Just Trying to Figure It Out

Written by Jane E. Graham Jennings


October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month.

We tend to spend a lot of time examining the behavior of victims of domestic violence. We tend to have difficulty understanding why victims respond the way they do:

Why they return to abusive partners . . .
Why they make excuses . . .
Why they minimize the abuse . . .

When we look at these behaviors in the context of living in an abusive relationship, they actually make more sense than we might think.

Abusive relationships often don’t start out that way; they are loving and fun and romantic, but that doesn’t last.

Abusive relationships are about power and control. And manipulation is an integral part of gaining control. Human beings are very logical creatures. We want things to make sense. When they don’t, we try to figure out why — often times looking to our own behavior for an explanation.

ConfusionWhen we fall in love with someone, we expect that their intentions will match our own: loving, caring, communicating. In healthy relationships, this plays out. In abusive relationships, it does not. But abuse victims often have a hard time recognizing that. It’s a strange thing — being in love with someone who intentionally manipulates and hurts you. It isn’t logical, but victims keep trying to make sense out of it.

In addition to attempting to find logic, victims are living in a “crazy-making” environment often coupled with physical abuse and/or threats. Living in this constant state of stress causes physiological responses.

Dr. Chris Wilson, a licensed psychologist and internationally recognized speaker and trainer on the neurobiology of trauma, uses the phrase “interpersonal terrorism” to refer to domestic abuse. I find this an apt description. Time and again, we hear countless stories of the intentional manipulation and gaslighting that is common in abusive relationships. Below is an example of gaslighting:

A woman frequently lost her car keys. Almost daily, she couldn’t find her keys, though she was sure she put them in her purse at the end of the day. Her boyfriend, who was being “helpful,” tended to find them for her in very strange places, like the freezer. He offered that she had been under such great stress that she just must not remember where she’s putting them. One day, the woman sees her boyfriend take her keys from her purse, but she doesn’t confront him. The next morning, when she cannot locate her keys, her boyfriend “finds” them for her in her jewelry box. A few months later, this woman ended the relationship and moved out. And she didn’t “lose” her keys anymore.

Victims living in this kind of confusing environment are trying to make sense of things that do not make sense, in addition to living in fear of someone they love. When logic is not apparent, our brains fill in the gaps. For victims, that often means blaming themselves. They believe that if they try harder or do something better, it will all work out. They also remember the tender moments that still happen in the relationship, or they think back to the beginning of the relationship when things were good.

Abusive relationships aren’t always bad. There are days when it seems things are going well; there are still moments of fun and love and apologies. As with most of us, we argue with our partners and, at times, say things we regret for which we apologize. Most of us accept the apology because we truly believe our partner is sorry. Victims also believe the apologies; the difference is that abusers are not truly sorry, and they repeat the behavior and hurt their partners again and again.


So, now you can see how victims’ behavior is not counterintuitive if you understand the complexities of loving someone that manipulates in order to gain control. People who use power and control rely on humans’ natural desire for logic. They can use manipulation to make victims feel like they are “going crazy” and then blame victims when things go “wrong.”

If you find yourself wondering why victims do what they do, consider:

  • They are trying to figure out how they can love someone who would hurt them.
  • They are trying to forgive someone who apologized and promised to never do it again.
  • They are trying to understand and make sense of an illogical situation.

What victims do, to a great extent, does makes sense. Why people lie to and manipulate the very people they claim to love is the part that makes no sense.

I invite you to attend Domestic Violence and the Neurobiology of Trauma, presented by Dr. Chris Wilson at Northcentral Technical College on October 26, 2018, from 8:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. This training is designed for mental health practitioners, medical professionals, law enforcement, social workers, clergy, advocates, educators, students, and community members to give them a better understanding of the victim/survivor experience.

I’ll leave you with this poem written by an abuse victim and shared here with her permission . . .

As I exist today, I still experience your mess.

So many years have passed, but the pain is no less.

My childhood taken, made to grow up fast.

Coping habits control me, as I’ve learned from the past.

Yet you go on living, the fulfilling life you’ve won.

The Judge gave you a year, wash your hands, you’re done.

You’re not special. There’s actually been quite a few.

To make these deep scars that last my life through.

It’s ok. I’ve come to know, I only have me.

The only one who’s ever been there—faithfully.

— Stacy Mantor, Survivor

THANK YOU for helping us raise awareness in Domestic Violence Awareness Month — and beyond — throughout Marathon County.

Jane_E._Graham_JenningsJane E. Graham Jennings

Executive Director  |  The Women’s Community, Inc.

Jane E. Graham Jennings has worked at The Women’s Community for over 20 years serving in the role of Executive Director for all but 3 of those years. Jane has dedicated her life to giving voice to those who feel voiceless due to various forms of violence and oppression. She started her career of anti-violence work in college, where she earned a degree in Psychology. She has been certified through the Department of Justice as a Law Enforcement trainer to train officers on understanding victims of domestic and sexual violence. She was appointed by Governor Walker to serve on the statewide Criminal Justice Coordinating Council. She was also appointed by Attorney General Brad Schimel to serve on the Wisconsin Crime Victims’ Rights Board. In her spare time, she enjoys outdoors activities — particularly hunting and fishing — with her husband, Chris, and their hunting dog, Rocket.  Email Jane E. Graham Jennings.

Image credits:
Woman photo by Counselling via Pixabay.
Woman drawing by Dyversions via Pixabay.
Hourglass image by xaviandrew via Pixabay.

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