There’s been plenty written about Gone Girl, about whether it is feminist, anti-feminist, post-modern and so on, but I’ve not seen anyone talking about how it seemed to me – a story of domestic psychological abuse. The victim in the story is worn down, isolated and humiliated while the abuser is manipulative, controlling and demanding. However, this is not seen as a story of domestic violence because the victim is a man.
For anyone who hasn’t read it, the tale is of a woman who marries her ‘perfect’ man and then tries to change him. When he doesn’t change in the way that she wants, she slowly destroys him; then disappears and frames him for her murder. The book is about him trying to prove his innocence.
At first when they get together, Amy pretends to be someone she’s not (the ‘cool girl’) and when her real personality comes out – uptight, bitchy, controlling – he doesn’t like it and she takes this as a rejection and betrayal, for which he must be punished. From Amy’s point of view, she is the wronged party (which is common with abusers), she doesn’t accept that she started the relationship with a lie. Everything he does is taken as a slight. She sets him tests that he can only fail, and then instead of discussing it with him, she acts hurt; putting the blame for a situation she created, onto him. He learns to be constantly wary of letting her down, but her moods are so unpredictable, he can’t avoid getting things wrong. She isolates him from the people he loves, she belittles him until he starts to doubt himself. She slowly and deliberately breaks him, so that he becomes emotionally numb and dependent on her as the only one who can make him feel. If the genders were reversed, there would be no doubt that this was a well-written tale of abuse.
What set me thinking about this again was seeing a friend a few days ago. This friend has been in an abusive relationship now for over a decade. His wife is like Amy, in that she has a need to be perfect and believes that she is and he is not, so he must change. She insults him in front of his friends, shoves and pokes him, and blackmails him (if you leave me you’ll never see the kids again). Some of his friends think she’s a bitch, but no one acknowledges that this is abuse. Crucially, he doesn’t recognise this as abuse, and is now so worn down believing himself to be deserving of her scorn, that he can’t walk away.*
I think we are reaching a point where it is acknowledged that domestic violence can include women being violent towards men, but psychological abuse towards men is never labelled as such,and is even made a joke of. If a relationship is manipulative and isolating, and involves the slow destruction of one person’s psyche, then it is abuse.
More disturbingly, women are often encouraged in society to change the man they love. Instead of pursuing their own ambitions, they are expected to live out their dreams through their male partner. I’d have hoped this would have changed now that women have careers and passions outside the home, but it still seems to be a normal part of society. Of course, we all want to change small things about the ones we love when flaws affect us: persuading your partner to be a little more careful with money or a bit tidier; but these should always be minor details in a relationship built on genuine love and respect for who the other person is. And it’s a two-way street, a discussion, not a demand. If you genuinely don’t think someone is good enough for you, if you don’t respect their hopes for the future, then don’t marry them. Trying to ‘change your man’ to fit your own ideal is abusive.
My friend’s wife recently said to him,
“You were always intended as a project. I married you because I thought I could make you into something great. You’ve failed me.” To her, this is completely reasonable. Sadly, he now sees it the same.
Until we recognise that women can be perpetrators of abuse and that that abuse does not have to include violence, there will be no chance of stopping it. If we want equality then we must recognise that men can be vulnerable and that a relationship is about mutual respect and acceptance of each other’s failings, as well as a celebration of our differences. I think Gone Girl highlighted this brilliantly, it seems a shame that no one picked up on it.
*I feel I need to explain, my friend is not a submissive or weak man, he has always been funny, confident and tough. To look at him you would never think him a victim. I’ve found this is often the case with abused women also, it seems that if you and everyone else believe you can’t be a victim, then you are more likely to become one. Perhaps because your abuser’s interpretation that they are the victim fits better with your belief that you are strong.