My daughter and I are working on a memoir. The memoir is about the time in our lives when Arianna became enmeshed in an abusive relationship, told from her perspective as well as mine. As you can imagine, for the past four plus years, we have had time to think about this subject quite a bit. One of the questions that comes up often when we bring this subject up with people is a lack of understanding on how people find themselves in abusive relationships and why they don’t just leave. A related question my husband and I have been discussing is what can we do help educate our young people on how to recognize these types of relationships and how to avoid or extricate themselves if they get caught up in them.
A few days ago I was speaking to a friend about my planned redesign of my blog and the subject turned to abusive relationships. This friend mentioned a short story/fable written by Rabbi Edwin H. Friedman. Rabbi Friedman was not only a religious leader, he was also a marriage and family therapist. The story he tells is called “The Bridge” and is published by Guilford Publications and can be found in Friedman’s Fables (1990). Here is the story with some abridgments.
The Fable of the Bridge
“The other began to uncurl the rope, and just as they were coming close, the stranger said, ‘Pardon me, would you be so kind as to hold the end for a moment?’ Surprised by this politely phrased but curious request, he agreed without a thought, reaching out, and took it.
“‘Thank you,’ said the other, who then added, ‘two hands now, and remember, hold tight.’ Whereupon, the other jumped off the bridge.”
The man managed to hold onto the rope despite almost being pulled over himself. He looked over the edge of the bridge. The other was hanging there, alive but dangerously close to death.
“‘What are you trying to do?’ he yelled.
“‘Just hold tight,’ said the other.
“‘This is ridiculous,’ the man thought and began to try to haul the other in. He could not get the leverage, however. It was as though the weight of the other person and the length of the rope had been carefully calculated in advance so that together they created a counterweight just beyond his strength to bring the other back to safety.
“‘Why did you do this?’ the man called out.
“‘Remember,’ said the other, ‘if you let go, I will be lost.’
“‘But I cannot pull you up,’ the man cried.
“‘I am your responsibility,’ said the other.
“‘Well, I did not ask for it,’ the man said.
“‘If you let go, I am lost,’ repeated the other.”
The man looked around for something to tie to rope off to but cannot find anything. No other people walked by. He decided to talk to this other again.
“‘What do you want?’ he asks the other hanging below.
“‘Just your help,’ the other answered.
“‘How can I help? I cannot pull you in, and there is no place to tie the rope so that I can go and find someone to help me help you.’
“‘I know that. Just hang on; that will be enough. Tie the rope around your waist; it will be easier.’
So, he tied the rope to his waist.
“‘Why did you do this?’ he asked again. ‘Don’t you see what you have done What possible purpose could you have had in mind?’
“‘Just remember,’ said the other, ‘my life is in your hands.’
“What should he do? ‘If I let go, all my life I will know that I let this other die. If I stay, I risk losing any momentum towards my own long-sought-after salvation. Either way this will haunt m forever.’ With ironic humor he thought to die himself, instantly, to jump off the bridge while still holding on. ‘That would teach this fool.’ But he wanted to live and to live fully. ‘What a choice I have to make; how shall I decide?’”
He had to make a decision. The longer he held on, the greater his own distress, the further away he was from his own goals. He had an idea. The other could use him to brace himself against the sides of the bridge and climb up. He told the other of his plan. The other refused to climb up.
“‘You mean you won’t help? But I told you I cannot pull you up myself, and I don’t think I can hang on much longer either.’
“‘You must try,’ the other shouted back in tears. ‘If you fail, I die.’
“The point of decision arrived. What should he do? ‘My life or this other’s?’ And then a new idea. A revelation. So new, in fact, it seemed heretical, so alien was it to his traditional way of thinking.
“‘I want you to listen carefully,’ he said, ‘because I mean what I am about to say. I will not accept the position of choice for your life, only for my own; the position of choice for your own life I hereby give back to you.’
“‘What do you mean?’ the other asked, afraid.
“‘I mean, simply, it’s up to you. You decide which way this ends I will become the counterweight. You do the pulling and bring yourself up. I will even tug a little from here.’ He began unwinding the rope from around his waist and braced himself anew against the side.
