We're not alone: we share this world with others - many, many others, human and otherwise. And there are many things that we simply cannot do on our own (one of the more obvious being reproduction, which at some point must still involve both a male and a female of the species!), and many others which we'd prefer not to do on our own. Some of our 'use' of those others can be difficult for us to face: for example, like every animal, we survive by killing and eating something else - even vegetarians and other herbivores do this, although the fact of the killing is often sidestepped because plants show no easily-visible emotions...
We use others, and others use us: it's a fact of life - a normal and necessary part of life - and we don't have much choice about it. Where we do have choice is in how we use, or are used: and also a choice as to whether our use of, or by, or with others oversteps a subtle boundary, and becomes abuse.
Abuse isn't something that 'just happens'. It isn't even something that 'just happens' to us. It's always linked to a choice on our part: true, it's often the result of a choice to evade responsibility, or of a habit of evading choices, but even that, as we've seen earlier, is still a choice. The wyrd passes through everywhere, everyone, everywhen: every thread, every moment, is made up of choices - and those inevitable, inexorable twists... So it's up to us: whether we use, or abuse, is up to us - and we're always responsible for that choice. That alone can be hard enough to face: yet facing the other side of that coin - that's it's just as much up to us as to whether we're used, or abused - can be the harshest twist of all.
The problem of abuse - and particularly our own involvement in it - is probably going to be the most uncomfortable part of the wyrd that we'll ever face. There'll be parts of this section that you certainly won't want to look at - other than to blame others for it (or me, perhaps). But it is important to face this: because it's in this one issue that most of us so easily lose most of our power. Only once we understand what's going on, and our own involvement in it, do we start to reclaim our power - our power of choice, our power with others, and our own power-from-within.
Use and power
The boundary between use and abuse is essentially a problem of power - power-with and power-from-within being on one side of the boundary, and power-over and power-under on the other.
The problem is that we want to be used: it's more than just a want, it's a deep spiritual need, a central part of that 'sense of meaning and purpose, a sense of self and of that which is greater than self'. Being used - especially, being acknowledged in practice for what we do and how we express who we are - is essential to our well-being: so much so that for many men, and now increasingly for women too, the loss of employment can literally take away their reason for living. But we want to be used appropriately; we want to be used with respect, with honour, with integrity; yet we live in a society which barely understands any of those concepts...
As we've seen earlier, power is best understood as the ability to do work, as an expression of choice. Since it's closely linked with personal choice, the only real source of power is from within ourselves - our own 'power-from-within' - though it can also arise as 'power-with', from our interweavings with others - in effect, from the choices made by 'We', rather than only by 'I'. Anything else is likely to be abuse... it's as simple as that. Any attempt to shuffle responsibility onto others without their explicit consent is abuse; any attempt to prop ourselves up by putting others down is also abuse - and that includes getting together as a group to put others down, which is not power-with, but a collective form of power-over, or more often power-under. These are all extremely common...
So the fact of abuse shouldn't be a surprise: in the terms I'm using here, many aspects of our society - such as those countless advertising campaigns which depend on fear - are inherently abusive; and with paediarchy running rampant, and true self-honesty being the exception rather than the norm, it could hardly be otherwise. Most relationships have a few threads of abuse running through them somewhere; some relationships - personal, professional, familial or whatever - may have more than just a few of those threads... But there's a simple reason for this: we're all human. And human abuse, and human violence, arise from a perfectly human mistake: evading 'response-ability'. No-one is immune from this mistake; so no-one is immune from abuse, or is free from responsibility for abuse.
And despite the well-meant wishes of so many would-be social engineers, we'll never eliminate abuse. For it not to exist would require every aspect of the world - every adult, every child, even every animate and inanimate entity - to be fully responsible and fully 'in control' of themselves at all times: it's not an achievable goal... Like use itself, abuse is a thread of the wyrd - a major thread - which passes through everything, everyone, everywhere, everywhen: we can never control it as such - but we do have the choice to direct how it impacts on our own lives, and the lives of those around us. For example, we can play 'victim' if we so choose: but as we've seen, it doesn't actually help anyone, especially ourselves. A wiser choice, perhaps, would be to accept, and aim to work with, that weird comment that "the world breaks us all - but afterwards some of us are strong in the broken places". Yet it's up to us: there's always a choice, there's always a twist - though sometimes the twists of abuse can be very tangled indeed...
