The real reason we don’t draw a line in the sand when it comes to abuse is that it would incriminate too many people we know.
If you or someone you know has been the victim of another individual’s lack of integrity, you may qualify for compensation, or at the very least, be eligible for an apology. The definitive data is hard to come by; however, studies estimate that upwards of 70% of heterosexual women have been cheated on by a partner. Sure, women in heterosexual relationships cheat too, but those relationships are far less likely to survive the infidelity. I think I know why. My papa wasn’t a rolling stone, but that made him a very rare rock. Everywhere else I looked, men were almost expected to mess around outside of their relationships. I saw this growing up in Black American culture, West African culture, hell, American culture as well.
Wherever there were men claiming monogamy, there were men failing at it miserably. They were just different, my mother warned; they needed things that one woman simply couldn’t satisfy, she struggled to explain. A combination of lion on the pride parallels, a couple of Bible quotes, a lack of emotional maturity, and a splash of sexism made it all make sense. It was simply in a man’s nature to struggle with monogamy. Some of them, few of them, were able to avoid those urges. The rest, well, they either went about doing their dirt respectfully or disrespectfully.
I did my damnedest to keep in mind my mother’s advice as I navigated the dating world. I forgave the unforgivable, nursed childhood wounds while wounded myself, made excuses for inexcusable behavior, all in the name of men and their weaknesses. As a result, I was emotionally damaged beyond recognition. Which only made me believe something was really wrong with me. These other women were doing it, having their trust violated and still holding it together, keeping up appearances, playing their part as a partner. Here I was glued to grief over a little one-night stand. Why wasn’t I better at being cheated on? Wasn’t that part of being a woman?
Under a system of patriarchy, men make for shitty partners. We often focus on the ways patriarchy impacts women, but men are nowhere near exempt, to be quite honest. Under a patriarchal system, affectionate expression and emotions are seen as feminine experiences, so boys are discouraged from expressing and exploring their feelings, leading to delayed or stunted emotional maturation. A life of emotional repression can undoubtedly lead to mental health issues later in life. Studies suggest that men who subscribe to patriarchal norms saw gradual mental health decline and a decreased likelihood of seeking treatment.
Patriarchy doesn’t prepare boys to be nurturers, to be communicative, to practice delayed gratification for reasons other than religious ones. By equipping boys with half of what they need to fully be part of functional partnerships, we set young girls up for companionship that’s full of caretaking. What should contribute to our well-being contributes to our workload. And that’s just when we date young men dealing with emotional immaturity, who leave us doing the bulk of the emotional labor in a relationship. The damage is ten times worse when dealing with men who lack confidence and security. These relationships often turn into feeding frenzies where abuse is used as a means of siphoning self-esteem and self-worth from the healthy partner to the hurting one.
Three things happen when we’re cheated on. The first is we feel a flush of physical pain. It’s not in our heads, although it begins there. A University of Michigan study noted that the same parts of the brain responded to mild physical burns as it did a bad breakup. It’s not a myth; love stings. Second, we go through withdrawal. That’s right; love is also a drug. Our brains react to heartbreak the same way they would react to going cold turkey to an addictive substance. It’s as if a fix is taken away; infidelity interrupts the intense dopamine hit we get from being in love. Finally, it’s normal to ruminate or obsess over the incident. Cheating notably affects our brains. Psychology Today found that women, in particular, tended to think repetitively on the incident, fixating on causes, consequences, situational factors after the fact.
Interestingly enough, the act of ruminating after infidelity increased the likelihood of the betrayed party feeling partially responsible. Having to undergo this painful cycle over and over is nothing short of abuse. The real reason we don’t draw a hard line in the sand when it comes to abuse is that it would incriminate too many people we know, both as victims and as perpetrators. It would highlight the many ways in which we were complicit in our own mistreatment. We know what it means to cheat or to be sexually unfaithful. But when it comes to abuse, there’s a hidden hierarchy, a tipped scale that blurs the lines between what is and what isn’t.
First, to be abuse, it’s gotta be visible, and it’s gotta be physical. And then the damage has got to be clearly defined and undeniably related to the recent interaction. It’s gotta be a Black eye and a busted lip, plus video evidence of the altercation that includes twenty minutes leading up to the incident itself. The man then has to admit to the assault, proclaim the victim has never provoked him (which instantly negates her victimhood), and swear that he doesn’t have a substance addiction. Only then can a man be held accountable for physical abuse. Imagine all of the evidence you would need to prove invisible abuse, such as cheating and infidelity. And cheating is absolutely abuse; it’s just the kind of abuse we allow. Don’t believe me? Well, let’s define abuse first and then look at what makes a relationship abusive.
Abuse is the cruel or violent treatment of a person or animal, especially regularly or repeatedly. A healthy relationship consists of the following behaviors: Effective Problem Solving; Healthy Conflict Resolution; Open/Honest Communication; Honoring Commitments; Acceptance; Friendship; Affection; Gratitude; Equity/Shared Responsibilities; Empathy & Compassion; Compromise; Healthy Limitations; and Emotional Regulation.
In contrast, abusive relationships model the following: Lack of Boundaries; Manipulation; Control; Self-Centered Behaviors; Intimidation; Lack of Accountability; Impatience; Judgment; Criticism; Violations of Trust; and Inequality.
The differences are clear-cut. We know a relationship is abusive when it undermines our self-esteem, makes us feel ashamed of our perceived inadequacies, blames us for our partner’s shortcomings, or asks us to put our emotional needs on the backburner. How can we be in relationships where our trust is broken, where our boundaries are repeatedly violated and call those relationships anything but what they are? Which is damaging, which is detrimental. And when a relationship does us damage, it is an abusive relationship. When we have to heal from our partners’ aftermath, we’ve endured abuse at their hands. And again, we don’t need bruises to be abused.
The National Domestic Violence Hotline lists the following as various forms of non-physical abuse: gaslighting, criticism and humiliation, withholding affection or acknowledgment as a means of punishment, insulting or blaming for mistreatment or abuse, intentional cheating, habitual lying, telling a partner they can’t do any better/should feel grateful to be with their partner. If you’ve endured any of the following from a current or former partner, you have experienced intimate partner abuse, undoubtedly, without a bruise or a blemish to back that up. The reality is that patriarchy already sets the bar for manhood so low, the natural variance makes manhood dangerous. It doesn’t take much for a mediocre man to be deemed great, and how a man treats a woman rarely factors into how the rest of society sees him anyway. If he works a job, wears his pants above his waist, pays his household bills, and loves his mother, he’s more than halfway there already.
These measurements of manhood never evolve. Even as a husband and father, the expectations for manhood are pretty much the same; work a job, dress decent, and pay some household bills. We accept the worst of men and then throw them extra crumbs to keep them happy in all of their privileges. It is not normal to accept abuse, regardless of what shape or form it comes in. Abuse, even the emotional kind, is never okay. We never made fidelity a measurement for manhood, although it should be. We never established that what made men good and decent was not what they could do with their bodies but what they could resist with them. We should try that and see.
We decided not to ask for more; else, we lose what little we were already getting. And now look at us, thinking a little bit of abuse is better than being alone. We can see the effects this culturally acceptable insolence has had on us. Young girls believe a little bit of aggression is needed and necessary, that a man who can’t healthily express himself needs their help to heal. Women are not recovery wards for wounded men. That ship has sailed, and I hope it sank, too. We deserve a love that doesn’t hurt and harm us, one we don’t have to heal from, even if it happens to end. Regular heartbreak is hard enough without having to collect the crumbs of your self-worth at the end.