you’ve probably heard of fight or flight

(a conversation sometimes had in hospitals.)

your brain wants to protect you.

this is good, and we mostly try to encourage brains when they do that

but sometimes.

sometimes brains get it wrong.

see, because when something bad happens, the world can feel like a scary, unpredictable place

and thats okay, it’s pretty normal to feel like that for a bit

but brains don’t like feeling that way

they want to know that they can be safe.

and one way to start feeling safe is to start feeling in control.

and one way to feel in control is to feel like it’s your fault.

because if it were your fault, then the world would be predictable.

you could figure out the thing you did, that made you to blame, and then you could stop doing that.

and then you would know you were safe.

title is a reference to common conversation about blame in sexual assault and the role of freezing and submitting as life-saving self-preservation.

[Advice] Feelings & Friends

There is a pair of my friends in a happy, healthy relationship of several years. Being around the two of them is distressing to me, since I have a longstanding crush on one and feel intense envy when they act affectionate. This also makes it hard to be around the crushee, since I feel that my relationship with them is in some sense based on dishonesty or that I am betraying the trust of their partner by being-around-them-while-being-attracted-to-them.

Crushee knows I had a crush on them in the past, but doesn’t (I think) know that it hasn’t stopped. So: what’s my most ethical way forward? Is there a way I can pursue reducing the associated feelings of envy, or of extinguishing the crush? Is it wrong for me to spend time around the one I’m crushing on without their partner, even though I don’t have any intention to do anything about those latent feelings?

I’m going to split this out into three concerns I see, and go from there.


Obligation to tell Crushee:

What would be the message you’d like to send by sharing?
Would you be sharing preventatively, so that you don’t experience distress if Crushee talks about how you ‘used’ to have a crush on them?
Would you be sharing because you want them to take a specific action based on this information?
Would you be sharing because you think some of how you two interact would be different if Crushee knew how you felt? (For instance, some people feel less comfortable with skinny-dipping if they know one party has an unrequited crush).
Would you be sharing because you think Crushee would prefer to have this information?
Would you be sharing as a form of self-punishment for having Bad Feelings?
Would you be sharing because it’s a part of your life you’re working on and something you’d like to let them know is ongoing?

Please consider what outcome you would expect for both yourself and Crushee based on sharing this information. (And a good dose of “you don’t have to do anything with this information and I am working on it myself” never hurts. Sometimes sharing a crush feels like expecting a specific response, and it’s worth it to counter that in advance.)


One-on-one time with Crushee:

This is a trickier one, because there’s a two part question hidden in here:
(1) Is it ethical to spend one-on-one time with Crushee?
(2) Would Crushee be upset with me if they found out I had a crush on them and we were spending one-on-one time together [despite this]?

What actions would differentiate between how you hang out one-on-one with Crushee when, well, they’re a Crushee, and when they’re a friend?
Some things that came to mind:
-if you were encouraging Crushee to leave Partner behind to hang out with you.
-if you were planning hangouts that are focused on getting physical contact with Crushee (that is, I don’t think it’s a Bad Thing if friends do fun things around physical contact, but if you’re trying to cultivate this in a way you wouldn’t expect from your not-crushing-on-Crushee self, that might be a warning sign)

I suspect that one way you can minimize explosions related to this unrequited crush are by focusing efforts on doing Definitely Friend Stuff, and just keeping an eye out for the above actions.

What would you want if you were the Crushee in this story? 
This isn’t a perfect way of modeling how your real Crushee will feel, but it might give you some sense of what you’d expect from others. It’s also [often] a way to step away from guilt about potential Badness of yourself, and figure out what you’d expect of others.


How to reduce guilt/envy feelings:

lksadjflaskjdf I am not really sure.

What has worked for you (if relevant) when getting over a breakup?
I suspect the mechanism might be similar. Is it going on dates with others? Is it developing other friendships more deeply?

What things cue the worst experience of these feelings? 
Is it being a third wheel? If so, you could hang out which each of these two friends one-on-one. Is it being asked about who you’re interested in? Is it conversations about Crushee’s relationship with their partner? I’d suggest avoiding the worst things and trying to decrease the envy on the unavoidable things.