Context and consent
One of the weirder twists is that there's no such thing as 'abusive behaviour': what makes a given action - or inaction - abusive is the context, not the behaviour itself. For example, hitting someone obviously sounds like abuse: but if you're in a full-blown panic in a burning building, it's quite possible that the safest action for a rescuer, both for you and for themselves, would be to hit you hard enough to knock you out - because then they can get you to safety without your panic getting in the way... And sometimes the absence of behaviour is abusive: if you're in desperate need of help, and I sit back and do nothing, smiling smugly at your predicament, that would be abuse - it certainly couldn't be called power-with, at any rate! What matters is the context, and the consent to be used in that way. As long as there's clear consent (preferably conscious consent, though at times, such as with children, or in some kinds of emergency, it isn't always practicable or possible), anything goes: it's entirely up to us what behaviour we choose to share with others.
Another key part of the context is the distinction between fear and respect. The image comes to mind of a stereotyped 'little old lady' character driving a huge bulldozer down a suburban street: she has enormous power at this moment, and enormous 'response-ability' - and the choices are hers, not ours. Watching her smooth but inexorable progress down the street, what do we feel? Respect for her skills? - that's power-with, and acknowledging her power-from-within. Or a hint of unacknowledged fear? - which might lead us to want to take control (power-over), or to mock or belittle her (power-under) until she gives up. The key here is trust: when we don't trust, it's fear; when we do trust, it's respect - or possibly foolishness...!
And a further twist in the context of use and abuse is gender - social stereotypes about sex-differences. There are some differences - as a friend put it, about both use and abuse, "he was stronger, but I was more persistent!" - yet in reality the differences between the sexes are much less than the differences between individual women, and between individual men. One of the most serious mistakes is to stereotype abuse as something that only men do: abuse is a human fault, not a gendered one. An earlier generation of feminists - writers like Germaine Greer and Betty Friedan - acknowledged this: they promoted women's power and women's responsibility, yet were equally aware of women's potential for abuse. But it's a point which, in their rush to blame men for everything, has been conveniently forgotten by more recent cuckoo-feminists... a mistake which, by the usual weird twists, is more likely in the long term to drag women back down into powerlessness again than anything men could do - because responsibility and power are inextricably interwoven, and cannot exist without each other. The subject-centred stupidity we call 'sexism' goes both ways, not one: and it always hurts everyone, not just the ones who are blamed...
Stereotypes can be useful, but help no-one if they're taken too literally: so in many of my examples I've deliberately shown women using power-with in positions of authority - their use of others - and also resorting to power-over and power-under in their abuse of others. In facing their own röle in abuse, men do have the advantage of knowing that they're at least responsible for something; but for some decades now, women have been taught to believe that they're never responsible for anything they do, and particularly not for anything done 'to' them. So you may find this next section particularly hard to face - especially as you may not see much relief until well into the following section... But abuse - and our own involvement in it - is something that we must face if we want to find our own power, and especially our power to share with others: because whenever we're abused by ourselves or others, or abuse others or ourselves, that's where most of our power is lost. That's the twist: that's the choice... it's up to us.
Facing abuse does take courage, so stick with it as best you can: but do be gentle with yourself. Stop for a while, if the going seems to get too rough; and then come back to it again when the courage returns - as it always does. Just keep going, keep going, one step at a time...
Threads of abuse
We use others, and ourselves, to get what we want and need - that's how we survive. Sometimes it is just 'survival'... But an awareness of how the wyrd works, in order to work with it, can help to change that into being alive - and a central part of that awareness is in knowing how to change abuse into mutual, respectful, use.
Use takes many different forms, but always has the same intention: to create something which is shared, and in which everyone 'wins'. In much the same way, abuse takes many different forms, yet always has the same intention: to offload responsibility or fear onto others - the aim is to 'win' by making others lose, but in reality, courtesy of the usual weird twists, everyone loses.
And abuse is much the same for both men and women: women tend to be a bit more personal and a bit more subtle than men, but it comes to much the same in the end... This makes sense in terms of those gender-stereotypes: 'masculine' abuse would be object-centred, and follow the 'hunter' stereotype of small numbers of large, visible actions - which are easily identifiable, and easily labelled as abusive; whereas 'feminine' abuse would be subject-centred, and follow the 'gatherer' stereotype of large numbers of small actions, each one individually deniable, apparently trivial, and easily dismissed as 'ordinary relationship problems', but often adding up to greater overall damage than the 'masculine' forms.
