Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The Importance of Not Being Ernest

My ideal Sunday morning has 2 ingredients: brunch and the Sunday paper. The first section I read is the comics. Every strip gets some notice. This past Sunday's Frank and Ernest, however, deserves closer attention (click on the name to read the strip).

Frank is telling Ernest why his relationship with girlfriend Ernestine is in trouble. The dialog goes like this:
Frank: You criticize everything she says.
Ernest: That just shows I'm a good listener.

Frank: And you constantly tell her what a poor dresser she is.
Ernest: That just shows how comfortable I am sharing my feelings.

Frank: You spend 6 nights a week out with the guys.
Ernest: I'm in tune with giving her lots of space.

Frank: She says you show no sign of changing.
Ernest: That just shows how stable I am.

Frank: Ernie, do you realize your relationship has a serious problem?
Ernest: I sure do! Ernestine doesn't appreciate me!
This is kind of humorous and witty, and it's also close to identical to how abusive boyfriends and husbands begin to justify their violence.

So I'm taking this strip on a test-drive. I will begin using it in my self-defense classes to open a discussion about domestic violence, and see how it flies. And, sometime in the future, will report back in this blog about how it went.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Brain Rule #8: This is Your Brain on Stress

I'm reading Brain Rules by John Medina. Medina is a molecular biologist who's been looking at how the human brain works. So of course he spends a LOT of time telling us how much we really don't know about how the human brain works. Nevertheless, he has come up with a set of 12 heuristics that can still guide us to making more aware and smarter choices.

Rule #8 is that your brain learns differently while under stress. This has a few implications for your safety. Here I'll look at one in particular, because it relates to some of my recent posts: learned helplessness in domestic violence.

According to Rule #8, our brains evolved to deal with short-term stress. Like 30 seconds. Or less. Way back in prehistory our threats came primarily from 4 legged predators and accidents. OK, we've still got plenty of accidents, but our predators are bipedal, just like you and me. Some of those predators are those bipeds closest to you.

Domestic violence can create one of the most insidious and misunderstood forms of learned helplessness. When someone is under constant (or even unpredictably sporadic) pressure from another, when they would definitely rather the pressure was stopped, and most importantly feel they have no control over the source of stress, you have the makings of a problem-solving breakdown. Your brain on such stress just does not work well.

Many forms of stress are beneficial, and indeed necessary for personal growth and learning, but stress that seems to have no end and that is spiraling out of control leads to just the opposite. Women in abusive relationships are subject to that kind of unpredictable and controllable stress, and the end result is often an inability to take self-preserving action.

And if that's not enough, here's the kicker: most people outside the relationship who see the abuse wonder (often out loud) why she just doesn't leave. The abused ends up getting more harm in the guise of help; when well-meaning family and friends tell an abused woman that she needs to take a specific action, they further diminish her ability to make good decisions.

So in the spirit of Brain Rules, I have a positive suggestion for more aware and positive choices.

Recognize stress. Distinguish stressors that are growth challenges from those that are destructive (easier said than done, and to abuse another cliche, hindsight is 20-20). One idea on how to do this comes from Rule #4 on Attention. Your brain pays great attention to whether or not you've seen "it" (whatever "it" is) before. That does not mean you have to experience abuse in order to recognize it. Your big brain can learn from others' experiences. Learn the red flags that are screaming "abuse," and learn how to better aid your family and friends who may have become entrapped. There are lots of web and print resources (see my Resources and Readings pages for some), and if you ask around you'll probably be surprised how much experience is in your own backyard.

Monday, January 12, 2009

New! Hot Off the Press!

The Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence has issued a new report with far-reaching implications on fatalities in domestic violence. This report includes:
  • Key data findings about domestic violence homicides and suicides in Washington for 1997-2008
  • Findings and recommendations based on 11 fatality cases reviewed in depth by local review teams
  • Analysis of higher rates of domestic violence homicide affecting victims of color
  • Exploration of critical gaps in services for Protection Order petitioners
  • Recommendations for change specific to law enforcement, judges, employers, health care and mental health providers, chemical dependency, and domestic violence advocates
  • Tips for how to use the report to make change in your community
About 80+ percent of my students and clients say they know someone who was or is in an abusive relationship, or had themselves been in one. Reading this report can give you more ideas on how you can help your family and friends, should they become enmeshed with an abusive partner.

Also, listen to KUOW-FM's interview with Kelly Starr, one of this report's authors, on The Conversation here: In this interview, Ms. Starr expressed concern that while the overall rate of violent crime has been decreasing, the rate of DV murder has remained steady.

You can find the WSCADV report on Download (it's free) and read it today.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Judy Judges Josh

Sometimes, late at night when I'm finishing up in the kitchen, I watch Judge Judy on TV. I confess, I have a grudging admiration for her. Not just the New Yawk accent (soothing to my ears, as a expatriate New Yawker). This post, though, isn't really about her, but about some of those summoned to face her.

See, every so often a case comes up where one person clearly took advantage of the generosity and goodwill of another. Not only took advantage, but then walked away laughing.

One case: a 19 year old woman we'll call Ruth claimed that her 18 year old ex-boyfriend (we'll name him Josh) owed her a few thousand dollars. When they were together Josh was 17 and because of his age could not sign a contract with a cell phone provider and get his own phone. So Ruth, 18 and a legal adult, signed the contract and got a phone for him. Josh ran up big and BIGGER bills, and then wouldn't pay. (This may have been one of the reasons they split.) So Ruth hauled him in front of the Judge.

What do you think Judge Judy said?

Think a moment, then read on.

Judge Judy pointed out that there's a reason the cell phone company would not give Josh a phone. He was underage and not legally responsible. The cell phone company knew that very well. Ruth ignored that little fact. Ruth had no legal basis on which to sue Josh. Judge Judy ruled against the plaintiff. Josh was not liable.

After the Judge rules and the parties exit, there a brief clips of interviews with them. Ruth was clearly disappointed at how unfair it was, but acknowledged she learned a hard lesson. Josh was clearly smiling. He said it was Ruth's own fault for believing him and getting taken so easily.

Most of the people I've seen standing before Judge Judy seem to have had more or less honest disagreements and need help clarifying their legal responsibilities. But every so often one like Josh comes on who deliberately set out to steal by seeking out someone like Ruth. Someone who will fall for their charm, who wants to be in love, who wants to show kindness and caring. Ruth probably saw the warning signs, and ignored them.

Still, be kind. Be generous. And be careful. Learn the red flags that signal a Josh is near. More importantly, heed them.