There is no measure for the pain, anger, fear, confusion of loving someone who has experienced rape or domestic violence.
For most of us, loving someone who is raped or abused by their partner strikes an chord in us that screams for us to take immediate action. The behavioral reaction to having a loved one hurt in these ways, combined with our own emotional responses, yanks most of us out of our seats, full of adrenaline and full on ready to go!
We have been raised to believe that a part of “being a man” means that we know precisely what to do (particularly in a crisis), and that we do so…we take over, we take charge, we have the answers, we offer suggestions. We know what needs to be done and we do precisely that! – no hesitation, no doubt, no second thoughts, no looking back. At least, that’s what so much of our socialization has taught us.
This drive to act is only magnified in response to a learning that a loved one has been raped or abused, which triggers, like little else, our protective instincts.
On top of that, men are increasingly being called to take action to help respond to and end rape, domestic violence and other forms of gender based violence. As someone who has been one of the main voices calling on men to “say something do something”, I have to acknowledge the degree to which my calls to action have at least implied (if not outright stated) that men should, in our efforts to help end gender based violence, not only act but act decisively.
There are important reasons why we, other individuals like myself and organizations such as A Call to Men, Men Can Stop Rape, the White Ribbon Campaign, Men Stopping Violence, the North America Men Engage Network, and others are and have been calling on men to act. For far too long, we, as men, have maintained our position on the sidelines (at best) while women have taken on all of the responsibility for responding to and preventing all forms of gender based violence.
So why, one might rightly ask, am I now seemingly contradicting myself by encouraging men to not act – but to just stand there!
In general, in terms of responding to the issue of rape, domestic violence, sexual harassment, street harassment, stalking, sex trafficking, sexual exploitation, and other forms of gender based violence; I firmly believe it is critical for men to act. We need to make it a priority of our lives to do what we can to respond and prevent all of these atrocities. There is a lot that we do need to do, and an increasing much that we are doing!
Responding to the issue, and responding to the people in our lives who are directly impacted, are two different things. And they require two different ways of responding.
When responding to those individuals who have been harmed, who are hurting, we need to to put all of this training from our whole lives, and the urgings we’ve received more recently aside. Rather than doing something, or a lot of somethings; rather than being busy being busy in order to fulfill some role we’ve carved out for ourselves (with a great deal of help from those around us), we need to “not just do something, stand still”.
Our penchant to act – and to act decisively – often gets in the way of our ability to be a person of support, and inadvertently, our friend or loved one’s healing. Our ideas and suggestions, as well placed as they may be, our more than likely mis-guided and may in fact, do more harm than good. We do not know what’s best for a friend, loved one, or stranger who has just been victimized or abused. We do not know what makes the most sense for them to do. We do not understand what they’re going through and so any suggestions that we may have are likely to be woefully lacking.
Several years ago, while working at a domestic violence shelter, one of the woman asked me quite pointedly “you’re not a woman, you’ve never been beaten out of your home, how can you claim to understand anything that we’re going through.” I heard myself respond by saying “you’re right. I can’t understand. I don’t claim to understand. What I can do is listen. And I can commit to listening to you as fully and completely as I possibly can.”
That response did not come from a place of knowledge or expertise, it through me, not from me. But as I reflect on that experience, it seems to me that is perhaps the best that any of us can offer anyone else – especially when it across differences of experience and context that make truly understanding virtually impossible. Deeply listening, empathizing and caring for someone else does not require understanding. It requires being still.
How many of us have had a friend or loved one being abused by their partner and came to us for support and a shoulder? How many of us offered suggestions and recommendations and ideas about what they should do, only to find that they “yes butted” every suggestion or idea we made? How many of us got so frustrated with this friend that we threw up our hands and didn’t know what to do?
And how many of us bothered to wonder how frustrated and saddened our friend was at our behavior? Rather than being a someone that this friend could come for support, we were a someone who had “all the answers” (even tho we didn’t fully understand all the problem).
Often – as in nearly all the time – the best thing that we can do when we find ourselves in this situation is to not do anything. Sometimes – most of the time – we offer our best support when we sit on our hands and our tongue and “just” listen. It’s truly amazing how supportive and healing it can be for someone who has recently been raped, or who is being abused by their partner, to talk and be with someone who solely listens.
When we can put our anger/outrage that someone did this to someone that we love, our fear for their safety, our curiosity about what happened, our judgement about why it happened, our grief, our pain, our feelings of being out of control, or sense of failure for not having protected them…when we can put our stuff on hold and offer a silent and still presence to a friend or loved one, that can be (and often is) a most powerful doing something that we can offer.
In response to suggesting this, I have had men ask incredulously (and often with more than a little anger), “you mean I’m just supposed to sit there with my thumb up my ass and not do anything?!? Are you kidding me?!?” To which my response is a resounding “yes! – and no, I’m not kidding you! (although what you do with your thumb is entirely up to you)”.
This reaction speaks to the way that this suggestion to “don’t just do something, stand there” in some ways, strikes at the heart of what it means to be a man for many of us. Being the protector of a loved one is one of the more core ideals of manhood. When a loved one or a friend is harmed in these ways, we often feel like we have fundamentally failed in some way. We rarely see just how being still and doing nothing is exactly the best way for us to be there and “protect” if you will, our loved one.
© 2017 Rus Ervin Funk