Physical abuse can be a serious problem, but at least its effects are visible. Non-physical abuse is often much more difficult to tackle, precisely because its effects are not so visible - which also makes it much more difficult to get help, or even to heal, because there's so little that's visible on the surface. We can make some comparisons, and there are some well-known metaphors for this: we might talk about a 'cutting remark', for example; an insult is 'a slap in the face'; a man was 'broken' by his supervisor's constant put-downs. But because non-physical abuse is so difficult to describe, the measure I tend to use to assess severity of abuse is 'time taken to return to constructive creativity' ('constructive' because some people's creativity is turned towards further abuse...) - in other words reclaiming power-from-within and power-with, rather than turning that power against oneself or against others as power-over or power-under.
And in those terms, like everyone else, I've suffered my share of both kinds of abuse from others: for example, I've been beaten up by a man who wanted to hurt his ex-girlfriend, and found me an easier target. But that took only days to begin to heal, whereas it took me many months to begin to recover after a woman deliberately brought me to the edge of a nervous breakdown in order to give herself an illusion of superiority. One of the worst forms of non-physical abuse is 'third-party abuse', giving a false or incomplete story to set up a third party, such as a teacher, a supervisor, a welfare official, or another family member - "I'll tell my big brother on you!" - to carry out abuse on our behalf: most stories must be taken on trust, so the real abuser - us, if we're the ones who provided the false story - can easily evade all responsibility, and blame others for the entire incident...
None of this is simple. It's rare that there's a single easily identifiable 'abuser' and 'victim': what there is instead is a weird web of interactions and 'mis-takes', weaving its way through many different people, and often spanning many generations. "I sometimes wish my father had hit me in those adolescent arguments of ours", said a sad friend, going back over her childhood issues, "at least it would have released that awful tension, constantly holding back his anger... it killed him in the end..." Codependent relationships are often mutually abusive, with each party oscillating between abuser and abused; Transactional Analysis theory also recognises the röe played by an 'enabler' who appears to take no active part in the battles, but condones the abuse - or self-abuse - by at least one of the other parties, and helps to maintain the blame-game.
So the usual approach to the problem of abuse - find someone to blame, and then punish them - is often worse than useless: everyone is to blame, and punishment is just another form of third-party abuse... What does work is to shift from blame to responsibility: be honest about our own part in each incident - courtesy of the interweavings of the wyrd, there's always some - and find our own power to respond, to change the weaving of that thread for everyone. That's what 'response-ability' means.
Any practical approach to the problem of abuse has to begin by accepting its inevitability as part of the human condition: we're all human, and everyone makes 'mis-takes'... To learn how to minimise abuse, and to help others and ourselves recover from it, is everyone's responsibility. But it is true that most abusive behaviour comes from habits passed down through the generations: and it's unreasonable to blame others, or ourselves, for what they, and we, have been taught. Yet if "the sins of the fathers (and mothers) are fetched even unto the seventh generation", then it's also true that if we manage to face more than a seventh of our familial 'bad habits', we're doing better than the average - and that at least is an achievable target!
So let's make a start at this. We already know a number of key points: for example, we know that true power - power-from-within, power-with - cannot co-exist with abuse - power-over and power-under - and it's up to us to choose which we want. (There are some weird twists that can get in the way, of course, but the choice is still ours, and is always there.) And we know that abuse generally arises from a felt sense of powerlessness, and from a socially condoned delusion that it is possible to 'export' this sense of powerlessness to others, and that to abuse others in this way is 'power'.
What we feel is not an issue here: feelings such as anger, sadness, love and joy arise from the fact of being human, and pretending that we don't feel what we feel usually causes damage, to self and often also to others. What is at issue is how we respond to those feelings - literally, our 'response-ability'. Whatever we do 'to' others eventually weaves back through the wyrd into our own lives: so it's a good idea to learn to take that responsibility seriously - yet also not too seriously!
Our feelings are ours, not anyone else's; nor are they anyone else's responsibility. Uncomfortable as it may well feel, no-one has a 'right' to not be afraid, or to not experience feelings such as embarrassment or shame: and any attempt to offload responsibility for fear or other feelings onto others is not only counter-productive, but is actually a form of abuse. We can be responsible about others' fears, but we cannot be responsible for them - a subtle but crucial distinction; and since one of the most common sources of abuse is a 'pre-emptive strike' against an imagined threat, we also have 'response-ability' to learn to distinguish clearly between real and imagined threats, and to respond appropriately to each.
