries to re-establish relationships with past partners and makes sure you know about it, if he continually makes you late for important events or family gatherings or creates arguments prior to leaving to try and stop you going, if he regularly disrupts plans for birthdays or special days out, if he refuses to contribute to household chores and home maintenance, if he is overly jealous of male friends, if he shames or belittles you in public then says he’s only joking, if he goes through your phone to check who you’ve been talking to, if he hurts you, threatens to hurt you or tells you he hopes you/your children die, if he threatens to run away with the children – if he does any of these things, or anything listed here, then yes. It is abuse.
Recognizing and finding the strength to step up against red flags (and there are always red flags at the beginning of an abusive relationship, we’re just usually so caught up in the love-bombing that we stop trusting our instincts in order to see them), to hold my boundaries, and to walk away when my gut tells me it’s not right, are strategies that are going to help me in future relationships. I hope by creatively expressing both my own reflective experiences of red flags, and those of the other women who I hope will join me, we can raise our collective voices, share our stories and unpick the stitches of silence. Join me.
To contact Kate about the #redflagsproject email email@example.com. All correspondence will be treated in absolute confidence.
UPDATE 01/08/2020: #redflagsproject is live, and welcoming submissions.
My blog and everything in it will always be free to inspire and support people to live with less plastic, live more sustainably, live with less, and work to reduce the impact of climate change. If you would like to help support women and children who have been affected by domestic abuse, please consider donating to Women’s Aid and or Domestic Violence UK. Please share this safely with anyone who may benefit from reading it.