Names have been changed
Meet Peter. He is a 21-year-old male that grew up in New England. Peter describes his upbringing as a close, tight-knit family. His parents have been married for over twenty years. Peter was raised in a loving, stable home. He has two older sisters and one younger sister. He credits having female siblings as the reason why he treats women the way he does: with respect, kindness, and patience. Peter refers to himself as a gentleman, supporting women in feminism and whatever role they choose in a relationship and in life. Peter represents the kind of man who every woman wishes existed outside of romance novels – a sweet and gentle spirit that is truly kind and loving.
When I explained to Peter that I wanted to list through the behaviors in The Power and Control Wheel, he agreed that this was a good option. He told me stories along the way. Of the multiple abusive relationships that Peter has been in, only some of the behaviors applied to all of the women that were his aggressors. Certain traits were across the board while other women only had a few. For the purposes of this case study, I will list the women along the way in relation to the stories Peter told me. It is important to mention that all names have been changed to protect Peter’s privacy.
In order to avoid any confusion, I will tell you now about Peter’s two most prominent abusive relationships.
Jessica was Peter’s first abusive relationship. They met when he was fifteen and a sophomore in high school. Their relationship was on-and-off for two to three years. The abuse began about seven months after the relationship began and continued consistently until the break up.
Sarah was Peter’s girlfriend when he was nineteen. They met in college. Their relationship lasted three months. The abuse began about a month after they met.
Using Social Status/Peer Pressure
When I asked Peter if any of his partners had ever treated him like a servant, he told me that both Jessica and Sarah treated him that way. They would demand that he pay for meals and buy them things. If they wanted something, he had to pay for it.
Peter also told me that Sarah frequently made all the decisions in the relationship. The wheel is called Power and Control for a reason – in relationships we must find balance and share the power and control. In Peter’s case, Sarah would hold onto the power and control whenever possible. She also acted as the “master of the castle” in that way.
As far as defining male and female roles, both Jessica and Sarah behaved this way. Peter was the man and as such he was responsible for financially stabilizing both of these women. He was the caretaker, the man who did not have feelings or sensitivity, and was to be the provider for things that they needed.
When it came to peer pressure, Sarah would tell lies about Peter to his peers. She would spread rumors and say that Peter hit her. Peter says, “When we broke up she told everyone that I would hit her. I’ve never hit anyone.”
Peter described both Jessica and Sarah as being emotionally abusive and using anger to be abusive. For example, both partners put him down repeatedly. They would tell him that he was useless and going nowhere in his life, particularly when he helped his family. As previously stated, Peter grew up in a tight-knit family that was very close. He recalls a specific incident where he took Sarah with him to pick up his sister from a basketball game. Peter quotes Sarah as saying to him: “Why the fuck do we have to waste our time doing this? Don’t you love me?” Peter explained that Sarah’s position was that he should not expend energy on his family and instead meet her needs. Sarah felt that Peter’s desire to support his family made him weak.
When it comes to name calling, Peter’s been called everything in the book. When I asked him specifically what names he has been called he listed faggot, dick, asshole, prick, and bastard. Both Jessica and Sarah called him these names. They called him these names sometimes during arguments but other times during moments where Peter was being vulnerable and trying to express concern about the relationship. When Peter would try to point out that his feelings were being hurt and he did not feel respected, he was told that he was being a pussy and a faggot and to suck it up.
Sarah would also play mind games with Peter. He told me that Sarah had gone to a party once and kissed another man. She told him what she had done, and Peter thanked her for her honesty. He wanted to have a conversation about what happened, but more important than her indiscretion was her honesty. When Sarah realized that he wasn’t angry at her, she told him that the reason he wasn’t upset was because he obviously didn’t care about her, and that he was a fucking faggot. Peter’s words telling this story: “Mind. Blown.” We laughed at the absurdity of her statement, but we also talked about how it made him feel. Between this and having indiscretions while telling him that she loved him – Peter felt that he had no value.
Sarah would also make Peter feel guilty. If he didn’t behave in a certain way, it was because he didn’t love her.
