Not Really About Nigella

Over the years I have worked as an executive coach I have had a small but regularly recurring number of clients who have confided in me about experiencing domestic abuse: men with other men, women with other women, men attacked by women, women attacked by men. The abuse was more often mental than physical, though sometimes both and always startling for its virulent spite.

What my clients have described was a pattern which began as ‘taking care of you’. This was possible because the abused person was temporarily needy, felt helpless after some crisis in their lives had robbed them of feeling resourceful. This might have been the sudden loss of a job, a partner abruptly leaving, the death of a close family member or a massive disappointment like having a PhD thesis rejected. Whatever it was, it left them feeling diminished and vulnerable.

The abused person has usually been intelligent, successful, good looking, nicely dressed: someone to show off, a prize. It starts slowly with the abuser suggesting that friends are not good enough for the partner and that he/she is a better protector and confidant. Doubts about the friends’ loyalty or suitability as companions are seeded and they are usually plausible enough to be believed. The abuser says that life is better when ‘it’s just the two of us’, playing to the growing insecurity of the partner. Thus the partner becomes steadily isolated.

The abuser is both fascinated and repelled by the victim. It is so easy to upset them! And so easy to explain it all away by the allegedly overwhelming nature of the love they feel or by just having had a little too much to drink and it will never happen again, or it was just a joke that got a bit out of hand. The more the victim tries to appease, the more seductive it is to do it again – such power, especially if it is over someone the rest of the world sees as desirable!

All this is not a secret to those who know the couple. They will have witnessed the open put downs, the red face and bulging eyes of suppressed or open anger. What they will not know is the distress of the abused person who, to protect his or her pride, will usually brush it all off.

The celebrated Irish writer Edna O’Brien recently published her memoir Country Girl in which she describes herself as a very young woman in an abusive marriage to another writer, Ernest Gélber. As with many of these man-woman relationships he was much older and began as her devoted lover and rescuer, patronising her with faint praise for her ‘scribbling’. As she became more and more successful his jealous rage grew. Demanding that she make over a cheque for film rights to him, on her refusal he ordered her upstairs.
‘He rushed towards me, almost soundless, and sat me on the bed. His hand came around my throat, a clasp so sudden that I thought I was already dead, yet cravenly fighting for words, the words still stuck in my craw, but waiting to be said. The word yes, yes.’

Edna ran away, and in a deadpan account, describes getting custody of her children from a judge who saw through Ernest’s accusatory ravings in court.

Psychologically this is what is happening: the abuser’s overwhelming need is for control. He or she had an aloof and dominating parent and decided that the only way to freedom was to be more dominating than the parent. The need for control is linked to the question, ‘Am I competent?’ In terror that the answer might be no, the need is to exert authority over everything. There is what Edna O’Brien described in her former husband: ‘an on-going fury with the world’.

The abused partners have commonly grown up with a different kind of parent: one who alternated critical harshness with affection. The parent withheld approval for reasons that are capricious and inexplicable to the child. The child learnt to placate in the hope of getting a few crumbs of love. The question the adult asks is ‘Am I loveable?’ It is intolerable to consider that the answer might be no, so, especially in an emotional crisis, the person seeks opportunities to find people who will offer love, even when, as with the parent, it is conditional on ‘good’ behaviour defined by someone else.

This clashing mix of needs is what makes these adult partnerships so toxic. The abuser doesn’t want or need affection – which is the coinage their victim offers. The abuser’s wish for control is easily mistaken for a wish to care and protect. The victim’s need for love can be misinterpreted as a wish to be controlled. Neither can get what they want. It is impossible to achieve complete control over another human being. It is impossible to win love through appeasement.

‘Why does he/she stay?’ is derided as a naive question by those who specialise in domestic abuse, but it is actually still a good question. The answer is that personal, financial and emotional ties are tangled, especially where children are involved. And who gets custody of the friends and the dog or cat? Untangling takes time, money and legal help. Doing it is daunting and it can be easier to procrastinate in the vain hope that it might get better. Can couple-counselling help? Probably not, except in the aftermath of a decision to separate.

From the perspective of the abused, the tipping point has often been abruptly seeing the abuser as an object of pity not fear. Alison Lurie’s novel Truth and Consequences opens with the heroine unexpectedly seeing her husband against hazy sunshine and not recognizing the old man he suddenly resembled: ‘an aging man with slumped shoulders, a sunken chest and a protruding belly leaning on a cane’.

Most of the clients who have described such abuse to me have been reflecting on the past. Like Edna O’Brien, they have escaped and have been able to learn from the experience. I have also many times worked with senior executive clients whose need for control is painfully evident. Some have confessed to being accused of abuse by former partners, and have hotly denied it. They have often seemed bewildered and lost, not realising how and when the balance of power had shifted: the ‘victim’ out-achieved them, their own health deteriorated, they went too far in public, they did the same behaviour at work and were accused of bullying. They believe that they have acted only in the best interests of others; they have been misunderstood. This will normally be the crisis that has brought them to coaching; a kind of last chance from the organization to understand and change their behaviour.

Is it appropriate for us to coach a client on these matters? Yes, as long as you feel you are within your own professional boundaries of skill and comfort. Personally I trust clients to be right on this matter: if they judge that we can help them, we probably can.