Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Holidays and the Red-Herring of Happiness

Happy Holidays! Merry Christmas! Happy New Year! Happy Hanukkah! Happy Kwanzaa! Happy Saturnalia! So many holidays, so many traditions, so many orders to be happy and have a great few weeks at the end of the year. We give greetings, we expect them in return. We feel slighted if others don't follow suit, give us a greeting we don't like, or rebuff our tidings of great joy.

It is a very powerful testament to how needy we are for happiness. We seek happiness at all costs, think something is wrong if we feel unhappy, try various things to feel it, think it, do it. Culture and society pressure us to be happy in our media, from our friends and family, even within faith communities. We have entire cliches we stick to here: do what makes you happy! If you're not happy, then do something different! Pick a job you will be happy with! I just want my kids to grow up happy!

If someone is unhappy, it's easy to avoid talking to that person. As if unhappiness is a disease and we're afraid to catch it. We don't want to talk about or address topics, particularly complicated ones, if they make us feel unhappy. Sexual assault, domestic violence, poverty, racism, homophobia and heterosexism - the list goes on with topics that are given platitudes, and sometimes even claims that the problems are over, or have changed, or are pointless to do anything about because they won't change.

Here's the thing. Humans don't really want to be happy, even if we focus on it all the time. There are plenty of articles (here, here, here, here, and beyond) that address this concept of the "cult of happiness" we are pushed to become a part of. In battering intervention classes, the concept of happiness is sometimes used as an intervention, "are you making her happy?" "Is your abusive behavior making you happy?" "Are the kids happy when you do that?"

What human beings want, what we strive for - is comfort.

We want comfort so much, we can easily hurt others in our quest to achieve it. Maintaining the status quo is all about feeling comfortable. Abuse, control, and violence is all about desiring comfort, and trying to force it on others. Entitlement is based in comfort that you are better than others, others are less than you, or that you deserve something.

As human beings, we often fall into the trap of putting our sense of comfort onto others. Often our sense of safety is a part of that comfort. Victims of domestic violence hear all the time "why don't you just leave?" This is an excellent example of how the person suggesting leaving, who probably feels comfortable and safe in their own relationship, extrapolates that if *I* were in that situation, I'd just leave. This is an imposition of comfort, and it is at the very least flawed but more often is just directly hurtful and controlling to think and say to someone who is definitely NOT safe OR comfortable in their relationship.

Externalized comfort is about control. I want to make people do things to make me feel comfortable. I want to keep people from doing things that make me uncomfortable. Again, as human beings we all do this. Think about the holidays and how many people get upset if others do not mirror their chosen greeting, or think things like "there is a WAR on Christmas," because not everyone likes hearing "Merry Christmas!" Think about how when we hear someone has lost a loved one, our "you have my condolences" is not about giving comfort to that person, but rather to ourselves. If we wanted to give comfort to others we would check in to see how they feel, what they need, right? Think of this exchange:

"My father died last week."

"Oh, I am so sorry for your loss!"

"I'm not, I wish he had died years ago!"

This response is often followed by awkward silence, shock, confusion. If the intent was to provide comfort, then the person saying sorry for your loss is probably not helping. The person saying that is thinking about how upset they would be if their father died, or maybe is even reaching to empathy thinking about how they felt when their father or loved one died and want to offer condolences because that's what they wanted and needed. It is self-serving to do that. Think of the alternative:

"My father died last week."

"How are you doing with that?"

"Fine. I wish he would have died years ago."

In this example, the checking in provides the person who experienced the death of a family member to dictate what they need, and how they feel. It's not about their own comfort, but the comfort of the person who may not experience death as a loss at all. Knowing that is true, then comfort can be provided in different ways, tailored to the person who might need it.

People who choose abusive behavior are often externalizing their comfort. This fits into thinking that others are responsible for personal comfort. Abusers, when asked about their hurtful, controlling, and violent behavior will often speak to all the things others have done to them, will disclose abuse they experienced at the hands of their partner, physical and emotional violence, a detailed telling of how others have treated them poorly. Abusers will often have a difficult time describing their own behavior separately from others. Again, this is about comfort - it's the idea that "I can see all the problems, and if only people would listen or do what I say, everything would be better!"

When others fail to follow through with orders (control), then it justifies forcing others to do things, or directly prevent them from doing things.

Victims and survivors, meanwhile, often internalize comfort. Again, this is a human trait and we all do it in certain circumstances. In situations with little personal control or ability, it makes us feel more comfortable to find anything, even a small thing, where we have choice and expand upon it. Think, for example, a worker with a boss who is very controlling and critical about how work is completed. That worker might experience the criticism and then internalize the need to adapt to keep that boss from criticizing. Along with that, the worker might find small things within the job to control that often have to do with personal style.

If someone is being dominated, and there is a pattern of that person being coercively controlled, there is less agency within that relationship. That victim/survivor might think of how to keep that harm, that control, from happening by trying to read that abuser's mind. The victim/survivor might blame themselves for getting hurt, because after all if only a few different choices had been made, the abuse wouldn't have happened (in their mind). This is internalized comfort - this victim/survivor feels more comfortable talking about personal choice, and how the abuse might have been prevented, than in talking about the experienced abuse, which the victim/survivor has no control over.

In considering holidays, let's think about tradition. Tradition makes up one of several layers of trust. We all develop traditions through our experiences as children, and some of them we love and look forward to, others we dislike but tolerate due to family patterns or knowledge that someone we love enjoys that tradition. Sometimes we even look forward to the traditions we dislike because despite not liking them, they provide comfort. We trust that traditions happen at certain times, and it can be anything from birthday celebrations, how we celebrate certain holidays, to individual behavior of family members. The challenge is that each individual human being experiences tradition differently, even within family groups.

In battering intervention groups, it can be important to discuss how often abusers discuss tradition with their partners. How often do such traditions involve elements of compromise, negotiation, and blending of practices? How often do abusers make assumptions about what traditions will be observed? How often does the lack of a tradition, or someone trying to practice their own tradition lead to justification for abuse, control, and violence?

If an abuser does not feel a sense of comfort, it is a simple thing to attack those who are not providing it. Holidays, being filled with tradition, can be great sources of negative self-talk, entitlement, and disconnect. Abuser will place their sense of safety on their victims - if they feel safe, and in their own minds think they are "right" and therefore justified in pushing or ignoring boundaries, shouldn't their partner instinctively know what their intentions are?

Happiness is indeed a red herring within domestic violence work (and with humanity as a whole). If we can understand how we seek and pursue comfort, we have more viable options to discuss how someone can develop thinking and behavior designed to cause pain and fear, yet justify and minimize impact on others.

If you are interested in having these conversations in your battering intervention classes, I suggest asking your group what holidays they celebrate. Ask what traditions they have, and traditions their partner has which are different. Ask about how different traditions are negotiated, particularly around visiting both sides of the family. Ask what happens when a tradition you enjoy doesn't happen, and when a tradition you dislike doesn't happen. Discuss the difference between happiness and seeking comfort, and how hurtful behavior might hinge on the desire for external comfort. Speak to how to navigate expectations during the holidays, and keep neutral self talk while noticing your own boundaries and the boundaries of partners and family. Ask how this discussion fits throughout the year, and how each participant in the class externalizes their comfort onto their partner, and what they do when their partner does something that leads them to feel uncomfortable. There are a lot of options, but during BIP classes, simply having the conversation and humanizing the stress, expectations, and authentic responses of the holidays is an important one to have.