Peter and I talked, at great length, about fear in a relationship. Not all abuse can cause you to be afraid, but there are very specific kinds of hostility that cause one to feel fear. When I asked Peter if he felt afraid in both relationships, he answered yes. Since fear is a complex emotion and can stem from many different causes, I will simply illustrate a few of the events that happened in both relationships.
Jessica, for example, threatened to commit suicide if Peter did not stay in the relationship with her. This is a common behavior in aggressors. It is a way of using fear and guilt to control another person. Peter states, about this, “I’ve been with a girl [Jessica] that threatened to commit suicide all the time and used it against me. That pretty fucking hefty at fifteen. I don’t want that on my conscience, some girl cutting herself.”
Sarah would frequently use violence to control Peter. He told me that she would act out in the most aggressive and bizarre ways. When we were talking about it, Peter was laughing at the absurdity of it all. He had a look on his face that was completely stumped: still to this day he cannot quite get a grip on how completely insane she was behaving.
Sarah would throw lamps across a room. She would punch the windows from the inside of his car. All of a sudden she would get upset and just start punching the window from the passenger seat. Sarah punched mirrors and broke them. When I asked Peter how it made him feel to witness her behaving that way, he said, “I was scared as fucking shit. First of all, I’m the guy in the relationship. So, if for some reason the cops come, I’m the target regardless because cops don’t buy into that.” Of course Peter is referring to how a police officer would assess a situation. In Peter’s mind, he would be arrested because he is the man and the stereotype is that men abuse women. For Peter, he was at risk just based on his gender. This caused a feeling of helplessness and vulnerability. Sarah was completely in control of what happened to him.
When I asked Peter how he handled Sarah’s acts of violence, he said, “There was nothing I could do about it. What am I supposed to do, restrain her? No, because then my hands are on her. I don’t want physical contact. You’re just sitting there awestruck like ‘oh my god I don’t know what to do’. I would just remove myself from the situation. Go outside until she calmed down, or leave.”
Peter recalls the time he was most afraid with Sarah. They were in the car driving back from a concert and she was agitated for being lost. When he suggested that they stop for directions, Sarah said to him that perhaps she should just drive her car off the road. He had to talk her out of that from the passenger seat.
As far as physical violence and contact, when I asked Peter if he had been hit before, his response was “”Fuck yeah” as if it were the most commonplace occurrence in the world. He said that Sarah would play-wrestle with him, but it would quickly turn into something violent. She would punch him all over his body and he would stop her, making it clear that it wasn’t playful or fun, it was not okay. Her response was almost always that he was just being a pussy or a faggot and to grow a pair.
In terms of the role of sex in the relationship, I asked Peter what would happen when he did not want to have sex with his partner. He said that although it did not happen very frequently, Sarah and Jessica would both get angry and leave the room. Even during our interview, Peter seemed uncomfortable talking about this. He behaved defensively, justifying that sometimes men just don’t want to have sex. He listed the reasons as severe exhaustion or being too drunk after going to a party. I felt that he was trying to explain himself to me, as though I might yank away his “man card” for admitting that sometimes he doesn’t want to have sex. In a society where men are portrayed as sexual beings that are always thinking about sex – Sarah and Jessica’s reactions reinforced this stereotype but also made him feel that he was not fulfilling the male role in his relationship that they had defined for him.
When I asked Peter about whether or not he had done anything illegal for any of his partners, he told me that he would frequently steal for Sarah. I was surprised; this is the same person that found money and returned it to its owner rather than keeping it. Why on earth would Peter steal for his girlfriend? As he puts it, “I have stolen for girls because they told me to. Most every relationship I’ve had I’ve had to steal for people. I’ve stolen nail polish. CDs. A pair of jeans once from Forever 21 [a store in a mall]. I should have just dropped the seven dollars on the pair of jeans.”
When I asked him how it even got to a point of theft in the conversation, his explanation was simple. Sarah would want something and demand that he purchase it for her. If he didn’t have the money, Sarah told him to steal it. He described the conversation as not-optional, nor did Sarah seem to feel ashamed of what she was ordering him to do.
