Dear Comrade Femme #8: Victim-Blaming Sister

"Dear Comrade Femme," is an advice column meets queer theory daydream meets insurrectionary love letter. With her toolkit (working-class roots, queer femme modality, a PhD, and a little magic), Comrade Femme responds to your questions about politics, sex, identity, feelings, work, family, friendship, astrology, and the intersections of them all. Write to her at raechelannejolie@gmail.comand put "Dear Comrade Femme" in the title. xo

Dear Comrade Femme,

Twelve years ago, I dated my sister’s husband’s best friend. At the end of our relationship, he became physically, verbally and emotionally abusive. He has refused to speak to my sister and her husband for years at a time because they are friends with me but on the two occasions that I have moved to a different city, he has found a way back in to their lives and they have allowed it. I tried to be a forgiving person and reach out to him to try and coexist in the same friend group but he has refused and has consequently made every social situation in which we are both involved in, very awkward and painful for me and my fiance. My Fiancé and I have lost invites to social events because he refuses to be in the same place as both of us and he has ruined other social events due to his immature antics. My sister and her husband believe that I am the problem because this guy is still mad at me for breaking up with him twelve years ago and they refuse to have my back in any way. I want to have a relationship with my sister and her husband but I am frustrated at their victim blaming, blatant disregard of my feelings (which I have expressed to them tirelessly), and the fact that they are excusing his bullying and abusive behavior, still twelve years later. Friends think that I should end my relationship with them while family says I should just move on. I am torn. Please help.


Sad Sister

Dear Sad Sister,

Over a decade ago, I was in a relationship with a man who went from deeply loving to massively controlling. Our relationship ended with his infidelity, and then somehow our attempt to repair led to me enduring intense emotional abuse, stalking, and threats. But in my activist community and friend circle he was still seen as a great guy--a committed organizer, and always ready to offer help to a young rabble-rouser looking for advice. It made me feel absolutely out-of-my-mind crazy to hold what he had done to me behind closed doors alongside the way most people saw him. And it was made all the worse when my roommate and close friend decided to stay friends with him, even after witnessing some of the abuse he inflicted on me. I felt so small that year. I was confused by a mass of conflicting feelings: in many ways I was still in love with this person, so how could I blame my roommate for still liking him? He was a good organizer and friend, that was actually true. He also happened to be a harmful partner. I didn’t know how to hold all of this nuance, and I especially didn’t know what to do with a friend and roommate whose decision to keep him in her life inadvertently made me feel like I was making too much of the way he treated me. Maybe parking his car outside the apartment to see if I was with another man (after our breakup), and then when seeing I had been on a date, texting me in all caps - “BURN IN HELL WHORE” - wasn’t actually so bad after all?

The aftermath of that breakup and living situation lasted about exactly one year. An excruciating year of trying to figure out whether or not I should go to particular social events, an excruciating year of trying to figure out how much I could say about my breakup and to whom, an excruciating year of trying to figure out how to remain friends and roommates with someone who regularly spent time with my abuser. I was completely depleted that year, managing all the moving parts--my thoughts, my friendships, my (in)ability to occupy certain spaces. I left Chicago for Minneapolis on unsteady terms with both my ex (who by then had made some efforts at making amends) and my roommate.

But then I was in Minneapolis. Hundreds of miles away from my ex and my friend. And although I thought it would shatter me, it actually freed me. I felt closure, I felt peace, I began to feel real healing.

Sad Sister, I share that story not to suggest that you ought to move away again, but to say that I have at least a tiny sense of what you’re going through. And although my friend was not my sister (and I know that complicates things more), I did love her, and I wanted desperately for her to understand how painful it was to see her engage with a person who’d been hurting me so badly. But it wasn’t until geography forced me to set boundaries that I was able to feel strong enough to love myself more than my wounded attachments.

Sweet one, I commend you for practicing the forgiveness you have toward your ex, and for extending patience to your sister. It takes real quality of character to be compassionate and empathetic in a situation that is not only dismissive of your pain but also, as you rightly note, victim-blaming. I can sense so clearly the size of your heart and the calm tenacity of your courage.

My advice for you, Sad Sister, is to not only apply more of that heart toward yourself, but to trust that the results of that practice will serve you exactly as you need. You have moved through so many the stages that come along with abuse, but I still sense fear. Fear that setting boundaries will lead to loss. But, Sad Sister, you’ve experienced loss already and you’re experiencing it still. Grieve it - by all means, grieve! - but do right by yourself enough to walk away from what’s keeping you small.

I’m not suggesting that you cut your sister out of your life or that you abandon your friend circle altogether, but I am suggesting you make decisions that are based in love and respect for yourself. Do you want to keep being in spaces that make you feel like you have to fight for them? Do you want to keep feeling small? I know you don’t, Sad Sister. Perhaps, then, you can you approach these social events, and this friend group, (and, hard as it will be, even your sister) with less attachment? Can you trust that you deserve better than this and if that means missing social events, then actually you are better off?

I know this is not a small ask. Making friends is tough as an adult, so to feel indifferent toward an established social group may feel near impossible. But truly, Sad Sister, you deserve better. Please, really hear me: you. deserve. better.

There is a whole world of people out there waiting to love and respect you without victim-blaming and without forcing you to cede to the demands of your petulant ex. As I said before, this doesn’t mean “cutting out” your friends or sister. You can have relationships with them, but this time on your terms. Terms that both acknowledge where your social circle is at and also honor your boundaries around not letting that reality fuck with you. Terms that practice radical acceptance about the situation. Your friends and sister will do what they will, but you don’t have to let it have power over you. In her book on radical acceptance, Tara Brach asks us to consider: “What would it be like if I could accept life--accept this moment--exactly as it is?” Accepting things as they are, not as an act of giving up, but as an act of self-love.

One of the hardest pills to swallow in a lifetime is that we cannot change other people. But we can change our reaction to and behavior with them. Your friends and sister are not treating you with respect and that’s just how it is right now. But you don’t have to keep negotiating your worth. Make peace with this new way of relating to your social group, and even your sister. Until you do, you will be a beautiful desperate bird flying over and again into a closed window expecting it to suddenly be open.

My advice for you is to love yourself bigger than this conflict. To trust that if you seek to expand beyond the confines of a situation that is keeping you in the throes of suffering, that you will be rewarded. With growth, with freedom, with peace.

Sad Sister, it’s okay to be sad. But I hope soon you can find solace by moving through sadness and towards an acceptance that is grounded in the mightiness of your worth. That, you deserve.


Comrade Femme

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