The aim here is simply to explore our own involvement in abuse, whether to us or by us; and what we don't do matters as much as what we do. In a sense, as we'll see, what others do or don't do eventually becomes almost irrelevant: like all the threads of the wyrd, the threads of abuse pass through everywhere, everywhen, everyone, but the only place we can change them directly is within us, and the only behaviour we can change directly is our own. That's our 'response-ability': nothing more, but also nothing less.
Although abuse can occur in any context, and in any form, the standard legal summary is the 'Duluth Wheel', developed by the Duluth Domestic Abuse Intervention Project, in Duluth, Minnesota. This divides abuse into eight categories: coercion and threats; intimidation; economic abuse; emotional abuse; abusing privilege; isolation; third-party abuse ('using children' in the original); and minimising, denying and blaming. Unfortunately, the original version can only be described as sexist, because it was written solely for men, with women as the only examples of 'victims': but with one small change, to make it gender-neutral, we can use it for our wider and weirder purpose here - we'll need a little imagination and a little courage, but that's all.
In each of these categories of abuse, there's an attempt to 'control' the Other directly - through power-over - or to manipulate the Other - through power-under - to 'control' themselves on our behalf. Some categories are more object-centred, others more subject-centred; some are more 'masculine', others are more 'feminine'; but ultimately it's all the same. In each case I've also summarised the opposite of that type of abuse - a constructive approach to the same issues - though we'll look at them in more detail in the next section.
The first, and most physical, category is coercion and threats; its opposite is 'negotiation and fairness'.
The next category is intimidation; its opposite is 'non-threatening behaviour'. Like coercion, it's often mis-stereotyped as 'male': for example, one friend described to me her mother's 'normal' behaviour in exactly these terms...
Next we come to economic abuse, whose counterpart is 'economic co-operation'. Because of the still-prevalent stereotypes about economic röles, this is another category of abuse that has strong gender-overtones: but as before, it works both ways...
And the next category - whose opposite is 'respect' - is emotional abuse. This is often type-cast as 'female' rather than 'male', but it is, interestingly, reported as the type of abuse most feared by schoolboys from other boys. This is often the most difficult type of abuse to face, because it can take such subtle forms: it's characterised by subject-centred 'magic' words like 'should' and 'ought' and 'must', which are all too easily abused to export blame and responsibility - and as John Bradshaw warned, 'resentment' is, in effect, "a demand that the Other should feel guilty"...
The next category is even more subject-centred: it assumes a right or privilege - literally, 'owning the law' - to control the Other's behaviour. Its opposite is 'shared responsibility' - power-with, in other words.
And the next category is so subject-centred that it refuses to allow 'We' to be anything other than its own 'I' - and hence tries to force the Other into isolation from anything 'not-I'. What's missing, of course, is the opposite, which is 'trust and support'.
The next category is what the Duluth group called using children, but is more generically the use - or abuse - of nominally-uninvolved third-parties such as children on the one hand, or 'authorities' on the other, as a tactic in intimidation or emotional abuse of the Other - and particularly the use of those third-parties as a shield whilst abusing the Other. With children, the opposite is 'responsible parenting'; with others, the opposite is simply being responsible - and honest.
And the final category is minimising, denying and blaming, whose opposite is 'honesty and accountability'. Perhaps the most extreme example of this that I know was described to me by my friend Rob, an engineering technician. He and another man had been working late one night, so he gave the friend a ride home. As they were standing in the kitchen, the man's wife started to berate him about something - Rob didn't remember what - and at some point the man said "I'm not going to argue with you about this, you don't know what you're talking about". As he turned to walk away, the woman grabbed a heavy cast-iron skillet from off the worktop and, as Rob put it, gave the man "a great big whack round the back of the head with it, which laid him straight out on the floor". As the man lay there, groaning, the woman dropped the skillet, ran over to him, and screamed "You stupid idiot! It's all your fault! You shouldn't have said that! - now look at what you've made me do!"
That's abuse. But the opposite of abuse is not just 'use', it's how we get to be able to change abuse into mutual, respectful use. That's what we call assertiveness - asserting 'I' - and after the rough ride we've been through, in looking at abuse, it's what we urgently need to turn to next!