Sometimes It's Not "Balancing" -- It's Just Abuse

A woman posted a story on one of the many working-women Facebook groups that i belong to, in which she sought help with her work-life dilemma. She wrote that she had an important meeting coming up, as well as an injured toddler who needed 24/7 attention. And significantly, no help from her spouse. She wanted help from the Facebook chorus on how to make it to her meeting in tact. Naturally, a long thread ensued in which each woman described her elaborate recipe for making life work. But only a few of the chatterers mentioned the most important issue: Why isn't your husband helping you?

What I have discovered among these female forums is that often what we think of as women seeking advice about work-life balance is really women screaming for help from within abusive marriages.

To be clear, an abusive relationship is one in which one person puts other person down, tries to control or manipulate the other person, fundamentally disrespects the other person, blocks the other person's growth and achievement, insults the other person, and so forth. In many of these Facebook forums for women supporting women, there are often women coming on and asking for help in a particular scenario, in which details of the scenario feature some distinct features of abuse: Men insisting on final say about their wives' work, men completely unhelpful to their wives to the point of harming them and showing zero empathy, expectations that a man's life is more important than a woman's life, control over money, sabotage, putting down women, and all kinds of variations on these themes.

Statistically speaking, anywhere between 1 in 7 to1 in 4 women are in abusive relationships. So if you are in a room full of say 50 women (or a thread of 50 women) talking about an issue, there is a good chance that at least a few of the voices in the mix will be describing abusive relationships. Think of it this way: In group with 2000 women, a few hundred may be in abusive relationships. And who are the women most likely to post about being frazzled and drowning? Those who have no support. I posit, though my theory has not been tested, that abused women may be more likely to post desperate "Help me!" status updates than non-abused women.

When we hear women struggling with so-called work-life balance, we should be listening to the details about the relationship with the husband because often what is taken by some people to be normal, or just "traditional" is abuse.

And I don't buy for one second that "traditional" relationships are just fine. Often "traditional" is a euphemism for abuse as well. That the man has the final say and full control over things like money and movements and major decisions, that the woman's job is to serve while the man's is to be served, that the man's needs for work or religion or whatever come before women's needs. If one person's life counts more, if one person has freedom and the other doesn't, if one person is allowed to control the other, if one's person's thoughts and ideas dominate while everyone else's job is to listen and obey, no matter what religion you belong to, this is abuse. The Duggar family should show us loud and clear how "traditional" can be used as spin for abuse.

What is it like for an abused woman to try to make it in the workforce? There is a constant juggling, beyond "normal" juggling, trying to manage the expectations of the abuser, constantly having to deal with blocks set up by the abuser, constant worry, constant need to try and create order. Often an abused woman in the workforce will have the personality of obsessive controller -- and may actually make a great manager, but not a leader. The abused woman will usually not take risks, will not put herself "out there" in terms of expressing unusual opinions, but may be great at managing every detail of behind-the scenes because that is her life, a constant, secret management of a zillion things. A woman I know who runs a hotline for women in crisis claims that when she sees a cutlery drawer in someone's house in which there isn't a single spoon out of place, she suspects that the woman is abused.That may be extreme and I wouldn't go to that judgment myself, but I think it points to the ways in which abused women often need to obsessively control their surroundings also.

Many abused women end up in good jobs because they are appreciated by many (male) leaders for their ability to manage all the excel sheets while the leader can be free to think. Abused women will thus often recreate their familiar roles at work, roles which are very comfortable and convenient for a business owner who needs someone to manage their day-to-day operations. Abused women are often masterful at that.

There is the other extreme though, also. An abused woman may be the one who can never, ever get it together, who is always frantic, who is always late, who always has her phone near her in case her husband calls, who is never fully "present", who is always distracted, who is so much in charge of holding it all together that she is at risk of falling apart at any moment. Someone who is not surrounded by love and support struggles with the day to day in ways that people who are loved and supported do not. Living life without any support can mean a constant state of shakiness.

How do we as women provide support to one another without enabling an abusive dynamic to continue? It is very tricky. It is not easy to say to another person, "You are being abused." That kind of statement can have many ramifications. Better to say, "Perhaps you should seek professional help." At the same time, it is also really awful to see another woman coming apart. We should be working harder to be supporters for other women who are crashing but still trying to pretend that it's just a little meeting or situtation they need help with. My friend Yael who was in an abusive marriage for 12 years said the best gift she ever received was when her friend finally said, "Yael, this is abuse!" I think about this often, although I still fear the spill-over from the impact of those words. Mostly, I think that women should all be familiar with the dynamics of abuse in order to recognize signs and help abused women get the help and support that they need in order to function and thrive in their lives.