The Truth is Not Somewhere-In-Between: Why Emotional Abuse Gets Denied

Last updated on January 16, 2021


Three monkeys: see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.

The low ceiling of acceptance

Randi recently shared an unusual story with me. She works as a guardian for vulnerable adults, and this past Fall she came to understand two very different versions of a situation involving one of her wards.

After speaking to the parties involved, Randi understood the details of both sides of the matter very well. She knew that only one version could be true, she understood which one was true, and which one was false.

Yet that didn’t stop her from concluding with those most peace-loving, non-judgmental words of all:

The truth is somewhere-in-between.

The value of pity

Imagine that your neighbor, the woman next door, breaks down and tells you through her tears that, unbeknownst to you, her husband physically abuses her. She shows you the bruises under her shirt. You see the evidence.

A physically abused woman w/ a sign that reads, "It's not your fault. Stop him."

This news would come as quite a shock to you if you had no previous cause for concern. After the initial shock wore off, you’d likely have pity for this poor woman and her children.

Out of this pity, out of your concern for your fellow human being, and out of your responsibility as a neighbor, you might gently ask these probing questions:

“How often does he hit you?”

“Has he always done this?”

“Have you called the police or Victim Services?”

“Is there a family member or friend who can help you?”

Hopefully, you would ask her how you can help. After all, a good person wouldn’t sit idly by while a defenseless woman gets used as a punching bag, right?

No visible bruises

But what if she didn’t have bruises to show you? What if she claimed that her husband emotionally abused her instead?

A woman in the dark, crying, her hand over her eyes.

You wouldn’t be able to see those marks. What would you do? Along with the above questions, you’d likely ask something like this:

“How does he emotionally abuse you? It’s not that I don’t believe you. I’ve heard the two of you yell from time to time, but I don’t think that’s what you’re talking about here. Please help me understand so I may help you.”

After hearing the various ways in which this poor woman has been emotionally abused, you would need to decide. Would you turn a blind eye, or would you help this person?

Good fences discourage advocacy

Good people of every religion and creed aspire to love their neighbors, but most of us hate the idea of being involved in their affairs. When it comes down to it, we just don’t want to be responsible. There, I said it.

We’ve all heard stories of someone getting involved and having it blow up in such a way that it personally cost them far more than they had anticipated.

In this world, doing the right thing always seems to come with such a cost.

A sign that reads, "Good fences make good neighbors," attributed to Robert Frost.

“Good fences make good neighbors,” so the old line goes. And for the most part, it’s very true.

The moment something unusual, something outside of the realm of our own personal experience or understanding crops up, fences can become impenetrable barriers from which otherwise good people wash their hands of the affairs of their hurting neighbors.

This is best displayed, of course, in the parable of the Good Samaritan. The priest and the Levite in the story serve as socially responsible characters of moral virtue, whose very understanding of social responsibility and moral virtue prohibit them from helping the man in need.

If only abuse victims could appreciate such irony when they’re in crisis, reaching out for someone – anyone – to help.

Denial: our most natural inclination

We hear personal tragedies like The Boy Called It or the girl who was kept in a cage all too often. And we struggle to make sense of them. We struggle because, deep down, we don’t want to believe they could really happen. Not in our world.

If we did believe, we would have to accept the reality that monsters are real, and the much-harder reality that we can’t always identify who the monster is.

A photo of Donald Sutherland's character, pointing in dismay at the character, from the 1978 film, "Invasion of the Body Snatchers."
Donald Sutherland, “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (1978)

Ever wonder why stories involving vampires and alien beings who look just like us have such popularity? Yes, some are drawn to gore and the very strange. But there’s another quality here that bears consideration:

In this world are people who look just like us and talk just like us, people who allow themselves to do such awful things to others that you and I could never dream of doing them to someone. And we don’t want to live in a world where this is so.

Deep down, we know it could be our own priest or pastor. It could be our city councilperson or a co-worker. It could be our very own neighbor whom we’ve gotten to know over the years, someone we’ve grown to trust and enjoy as a friend.

But if I allow myself to believe that my neighbor is capable of physical or emotional abuse, and it can happen without my knowing it, doesn’t that make me in some way responsible?

Denial isn’t the intentional not-believing of a thing for some random purpose. It’s at the top of the list of defense mechanisms for a reason.

We deny because to accept is far too costly to our personal view of ourselves and others and the world we live in. Denial is as natural for us as breathing.

But what of the cost of such denial?

According to recent reports, half of domestic violence cases go unreported, due in great part, of course, to the fact that abuse victims don’t believe that anyone is going to believe them. Catch-22.

It’s nothing short of a national tragedy. On this, we can agree.

What if there was a similar tragedy, one that absolutely no one is willing to talk about, one that costs good people so much that they cannot allow themselves to begin to believe that it’s real?

Reality cuts both ways

To believe that half of the domestic violence cases involving a female victim go unreported? That’s not hard for us to believe at all.

Now flip the coin over and ask yourself:

How easy it it for you to consider that at least half of the domestic violence cases involving a male victim who is being physically or emotionally abused by his wife or girlfriend go unreported?

A photo of a physical abused man.

If you have no problem accepting that, you’re a rare breed.

A few days ago, I reached out to all of my old friends and acquaintances, including fellow teachers and students of mine from over twenty years ago, with a very real need. I spread the net as widely as I could.

I reached out to several dozens, most of whom I recall to have been people of high moral caliber, all of them I recall having respected me as I had respected them. Of the several dozen people I reached out to, to my knowledge, only four have helped. Four.

I realize that asking with the economy and unemployment being what they are that people will be in less of a position to help today than ever before. I get that. And I realize that scammers are so prevalent today that one must be cautious with such a request.

But only one has asked any follow-up questions so she might learn more.

Of the remaining dozens of people I have personally known and respected throughout the years, none of them asked me, “How has she abused you? Help me understand.”

None have asked me, “What effect has it had on you and your children?”

None have asked me, “How can I help?”

Not one.

The truth isn’t in the middle

We don’t want to believe that monsters are real. If we did, we might feel responsible.

I can’t blame a single one of my old friends and acquaintances for not seeing what I myself couldn’t understand. Until recently, I was so successfully exploited by the gaslighting and the blame-shifting that I couldn’t begin to see things as they really were. To blame someone for something I myself couldn’t understand would be entirely unfair.

The brutally honest truth? I’m cut from the same cloth as everyone else. If it weren’t for the fact that I tumbled down this rabbit hole over three decades ago and experienced the abuse firsthand, I don’t believe I would act any differently.

So good people, many with the means to help at least a little, I presume, can hear a tragic story from someone they once respected and yet do nothing to help. The personal cost appears to be a greater barrier than I believed possible. Tragedy begets tragedy.

But it begs the question: where does the responsibility of a victim end and the responsibility of another begin?

A harbor shot w/ a life preserver in the foreground. The quote over the top reads, "We don't turn back. We leave no one behind. We pull each other up." It's attibuted to former Pres. Barack Obama.

I can’t answer that question for anyone else. I’m nobody’s judge. Everyone must answer that for themselves.

But sadly, I know this much from personal experience:

When it comes to everyday interpersonal conflict between emotionally healthy people? The truth is always somewhere-in-between.

When it comes to matters of domestic abuse? The truth is never somewhere-in-between.

It’s out there, on the very edge of human experience, so far out of reach that precious few are both able and willing to accept that it could be true.

And that’s the greatest tragedy of all.


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