America – We are in an Abusive Relationship: Time to Make a Safety Plan

– Carl Josehart

I’ve never been afraid to be an American – until now.

I have been angry, disappointed and disgusted but never afraid. But now, every day there are dangerous signals and as much as I want to be comforted and reassured I have learned that it is important not to deny reality.

Earlier in my career I worked as a psychotherapist and counseled individuals who were victims of domestic violence. Not everyone I counseled in an abusive relationship was ready to leave; many felt that their partner would change and were reluctant to give up on the relationship. It was not my role to make a judgment about whether this choice was right or wrong but it was my role to help each person be safe. I would help the victim develop a safety plan – we would talk about what defined unsafe behavior, we planned ahead where s/he would go and how they would get there. We would make sure that they packed essentials – medications, money – anything that would cause them to delay or be reluctant to leave because of fear of leaving it behind and get those items to a safe location. If there were children, minors or others under their care we would talk about how they would be taken to safety and who could be trusted to help accomplish this in an emergency. The clinical approach to working with clients who were still hoping for the best i.e., change – was to also prepare for the worst.

As I look at the current situation in my country I have come to believe that the behaviors being exhibited by the incoming Administration can be understood in the context of an abusive relationship and this model can serve a useful way to objectively measure the amount of threat/danger that exists.

So what are the dangerous behaviors to look out for?

Isolation – abusers isolate their victims from friends, family and social support. This keeps the victim in a vulnerable state and increases dependence on the abuser. President Elect Trump’s “America First” philosophy is a political form of isolationism. Examples of this abound from the wall that he wants to build along the Mexico border to his declarations that he may not honor NATO treaties and intends to renegotiate established trade agreements.

Control of Information – abusers limit contact with the outside world and unbiased information. Threatening to sue the media or lock-up protestors is an attempt to limit any information that may run counter to the views of those in power is an example of controlling the information we receive.

Hyper criticality – Talking about the media as corrupt and incompetent and overstating the value of instinct and intuition over intelligence and education is a way of undermining the arguments of scientists, scholars and experts and encouraging people instead to act based on instinctual fears and urges as well as to discount rational arguments from traditionally respected sources of information. When you hear President Elect Trump say that he knows more than the generals or that judges are biased because of the national origin or their families or that the elections are rigged this is a tactic to undermine the impact of rational opposition from respected sources.

Hyper vigilance – Keeps track of what you are doing all the time and criticizes you for little things. Ask yourself, why would the President Elect of the free world care if an actor spoke his mind following a play – squelching even the smallest criticism eliminates environmental cues that the behavior of the abuser is not normal. This is why the founders of our country believed so strongly in the freedom of speech. Regularly being exposed to differing opinions makes us stronger, not weaker and forces us to regularly reexamine our belief system which is fundamental to healthy relationships and to a healthy democracies.

Insincere repentance/false apologies and promises of change – immediately after an abusive outburst the abuser will often promise to change, by gifts or show remorse and promise that it won’t happen again. Every time the media defines an action of Donald Trump as an offering to reach out or to change it is important to evaluate whether there is evidence that the underlying abusive behaviors are changing or is it part of a cycle of abuse.

Using violence as intimidation – victims of abuse often describe feeling like they are “walking on eggshells” afraid of the next outburst. Fear interferes with our ability to concentrate and weigh our options rationally and realistically and makes us more cautious and risk avoidant. This is part of the reason that victims are often stuck and unable to leave even during periods of relative calm.

Creating an enemy/ viewing others as a threat/Blaming others as the source of problems – abusers blame the abuse of the behavior of the victim to deflect responsibility for their abuse. “If you would only… then I wouldn’t have to…” Victims then become preoccupied with the faulty notion that their behavior causes the abuse rather than focusing on the abuser’s responsibility. Blaming Muslims or threatening to build a wall is simply a way of justifying abusive behavior. It is a false claim that the abuser wouldn’t have to behave this way if others weren’t at fault.

Belittling and demeaning the victim – Telling the victim that he or she is ugly or unintelligent undermines the victim’s sense of self-worth and impedes his/her ability to believe that others will be willing to help. We have seen President Elect Trump mock a disabled reporter and call women that accused him of sexual assault fat and ugly.

Use libel and sedition laws to squelch protest – President Elect Trump and his supporters have threatened to sue the media for criticizing him and to charge protestors with treason. His campaign rallies often included chants of ‘lock her up” referring to his rival in the election, Secretary Clinton.

