The private is political – so let’s talk about it!

TRIGGERWARNUNG: In this text we write about psychological violence. This can be retraumatising and triggering. Think briefly about whether you want to read this text.

The following was written within a working group on patriarchial violence that was formed within our alliance. The text was read out in german and distributed in english on our demonstration on 7th march. The german text can be found here.

We are the working group on patriarchal violence within the feminist 8th march Alliance Lüneburg. Originally, today we wanted to share some numbers on how much patriarchal violence happened when and where exactly in the last few years. But then we realised that we know these numbers, and you probably do too. We know the violence. Not just because we talk about it all the time. No, because many of us experience it every day.

And this patriarchal violence doesn’t only happen on the street, in public, when a guy whistles at us again or we are harassed because we don’t fit into the binary, cis-gender pigeonhole. Not only when we are touched by other people at concerts without being asked, but especially in our immediate surroundings.

The private is political! This sentence is said so often, but how often do we really act on it and talk openly and honestly about the private sphere and relationships in our political work? And how often do we talk about violence in our own relationships?

In the meantime, we have done a lot of work on physical violence in our working group and talked about it at demonstrations. Psychological violence, especially in romantic relationships, has so far been a side note in our discussion of patriarchal structures of violence. Probably also because it is much less perceptible at first.

But: We ourselves know relationships in which psychological violence is exercised – both our own and those of our friends. And we have to talk about it, even if it is unpleasant and perhaps connected with fear and shame.

That’s why first we want to create a common basis and introduce a few terms that maybe not everyone knows yet.

Psychological or emotional violence describes all forms of emotional damage and injury to a person. This includes: “name-calling, devaluing and defaming, which serves to destroy the victim’s self-esteem. Over time, the belief in one’s own worth, identity and feelings is destroyed.” Both threats and intimidating or controlling behaviour, as well as verbal humiliation, accusations and bullying are dimensions of psychological violence. Emotional violence often occurs in combination with extreme jealousy, control and dominance behaviour. The perpetrator of violence also often makes allegations about the victim in order to divert attention from their own actions and to “make the victim the problem”.

One form of psychological violence that is now increasingly being talked about is “gaslighting”. Gaslighting is based on manipulation of the person concerned, but also of the person’s immediate environment. A trusted person, often the partner, systematically and repeatedly denies the affected person their own perception and destroys their self-esteem. Typical phrases are, for example, “I didn’t say/do that”, “I also want to be seen in my needs” and “you just misunderstood”. This also includes blaming the victim for conflicts, twisting words around, denying abilities, isolating socially, and manipulating friendships, for example, so that even the friends no longer trust the person concerned.

Studies show that almost half of all women surveyed have experienced psychological violence at the hands of a partner or ex-partner. Unfortunately, the studies surveying this violence are binary-gendered, so we don’t know exactly what violence against people in relationships that don’t categorise themselves into binary genders looks like. Polyamorous relationships are also often not included. Precisely because of this, it is our responsibility to address the diverse structures of violence in relationships.

The term toxic relationships has also become more common, but what does it actually mean? The definition is not really clear and ranges from “not being able to get out of an unhappy relationship and holding on to the few positive moments” to “being in a partnership with a person with narcissistic personality disorder”.

Toxic relationships are characterised by dependencies and usually by a strong imbalance between the partners. Whether it is who is right in discussions, whose needs are in focus, whose expectations have to be fulfilled, whose mood influences the day, whose work and life is weighted more heavily, …

Passive-aggressive behaviour is also an expression of psychological violence. It often manifests itself through mockery and teasing. This leads to fear of the affected person’s partner’s reactions and to behaviour to avoid arguments beforehand, because one’s own insecurities can also be used against the supposedly “weaker” person in such a relationship.

Gaslighting is often part of a toxic relationship, as are empty promises, lack of apologies, unpredictable behaviour, and lack of emotional closeness.

Often different forms of violence intertwine. Psychological violence often goes hand in hand with stalking or physical violence.

And psychological violence is usually already there long before it is perceived by the person concerned or their environment and recognised as violence. The first signs are often boundary violations and transgressions. Unlike physical violence, psychological violence does not leave visible physical wounds. It is often less perceived, but this does not make it any less real.

Many of us still have internalised: it has to be really bad physically and psychologically before I talk about it, before I name a relationship as really toxic and violent.

We need to break away from this idea together and talk collectively about our relationships and emotions. We need to take responsibility for each other and each other’s relationships. We need to ask: “how are you really doing?” and to ask it more often. We also need to initiate conversations about Emotional Work in Relationships “Who is actually doing the relationship work with you?”. Who initiates conversations about relationship dynamics, needs, the future of the relationship, reflections on behaviours, etc.?”

In our discussion of this speech, it occurred to us that we also need to address the current Corona situation at this point.

During the lockdown there is once again an increase in psychological and physical violence in relationships. At the same time, many forms of solidary relationships and structures fall away. Many important spaces in which we as women, lesbian, inter, nonbinary, trans or agender people (shortform: FLINTA*) exchange ideas, do not exist right now. We have observed that it is difficult for us to create an atmosphere in which we can talk about our emotions in online meetings or during walks in the winter cold. We know from conversations that many just have the feeling of becoming isolated and new dependencies arise in relationships.

At the same time, we must not forget that in this society it is a privilege to be in romantic relationships. This is especially evident in the Corona measures. Contact restrictions mainly consider those who are in hetero-monogamous relationships. Other forms of relationships, including friendships, are relegated to the back of the list of measures and recognised as less legitimate and important. This forces us to hierarchise our relationships. Especially for us FLINTA*, who do most of the emotional work in relationships, this is devastating. Because friendships are often the spaces where our emotional needs are taken care of and we do NOT have to do much of the emotional work alone.

Patriarchy is deep inside all of us, present in every relationship we have.

So it’s time to break down stigma together and take responsibility for the fact that violence doesn’t just happen physically. And that violence can often come from the people closest to us.

We want to use this speech to address exactly that. And make people feel that they are not alone. And at the same time make it a collective task to create these spaces where we can talk openly and honestly with each other.

To be there for each other in solidarity! To approach each other, to ask questions, to reflect together and to enlighten each other! Because the private is political! Love is political! Relationships are political!

Not only on 8th march, but every day!