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Can an abusive relationship ever become healthy again?

From what Shalom Bayit understands about relationships, once they become abusive they don’t get better. In our experience, abusive relationships only escalate in severity over time. Once a pattern of power and control has been established and one partner is in fear, it is incredibly challenging to change that dynamic. In this dynamic, the “problem” is the person who is being abusive, their belief system, and their learned controlling behavior. There is very little an abuser could do (even the unusual abuser totally committed to changing their behavior) that could make that fear go away. And if that fear remains, those two people will never be on equal power and therefore cannot (by definition) be in a healthy relationship. It is true that abuse is a learned behavior, meaning it can be unlearned. But we believe that abusers need to get out of their relationship before they can unlearn abusive behavior.

How should we bring up the conversation of consent with our significant other?

This is such an interesting question that I’m reading in two ways. I shall answer both interpretations of this question separately below!

Maybe you’re asking: What are some ways to phrase consent questions? 

I think there are some people who think consent check-ins are awkward because we so rarely see examples of checking-in on TV and in movies. Since we don’t see many examples of natural consent check-in moments that don’t “ruin the moment”, it makes a lot of sense to expect that it will be awkward! I do think though that it is more awkward to do something sexual to someone that they didn’t want, or weren’t ready for. In addition, I have found that consent conversations often feel less awkward to me if I have thought ahead of time about what kinds of questions/phrasing would feel more natural to me. There’s no one right way to ask a consent question, so spend some time thinking about what would feel most natural to you! Here are some ways I’ve brainstormed to phrase consent questions, just to get your mind rolling: “Am I getting ‘kiss me’ vibes?” “What do you want to happen next?” “where do you want me to kiss you?” “Is there anywhere you don’t want me to touch you?” “I’d like to ______, you down?” “How far do you want to go?” “Are you enjoying yourself? “How does that feel?” “Do you want me to keep going?”

Or maybe you’re asking: How do I talk to my significant other about the way we communicate around consent? 

Once people have started engaging in sexual activity with each other regularly, it’s possible that the way they communicate about consent will change, and that’s totally ok. Explicit questions, like the ones brainstormed above, are especially important the first few times you’re exploring sexual activity with someone. As people get to know each other better and establish the expectation that if someone speaks up about being uncomfortable then the other person will stop without repercussions, they start doing nonverbal consent check ins. The super explicit check ins during your first few hook ups with a new partner are important because they prove with actions that your partner’s enjoyment/comfort matters to you. Without that action, it can be hard for some people to really believe that the other person wants them to speak up if they are uncomfortable. And as we talked about, it can be difficult to say no to someone if we are on some level afraid that we will disappoint/anger them by saying no or that our saying no might make them not like us anymore.  

I think it is useful to touch base about a transition to nonverbal consent check ins because it’s good to confirm that everyone is on board with that change. This could be as simple as saying something like “I’ve noticed that we’ve been checking in with each other less when we’ve been hooking up. This has been working for me, but I wanted to make sure it’s been working for you too. It is important to me that you know that you can always talk to me about anything we’re doing that isn’t working for you.” 

Alternatively, if you are not liking the way things are shifting, you could say something like “I’ve noticed that we’ve been checking in with each other less when we’ve been hooking up and it’s been making me feel _____. Moving forward, I would enjoy our hookups more if we checked in with each other more often. I would especially like to be asked before ____________”. Although it can be scary, it is often really helpful to give pointed feedback about what is/isn’t working, how it’s impacting you, and what you want to happen differently moving forward. Even though it can sometimes feel easier to say things that are ambiguous or to give nonverbal cues about how we’re feeling in hopes that our partners will pick upon them, I have found that these strategies are much less effective than just saying outright what you want and need. We all deserve to be with people who want to know what we do/don’t like, and we all deserve to be with people who can be honest with us about what they do/don’t want. 

Even for partners who decide that nonverbal consent check-ins work for them, it is always important to verbally check-in with someone if you have any reason to believe they are not having a good time. Here are some examples of situations where it would be really important to verbally check-in with the person:

  • Someone stops participating
  • Someone seems upset or disengaged (looking away intently, about to cry/crying, uncomfortable silence)
  • Someone says stop/wait/no/that hurts/hold on
  • Someone might be/is pulling away, tensing up, pushing you away, or moving your hands off their body

In those situations, here are some things you could say to check-in: “You look uncomfortable, are you okay?” “Hey, how are you doing? Everything okay?” “Do you want to take a break?” “It seems like you aren’t into this anymore, do you want to stop?” 

Finally, if you are with a partner you have been sexually active with for a long time and you have started relying on nonverbal communication, I highly recommend getting into a pattern of checking in after sexual activity- ie how was that for you? Did you enjoy ____? What was your favorite part? It’s important that the channel for consent communication remains open and accessible so that everyone feels secure in knowing that they can always speak up if something isn’t working for them. These conversations also lead to more fun and pleasure for everyone involved!

When some people are abused, why don’t they always report it? Also, I haven’t been, but if I or someone else gets abused, how do we report it? If we don’t want to tell our parents or a teacher, who do we tell?

Thank you for asking such an important question because there are many reasons someone might choose not to report abuse. For example, some people are afraid that the person abusing them will have a negative reaction to them calling the police or that calling the police might make things worse. They might wonder what will happen if the police are called, but no one gets arrested- how might their partner punish them for calling? It is also common for the abusive partner to manipulate the police into thinking that the person being abused is actually the threat, which means it is possible that the person who needs help could end up getting arrested. There are also times when the person experiencing abuse might not believe that the police will really be able to do anything to help them. 

If someone under 18 ever needed a safe adult to talk to about experiencing abuse, here are some resources they could reach out to. I would not recommend going directly to the police unless a person is actively in danger. This is because the helplines below are trained to handle abusive situations in ways that the police are not. However, if someone is scared for their life, I would definitely encourage them to call the police right away: 

  • Shalom Bayit Helpline: (510) 845-SAFE (7233) | www.shalom-bayit.org  
  • National Teen Dating Abuse Helpline: Text LOVEIS to 22522 | (866) 331-9474 | TTY Line: (866) 331-8453, 24/7 Chat: www.loveisrespect.org  
  • CA Youth Crisis Line: Text TEEN to 839863 | http://calyouth.org/cycl/ | 800-843-5200 24/7 text/chat 
  • Crisis Text Line: Text HOME to 741741 | www.crisistextline.org: Free, 24/7 support and information from a live, trained counselor who receives the text & responds quickly. Serves anyone and any type of crisis

Information on making a safety plan: www.loveisrespect.org/personal-safety/create-a-safety-plan/