[Advice] Rape and Reactions

I’ve started answering questions…with questions. If you have a problem that might benefit from other angles of consideration, send it to donovanable [at] gmail [dot] com.

I think I was maybe raped, but it doesn’t really bother me. I’m uncomfortable around people who remind me of him, but otherwise nothing’s really different and I’m not traumatized or broken or repressing; it was just an unpleasant experience which I don’t want to repeat. It hasn’t really affected me much. Is something wrong with me? Is that okay?

Anon, I am sorry this happened to you. I’m also sorry you’ve been worried about your reaction.

What outcomes would you want for someone else in your shoes? 

Picture this for me:
You’re not you, you’re listening to someone like you. “I think I was raped,” they say. “It’s not ruining my life…but you know, occasionally some stuff makes me uncomfortable. I’m managing just fine otherwise.”

You might worry that, as you said, they could be repressing it. But perhaps you have a conversation and you’re persuaded, convinced, otherwise made comfortable they’re not squashing down feelings.

What then, do you say to your friend?

What advantages would being more bothered have? What disadvantages?

It seems like an innate sense of being more normal might be one of the advantages for you. What else? What would it trade off against?

Consideration: What would you do if it did start bothering you? How would you know it was bothering you enough to want to do something about it?

Some people have a resurgence or appearance of trauma symptoms during significant events—the sexual assault of a friend or child, hearing of their rapist’s good fortune, a partner who happens to do or say something especially reminiscent of the rape.

Nobody benefits from wandering around expecting their brain to implode on them, so I don’t suggest you continually fear this. But please consider that if in five or fifteen years, you suddenly feel awful about this, that would be okay too. 

The “I shouldn’ts” sometimes stop people from seeking [professional or friendly] help.
“I was fine before, and I shouldn’t feel this way [amount of time] later.”
“This shouldn’t be giving me flashbacks, it was so minor!”

What would be a level of discomfort related to this that would be too much for you? What would you do then?

Opinion: Yes, you are okay. You are allowed (and encouraged!) to be different from the dominant narrative. You are allowed to be not hurt by something that can hurt others who experience it. I am glad that this is your experience; I don’t get to see this side enough.

If I ran an advice column that told people they should feel worse about things that happened to them, I would not be helping anyone.

A Caveat: Sometimes numbness is how the body/brain protects itself from strong emotions after a trauma, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention this. This is also not necessarily bad! If you think it might be happening to you, or you’re not sure, or you think it might be getting in the way of other things, you could talk to a counselor about it.

Related: Your Reaction Is Normal

‘Grounding’ and Other Complicated Words

This is a personal reference list for me, but perhaps it will help others. Overall I find quieting my mind or paying attention to my body (common suggestions for self-soothing) to be very unpleasant. At some point I would like to increase my tolerance for things on the second list, but exposure therapy is not how you relax.


1. weighted blanket
2. back breathing
3. fidgets, especially cold or heavy ones
4. hard hugs
5. hot showers/baths
6. square breathing


1. ‘body scan’ meditations
2. okay, really any meditation billed as ‘grounding’ [Example]
3. diaphragmatic breathing
4. mindful movement

Monday Miscellany: Prison, Pickup Lines, Personal Questions

Screen Shot 2016-03-20 at 1.57.40 PM

1. Are bay leaves a LIE? (Category tag on that article wins extra points)

2. Section 35 allows family members and/or providers to commit someone in Massachusetts to 90 days of substance abuse treatment. This includes substance abuse facilities as well as medium security prison facilities [pdf] (how is prison a substance abuse treatment facility, you ask? exactly, I grouch.)

At MCI Framingham [women’s prison], for example, the number of commitments related to Section 35 has increased by 131% overall, with a 598% increase for civil-only commitments.

3. Sinuous.

4. On taking and giving personal histories.

I’m filling out a new-patient form online for my doctor’s office when I see it, sandwiched somewhere between “Do you smoke? and “Has anyone in your family had a stroke?”:

Have you ever been sexually abused or assaulted?
Yes __ No __

No context, no indication how this information will be used. No box to tick for, “Well, yes, actually, but that’s not why I am visiting you and I don’t know you and I have nothing to be ashamed of and I’m not afraid to talk about it but really I’ve done my talking already and mostly I just want my annual exam, not a bunch of prying questions or sympathy or anything, actually, from you.”

