Too Smart to be Abused

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What if I told you that two separate studies, one done in the US and one in Norway, found that educated, well-paid women with good careers are more likely to suffer certain kinds of domestic abuse than those who are less educated or stay at home?

The “certain kinds?” Specifically, verbal abuse and “emotional terrorism,” defined as “treating the relationship as a power struggle instead of a partnership.” It turns out that in researching thousands of couples, the stereotype of powerful men abusing socially weaker partners doesn’t stand up. The suggestion instead is that, while attractive at the outset, educated women with careers ultimately threaten their partner’s authority, either in reputation or financially. Hence the need to be taken down a notch or two.

This idea that abuse happens to other people – people who somehow “don’t know better” – is persistent. We think it’s reserved for people who were abused as kids, who are financially challenged, who are without opportunity or lack social support. We think that people who find themselves in controlling relationships get there because they aren’t somehow smart…

Unlike, say, me.

My ex would phone incessantly to “check” on me when we were apart; send me storms of text messages or vaguely threaten me in case I didn’t do something “right now” and the right way. I walked on eggshells at home for fear of setting off his delicate temper. And everything set off his delicate temper.

Today I know this dynamic is called “coercive control” and is squarely a form of domestic abuse. Of course, it didn’t stop after I left with our children. Quite the opposite, his apparent loss of control over me put him over the edge and he doubled down: I was threatened, intimidated and called heinous names via text, email and voicemail 20 or 30 times every day for months - and then for years. Yes, the police were involved and yes, I was often scared for the physical and emotional safety of myself and my children. But even then, I didn’t recognize what was happening as abuse.

 Abuse was what happened to other, less capable people. Under no circumstances did I identify whatsoever with women who “let themselves” be abused.

I was smart! I was successful! I came from a good family! People like me weren’t abused, they had “challenging” relationships with “complicated” men…

Abuse is not rational. Therefore, by definition it can’t be defeated by intelligence, reason, kindness, or even obedience: When I understood that nothing I did would change my partners’ behaviour, I knew the choices were to shut up and live with it or leave.

I tried to rationalize both my partner’s and my own behaviour for damn near a decade.   I thought he just needed to be “loved better” and I re-framed his motivations often: he was depressed; he had an addictive personality; he was a narcissist; the product of a dysfunctional home; I deserved it. We did therapy; a dozen therapists for one or two sessions each, until each was inevitably written off by my ex as incompetent.

But here’s the thing:  in the same way that abusive individuals are as likely to be lawyers, accountants and doctors as they are to be plumbers, oilfield workers or unemployed, if women like Christie Brinkley, Nigella Lawson or Harvard educated businesswoman and renown Ted-talker Leslie Morgan Steiner can be victims of the kind of abuse noted in the studies (and worse), then surely we’re all susceptible, are we not? 

I hope there’s some comfort in knowing we often try to make sense of abuse in similar ways and that it can, and does, happen to the best – and smartest – among us.  Even me.

Or maybe even you.

*due to ongoing legal issues with her case, the identity of the writer must be kept anonymous.

Beth Thompson