Musings Of A Spiritual Atheist

Once two people have paired off other factors may come into play, depending on whether the individuals in the pairing see it as a temporary liaison or as possibly leading to a more permanent relationship. As the relationship progresses they will develop both spoken and unspoken rules governing the relationship with each other. It is not anybody business to say what these should be and the couple must decide that by themselves. However, whatever form the relationship takes should be completely voluntary. That is, both parties should be willing participants in the relationship as it develops. Voluntary participation is not the same as reluctant or submissive acquiescence unless both want that to be the basis of the relationship. In that case “reluctant” would probably not be the most appropriate adjective to apply. By voluntary I mean that both parties should be satisfied with how the relationship develops and not under any compulsion, no matter how slight, no matter whether physical or emotional, to behave in any particular manner on any occasion. Relationships should be by free choice.

Men, by and large, are physically stronger than women and there may be a temptation to use that strength during disagreements. This is not necessarily by physical aggression, but can be by the fear of physical aggression or bullying. It should be borne in mind that bullying depends, ultimately, on the fear of being hurt and it has no place in personal, intimate relationships. It is not only men who can do this, of course, women can also be bullies in these, and other, circumstances and the threat of violence or of withdrawing something important from someone can be a powerful weapon.

Physical bullying and coercion, however, are not the only kind of pressure that may be brought to bear. Emotional bullying is likely as common, if not more so. This ultimately depends on the withdrawal of love and support, the most fundamental needs of all people, and is very effective in coercing others to do what is wanted. Again, this can be used effectively by both men and women. We have all heard of the hen pecked husband or the mouse of a wife, responses to emotional bullying which become the norm in some relationships.

In some, perhaps most, relationships which show these characteristics it is a matter of choice, in the sense that the underlying emotional needs of both participants is to dominate or be dominated, to be feared or to submit and, in those cases, it is probably best that the individuals in the relationship be left alone to live their lives as they wish. It may not be my cup of tea, but they may like vinegar in theirs. It is probably best to accept that there are relationships which may be considered dysfunctional from one person’s perspective, but which meet some deep emotional need from the perspective of those actually in the relationship. It is not my place to say they are wrong. If their relationship enables them to live their lives in an emotionally satisfying manner, why would my opinion be of any importance?

The difficulty begins when one of the participants in this kind of relationship is either unwilling from the start and has been bullied or coerced into a relationship they do not want, or when one of the participants was initially willing but has since changed their mind and no longer wants to live in such circumstances. In either case there is a person who is living a life in circumstances they do not like and, presumably, would prefer to leave. The mantra of permitting someone to live their life in the manner they want as long as it does not inhibit someone else from doing the same obviously is not being followed in this circumstance, since one of the participants would prefer another type of relationship, another different circumstance, yet feels constrained to continue in a unsatisfying life.

When situations such as this arise there are not too many options, and one of the individuals involved has to change. That does mean that both must be made aware of the dissatisfaction. There is no point to keeping relationship dissatisfactions secret as it breeds only further and more serious dissatisfaction. The dissatisfied partner must let the other person know of their dissatisfaction. Often the other partner is aware that there is a problem, although they may not know the specifics, from a change in the behaviour and attitude of the dissatisfied partner. As a friend used to say to me, “ It’s impossible not to communicate.” Somehow or other something will become apparent.

Reams have been written about communication in marriage, most of which is applicable to any close relationship whether marital or not. The key is almost always talking to each other and understanding the other person’s concerns. This does require a degree of commitment, since many people do not actually listen to what others are saying in conversations, thinking instead of what their response is going to be. If the most important relationship in our lives is to succeed it is imperative that our full attention be given to it so we may fully understand what we might want from it. In the process of doing this, preferably as a continuing practice, a new relationship is likely to be negotiated, without realising it, which meets the needs of both. It should be approached as an ongoing process, making small, minor, almost unnoticeable adjustments over a period of years in response to the changing wants and needs of those involved. Gradual change is not usually traumatic, but saving up all those minor changes and springing them on an unsuspecting partner all at once is. People adjust easily to very small changes, but a large one may cause a fatal disruption and the end of the relationship, and I have always believed that the ending of a significant emotional relationship is something very sad.

Sometimes discussions are not possible, though. When this is because one of the people involved seeks to keep the relationship the way it is through violence, or seeks to change it through violence, there is a serious problem. Let me say right away, that the instant any physical violence takes place, the victim should immediately report it to the police and have charges of assault and battery laid. There is no place for physical violence in emotional relationships. I suspect that even those who prefer what is often euphemistically referred to as “ rough” sex would probably not want to be punched in the face during a dispute over what brand of toilet paper to buy.

I propose no tolerance for physical abuse in families, whether it be between spouses or involving children. The family is supposed to be a nurturing environment, one that supports the aspirations of members, one that enables reliance on each other, one that promotes each person’s welfare. Physical violence denies that and should not be tolerated. Hit your spouse once and expect to be charged. That should be the norm.

With children the situation is a little less clear since mild physical punishment is still used by some parents. At what stage this mild punishment turns into abusive punishment is often a matter of dispute but if a child is physically afraid of one or both parents as a normal course of events and fear is an inherent component of the family dynamic, then the relationship is almost certainly abusive. A judgment call is required in many cases since some parents who genuinely love and nurture their children also believe that some mild physical punishment may be appropriate on occasion. If there is any difficulty determining whether the relationship is abusive or not, the call should always be made in favour of the child. If an objective evaluation determines that the relationship between a parent and a child is abusive, criminal charges for assault and battery should be laid.

The difficulty comes in family interactions that are not physically abusive but emotionally so. Having been subject to both, I firmly believe that emotional abuse is far more damaging than being hit. Hitting is transient and eventually, as the child grows older, tends to lessen from fear of retaliation. Emotional abuse carries on the whole life of the victim, with the abusive commentary being replayed over and over again in the victim’s mind, reinforcing the negative opinion they have been taught about themselves. There should be little leeway given to emotionally abusive parents and as soon as such abuse is detected action should be taken to stop it. Unfortunately, some of this emotional abuse is quite subtle and a lot of it is hidden so that outsiders never detect it. The child, of course, knows no different and grows up presuming that the treatment they receive is normal in all families. This may explain why there are so many dysfunctional relationships and such a high degree of depression and other anxiety disorders in our society. Emotional abuse of children, or that of adults, is not easy to detect and usually requires training, but I firmly believe that more attention needs to be paid to finding those children subjected to it.

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