Sunday, September 7, 2014

Hit Me Pull You

I don't know if he intentionally set out to victimize me. I don't think that he did. But the thing that still baffles me is, if what he wanted was me to really love him, then why did he hurt me? 'Cause he drove me away. He made it inevitable that I would leave at some point. That's the part that I really don't understand.
Leslie Morgan Steiner "Why Don't Domestic Violence Victims Leave?" The TED Radio Hour "The Violence Within Us" - National Public Radio
What if, in the end, some instances of domestic violence are just an extreme form of "push me, pull you" in adults?

When I was in my twenties, I worked with children who had been taken out of their homes for abuse or neglect and were high-functioning enough that they didn't need psychiatric hospitalization or a similarly restrictive setting, but were unable to thrive within the less-restrictive setting of a foster home. And one of the phenomena that was endemic to the population was "push me pull you." There are a number of ways that the phenomenon is described, but the way we experienced it was generally that a child who feels unlovable would push back against the efforts of a caregiver to pull them in. It was, basically a form of testing, of searching for the limits of love. And, typically, if not always, a limit was, in fact, found. Generally because there is no way for the person on the "pull" side of the equation to win on the strength of their own actions. Only the complete confidence of the "pusher" can end the dynamic. Which they were unlikely ever to do, perhaps because, deep down, they understood something that the "puller" did not - that love is a choice. And not a choice that can ever truly be abdicated.

It is possible to understand a  statement of unconditional love, such as: "No matter what, I will always love you," (especially if it is phrased "no matter what you do") as saying, in effect, "I have chosen to love you, and no circumstance will prompt me to revisit that decision." To which a person who feels actively unlovable often unknowingly responds: "Challenge accepted." And then they set about searching for the circumstances that will prompt a re-visitation of the decision to love, perhaps they're subconsciously convinced that they'll find them, or perhaps they're just trying to prove to themselves that they really don't exist. Push me pull you is about forcing choices. Which is more important: loving that person or having unbroken dishes? Loving that person or not having money stolen? Loving that person or keeping a pet alive? Loving that person or not having one's home set afire? Loving that person or staying alive and healthy? Push me pull you demands that a choice be made, and interprets "unconditional love" in its most literal, pedantic and unrealistic sense. And to the person who fears or believes that they are unlovable, the evidence that "unconditional love" is a fallacy is everywhere.

And so, what if, in some cases, a person has learned that violence is how one tests love for its conditionality? I don't have that answer. And, to be sure, I don't know what I would do with it, if I did have it. My impulse would be to deploy it to save future targets of domestic violence from suffering, but when I was a foster care caseworker, I couldn't get people to understand. How to you tell someone who sees themselves as, to paraphrase Ms. Steiner: "a very strong soul in love with a deeply troubled person, and the only person on Earth who could help that person face their demons," that neither their strength nor their love, in the end, matter? That it's simply not possible to hand love over to another person so completely that only choice that will ever be involved is theirs? The idea that breaking a commitment to love is sometimes necessary and never more difficult than making a choice doesn't sit well with many, given our cultural attachment to the idea that love is eternal and all-conquering. I don't know how we change that.

I don't know if Ms. Steiner would be satisfied by the idea that what she went through may have been simply the result of her husband searching for proof that someone would (or perhaps would not) always love him. It makes perfect sense to me, and I find it unsatisfying, if only for its extremity.

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