Relationship Abuse and the False Middle Ground

Are you tired of me yammering on about relationship abuse yet? I am.

Here’s something I see people saying a lot: that can’t know what happened within a relationship, so it’s best not to take sides if someone accuses someone else of abusing them. They say we should wait until we know more before making our decisions. These people think that they’re taking a middle-ground, and that they’re being far fairer than those of us who decide from the beginning who we’d prefer to believe.

They’re wrong.

Let’s break this one down.

Alex and Bob are in a relationship. Or: Alex and Bob are friends, acquaintances, or workmates. One day, Alex accuses Bob of one of the following: domestic violence, sexual harassment, relationship abuse or rape. The response is as it almost always is: Bob denies having done anything, and Alex’s character is called into question.

Maybe Alex and Bob are well-known figures. Maybe they’re in your circles. Either way, you’re now in an awkward position. You weren’t there, and yet people expect you to take a side or have an opinion.

You don’t want to. You don’t want this to be happening. You don’t want to believe that Bob- who you respect and like- could have done the things they’ve been accused of. Similarly, Alex has never shown signs of being manipulative or a liar before. You feel like you’ve been dragged into this circus against your will. So you decide to withhold judgement.

What effect does this have?

It strengthens Bob’s standing, and weakens Alex’s.

How does it do this?

Before Alex accused Bob, things were pretty great for everyone but them. Even if Bob was doing something abusive, it didn’t affect anyone but Alex. Everyone (except Alex), without knowing it, believed that Bob wasn’t abusing anyone. That’s the status quo.

When you claim the middle ground, what you’re really claiming is the status quo. You want things to be like they were before. Like it or not, the person who changed everything was Alex. Alex is the one who asked everyone to look at things differently. Alex demanded that we acknowledge that there’s an abuser in our midst.

And your middle ground? It’s not backed up by evidence. If Alex was as likely to be lying as telling the truth, it would make sense to withhold judgement. However, when it comes to rape or abuse accusations? While we don’t have exact numbers, it’s very likely that rates of false accusation lie somewhere somewhere between 2% and 8%– although there’s a good argument to be made that even those numbers are high. Even assuming them to be true, however, this leaves a 92-98% chance that Alex is telling the truth. Only somewhere between one Alex in twelve, or one Alex in fifty is making it up- at most.

What does this mean? In somewhere between 11/12 and 49/50 cases, Bob is lying. The middle ground isn’t halfway between Alex and Bob. The middle ground, in reality? It’s not where Alex is sitting. But it’s right next to them. Your neutral ‘middle ground’ is nothing of the sort- it’s almost halfway between Bob and the real middle as determined by the likelihood of each person’s story being true.

Except, of course, that you’re far closer to Bob even than that.

What does Alex want? They almost certainly wants justice, and for that to happen they need what Bob has done to be acknowledged. What does Bob want? The status quo. Bob wants everything to go back to how it used to be: when everyone thought they were a stand-up person and there were no awkward conversations about “abuse”. So edge that ‘middle ground’ a little further away from Alex and closer to Bob.

Except, of course, that its even closer than that. Either Bob is an abuser or Alex is a liar. One of these has to be true. And the only way to bring back your precious status quo is to assume the latter. That Alex is a liar and no abuse ever occurred.

That middle ground. It doesn’t feel so close to the middle anymore, does it?

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Relationship Abuse and the False Middle Ground
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4 thoughts on “Relationship Abuse and the False Middle Ground

  1. 1

    Exactly what are you proposing happen to Bob in your thought experiment? Do you automatically assume he’s guilty? Because the middle ground between “either Bob is an abuser or Alex is a liar” is “I don’t have enough information to make an accurate assessment about Alex’s or Bob’s character”, NOT “Alex is a liar.” This may sound like an overly conservative approach, but I think it’s the only way since what Bob is being accused of — domestic violence, abuse, sexual harassment, or rape — are serious crimes which warrant a serious investigation. Without a serious investigation into Bob’s actions towards Alex, neither party can get any justice. A few final notes:

    * I don’t want to see rape / abuse accusations devolve into witch hunts. The ‘innocent until proven guilty’ legal standard applies to Bob, as it should with anyone accused of a crime.
    * I’m calling for Bob’s actions to be investigated, not Alex’s. Bob’s character is the one I’m calling into question.
    * My advice to Alex is to report these crimes to the police and let them investigate.
    * If I’m friends with both Alex and Bob, the only thing I can do is volunteer to help with the police investigation.

    1. 1.1

      Riiiiight.

      So Alex comes to you and tells you that Bob has been abusing them, and you sit back and say “well, go to the police then”. You don’t comfort Alex, you don’t say you’ll be there for them, you don’t offer them a single iota of support for the year(s) it’ll take to go through the courts. You don’t acknowledge that the vast majority of abuse cases go unreported, and the majority of those reported don’t end in arrests, and the majority of those don’t end in prosecutions.

      You just decide that the courts are the only ones who can make a judgement here, and that the legal standard is one that in this case- and, tbh, in this case alone- we have to follow in our every day lives.

      Really?

  2. 2

    It seems to me that the legal principle of “innocent until proven guilty” is appropriate in the legal setting (the courts) but the rules in social settings are different. It can be tricky to navigate situations like Alex & Bob’s; for example, if I work with both I may not have the option of breaking off contact with Bob, but I can be supportive of Alex. If Alex and Bob seem to be getting along well it can be hard to interact with them as a couple after hearing about abuse. That’s what makes the “middle ground” so attractive, even when it’s not really a fair or neutral place.

  3. 3

    There is, perhaps, something like a legitimately neutral “middle ground”, but it’s not the “Alex is a liar” one. It’s something like “I am going to offer Alex whatever support he/she/it/they appear to need, but not be more than a little cool towards Bob, just in case Alex *is* somehow misrepresenting the situation”. It’s maybe not *quite* the true middle ground in terms of probability of lying, but it’s a lot closer to same than the false middle ground of “I know nothing, so either one could be right, I’m not giving any preference to one over the other.”

    And, of course, part of helping Alex is *not* telling Bob where Alex is, or inviting Bob to parties Alex will be at, or the like. Mostly using standard bad-breakup protocol, except with the disinviting and whatnot heavily skewed in Alex’s favor.

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