There are so many unexpected impacts that living with domestic violence has – the sort of things that you only realise make sense once you think about them. One of these is that I have no internal barometer by which to judge my own behaviour.
Of course, that’s not strictly true. I know right from wrong; I always have done and I always will. In fact, my boundaries around right and wrong are probably fairly appropriately rigid: I know what it is to be hurt and humiliated and intimidated; I’m not ever knowingly going to act to make another human person – or animal – experience anything near what I was forced to go through. What’s not so clear-cut are the smaller things: those little daily interactions for which there is no road-map, no set of neat “how-to” instructions giving me clear, alphabetised directions.
I’m lucky: I had a childhood and adolescence in which I was surrounded by deep and abiding respect, and in which this respect was modelled to me on a daily basis. Since then, though, I have learned painfully over ten years to measure my behaviour and my responses by the skewed barometer and random dictates of an abuser. For ten years, stepping outside of the at times narrow range of behaviours deemed appropriate – which often changed minute my minute, when things were particularly volatile – usually brought some form of punishment. And so the healthy, natural, organic learning of childhood and adolescence was abruptly derailed by a deeply abnormal, unnatural and unhealthy learning.
Which leaves me in the situation now of struggling in normal, healthy, reasonable adult interactions. I’ve internalised the fear, the volatility, the sense that getting it wrong will bring judgement and punishment. What I’ve not worked out yet is what getting it wrong – and getting it right – actually looks like in healthy adult social relationships. Work relationships are easy: there are a set of professional boundaries within which I stay, and within which I’m protected. Social relationships are a bit more nebulous: I’m more free to be myself, but there’s a wider scope within which to screw things up.
I probably err too close towards safety. I occasionally allow my boundaries to be transgressed; sometimes I allow people to treat me – with no malice, nothing worse than ignorance or insensitivity – in a manner with which I’m not comfortable, not happy. But I don’t say anything because I don’t want to screw things up. I don’t want to snap, to be aggressive, to get it wrong. If I do snap, I feel guilty. I normally end up apologising. Usually the other person hasn’t even noticed the slight hardening of my tone of voice.
I know this, like everything, is a learning curve. I’ll learn to trust my own instincts and my own insights and wisdom in my social interaction. I’ll learn to be less sensitive to other people’s reactions, and I’ll learn to be more assertive in mine. And I’ll screw it up at times. I’ll over-compensate, one way or another. And my friends – because they’re wonderful people – will still like me.
And it will all be ok.