Content warning: this post talks about emotional abuse.
I know I’ve told this story before on the internet but I’m going to tell it again here. A decade ago I was in a professional relationship that made me deeply unhappy. I didn’t know how to acknowledge that something great on paper could be awful and damaging in practice. One thing that cut through the fog was reading the zine Brainscan #21: Irreconcilable Differences, by Alex Wrekk, where the author describes how she recognized she was in an emotionally abusive relationship. I remember finishing the zine while riding the subway and getting out feeling as if someone had slapped me awake.
No one had ever illustrated for me the fact that behavior often associated with an abusive romantic partner could materialize in other parts of someone’s life instead. It could come in the form of berating your coworkers, aggressively guilt-tripping your friends, gaslighting your classmate. I was being yelled at, discouraged from pursuing other projects, and having my arm twisted into commitments I didn’t want to make, among other things. As my former therapist once said, abuse doesn’t always look like someone throwing a TV at you. The lightbulb went off and I eventually removed myself from the situation.
It took exponentially longer than it should have.
Hearing that someone didn’t like how I was being treated after the fact was the same as being told they didn’t care enough to do anything about it. Why were those red flags not worth sharing? Why wouldn’t they stand up for me? At what point does it start being someone’s place to step in, or at least ask if you’re ok? Not everyone gets a public reputation for their actions, so when is it our responsibility to personally pass along the word that someone has consistently been shitty to people?
I struggle with how to say this next part because I know these situations can and do happen between all genders. But the pattern I’ve witnessed more often personally is when a guy is mean and manipulative with other men, he often treats the women or non-binary people in his life even worse. They’re (we’re) the ones that end up having to do the call-outs and the emotional labor to bear their trauma publicly before it stops. Why does it have to get to that stage before there are any personal confrontations? Why is it acceptable for people to show a pattern of abusive behavior because we don’t want to rock the boat enough to hold them accountable? Why do we expect certain people to just shrug it off but not others? I’m thinking of specific instances that are not my stories to tell, but the part of me that was shown reality by a zine instead of my friends all those years ago is still wildly disappointed.
I believe in trusting your gut, not just about general life decisions but about the people that share the same space or the same social circles. I don’t think that every jerk needs a public reckoning, but do I think red flags should mean more than they currently do. The difference between a single disagreement between friends and a pattern of behavior should be reasonably obvious to anyone looking closely enough. I’d like to owe that level of care and consideration to my friends, colleagues, and even acquaintances when I might have more information than they do. Does it make it any better to stand by if the trainwreck you predict is emotional instead of physical?
Maybe looking bitter or jealous by speaking up is worth it. Maybe it’ll help someone change. Maybe it’ll help someone avoid being hurt. Maybe I’m just saying all of this to remind myself of things I should’ve done differently, but I thought there might be someone reading this that needs to hear it too.
If you’re tolerating misery because you think something is the most exciting thing you’ll ever do, or someone is the coolest person you’ll ever work with - I say this with extreme confidence - it’s not, and they won’t be.
Note: the subheader of this email is also the title of an album by Des Ark that is one of my favorites.