When Peter and I talked about communication in these abusive relationships, I asked him if he ever tried to talk to Jessica or Sarah about the way they were treating him. The responses varied.
Sometimes the women would tell him to get over himself and take it like a man. Other times, recalls Peter, “they wouldn’t try to justify it, they would get upset. Yell at me and walk away and not talk to me. Tell me I’m being ridiculous.”
Sarah would sometimes tell Peter that it was his fault. Or, she would transfer the attention to some unrelated topic, such as something that Peter had done a long time ago to upset her. She would exaggerate the circumstances and before he knew it, they were having a discussion about his faults in their relationship.
As far as the violent incidents, I asked Peter if he ever tried to talk to her about it. He told me that she would act normally as if nothing had happened, and if he tried to push it further she would simply walk away. Sarah was unwilling to accept responsibility for any abusive behavior. Period.
Peter told me that it was mostly Jessica that tried to control his behavior and change him. She would make decisions on who he would spend time with – both men and women. Jessica felt that some of Peter’s friends were “bad influences” and did not want him spending time with them. There were also some friends that Peter was allowed to hang out with, but Jessica had to be there. Peter describes her as being very jealous and possessive. As Peter describes it, “You’re not allowed to do what you want to do. You have to spend time with her all the time. You lose your life.”
Jessica would also comment on the clothes that Peter wore, telling him to wear other types of clothing. She would make him listen to the kind of music she liked.
After talking about the Power and Control Wheel, Peter and I talked about the emotional effects of the abuse and how his view of love and relationships has changed. Peter told me that his first abusive relationship – with Jessica – taught him most everything he knows about boundaries. After they broke up, Peter found that he put less of himself into relationships. He stopped being willing to change as an individual. Although he did meet Sarah and had a second abusive relationship with her, it was very brief, and that experience solidified what boundaries he has. Peter comments, “My first real relationship [Jessica] I had to be pushed to my breaking point. After that, the signs become so much more apparent and I stopped putting up with that bullshit.”
We also talked about him feeling somewhat jaded from the experience. Although he does not necessarily feel that something bad is going to happen in his current relationship, he is unwilling to try to make it work if he is pushed as far as he was before.
During our conversation, Peter mentioned how Jessica’s abuse made him feel awful about himself. He did not talk to anyone about the abuse when it was happening. When I asked him how he coped with this kind of treatment as a teenager, he says, “I used to drink really heavily afterwards [after the events occurred] and I would write music. Fight, they leave, and you’re like ‘fuck I don’t know what to do I feel so out of control’. I would just get annihilated. So you just sit in your room and listen to The Cure and do your thing.”
Peter also tells me that he thinks he was depressed. When he was nineteen he thought about committing suicide from the depression. He wanted to hang himself and had the belt around his neck. Then he just got sad and took it off. I asked him where the depression came from and he immediately told me it was from Jessica and Sarah. He told me that he felt like an invalid person and that he must be crazy to trigger abuse in other women. Peter described thinking that it must be his fault, that he must have something wrong with him for women to treat him this way.
Peter is in a much happier place now, but he still feels the weight of what happened to him. He still goes through period of depression and describes it as a dark place, that he wanted to die at one point and sometimes still does. He told me that he believes the abuse he experienced changed the way he looks at love and relationships. He feels somewhat jaded. Although he is in a healthy relationship now and seems to be very happy, it is obvious to me that what happened to him has left a wound that will never quite heal. At the very least, it will be a jagged and ugly scar on his soul.
We talked about abuse in society and the way it is defined. Peter commented that society defines abuse as violence first and it is almost always a male aggressor and the female is helpless. Even when Peter contacted me to be interviewed, his words to me were these: “Believe it or not, I was the victim and not the aggressor.” He felt the need to point out, to me, that just because he wanted to be interviewed that didn’t make him the abuser. Just this statement alone reinforces the way that the stereotype affects how we view abuse as a society.