Thursday, March 8, 2012

Abusive Relationships and Nonviolence

by Miki Kashtan
“If we could read the secret history of our enemies we should find in each man’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.” -- Longfellow
Recently I received an email from someone I will call Julie in which she expressed her profound reservations about two of the seventeen core commitments that form the basis of the Consciousness Transformation Community and which to me describe the foundation of a consciousness of nonviolence. Here is the text of these two:
Assumption of Innocence: even when others’ actions or words make no sense to me or frighten me, I want to assume a need-based human intention behind them. If I find myself attributing ulterior motives or analyzing others’ actions, I want to seek support to ground myself in the clarity that every human action is an attempt to meet needs no different from my own.
Resolving Conflicts: even when I have many obstacles to connecting with someone, I want to make myself available to work out issues between us with support from others. If I find myself giving up on someone, I want to seek support to remember the magic of dialogue and entrust myself to the process of healing and reconciliation to restore connection.
Julie’s struggle stems from her experience of having been in an abusive relationship for years that she barely managed to leave. Her deep concern is that for her and others in similar situations focusing on the “Assumption of Innocence,” which directs attention to the needs behind the other person’s actions, can interfere with having sufficient clarity to leave. As she says: “It may seem that all you need to do is connect to your own needs and you would leave, however, it is a complicated dynamic … and sadly enough your own needs are not important enough to consider that option. Being able to see his needs behind his actions is one of the factors that kept me in that relationship.” Instead, the turning point for her was coming to an understanding that he was trying to control her, which provided her sufficient clarity to leave. She is, accordingly, left with a big worry about the safety of people in abusive relationships were they to take on practicing the commitments.
Julie’s concerns are some of the most delicate challenges to a nonviolent approach to life. In the painful intimacy of a relationship, what exactly would a nonviolent response be? Is it possible to love someone, have compassionate understanding for their choices, see their human beauty despite their harmful actions, and still make a clear choice to leave? How can we incorporate into this framework compassionate understanding of the extraordinary suffering of people like Julie which leaves them unable to stand up for their needs? When someone like Julie is potentially at risk for loss of life, as is the case in many such relationships (a risk which, when physical violence is present, often increases upon leaving), who can even begin to offer suggestions about what she could do?
And so, I tread lightly, without knowing, grateful to Julie for her willingness to examine these questions in her own life and present the dilemma so vulnerably and plainly.
Accepting Our Limitations
What first comes to mind is simply tenderness; a soft and spacious embracing of the difficulty, of the not knowing; an acceptance of human fallibility, in this case her earlier inability to attend to her own needs. Indeed, the very first commitment in the sequence is “Openness to Myself,” which I see as foundational to any path we may be on. The path towards nonviolence begins with self. It’s about noticing, without judgment or resentment, that she didn’t have sufficient internal resources and resilience to break free of this relationship on the power of self-love alone. Noticing and accepting. Noticing and accepting. Learning self-acceptance is essential for any of us that want to be able to make different choices. This also calls for tenderness toward the judgments.
Imagining a Different Response
At some point, with conscious practice, and with some grace, we might get to a place where we can truly release any internal pressure of the form “I should have known to do it back then.” Then, and only then, Julie can visualize what it would have looked like to leave her ex with both her dignity and her love for him intact. Is it humanly possible? I can certainly imagine it. Is it likely? Sadly, no. I met a woman who saved herself from being killed by a man who broke into her apartment after he killed several other women in her town. When he began to hit her she engaged with him. The kinds of things she said to him completely astonished me; I would never have thought of them. Throughout the entire episode she was shouting at him to notice who she was and to remember that she is not the one oppressing his people. She kept telling him she wanted him to be able to live and make something of his life. At different moments she asked him to stop for a while and he did. In the end he left her bruised, with some broken bones, and fully alive.
I can’t think of many of us who could have pulled this off. I don’t truly believe I would be able to. Some people find such stories intimidating or overwhelming. I still find solace and inspiration from knowing that at least one woman was able to do it. Such stories give me energy to keep going, knowing I may never get where I want to do.
Compassion with Decisive Action
Compassion is often seen as an obstacle to decisive action. The thought tends to be that if we care about something and understand their needs, we won’t take clear action to honor our own needs. I see compassion differently, as an insurance policy of sorts. When I am equipped with compassion, my actions are motivated by care for everyone’s needs. Knowing this allows me to trust that my action will not be harmful to the other person, because I hold them with care.
Julie’s insight provides a key understanding for why so many, especially women, don’t leave relationships that are harmful to them. What kept Julie in place is the combination of not taking her own needs seriously and confusing compassion for his needs with a willingness to tolerate his actions.
What I am able to imagine is having Julie, or someone else in her position, wake up to the fullness of her own humanity, to the trust that she mattered in the world, and to the realization that no amount of seeing someone’s fundamental human innocence would mean putting up with more of his harmful behavior. That Julie or others have not found a path to this response doesn’t change the in-principle possibility of it happening.
And I loop back to acceptance. I want soft tenderness for Julie, for all the women and men who have walked out of such difficult situations however they managed to do it, and for all the women and men who are still trapped within such relationships, unable to find enough self-love, or support, or clarity, to make a move.
Engaging with People who Have Harmed us
Julie’s other concern relates to the commitment to “Resolving Conflicts.” Given that her former partner’s actions and strategies have not changed since she managed to leave him, she cannot see any way to engage in dialogue with him to work out issues. “It would be like putting my hand in a pan full of boiling water,” she wrote. Just as much as she couldn’t find a way to walk away with love and open-heart towards both herself and her ex, she is not -- or not yet! -- finding a way to engage with him.
You may ask, and many do: “But why would she want to?” This is the place where nonviolence shines with its deepest spiritual implications. I believe it was Gandhi, or perhaps MLK, who said that the first person that benefits from nonviolence is the person who practices it. For as long as I have to protect myself from something in order to maintain my emotional equilibrium, I know that I haven’t fully healed.
I recognize the existence of those places in me, I understand in most cases where they came from, and I know that my first and foremost task is to tenderly embrace that this is where I am. None of us can move further than our internal capacity to stretch. I want to honor that at the same time as recognizing that where I am may not be where I ultimately want to be for my own benefit. This is not about being a virtuous person.
It is about knowing that the road to full freedom takes me through fully embracing tenderly and engaging with the person whose actions so terrify me, provided I do it in a way that assures both of our well-being. Sometimes this assurance is not feasible. In cases where physical violence has occurred, no contact may well be the only path to physical safety for both people, at least for a while, at least until there is confidence that the other person has recovered their own humanity sufficiently to not inflict harm on others. Under such circumstances, it’s only inside my heart that I want to reach out and drop the protection, make myself fully available. If I ever get there, I will become invincible, regardless of outcome.


