One of the things that I’ve found repeatedly comes up in literature about domestic abuse is that the abuser makes the victim responsible for their feelings. This is complicated, because to be in a relationship with someone is to hold responsibility, to a degree, for each other’s wellbeing. But what degree? How much responsibility should one person take for another and where is the line that crosses over into abuse? I realised I had absolutely no idea, so I sat down to try and figure it out rationally.
We are all responsible for our own behaviour. To act honourably is to take responsibility for what you do, and the consequences of what you do, both intended and unintended. That means if what you do impacts on someone in a negative way, then you hold some responsibility for it. Where emotions are concerned, not intending to hurt is frequently seen as a reason for the injured one to be at fault – you shouldn’t take it that way. (as previously explored) If we were talking about a physical situation, accidentally hurting someone because they have an old injury and we didn’t know, a bruise, a disability – I think most people would feel responsible then even though the physical pain caused was not intentional either. Emotional pain is the same. And equally, if something hurts us, we should be able to acknowledge it, because not being able to express pain is incredibly harmful.
I think the critical thing with the above scenarios, is that we’re talking about things people have control over. We’re asking people to take responsibility for things they can change – their behaviour, their assumptions, their ways of speaking. They can learn that we are hurt by this and adapt. If they care for us, they will not want to hurt us. A person who refuses to acknowledge that they have hurt you is not expressing care for you. Consider how you would expect them to behave if they had accidentally knocked you to the ground or trodden on your toes. This is the same.
However, consider “I am unhappy and you are responsible for this.” If it’s not about things that have, or have not been done, if it’s not offered with an explanation of how that responsibility can be taken, what that does is to cause pain. From my experience, this kind of approach is often subtle, which makes it harder. A person will present things they are unhappy about in a manner that suggests you are the one who must fix this, when in reality there is nothing you can do.
To express unhappiness about things that cannot be fixed is in and of itself fine. The death of a loved one being an obvious example. No one can make that better. But at the same time no one should be made to feel that they have a responsibility to make it better. My child worries about animal extinctions. He didn’t ask me to save the animals, but he shared his sadness, and I sponsored a tiger for him because it was something I could do to help. That’s a reasonable ask on his part, a healthy response on mine.
Stress, anxiety and depression are complicated, often irrational and illogical conditions. If a person is expressing experience of these, then if you are part of their life, it can be very easy to feel, or to be made to feel somehow responsible. I think the question is, can you do anything? If there is something you can actually do that genuinely makes a positive difference, there is scope for taking responsibility and it’s not necessarily abusive to be asked to be being responsible. If you are being made responsible, treated as responsible where you have no actual power to change things, then this is about abuse. It is about creating feelings of guilt and powerlessness in you and/or enabling the other person not to take responsibility for things they do have the power to tackle.
A request for help or an expression of need should focus on what the problem is and where the person you are asking to take responsibility for it can act. Power and responsibility have to go together. Power without responsibility is dishonourable. Responsibility without power is nightmarish and maddening. If one person has the power and the other bears the responsibility, then you’re moving out of relationship and into abuse.