Scratching an Itch

It’s mid-July, and I am sitting on a bar stool at the glass-topped kitchen table across from a long-lost friend. She’s a young woman with curly dark brown hair and big brown eyes that are bloodshot and strained from her attempts to share parts of her life that she finds shameful and scary.

What started out as an opportunity to catch up turns into something very familiar to me: she is trusting me to listen to the reality of her marriage or relationship without making it worse.

Here is a short list of typical things that I’ve heard in these situations:

  • Her husband expects her to handle all of the childcare and housework.
  • Her husband/boyfriend lashes out at her unpredictably, for anything (i.e. the way she drives).
  • Her attempts to talk about his behavior fail. He shuts down the conversation by saying things like, “Oh sure, everything I do is WRONG AGAIN! I’M THE BAD GUY!”
  • Her husband/boyfriend calls her fat, stupid, lazy, terrible mother, etc.
  • He drinks too much – it interferes with their lives.
  • He occasionally puts his hands on her.

At some point, she apologizes for getting so emotional and explains that it’s because she hasn’t talked to anyone about this for months.

But I already know that, and I know why.

It’s because, generally, when women confide in friends and family members about being treated like this, most people respond in ways that primarily make them feel better and do not serve the person who was brave enough to share their story.

I call this “scratching an itch” because it is excruciatingly tempting to respond in this way, but ultimately we know we shouldn’t, and it does more harm than good.

Scratching an Itch

Scratching an itch provides us with immediate relief, but it leaves the other person feeling more alone and guilty. For example, when we respond by telling her that she’s hurting her children by staying, we only add to her shame and isolation. Then when the situation gets worse, we shake our heads while explaining to friends, “I told her to leave a long time ago.” We wash our hands of her plight with disdain because she didn’t follow our advice – not realizing we gave terrible advice.

I like to imagine the scene that would unfold if women responded genuinely instead of politely to people who tell them: “You need to leave.” or “Your children are being hurt.”

It would be the most sarcastic rendition ever of: “OH MY GOD. THAT’S IT! LEAVE! MY GOD, I NEVER THOUGHT OF LEAVING! NOT ONCE. YOU ARE A GENIUS.”

Being genuinely helpful means respecting her enough to know that if leaving was an option, she would have done it by now. It means respecting her enough to know that she is doing everything she can to protect her children.

But I am familiar with scratching that itch. I’ve done it, and I still struggle with it today. We do it because when a friend confides in us about painful realities in their relationships, at first, we feel honored that they trust us enough to be that vulnerable with us. We also believe that she wants our help in solving the problem. And we can’t wait to meet our need to feel helpful. But most of us are ill-equipped to identify what is helpful to her.  Being genuinely helpful means putting her needs front and center and setting your need to feel helpful to the side.

Mistakes and Assumptions

Deciding that we are in the role of “helper” or even “rescuer” is our first mistake. Our second mistake is deciding that the best course of action is to get her out of the relationship or marriage as soon as possible.

I can almost hear people yelling at their screens, “What other possible role or course of action even exists outside of helping her leave?!? She needs to GET OUT!!”

This is an excellent question and it has good answers:

  1. When we believe that the solution is for her to leave, we assume that the hurtful and dangerous behaviors will stop. The opposite is true. Asking her to leave is asking her to put herself and her children in more danger.
  2. The most critical resource that she needs in order to escape abuse is the unshakeable conviction that she knows what she is doing. The person who is treating her poorly works daily to convince her otherwise, and we mimic that behavior when we assume that we need to take control or make decisions for her.
  3. The second most critical resource she needs in order to escape abuse are people who will support the decisions she makes. That support builds the most critical resource mentioned above. This is the opposite of taking control of the situation and making decisions for her.

We also find ourselves scratching an itch instead of being genuinely helpful because situations like these look deceptively simple.

For example, we like to think that the partner engaging in the hurtful behavior is the entire problem. If that were true, then wouldn’t we see women successfully leaving partners like that, and going on to have happy lives? Instead, we see a culture that does not support working families, require the court system to adequately handle abuse, or believe women, which makes it very difficult for women to successfully leave. Additionally, we may see her leave one bad relationship for a person who looks like a knight in shining armor, only for him to also engage in hurtful behavior down the road.

How to Be Genuinely Helpful and Avoid Scratching an Itch

  • Keep her confidence. 
    • If it gets back to her husband that she told someone, she could be in danger.
    • Scratching an Itch: Calling your friend to gossip as soon as she leaves.
    • Being Genuinely Helpful: Calling the domestic violence hotline to get support for yourself so that you are less tempted to vent your frustrations to a friend who may share with others.
  • Learn more about the complexities of abusive or emotionally neglectful relationships.
    • Keep the hotline number for your local domestic violence agency on hand.
      • They are best equipped to provide safety planning and other resources.
    • Consider becoming trained as a crisis counselor for victims of domestic violence.
    • Visit National Network to End Domestic Violence for more information.
    • Scratching an Itch: Insisting that she leave and go to the shelter.
    • Being Genuinely Helpful: Offering to go with her the first time she talks to a counselor/advocate.
  • Drop your agenda and timeline.
    • Scratching an Itch: Telling her she’s crazy for hoping things will get better.
    • Being Genuinely Helpful: Reminding her that she survived this long on her skill set alone. You know she knows what she is doing.
  • Model healthy boundaries and self-care.
    • Scratching an Itch: Opening up your home to her in an immediate effort to get her to leave sooner than she is ready. This usually goes south.
    • Being Genuinely Helpful: Asking her what resources she is ready for right now.
    • Being Genuinely Helpful: Take care of yourself by using the hotline at your local domestic violence agency when you are frustrated – supporting a person who is being mistreated is very taxing, and they know how to support you too.

So how did I respond to the person at the beginning of this post? I followed a two-step process of recognizing my reactions when I wanted to scratch an itch, pausing to set aside that urge, and then attempting to be genuinely helpful instead.

She told me a particularly devastating account that included her husband accusing her of being a terrible mother and threatening to have her investigated by CYS. So much of me wanted to show my anger at him and tell her, “This is abusive.” But I know that “abuse” is a very scary word and using it as a label is almost never helpful to a person who is opening up for the first time.  It would make me feel better, not her. Additionally, I knew that openly showing that I did not like her husband would cause her pain and only inspire her to defend him. Of course, she wants me to like him – I can understand that! Despite all that he has done, she still loves him and wants her friends to see him in a positive light.

So I tried to be genuinely helpful by focusing on the behavior instead of the person and said, “I want you to know that you are not the first person who has told me something like this. And it’s simply not true that you’re a terrible mother. He only said that because he knows how important being a mother is to you, and he knew it would hurt you the worst. It’s actually evidence that you are a good mother.” My hope was that responses like these would give her information about his behavior in a non-threatening way, and would make her feel like she could always talk to me.

In conclusion, this post is not intended to explain all of the dynamics of neglectful, abusive, or unhealthy relationships. This post’s purpose is to help people pause before giving in to the temptation of scratching an itch. I focused on people who are being hurt by their partners because your response to them carries a lot of weight. It will influence their decision to continue to seek help or to retreat. While it usually takes more effort to respond in a genuinely helpful way, the payoff in seeing how to be truly helpful in these situations is far greater than the temporary satisfaction of scratching an itch.

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