Dear Dr Ren:
I was chatting recently with a friend who mentioned that a gay male couple we know are having some trouble in their relationship. It seems that they are arguing a lot and one of the guys hit his partner. I asked if this has happened before. My friend shrugged his shoulders, saying that it was the guy’s way of dealing with anger.
This conversation has been on my mind a lot. I don’t know the couple well. I do know that they are living with HIV, which can be stressful for anyone, but the violence disturbs me, as does my friend’s indifference.
I feel I should be doing something but don’t know where to begin. I know domestic violence happens in our community but it feels more personal when it affects someone I know. I am not sure what to do.
Am I blowing things out of proportion? Should I mind my own business?
Your letter raises a serious issue in our community which cannot be adequately addressed in a single column. However, I can give you information that can help you to choose your course of action.
It is hard for us to hear about someone being abused. We feel sorry for the victim and powerless ourselves. We hesitate to get involved but wish someone else would. This reticence to meddle in another family’s business is woven tightly into our social fabric and cloaks many cases of abuse.
Additionally, you are not an inner-circle player in this scene, so your role is even less clear. Still, you do say you know these fellows. An invitation to coffee or dinner will help you ferret out what is happening, particularly if you meet with them individually. Be prepared for denial of any abuse, though. Both of them will staunchly defend their secret shame if they suspect any judgment from you.
Remember, too, there is neither good guy nor bad guy in this scenario. Though each of us is 100 percent responsible for our own actions, no one can be a batterer without a victim who permits the abuse. An interdependent dynamic develops over time, each person contributing his own part until they are both ensnared. They are in this together until the abused person ends it.
This makes intervention frustrating and difficult. Well-meaning friends who suggest a physically abusive couple separate commonly meet resistance or opposition, so entrenched are the couple in their co-dependent reliance on one another. To each of them, almost anything seems better than being alone.
It would be easier if the batterer were incessantly horrid, but that is rarely the case. Anger and brutality precede tenderness and apology, contrition and gifts. At first he is appalled by his behaviour, promises it will never happen again, and begs his discouraged lover’s forgiveness. Never has love meant this much; never will he find such an understanding mate. “Please,” he begs, “if ever you loved me…” They agree to mention this to no one. And so the cycle begins.
The truth is there are few community resources and little social support to help either spouse leave such a relationship. As a society, we really don’t want to recognize this issue, so its funding for solutions is not primary. Though abuse affects up to 20 percent of gay male relationships, it is even higher when adding the HIV factor. More stressors lead to fewer coping mechanisms and more destructive patterns.
Leaving a physically violent relationship is a lonely process. Our friends do not understand and usually have judgments we would rather not hear. If we have been battered, we still feel protective of the beloved mate we have had to leave. If we have battered, we are deeply shamed, defensive, or both. Either way, we are silenced even within our support systems.
It is here, Concerned, where you may be able to make a difference. Each of the participants in this couple needs someone who can offer him a non-judgmental ear. Each feels frustrated and powerless. Neither knows how to extricate himself from the situation. If you can be bold enough to tell them you know of the abuse and are willing to help, they may accept it (they may also turn on you like vipers).
If they do accept your offer of help, decide just how involved you are willing to be and let them know. You could direct them to The Centre, where they can see a victim’s service worker or connect with a peer support counsellor. The Centre can in turn point them to the city’s other meagre support services.
Nevertheless, at the end of the day, we must look after each other. We are family. Your friends and their friends will need to mobilize a safety net of support, solace, and funding to help them navigate the choppy waters ahead. They will need people unafraid of getting involved, who refuse to pretend they cannot see this elephant that lives in our community’s living room. Together we must care for our own.
Thank you for your concern.