Culture & Conversation Violence

Swimming in the Waters of Patriarchy: A Q&A With Anti-Domestic Abuse Advocate Karen McAndless-Davis

Eleanor J. Bader

In the new, updated edition of the book When Love Hurts, the authors deconstruct the persistent stereotypes about who experiences intimate partner violence and why.

When Canadian anti-domestic abuse advocates Jill Cory and Karen McAndless-Davis first self-published When Love Hurts in 2000, readers told them that the book had been “life-saving.” In the introduction to the book’s new third edition, the friends and co-authors posit why: Abuse can be confusing, isolating, and overwhelming, so much so that survivors question their own judgment, mental health, and sometimes, whether they are being abused.

When Love Hurts helps readers understand that they are not alone and also that they are not imagining a problem where none exist. Instead, the authors outline—in basic, easy-to-understand language—the many forms that abuse can take. Building on psychologist Lenore Walker’s pioneering work on the cycle of abuse, Cory and McAndless-Davis go through a long list of common abusive tactics, including threatening to take children, harming pets, controlling the family budget, threatening suicide, displaying or using weapons, destroying treasured items, making unwanted sexual demands, and being verbally condescending. The pair offer a “power and control wheel” that explicates kinds of exploitative behavior and also share concrete examples to illustrate how women being harmed can recognize abuse, break free, and heal from the trauma they and their families have experienced.

Cory and McAndless-Davis know their subject well. Both have worked with abuse victims for decades, and their hands-on expertise—including McAndless-Davis’ personal experience of abuse in her marriage—provides ample support for their arguments. And, while the book is exclusively geared to heterosexual couples, they emphasize that many of their conclusions are equally applicable to LGBTQ unions in which power imbalances exist. What’s more, professionals who help people living with intimate partner violencecounselors, doctors, ministers, nurses, psychotherapists, social workers, and medical technicians, among them—will find much of value in the text.

Karen McAndless-Davis spoke to Rewire by telephone about the new edition of When Love Hurts.

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Rewire: Feminists first began talking about domestic abuse in the 1970s and 1980s. Have things improved due to heightened awareness of this issue?

McAndless-Davis: In some ways, things have gotten worse. Cutbacks in social services mean that women in the United States and Canada are now routinely turned away from shelters because there are not enough beds.

Technology has also had a negative impact. Fifteen or 20 years ago, if a woman left a relationship, she could more easily separate emotionally. Now, he can put stuff up on Facebook or constantly text her. If there are children in common, the courts [may] expect her to respond to each and every one of his messages.

There’s also been a powerful shift around custody. The so-called fathers’ rights movement has lobbied the courts successfully, and 50/50 custody is now considered desirable. Even if the man continues to call his ex-wife or -girlfriend names, even if he demeans her in front of the children, even if he returns the kids to her house late, and even if the kids are scared of him, [some] courts like to award 50/50 custody. If the pair is living apart, judges tend to assume it’s just two adults having issues.

But I have to say, Jill and I are constantly amazed that despite these challenges, women continue to leave their abusers and build safe homes for themselves and their children. Still, it is heartbreaking for women to have to hand their children over to someone they’re afraid of. It goes against every instinct.

RewireWhen Love Hurts outlines an array of behaviors to help readers determine if they are being abused. Why is it so difficult for some women to acknowledge or recognize abuse?

KMD: Women continue to be shocked to discover that this is happening to them. There are persistent stereotypes about who gets abused. Experience has taught me and Jill that abuse can happen to anyone, but there is still a lot of victim blaming. The idea is that if the woman had better self-esteem, wasn’t poor, had a better education, or better boundaries, she would not be abused, would not have “let this happen” to her. There is also the idea that you’re not being abused unless you’re black and blue [with bruises].

Over and over again, we see women who say, “But I’m a strong person. I stand up to him. I can’t be an abused person. I’m a professional. I went to college.” People also tend to think abuse can’t happen in their circles, to a woman they know. The flip side of that is that they don’t believe a man in their life can be an abuser.

As we write in When Love Hurts, abuse can take many forms. It’s about belief systems—the idea of male entitlement—not education, race, or class. If the man believes he is superior to his partner and believes he is entitled to attention or status, he can become abusive.

We recently met a woman who had a very stressful job as a nurse in a neonatal intensive care unit. Her husband would tell people that his wife “played with babies all day,” [implying] her work was totally frivolous. That’s an example of verbal abuse. He was belittling her.

