• Robin Parry

Is Your Terror Disproportionate to the Threat?

Even in the absence of physical violence abused women experience a high level of fear, which often prevents them from seeking help and from reaching out to others even when there is an invitation to do so. She is literally terrified to do or say anything that he might later discover and for which she will pay a price. Anyone who has lived with an abusive person knows that it’s generally impossible to reason with the abuser let alone resolve everyday conflicts. He lacks both the capacity and the skills to listen empathically or patiently to her distress or to see merit if her opinions differ from his. He also has to win and at the same time hold onto her. He’ll shut her down with a denigrating comment, a threat or a well-aimed missile. If she makes a ‘major’ mistake such as getting a parking fine or displays of independence to which he disagrees, she will be punished with either cold and hostile behaviours, being lectured and dressed down or a payback of some description and these punishments can go on for hours or days. If she says anything in self-defence it will trigger a resurgence and so she plays safe by laying low. Anyone observing her appeasing behaviours thinks it a shocking and unnecessary overreaction.

Those she has contact with whether it’s her GP, counsellor, family or friends may suspect something is wrong but she won’t say because she can’t be sure it will remain secret and she is not wrong about that. People may say something to the abuser, even in good faith. Maybe you need to ask yourself what assurance you’d need if you were literally terrified of discovery and punishment. I suspect you would have to implicitly trust that person to keep a secret, to be understanding, non-judgemental and helpful all of which takes time to establish. Sharing more about yourself including your own stuff ups might also help because she may be feeling very alone in her worthlessness.

If you are being abused it is helpful to step back and really see the abuser. Don’t be swayed by what he tells you about himself but by how he behaves. What you might see is an adult having temper tantrums (like a 2-year-old) in order to get his own way. It might look frightening and he’s certainly capable of doing damage, but it is also rather pathetic. You do need to keep out of harm’s way but not cowered by these tantrums. They need to stop. Firstly though, you need to carefully evaluate his dangerousness and it needs to be realistic and based on what you know about him. If he has never hurt you physically and if he cares about how he is viewed in his community and by his friendship networks you will have more options at your disposal than if you’re with someone who lashes out mindlessly and dangerously and doesn’t care what others think. Could your fear be out of proportion to the threat? If so then that is a wonderful launching place from which to systematically and carefully break down the bars of your prison but it’s equally important to do this work with a trusted and experienced professional.

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