Trigger warning: This article discusses domestic violence. Disclaimer: This is not an expert opinion nor an excuse for inaction, it is merely a means to discuss the dilemma that I, and I’m sure many others, have had to face in their friendships.
On a Monday, a few weeks ago, I picked up the call to hear one of my closest friends bawling on the other side. Her husband had hit her repeatedly in a fit of anger, had shoved aside her sister, who had tried to step in, had verbally abused her entire family and stormed out of the house, crying.
I listened to her on the phone for hours that day, and realised no training over the last few years had actually prepared me for this moment. Whatever she said she wanted to do, I said I’d support her with it. For the things she wanted to do immediately, I told her to take more time to decide. When she asked me what she should do, I deflected the question.
I spoke to her for many hours every single day for the next two weeks, and watched as she sifted through anger, disappointment, fear, resentment, apology, guilt and love. On Day 2, she wanted to know if her husband had reached out to me (he had texted, I couldn’t bring myself to respond). On Day 4, he called her to apologise, to say he missed her. The next day she’d accepted the apology and confessed to needing him terribly. By the end of the week, she’d packed her bags, taken their baby and gone to live with him at his parent’s house. In ten days, from the first call she (and apparently he too) began to insist that it was all for the good because they were communicating better with each other and started to frame the beating as the result of leaving too much unsaid.
She said they had decided to take help, and I passed on contacts for relationship therapists. So far, so normal — I hear this is a pretty common trajectory. But here ’s the murky bit that one isn’t warned about: In two weeks, she demanded ‘normalcy’, which means I and the other friends must behave with him like nothing happened. She was being heard and seen now, he was making an active effort to make up for beating her, putting in more time with the baby. So she wanted me to move on, look past the incident and forget that he’d hit her.
To be honest, I have never needed to have a relationship with a wife-beater (one time or many). Now that it is being asked of me, I suppose a stranger is the easiest to categorise as one and cancel, as is a relationship that can be tagged ‘toxic’ from a distance and be disengaged with. With this man who fought so hard to marry across religions, who is the husband of my friend, the father of my godchild, and himself the friend who has stepped in for me, I’m expected to see him as a ‘whole person’, believe that he is better than a wife-beater, not be reductionist in my perception and have a relationship with him as I have one with his wife. I conceded. When I went over, he stood at a safe distance from me, and I wondered if it was because he was socially distancing.
“I know you’re really angry with me,” he said when I asked him. “I am, but I’m with her on this,” I said. “I’m sorry,” he said, teared up and went on to apologise to me for both hitting her and disappointing me many times over those couple of hours. “Never again,” he insisted, as we smoked together to seal the ‘new normalcy’ pact. It’s been three weeks since I saw him. Relationship therapy has been deemed too expensive, and anyway their collective energies are required to organise the baby’s first birthday party. Because it’s been demanded that I move past ‘my’ disappointment in this man, I am trying. In the spirit of being a supportive, accepting, nonjudgemental friend, I need to try harder.
I am pitching in for the party, I will interact with him, I will check in on her regularly, he will know that I am. I need her to know she can call if this happens again, or every time it happens. For that, I’ll go along with her demand for ‘normalcy’. Women, who face violence, define for themselves if they are ‘victim’ or ‘survivor’. My friend wants to be ‘the person who has been hit by her husband ONCE’. As a friend, I’m going to have to identify her as such, as long as it stays the only once, and let her take the lead on what she wants if it occurs again. Maybe this is really where her happily-forever- after begins and my dilemma — being a guilty activist vs being a good friend — will have to trail behind unhappily after her.
The writer is a city-based activist, in-your-face feminist and a media glutton