February 28, 2021
by Jennifer Parker, MSSW, Partnership Community Leader
Victims of intimate partner abuse often ask, “Why did this happen?”—trying to make sense of how their partners can say they love them while acting in abusive ways. Early in the domestic abuse movement, we initially supplied the answer “misogyny.” We now see that it does not explain LGBTQ or women’s abuse. Misogyny exists, but it is part of something larger.
Eisler’s work identifies domination system hierarchies and beliefs as the root of all forms of oppression, including intimate violence. Her research refocuses our attention from what is wrong with survivors to what has happened to them and how domination is supported by our institutions. She indicates the problem isn’t men as a gender but our social system. People and traits are divided into domination hierarchies and one is valued over the other. With gender, the so-called “masculine” is valued over the “feminine” and nonbinary isn’t recognized. In Tomorrow’s Children, she says,
“You may think that politics has nothing to do with what happens in intimate relationships, and vice versa. But if that’s the case, why do you think political regressions—be they rightist or leftist, religious or secular—have focused so much on pushing us back to domination and submission in the relations between parents and children and between women and men? The reason is that these intimate relations are where we first learn to accept domination and control as normal, inevitable, and right or where we learn partnership ways of life.”[i]
Domination structures affect how we conceptualize and language our differences, leading to black and white, gendered stereotypes that limit everyone.
I’ve explored domination values and how they show up in abusive people’s behavior. A few of the partner beliefs survivors identify are: “Your needs, wants, feelings, and opinions are not legitimate,” “I’m entitled: my needs and wants come first,” “My way is the right way,” and “I must do whatever it takes to maintain control.” These abuser beliefs stem from four basic domination assumptions in our culture that Eisler’s work points to:
- Power is finite and must be hoarded.
- Power comes from power over others.
- Differences are threatening.
- Some people have greater worth.
These assumptions and the societal structures that support their implementation are the foundation for why some partners feel entitled to emotionally, verbally, sexually, and/or physically abuse the ones they love. These beliefs are not tied to gender; they can happen in any relationship, whether heterosexual, same sex, or nonbinary. Seeing this is complicated by the limitations of a gendered language.
Eugenia Cheng’s book, x + y: A Mathematician’s Manifesto for Rethinking Gender[ii], complements Eisler’s work in untangling the hierarchy of gender. Like Eisler, she accents looking at the qualities we want to value in society rather than assuming the ones currently dominant are the way the world has to be. Cheng says even when individuals are not prejudiced with gender or racist views, the way society is structured causes bias and injustice. That structure affects how we conceptualize and language our differences, leading to black and white, gendered stereotypes that limit everyone.
Cheng supplies new terms to identify the qualities and behaviors traditionally labeled “masculine” or “feminine.”
“Ingressive” qualities focus on the self over society and community, impose on rather than take others into account, emphasize independence, individualism, competitiveness, and adversariness.
“Congressive” qualities focus on society and community, take others into account more than imposing on them, emphasize interdependence, interconnectedness, collaboration, and cooperation.
She says these character traits are not tied to gender and observes that much of so-called “gendered” behavior is because of socialization. Incorporating her ungendered terms makes it much easier and less divisive to talk about these qualities that all men, women, and nonbinary individuals possess to varying degrees.
In my group exercise for survivors, members identify terms they associate with being female and male. During discussion of which is healthier, they conclude neither is—that it is healthiest for everyone to be free to possess the traits situations require. We discuss how stereotypes limit them and how difficult it is to rid ourselves of them.
Using ungendered language to describe these characteristics is crucial to achieving gender equity. The old binary labels restrict our thinking and hook into our socialization. The goal is freeing everyone to be themselves, owning whatever traits are strongest for them.
We often miss how we adapt ourselves to both gendered stereotypes and domination norms because we grew up with them, breathing them in like air. As Eisler says in Tomorrow’s Children, “people . . . are caught up in a paradigm that makes it difficult, if not impossible, to see them.”[iii] Sharif Abdullah[iv] encourages compassion for ourselves about this. We have what he calls a “deep identity” made up of race, ethnicity, and culture; language; religion; class; and gender. Our socialization normalizes what we learn. This doesn’t mean we can’t change but to do so, we have to recognize what we absorbed.
Eisler’s work offers the Partnerism paradigm as a substitute for capitalist and socialist ways of organizing the world, which of course includes our intimate relationships. Its emphasis on “power with,” “linking,” and “equity” offers a stark contrast to the old worldviews. Partnership structures value the congressive qualities of cooperation, collaboration, caring, well-being, and equity. Eisler affirms that our culture is slanted toward domination but has always had partnership values interwoven into our ideals and religious principles. Many institutions and relationships embody these, from business co-operatives to equal intimate relationships.
In “The Hill We Climb,” the eloquent poem Amanda Gorman recited at President Biden’s inauguration, I believe these lines envision a Partnerism system.
“If we’re to live up to our own time, then victory won’t lie in the blade, but in all the bridges we’ve made”
Working toward such a world will empower abuse victims. It will also create peace and equity for all of us.
Image by Phillip Goldsberry for Unsplash
Notes[i] Riane Eisler, The Power of Partnership: Seven Relationships that will Change Your Life (Novato, CA: New World Library, 2002) p. 106. [ii] Eugenia Cheng, x + y: A Mathematician’s Manifesto for Rethinking Gender. (New York: Basic Books, Hachette Book Group, 2020) [iii] Riane Eisler, Tomorrow’s Children: A Blueprint for Partnership Education in the 21st Century (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 2000) [iv] Sharif Abdullah, Practicing Inclusivity: A Workbook for Transformation. (Portland, OR: Commonway Publishing, 2015)
Jennifer Parker, MSSW has almost forty years’ experience with intimate partner violence (IPV). Her internship at a battered women’s shelter began her passion to develop resources for victims. Jennifer’s accomplishments include a curriculum for IPV group work, workshops for therapists, professional newsletter articles, expert witness testimony in trials, a website and blog, and awards from state and local agencies. Her book, Coercive Relationships: Find the Answers You Seek, will be released in March 2021. This book compiles insights gained by accompanying brave survivors on their healing journeys as well as by her training and research. Parker appreciates Riane Eisler’s books because they explain what underlies intimate partner violence and all oppressions. Anyone interested in her blog or book can sign up for email notification at www.jennifercparkermssw.com/blog. You can also follow her on Instagram: @jennifercparkermssw and on Facebook: jennifercparkermssw.