Hypersensitivity: An abusive person is easily insulted and claims that his/her feelings are “hurt” when really s/he are very mad. The abusive person will “rant and rave” about the injustice of things that have happened – things that are really just part of living such as being asked to work overtime, getting a traffic ticket, being told some behavior is annoying or being asked to help with chores.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: Many people are confused by their abuser’s “sudden” changes in mood – they may think the abuser has some special mental problem because one minute the abuser is nice but the next minute s/he is exploding. Explosiveness and moodiness are typical of people who abuse their partners and these behaviors are related to other characteristics such as hypersensitivity.

Just as we all have relationships with friends, family, and intimate partners we are also in relationship with our government and the society in which we live. Just as we develop norms of behavior in our personal relationships that help maintain a sense of order, security and comfort – society creates these norms to maintain order, security and comfort. Laws govern many of these societal norms; others are established by mutual assent. For example, we have laws against stealing and murder but things like how close we sit to a stranger, who enters a door first when we arrive at the same time, who gets the remaining seat on a crowded bus – are not controlled by law but by common assent to a generally accepted standard of behavior. Civil society depends on following both sets of laws and norms.

Another relevant piece of information I learned from my work as a psychotherapist is that denying or ignoring malignant behavior breeds psychopathology. If a family member is an abuser and others collude to normalize the behavior and pretend everything is OK then other dangerous symptoms often emerge – substance abuse or other self-injurious behaviors.

A common question that comes up as we look back in history at instances where segments of populations have been targeted for discrimination is why didn’t people see the signs, why didn’t they leave? Part of the answer lies in the psychological state caused by the abuse.

Severe abuse can often foster a sense of helplessness in the victim. The victim is at risk of eventually becoming psychologically paralyzed; failing to seek help and becoming more passive as they begin to believe they are powerless to change the circumstances in which they find themselves. When the victim does contact a help source, they often are very tentative about receiving help and are likely to return to the batterer despite advice or opportunity to leave. The vulnerability and indecisiveness prolongs the violence and may contribute to its intensification. At its most severe, a victim may come to believe that s/he deserves the abuse.

There is also the reality of the fact that moving to a new place, even under the best of circumstances, is just plain hard – economically and emotionally. Ten years ago, my husband and I decided to relocate from Chicago to Houston to accept a career opportunity. We moved of our own free will, with an exceptional career opportunity waiting for us, we had financial resources, spoke the language, understood the currency and were welcomed by the community on arrival. We were also able to bring all of our belongings with us – not only the essentials of daily living but also all of the items that held sentimental and emotional value. It was still the hardest thing I have ever done. When I think about refugees fleeing persecution, I cannot even begin to understand the emotional toll they face. Leaving behind family, friends, careers and communities. Moving to places where the language and customs may be unfamiliar and facing economic uncertainty – literally having to start all over.

The other piece of the puzzle has to do with a common predisposition to underestimate danger and overestimate our ability to control the outcome of events. Americans, as a society at large, generally place a higher value on individualism, and the belief that hard work leads to success. Stated another way, we tend as a group to have a higher sense of our own personal agency (or sense of ability to control the world and the events around us) compared to some cultures that have a more fatalistic or external sense of control. In addition, all groups see the world through an ethnocentric point of view. Ethnocentrism is the evaluation of other cultures according to preconceptions originating in the standards and customs of are own culture. Simply put it means that we believe that what seems normal to us we assume to be right and we over-estimate the extent to which others see the world our way. This leads to a sense of over-confidence that we will be welcome in other countries and can lead to a miscalculation about the how much time we have to get away safely. But history and current behavior teaches us that when refugees flee – countries around the world put caps on immigration and even turn refugees around and send them back into harm’s way.

I have come to the conclusion after watching and assessing the signs and symptoms of behavior that have been present and escalating throughout the Presidential campaign and election that it is rational and reasonable to develop a safety plan for myself and my family. While I plan to stay and fight for the country I love, I also feel it is reasonable to determine under what circumstances it would be better to leave and to know how and where I would go, how I would get there, and how I would help the ones I love and care for get to safety as well.

Likely, many of you are thinking that I am over-reacting and that I am behaving irrationally. I will leave you with the words R.D. Laing, a famous Scottish psychiatrist who wrote extensively about mental illness. Dr. Laing famously said “Insanity — a perfectly rational adjustment to an insane world.”

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  1. Carl, This is Nancy Wasserman Hoyt. We met shortly before you left Chicago and shortly after we moved here from NYC. Both Bob and I also have psychology backgrounds and you nailed this…I am in total agreement that a safety plan is needed. Now, I have to do more than think about it…need to create one. Thanks for writing this. All my best to Sam and you, Nancy

  2. Let’s be part of the change here. To help foster the dialogue to make real, positive change. And if not, i vote for somewhere warm!

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