No space to breathe. Just a tidy little binary for a story that doesn’t feel tidy at all.

At my appointment, the doctor says, “So, you were sexually assaulted.” It’s not a question, but she pauses expectantly.

5. ❤ the musical Hamilton? Now there’s Harrison!


[Advice] Alice & Bob

I’ve started answering questions…with questions. If you have a problem that might benefit from other angles of consideration, send it to donovanable [at] gmail [dot] com.

A friend of mine (Alice) and his wife (Bob) have a ~5 year old child (Charlie) together. Bob has told Charlie that Alice doesn’t love him and (at a different time) that Charlie is personally responsible for the (extensive) conflict in their marriage.

Bob has left the country for a month without telling Alice or Charlie, or providing any information about where they were or if they were safe. Bob has threatened (within earshot of Charlie) to abandon them. What can Alice do here to minimize the psychological damage to Charlie from these events?

Anders Zorn, Sleeping Child

What kind of information about Bob and Alice is developmentally appropriate for Charlie’s age?
Charlie is five. At that age, kids aren’t really able to easily model their parents’ relationship as not involving them. Even if Charlie were particularly precocious, Bob is dragging him into it by either discussing the conflict nearby or actively blaming him. (What the fuck, Bob.)

Right now, Charlie might not be able to take in the ways that adult relationships are complicated. People are often sorted into Good and Bad, which leaves little room for People You Want To Love But Who Also Say Scary Stuff as a cogent category.

When I looked around, I especially liked this curriculum for talking about healthy relationships aimed at elementary students (so just a few years or two over Charlie’s head). There’s also a variety of age-by-age guides for talking about divorce, which do a nice job of delineating what children can handle at what ages in ways that could be useful.

What is Alice’s plan for her relationship with Bob?
What is Alice’s hope for the outcome? Is she planning to stay with Bob indefinitely? In the short term? Until Charlie is [X] age?

Long-time relationship conflict isn’t great for children, and lasting high-conflict relationships are probably worse than divorce at all ages, though in the absence of highly-visible conflict, divorce is slightly worse when children are young [APA review of literature here].

I’m not here to tell Alice what to do about her relationship to Bob—and after all, I hardly know more than a few sentences about part of her life—but knowing what her plan is (reconciliation? exit strategy? trying to make a plan?) might help her figure out what to expect for Charlie’s future.

Who is supporting Alice?
On days when Charlie says he’d rather travel with Dad, or blames Alice for making Bob angry, who is going to listen to Alice be upset about this? Who’s going to tell her that of course Charlie won’t hate her forever, of course it’s not her fault? Kids cannot be the sole outlet for parents. If Alice is going to to do the work of responding appropriately and carefully, of letting Charlie have his feelings without dragging him into the back-and-forth of an adult relationship, she’ll need support. (To be clear: being the bigger person can be an enormous pain in the ass.)

And when Alice doesn’t manage to keep her calm? When she’s dealt with a bunch and Charlie hears her at her most angry, talking about Bob’s behavior? Somebody’s got to be there to remind Alice that she’s doing her best, and Charlie will probably be fine, and look how well she’s doing.

What experiences of mutually supportive relationships is Charlie getting to see?
I want to be clear here, this doesn’t mean only people who are perfectly happy at all times. Quoting that APA lit review again:

Chronic, unresolved conflict is associated with greater emotional insecurity in children. Fear, distress, and other symptoms in children are diminished when parents resolve their conflicts and when they use compromise and negotiation methods rather than verbal attacks. The beneficial effects of these more resolution-oriented behaviors have been reported whether or not they are directly observed by the child.

If Charlie doesn’t get to see this with Alice and Bob doing this, where is he seeing it? Is it other adults in his life? Conversations with someone about TV/media characters he likes being nice vs. not nice in episodes? Is someone demonstrating to him that it’s okay to tell someone to stop, or how to apologize when you’ve hurt another person?

