I was relatively intoxicated, trying to discern the made up faces of my high school friends at a party. We stood mimicking a prayer circle, holding a vigil for my tumultuous relationship with an ex-boyfriend who denied, to my face, the incidences of emotional and sexual abuse that occurred during our eight months together.
I had bumped into him that night. He feigned friendliness in front of my friends and I was seething inside. I tried to ignore him, but I couldn’t ignore the resurfacing inner turmoil. I sought comfort in the familiarity of my high school friends, and transposed the feelings of guilt and rage into a confessional monologue, which fell on their ears.
There’s no manual outlining how to react to a first-hand accounts of abusive relationships. Instead, many of us take on the role as the prescription friend, someone who offers a temporary relief and treats symptomatic pain, but rarely, if ever, goes beyond that. I’ve been guilty of this myself, and have never fully understood what it meant to actually listen.
The night I ran into my ex my friends all gasped at the right time, cursed him when I tried to recollect my thoughts and provided supportive-sounding words whenever they thought appropriate. Despite their collective cries denouncing him as a fuckboy, their assurance that I was better off without him and their assertions that they “understood completely” what I was going through, I didn’t feel any better.
In fact, I felt worse.
I could make out their looks of pity and felt even more alone when I heard their hollow reassurance.
Like prescription drugs prescribed by professionals as temporary relief, talking to people about your problems is supposed to offer some kind of release or catharsis. I didn’t initially want to tell my friends, seeing as we haven’t spoken properly all year, yet I needed the emotional escape, and they were willing to listen.
So I relapsed into my old habits of telling them everything that was wrong with life as though it was something old friends did with each other. But as my story unravelled, it didn’t feel therapeutic. It felt ritualistic, and it was only later I realised my friends felt implicitly entitled to hearing my experiences due to our almost eight-year status as “friends”. I say implicitly because there was no mention that I should only tell them if I felt comfortable; my recollection of events seemed like a responsibility I had to uphold as part of a contractual agreement between friends.
Those that had never been in romantic relationships had become love experts overnight, where they parroted generic consolations from over-exaggerated teen dramas. Such exclamations only offered a fleeting respite from the circus around me and were – ironically – disempowering, despite their intentions.
If I was better than him, why did I stay with him and not realise his manipulative ways? Don’t we usually find affinity with our equals? Am I just as bad because I let the relationship continue for as long as it did?
When you’re on prescribed medicine and notice its inefficacy, you naturally bombard your doctor, Google, with questions:I’ve been on this medication for a while now, why am I now only starting to see signs of fake empathy? Why don’t I feel any better? How do I get rid of these feelings of disillusionment that are slowly eating me alive?
My friends’ misguided attempts to alleviate my symptomatic pain became reductive when they tried to liken my experiences to theirs. Comparison, the patriarchal mechanism to dismantle supportive networks between women, reared its ugly head to silence my suffering. My treatment finished with affirmations of “you’ll be fine” and “you’re strong enough to get through this” before they headed back to the mingling crowds of the party.
That night, I wish we had sat down some place quieter, undisturbed by woeful attempts at dance music. I didn’t want to feel smaller than I already did when they crowded around me with their pointed heels, nor did I want to feel as emotionally isolated from them than I already did. Instead of attempted empathy, honesty would be much more appreciated – a simple “I have no idea what you’re going through” would have been way less patronising than their “totally understanding”. I now realise my discomfort hid behind the guise of familiarity and, at the time, yearned for advice less prescriptive than theirs.
It felt like they only heard what I said, rather than listening and responding accordingly. I wish they asked me what I wanted to do, and how I was truly feeling, instead of belittling it as a black and white fight and disregarding the grey in between. At the time, I felt as though I couldn’t address the complexities of still feeling connected to my ex. I was still feeling lonely without him, and missed talking to him. But it felt invalid to feel this because of the vulnerabilities he imposed on me. I still loathed his smirking face though, and just needed a safe space to express this emotional entanglement.
No one’s experience with abuse is ever simplistic, but is highly individual and personal. There is no blanket prescriptive advice to “cure all”, only time and unconditional support can ease the pain felt.