  1. Dear Miki,
    thank you so much for this article. It comes to me in a phase of my life where I seem to experience some of the pain that Julie experienced. Your article gives me trust and hope, it touches me deeply. Thank you.

  2. From the lense of our human interdependence, I would to add the dilemma of caring for others in these situations as well. When any of us walk away, we are removing a valuable resource to the situation and leaving another one of us humans to experience that same person acting out in pain in a repeating pattern I.e. Julie's ex, acting out in his next relationship.

    I particularly like the order of accepting our limitations, imagining another response and compassion with decisive action. I would like to add finding support to care for others and wonder if you are will to explore his idea Miki with or without me?

    1. Hi Taylor,

      I really love the growing circle of care I read in your perspective. I am very intrigued, and imagine I will continue to think about this perspective and the added factor for some time. I never know when a topic ripens for me to write about it, and so am letting this stand in receptive ground to see what unfolds. Much complexity here. I am right now aware of a person who is not leaving a very difficult situation out of care for someone else who is affected by it, and I am quite worried about the person that I know - I am worried that continuing in this vein is risking this person's well being significantly. No easy answers, apparently ever about anything of substance...

      With gratitude to you,


  3. "When any of us walk away, we are removing a valuable resource to the situation and leaving another one of us humans to experience that same person acting out in pain in a repeating pattern."

    Interesting thought, Taylor. The notion of accepting limitations, of "not moving further than our internal capacity to stretch," strikes me as the key here. I've lived through situations in which someone has a manifest need, I would do anything to help, and yet I am emphatically not the person to step in at that time. If I try to contribute myself at those times--particularly in relationships that are high risk for me--I may not HAVE a self to contribute down the road, when I might be of use. Perhaps the thing to do is to remain present to the possibility of engaging, so that when (if) the time becomes right I can still do it.

    I offer this for what it's worth, as someone who has not lived through the kind of relationship Julie describes. Like Miki, I want to tread very lightly indeed.

  4. So very interesting when I think about my former spouse. I do not engage with him, because I have yet to be able to hold onto my center when I do. My heart felt boundaries are not respected, and often the only choice I find available is to hang up the phone. Then that becomes the fodder for his discourse.

    Can I stretch myself enough to maintain a compassionate presence in the face of someone who only wants agreement with his decisions and his way of doing things? No. Do I want to be in that place? Probably not. It takes too much energy and I choose to spend my energy in other ways. So ultimately I am making that choice... Open that power to choose NOT to engage!

    Thank you for sharing this. It stirs up thoughts and feelings, and I will continue to ponder.

  5. I appreciate the clarity I see above about the factors involved in leaving abusive intimate relationships. I very much appreciate compassion for our current capacity, with an openness to deepen that capacity.

    It occurs to me that often social change work on a very broad scale is also about "abusive relationships" -- when we are dealing with the so-called 1%, is there not some kind of relationship there? Not intimate,perhaps, but somehow life-threatening, on a big scale? And how do we preserve ourselves and our own well-being while deepening our capacity to engage with others? Recognizing that we have choice, and recognizing the implications of turning toward and turning away. I'm wanting to find the connections between the interpersonal, intrapersonal, and societal violence and nonviolence.