How has Charlie responded so far?
How’s he doing? Reading the lists of things that can indicate distress in young children was enough to make me fear  for my own non-existent children’s sanity, so I won’t link to any here (are they sleeping more? sleeping less? doing better in school? worse in school? ALL ARE SIGNS OF BAD THINGS). But what’s going on with Charlie? Some obvious warning signs: ending up as the message-bearer between Alice and Bob, significant withdrawal, regression in acquired skills.

Finally, if Charlie does have psychological distress in the future? If he decides that he should get some therapy? Or if Alice thinks he might need some? This isn’t the worst thing in the world. It can be very helpful to think through childhood experiences when you have some distance and skill in interpreting them. I’m trying not to tell everyone who asks for advice that they need therapy, but hey, some therapy might not be bad.


Stuff I read when thinking about this:
What Should We Tell The Children? Developing a Mutual Story of Divorce
American Psychological Association on conflict and divorce
TV Tropes: Heel-Face Revolving Door (I promise it was relevant)
Relationship Redux


[Advice] Replicating & Relationships

I have a couple of questions, any advice would be much appreciated. Firstly: how effective are perpetrator programs, if the abuser wants to change? Secondly, I have been repeatedly abused and my parents relationship was awful; how do I figure out what on earth a healthy relationship even looks like? I don’t want to accidentally be abusive. Are there courses on that?

[Mod note: due to the implied content of this letter, I’m primarily looking at between-partner abuse]

Zinvarta on DeviantArt

I have so many thoughts! Unfortunately I committed to answering advice with other questions! So I’ll sub-divide this question into answers to the objective questions and questions you might ask yourself.

How effective are perpetrator programs, if the abuser wants to change?

This is a surprisingly complicated question!

A note on instrumental vs. expressive abuse:
We distinguish between two kinds of abuse, and consider instrumental abuse more dangerous.
Expressive abuse is the outlet, it’s the way to burn off feelings, it’s the person who punches the wall, who slaps their partner in the heat of an argument, or screams in their face. Expressive abuse is temporally close to the trigger. I usually think of it as naturally creating the cycle of violence.

Instrumental abuse is harm used to indicate power. I think about it as being much more manipulative. It’s the partner who shreds all of her boyfriends sports gear because he hung out with his friends to watch the game, or the man who hurts his partner’s pet and tells them it’s because they should know better than to make him mad.


Lundy Bancroft, author of the famous book Why Does He Do That? makes the strong claim that most abusive [men*] are not able to change. The Campbell Collaboration—functionally the Cochrane Collaboration, but for social science—agrees when it comes to court-mandated domestic violence, there is no visible effect. [pdf]

But of course, this isn’t your question, really. People who end up in court-mandated treatment are (1) likely to have a very clear cut, almost exclusively physical violence related case and are (2) mandated, and thus very unlikely to be motivated to change.

Fortunately, the Campbell Collaboration also assessed Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for men who [physically] abuse female partners. (Apologies for the heteronormativity here, I’m having a lot of trouble finding anything else). They…were not optimistic [pdf]:

This review included six randomized controlled trials from the USA involving a total of 2,343 participants.

Four of the studies compare a group of men who receive cognitive behavioural therapy with a control group who receive no treatment but are released on parole, carrying out community service or under supervision. The other two studies compare cognitive behavioural therapy with other forms of treatment (process-psychodynamic group treatment and facilitation group). Following the course of treatment (a period of up to 26 weeks and a follow-up period of 1-2 years) the level of repeated violence is measured.

The studies fail to provide a clear picture of the effect of cognitive behavioural therapy on physically abusive men, as they point in different directions. The individual circumstances surrounding each study can determine how the therapy is carried out and thereby the effect of the therapy. However, on the basis of the information available, it is not possible to determine which variations are decisive. As the studies point in different directions, the idea that certain variations of the therapy may have both a positive and negative outcome cannot be ruled out.

The review includes studies where enrollment in the CBT program is voluntarily as well as those where enrollment is compulsory. The findings of the review do not, however, show any clear correlation between voluntary participation and a positive outcome of the treatment or compulsory participation and a negative outcome of the treatment.

