I figured it out when I was trying to write her an email to explain why I couldn’t be her lover, despite some flirting and making out we’d done.
I wrote a frank and honest description and now I have to figure out how much of it to share.
What I got clear about is that this kind, lovely woman is a victim and a bystander. She’d experienced some abuse in her family, and had observed or known about a lot more. By her own description her extended family was riddled with it. She responded to my disclosure the way my mother or brother might have, or one of my aunts or uncles, with compassion but with denial and minimization. That is why I got so triggered. That is why I can’t trust her to respect my intimate heart / soul space.
I realized something. I can date survivors, allies and civilians and be true to myself, but not bystanders or victims.
A victim is a person who has survived child sexual abuse but who is not yet recognizing, grieving or addressing the full impact on her (or his) life. A bystander is part of the abuse system by condoning, witnessing or knowing about child sexual abuse and not confronting it. A non-abused child in an sexually abusing family is not responsible for confronting the abuse when it is happening, but is responsible in adulthood for accepting the full legal, moral, emotional and social reality of what has happened to their family member. A bystander often finds it less compelling to feel and heal than a survivor, and easier to brush all of that difficult healing under the rug. An ally is a former bystander who has done that work of accepting and grieving what has happened in their family, church or organization.
A civilian has no experience with abuse in their own family. They are often naive or ignorant about the effects of abuse, but have none of the internal resistance, dysfunctional thought patterns and denial of the bystander or victim that make it much harder. A civilian can be come an ally, as my wife has done, by being willing to believe and accept the injustice of terrible things happening to children, and never to condone it.
I have dated bystanders. I had a boyfriend for several years whose mother was a survivor, and who was raised in a church with a systemic history of condoning child sexual assault. He was the boyfriend who I was with when I was actively healing, and who said, on seeing a picture of me as a child that “you were so cute, that must be why your father loved you so much.” That was the final straw in our relationship. For him to so profoundly misunderstand the reality, meaning, and impact of the worst things that had ever happened to me after witnessing me healing for four years, meant that he was on the wrong team and could not be trusted.
I react to bystanders in intimate relationship the same way I react to the bystanders in my own family. I either avoid them or I feel a strong need to get them to accept and grieve the abuse. They respond by subtly undermining my reality, usually unintentionally, and by avoiding me when I gently or rudely continually refuse to collaborate with their views of the abuse. Bystanders do not make good partners for survivors, or victims trying to become survivors.
I expect I will have to deal with a lot of bystanders when I publish my book. It’s them I’m most worried about wearing me down.
So how much do you tell a bystander about why you won’t date them? I don’t know. I am tempted to lay it all out honestly on the line, but I know from experience that that is a losing game. Some bystanders, like my aunts and uncle, will be wonderful when you are on your game with being clear and having awesome boundaries (as I was with this woman), but then later will backslide into denial and minimization with heartbreaking inertia. That’s not a battle I need to pick. If I want to be her friend, I might just have to avoid the topic in future, and let her deal with her own bystander/victim gunk when she’s ready to, without my influence.
How will I deal with the bystanders when my book is ready to launch? Perhaps by recognizing and labeling them, and then disregarding them. It’s tempting to just get good at irrefutably smacking down their denial, but like U.S. progressives know from attempting to talk reason to tea party true believers, flat-earthers or racists, logical arguments don’t do much if a person isn’t willing or able to be logical. Perhaps the simplest thing is to say “If you don’t feel the need for a healing book for incest survivors, then don’t read it. I don’t actually care. If you want to attack me personally because you don’t like that I am speaking about my life, you need to get one of your own.”
I had a similar situation with a thread of comments on one of my other blog posts recently. Two commenters began arguing about a survivor hot button issue, which I’m not going to name for fear of starting up a fight here too. They were both right and both wrong in parts of their argument, and vehement about it. I realized that the one was commenting as a victim or survivor and the other was commenting as a bystander (a person choosing not to empathize with the experience of survivors or get why their comments were offensive, and trying to convince). I tried to calm things down, but the battle was getting entrenched and nasty, so I decided that rather than being forced to read and moderate their ongoing fight to respond by shutting it down and unapproving those comments that happened after it got nasty.
The trap in interacting between survivors or victims and bystanders (or particularly obtuse civilians) is trying to convince someone who, like my friend, is blinded by their own gunk from seeing how inappropriate their statements are. Logical arguments don’t work on bystanders because the ideas and logic are not in play yet. It’s a battle for supremacy of two completely separate realities, two separate ways of viewing the world. Until a bystander is ready to be open, not just intellectually but emotionally, to the pain of a reality that bad things happen to good children, perpetrated by people who pass for normal and who they might love or be related to, and that it’s not fair, right or just, then they can’t really have a conversation with a survivor about abuse.
So there, I have my decision. Against my usual forthrightness, I’m going to choose a different path. It’s not my job to convince the bystanders, even the nice ones, at the cost of my own peace.