Yikes, you did what?!

I live in a really social neighborhood where I chat with lots of people who live around me. Recently, I was talking to one of my neighbors about relationships. It was a normal conversation about the challenges of dating, and sorting through the choices that we make. Then he told me that he was once convicted of domestic violence assault.

To be honest, I had a moment of panic. What was I going to say? As he talked about going through batterer’s intervention, how much he learned, and how different he is in his current relationship, I was thinking: Has this man really changed? Is his current girlfriend safe? Is he manipulating the story to glorify himself?

According to the etiquette of conversation, I had to say something after he stopped talking even though I had doubts, questions, and yes, even a bit of fear. I thanked him for the disclosure, acknowledged his journey, and continued to openly talk to him about relationships.

By virtue of my work, I know how to respond to people who disclose that they have been abused. But what I learned from this conversation is that I am uncomfortable with someone telling me they’ve been abusive. My first instinct was to question this man’s intentions and his behavior, but then I realized that I want to be able to talk with anyone about how to be in a good, loving, happy relationship.

I have decided to believe that my neighbor understands what he did and is making an effort to be a better person. After all, won’t he need a community of people who can support him in his present while knowing his past?

7 thoughts on “Yikes, you did what?!”

  1. Interesting read! I probably would’ve felt the same way, but you’re right former abusers need a supportive community to help their efforts in having loving, respectful relationships.

  2. Thanks for the post! I think we need to work on a making it acceptable for people who commit domestic violence to admit they’ve made mistakes and to work on it as opposed to isolating them and making it easier for them to deny it. It means we all have to take responsibility in acknowledging that abusers are all around us rather than only relying on the criminal legal system to “fix” them.

  3. Saira, thanks for your comment. This experience was a really interesting one because it forced me to think beyond abuser accountability. Through work, I am constantly thinking about survivor safety and abuser accountability. While we have a lot of work to do there, I also think that we need to think beyond accountability. I did a lot of thinking about community prevention as well.

    As Grace said, we cannot only rely on one system to fix the problems. We all need to learn how to respond in a responsible way.

  4. I think a good stance to have in this situation maybe is something between the somewhat extremes of knee-jerk rejection (or alarm/skepticism as was your initial reaction) and unquestioning acceptance, which is what you concluded with.

    There’s no doubt that we should be supportive of people who have reformed. But, former abusers should also understand that, because of their past abuses, what they say/do will justifiably be met with more scrutiny and skepticism.

    Having this skepticism does not mean we withhold support. It just means we support their renouncement of abuse in principle, but we are also watchful for signs that they are saying one thing and doing another.

  5. Well put, Chi. Thanks! You make a clear point about support and continuing to hold people accountable to their actions. While I did have “extreme” reactions/feelings in my mind, my conversation was not as dramatic in person. I did, however, find a lot of meaning in these reactions and that in talking to him, we (as people part of a community) are taking a step forward to say that abuse is never the answer.

  6. This conversation remind me of one I had with my co-workers a few weeks ago. A politician in California had commented (tweeted maybe?)on how she has been trying to get DV convicted abusers to be registered as with SA. Would this be extreme? I was totally for it but was getting mixed responses from people in the field. A particular comment that stood out for me was that what about those who choose to stay with their abusers, wouldn’t this affect their relationship and ability to move on.

  7. Saira,

    There are probably many opinions on that one. Personally, I would hesitate to put a lot of energy into that strategy. As in the sexual assault realm, labeling convicted offenders only tells you about those who have been reported, prosecuted and convicted – a minority of DV abusers, since many are never reported to the police.

    I would rather see resources and attention go towards equipping young people – really ALL people – with skills for healthy, loving and equitable relationships.

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