“‘You cannot mean what you say,” the other shrieked. ‘You would not be so selfish. I am your responsibility. What could be so important that you would let someone die? Do not do this to me.’
“He waited a moment. There was no change in the tension of the rope.
“‘I accept your choice,’ he said, at last, and freed his hands.”
The Impulse to LoveThe moment in the story where the other asks the man to hold onto the rope reminds me of that scene from the movie Notting Hill, where Julia Roberts characters stands in front of Hugh Grant and says “I’m just a girl, standing in front of a boy, asking him to love me.”
That is the moment of decision and Hugh Grant does the unexpected. He passes on the offer. Then he tells his friends and they tell him he’s made a mistake. One mad dash to the hotel, where he accepts her offer and they live happily ever after. Cue the romantic montage and love song.
A more recent movie also plays around with this meme—Disney’s Frozen. To me, this movie is not about Elsa and that song, this movie is about Anna and her lessons in love. One of those lessons involves love at first sight and how we often make a decision to love on nothing more substantial than an impulse and a desire to end her deep loneliness. I really think Anna loves Hans. The problem is not in the impulse to love but in trusting someone else so quickly without really knowing their character. Hans is a villain and Anna nearly pays for her naivety with her life.
I have sort of been in that position. Once, a long time ago in a dive shop in Orem, Utah, I accepted a proposal of marriage from a man I only knew for ten days. Why? Because he asked. That is what I was supposed to do, right? At least that is what I thought at the time. Along with being relieved that someone, anyone, finally wanted to marry me. I confess I also felt like the ‘curse’ of singledom was finally lifted from my shoulders. All very impulsive reasons. It turns out this guy was not a good guy. But you don’t give up on love—that is another one of those memes. I was going to married him. Instead, he broke up with me. One tear fell down my cheek. That was how much time passed before I realized what a great bullet I had just dodged.
Abusive LoveNot every one is as lucky.
I once second chaired a case at the Salt Lake County Defenders Office where our client had been accused of stabbing his ex-wife in the chest. He finally confessed, but claimed that in stabbing her he was not trying to kill her—he was trying to show her how much he loved her. It was chilling. I honestly believe he believed that that was love.
I have heard some common refrains from people I know who have been in abusive relationships. “If you do X (some behavior the abuser did not like) it means you do not love me. You might as well leave me. And I will kill myself.” Or variations on that theme. Much like the person dangling from the end of the rope, these people connect their lives to another person in such as way that seeks to control and isolate, and ultimately harms—all the while claiming that moral and ethical obligations require that the stay in the relationship.
No wonder people hang onto the rope, even at the cost of their own lives. The impulse to do good and value life is ingrained in all of us and rightly so. It is the glue that holds society together. At the same time, it can be used as a weapon. From our own experience with Arianna’s abusive boyfriend, Shawn and I were called un-Christian and unforgiving because we recognized the abuse and started taking actions to end it. I am glad we did not cave to his attempted manipulation though I admit I felt its pull; I did not want to be perceived as unforgiving. I believe in forgiveness. I want to forgive. I wanted my daughter to be safe more.
We should stop asking why people stay in abusive relationships. The fact is, we probably would too. The pull is that great.
And we probably would not have spotted the abuser before getting “roped in” either. I know I didn’t. I just got lucky.
Can We Innoculate Our Children?
I wish there was an easy answer to this question. I thought I had inoculated my daughter. I told her the story of my attempted murder client, and my almost husband. I told her about those close to me who had partners threaten suicide as a means of control, and how the correct response was to call the police and break up with the boy, and get a restraining order to boot. All years before she turned fifteen.
I also taught her to be a loving and kind person. To help others in need. That charity never faileth.
She chose to love and I do not blame her for it. She chose to hang on even when doing so was killing her. I do not blame her for it. It is what I had taught her to do.
We saw what she could not see and cut the rope for her, hoping she would not blame us if he fell to his death, hoping she would come to see what we saw and let go of the emotional rope that she had bound around herself and was dragging her down.
It is such a fine line—this boundary is between help and harm, between care and control—that I often despair that anything can be done. But we must try. Stories like Edwin H. Friedman’s “The Bridge” are a start, a jumping off point for important conversations we need to have with our children about these boundaries and what real love looks and feels like.
I would love to hear your thoughts on this subject.