As I am reading Lundy Bancroft’s book Why Does He Do That?, in which he outlines the underlying causes of abusive men’s behavior, I am realizing that couplemania contributes to women (and some men, though predominantly women are abused in coupled relationships) staying in abusive relationships far longer than we should. There are a few ideas that keep us. First, there is the cultural notion that it is women’s responsibility to make a relationship work, which feeds into the story from the abuser that their relationship issues are her fault when they are really (mostly) his. Then, there is couplemania itself, which suggests that coupling is so important that we should bend over backwards to be in a relationship. Of course the flip-side, singlism, plays a role here, too. Being single is portrayed as so scary and undesirable that it is far worse than being in an abusive relationship. Maybe this is actually the most pernicious way singlism and sexism interact: Sexist and misogynist attitudes are what are underneath an abuser’s entitlement – and singlist attitudes make it harder to leave him.
Let me bring all this to life by sharing a bit about my most recent foray into the dating world. I ended up with someone Bancroft calls Mr. Sensitive – a guy who talks the talk but doesn’t walk the walk. When I tried to call him out on inappropriate behavior, he shirked responsibility by claiming that I was simply evaluating his actions through the lens of my past abuse experience, which he generously offered to help heal (but instead made worse). So, my anger was, in his mind, just a blast from the past – and he convinced me of that as well. That my anger could have been driven by his constant turning of tables, pushing the blame onto me, only fully became clear to me much later. That my anger was a loud way of saying “you can’t treat me this way” I didn’t understand until I started reading Bancroft. Yes, I might have some emotion regulation work to do but that wasn’t what was going on. What was going on?
Entitlement. He thought he was entitled to always getting his needs met, to never having to change, to not being confronted with his unhealthy behavior but being praised profusely for any tiny thing he thought he did right. The world was defined according to him. My view or experience didn’t matter. Of course, he often said the exact opposite, which made it very confusing and why I am still grappling with trying to understand what went on. Bancroft’s book has helped me quite a bit since he emphasizes that abusive behavior is driven by the underlying beliefs a man holds. In my case, a lot of this was driven by his beliefs about women: That our role is to look up to and please the man. He valued selfishness, which manifested as being mostly self-centered, losing any interest in helping me, for example, when it no longer fit his agenda, it was too challenging, or he was simply bored. While at the same time, expecting me to remain engaged and complaining that I wasn’t engaging with him – even after I was, which he had ignored (talk about mind-twisting!).
And yet I stayed. Despite early signs to the contrary, I believed him when he said that he valued science and critical thinking. Part of why I stayed was classic couplemania: I still had to prove somehow that I am capable of having a coupled relationship after my failed marriage because somehow that failure was my fault and only if I can prove that I can have a successful, i.e. long-term, coupled relationship am I a worthy human being. Although I believe that I have been able to dislodge those beliefs a bit more through this experience, it was rather humbling to realize how deep couplemania runs, even in me. And this is where sexism meets couplemania: As a woman, my worth is measured by how successful I am in coupled relationships. Nothing else seems to matter.
Of course, there were also the charming phase at the beginning and the continues bait-and-switch that kept me from seeing what was really going on. One night somehow everything fell into place – and that was the end of that relationship. Looking back, I am still fascinated by what happened that night as it seemed like I all the sudden woke up out of a trance. Ever since that wake up, I have been trying to understand what had happened. I reached out to him again – and was met with friendly yet insistent attempts to redefine my reality. Same old story: His view matters. Mine doesn’t. So, I disengaged reminded that I want to spend my energy on more constructive things. Now I am ready to move on, which will include a more thorough exploration of the interplay of sexism and singlism as well as how couplemania contributes to domestic violence.