A different, less careful, meta-analysis by Babcock, et al [pdf] finds a minimal effect from treatment, though again they pool voluntary and compulsory attendance and look at arrested populations of men. As explained by Stith et al, 2012:

While there is some question about what these small effect sizes actually mean for women who have been assaulted by an intimate partner, Babcock et al. (2004) note that, using the most conservative result, the treatment effect based on partner report in experimental studies (d = .09), treatment is responsible for approximately one tenth of standard deviation improvement in recidivism. In other words, a man who is arrested, sanctioned by the court, and treated has a 40% chance of remaining nonviolent versus a 35% chance of remaining nonviolent for a man who is arrested and sanctioned but not treated

Stith et al (2012) which seems to currently not be available outside university libraries, also review a large number of other programs—all with very few studies—to suggest that sometimes they work. However, uniting variables in those seemed to be that the couples were planning to stay together and that abuse did not necessarily disappear, but significantly decreased.

In conclusion…I’m not sure if I’m answering your question, or if the research does. When people are arrested for abuse, they’re easy to measure, and for those people, treatment has a minimal impact, if any. But those are people who physically abused someone else (usually a partner). And someone of them (just over a third) seem to stop spontaneously.

But I think the thing, LW, the thing is that even if someone can get become a better person, you are not obligated to remain involved while they do. I can’t promise that the perpetrator you’re asking about will or won’t change, but I can promise that you don’t have to find out. 


LW, when you ask about forming relationships in the context of past abuse and seeing dysfunctional models of relationships, I think about the Seeking Safety program, which is evidence-supported.

Seeking Safety consists of 25 topics that can be conducted in as many sessions as time allows, and in any order. Examples of topics are Safety, Asking for Help, Setting Boundaries in Relationships, Healthy Relationships, Community Resources, Compassion, Creating Meaning, Discovery, Recovery Thinking, Taking Good Care of Yourself, Commitment, Coping with Triggers, Self-Nurturing, Red and Green Flags, and Life Choices.

There are frequently groups that work through the Seeking Safety model, and you’re likely to find one if you live near a large city. Alternatively, there’s a well-liked Seeking Safety book.

And finally, the questions:

How comfortable are you at saying no? Have you practiced this?
Saying ‘no’ to people is a skill! If you have someone you can trust, you could set up this as a thing you practice with them; where you plan to decline their suggested plans or idea of where to eat, etc.

Dialectical Behavioral Therapy has some things to say about this. [Example here]

Who’s on your team?
Who are the people outside your head that you could ask about your relationship? You don’t necessarily have to do what they say, or agree, but if you weren’t sure if something that occurred in a relationship was safe, who would you ask? One of them might be a therapist, but they could be friends or mentors, etc. Most cities have a hotline for intimate partner violence/domestic violence. You could call them to ask if you weren’t comfortable talking to someone else.

What are your tripwires?
What things would tell you ‘this is abuse’? It’s perfectly fine if you don’t have an answer for this yet! You might want to read over other people’s thoughts about what their red flags are. You might enjoy reading about green flags (note the difference between “good signs” and “requirements”) and working backwards.

What are things that make you uncomfortable but aren’t necessarily ‘abuse’?
You make it sound as though you have been around some unhealthy relationships. Sometimes, this causes people to have triggers that aren’t necessarily signals of abuse, but are things they cannot tolerate. Some people are fine having conversations where voices are raised and shouting ensues, some feel like crawling into a corner with their hands of over their ears at the slightest raised voice.

It’s useful to know what these are. You might want to change them or you might want to just avoid relationships that include these things.

Do you have a fuck off fund?
This a more fun way to say a savings account, but I’m serious about it. People with all sorts of protective factors end up in bad relationships, or feeling trapped in not-great-but-not-awful relationships. It happens. Do you have the savings to get yourself out?


*Bancroft talks almost exclusively about men as abusers, one of the major failings of the book.

[1] Lynette Feder, David B. Wilson: Court-mandated interventions for individuals convicted of domestic violence. Campbell Collaboration, 2008