Previously in this series, we’ve explored how our brains work in the context of someone who has been subjected to domestic abuse. But what about us? How does our pattern matching impact our response to survivors, and the support we offer?
Looking at Elizabet's story so far, I wonder what you think your response to her would be if you were one of her new church leaders. Maybe you'd have stopped believing her story, or at the very least be starting to doubt some of what she's saying. If we then couple this with things the abuser has said to us about her, or things we’ve heard from other agencies - ‘she’s not safe for the children’, ‘she clearly can’t remember things as they occurred, she must be mentally unwell’ - is it likely that we'll start believing the abuser and not the victim?
Take a moment to think about the ways women are spoken about. Are there words and phrases used for women that wouldn't be used for men?
Pattern matching and society
In her book Sexy but Psycho, psychologist Dr Jessica Taylor describes the historical basis of misogyny that holds women up as inferior to men. Society informs our pattern matching, and for those of us who’ve spent time in church, this includes the things we’ve been taught both explicitly and implicitly from church leaders and church culture. Just take a moment to think about the ways women are spoken about. Are there words and phrases used for women that wouldn't be used for men? Maybe ‘emotional’, ‘intense’, ‘feisty’ as a starting point. Our brains start to match women's behaviour to these words, in a way we wouldn't do for men.
One example that highlights how pattern matching impacts our attitudes towards people is how we talk about the menopause. Blood test results that indicate that menopause has started are described as an ‘abnormal level of hormones’, when in fact they are a very normal level for a woman in this stage of life. Subconsciously, we associate 'menopause' and even women of menopausal age with being 'abnormal'.
Back to Elizabet
Let’s go back to Elizabet for a moment. Over a number of months you have been hearing from others about her being ‘unstable’ and ‘irrational’, and in your opinion she has given unreasonable responses to requests you have made. You’ve also grown up hearing words used to describe women like ‘hormonal’ and ‘mad’. Perhaps you've heard someone in church talking about how women aren't always to be trusted - Eve persuaded Adam to eat the fruit in the garden of Eden, after all. You might have also read headlines that suggest women are prone to lying about being abused. Then, you receive an email from Elizabet asking for help in getting contact with her children. If you’re really honest with yourself, what would your response be?
Perpetrators will drip feed comments about the victim’s mental health or behaviour over a long period of time to those in authority.
Often, perpetrators of abuse will play the long game. They will drip feed comments about the victim’s mental health and/or behaviour over a long period of time to those in perceived authority. It’s also a common pattern for perpetrators to retaliate when the victim-survivor has tried to make changes or decisions on their own terms, such as a change to childcare arrangements or moving house. In Elizabet’s story, the threat to ‘ruin her life’ came after she made the decision to leave the abuser. Her ex joined the online bible study as a way to begin telling lies about her, why she left and why he only had limited contact with the children.
The more we learn and understand about the nuances of abuse, the easier it is to recognise the signs and respond in safe and appropriate ways.
How should we respond?
Here are some questions that you might like to ask yourself, if ever faced with a situation like the one we've explored in this series.
- What assumptions do I bring to the situation about how victims and perpetrators 'should' behave, or men and women in general?
- What unintentional thoughts and judgements might I be making about the people involved?
- Have I considered the whole power dynamic picture?
- Consider the order of events. Was there a change that prompted an alternate story? Remember how Elizabet's ex starting to spread lies about her only after she'd decided to move out with the children.
- Can I see signs of trauma in people's responses?
The more we learn and understand about the nuances of abuse, the easier it is to recognise the signs and respond in safe and appropriate ways. The Restored Beacon Network is also a great source of support for ensuring safe working practice.
If you have any further thoughts or questions we recommend coming along to one of our training sessions - Level 3 in particular offers more space to learn about trauma and reflect on how we should respond to disclosures.