Rewire: Are any programs effective in stopping male abuse?

KMD: Very few. First, the man needs to recognize that he has a problem and needs help. Then he needs to find a program where the staff are well trained about the many types of abuse that exist. Jill and I have found groups to be more effective than one-to-one therapy because a group is better at holding the man accountable. If participants are honest, when the man sits in the circle and admits that he called his ex the names he’d promised not to use, it forces him to look at his beliefs and address the ways he’s been self-centered and acted superior.

Stopping abuse requires him to change his core ideology and come to grips with the fact that he is 100 percent responsible for what he says and does.  If he realizes that something is wrong with him, there is hope that he can and will change. It does happen.

Rewire: Are there red flags that we should teach teenage girls to recognize when they begin dating?

KMD: We do nothing to prepare young people to date. We take all these steps to keep kids safe on the road, when driving, but we send young people out on dates with very little information. Just talking about dating, cyberstalking, and the different kinds of abuse can be eye-opening.

There are things young women should watch for. They should pay attention to what happens when they say “no” to a guy’s demands: “No, I don’t want you to touch me there; no, I don’t want to see that movie; no, I don’t want to eat that, drink that, take that pill.” Everyone needs to be able to say “no” in a relationship. It’s important to see how your date responds when you assert that right.

Another thing to caution young women about is the pace of a relationship. Men who move too fast, say “I love you” too soon, or want to move in together too quickly may be abusers. What happens if the woman says she wants to slow things down? Is he willing to pull back? Women also need to see how he responds when she goes out with other friends, stays home to study, or just wants to be alone.

We also need to talk about sex and sexual abuse, since sexual abuse is a big piece of the story. Women tell us that their abusive partners become moody, yell at them, or refuse to allow them to get any sleep unless they have sex …. Sex needs to be 100 percent consensual—not just when you’re dating, but when you’re in an established relationship.

We know that when physical abuse is present, it [often] begins when the woman is pregnant. Abusive men often try to control a woman’s reproductive health. Sometimes they won’t allow them to use birth control; sometimes he’ll force her to get pregnant or force her to have an abortion. Pregnancy seems to be a way for him to increase his control over the woman. She and he are now intertwined, and he believes he does not need to “honeymoon” her any longer. Often as she gets more and more committed to the pregnancy, his behaviors become worse and worse.

RewireWhen Love Hurts avoids recommendations about whether to remain in a relationship or leave a partner, wisely recognizing that this is something each women has to determine for herself. But for those who wish to flee, are there impediments that make the process more difficult than it has to be?

KMD: Absolutely. There are a few things. Here in Vancouver, British Columbia, where Jill and I run groups for women who have been, or still are, in abusive relationships, there is a tremendous shortage of affordable housing. Colleagues who work in shelters tell us that this is a major reason women return to their abusers. I know that this is also true in much of the United States.

Here in Canada, a woman can only be housed in a shelter for 30 days. It’s not long enough. Since housing is a huge, huge issue, after 30 days, some women start sleeping in their cars. Others stay with friends or family if they can. What we need is second-stage housing: places where women and their children can stay for six months to two years. This would give them time to stabilize, get a job, and find housing.

In addition, many women are financially trapped. They often have no idea of whether their husband or child’s father has any money. Even if she owns half a house, it can take years to force a sale. We need a lot more transitional housing here in Vancouver, but this is not just a problem here. It’s pretty universal.

Similarly, we need the faith community to be far more supportive of women and less judgmental toward those who leave. Religious groups need a better understanding of the problem. This is not about improving communication between women and men, and it’s not about giving the man another chance. It’s about gender inequities.

RewireWhen Love Hurts describes sexism and male supremacy and entitlement in no uncertain terms, but it never uses the word “feminist.” Was that intentional?

KMD: Yes. We want the book to be accessible to the widest audience possible. Since words like “feminism” and “feminist” can mean different things to different women, we decided to avoid them. We also know that some women don’t identify as feminists or may not even know what feminism is, and we wanted women who might be at the starting point of wondering if something is wrong in their relationship to feel welcome to pick up the book and begin reading.

We run back-to-back groups for women—they run for 20 weeks and meet for two-hour sessions—and as the groups progress, participants typically can’t help but notice certain patterns of male behavior and entitlement. It develops organically. People tend to assume that sexism is a thing of the past, but we are still swimming in the waters of patriarchy. As we talk, the women begin to understand the way society works and what we’re up against.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity. 

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