I know I’m behind the times, but I just saw the movie Foxcatcher, the one that was up for all those Academy Awards.
It was great to see two men playing out just what an abusive relationship is like. They weren’t romantically involved, but the same dynamics were at play. Steve Carell plays the wealthy John du Pont. In the film, John invites the Olympic wrestler Mark Schultz to move to his estate so that he can help him prepare for the Olympics.
John has all the power and all the money. He appears to be an incredibly generous guy who just wants to help Mark achieve his goals. That’s exactly how an abusive relationship starts, with the abusive person posing as selfless and supportive. I wasn’t surprised when, eventually, John introduced Mark to cocaine, isolated Mark from his brother, encouraged Mark not to work out, then slapped him and humiliated him in front of the rest of the team, telling him that he never should have supported him in the first place.
That’s how it goes. Once you are depending entirely on the abusive person as your whole support, once you are isolated from your family and friends, the abuser undermines you and then humiliates you, blaming you the whole time for being a disappointment.
In the movie, John talks about Mark as having “psychological problems,” right in front of him, as though he were not even there. Abusive partners smear the psychological credibility of the survivor. What’s most acutely painful is that Mark’s self concept had begun to erode–it was this erosion that John exploited, even as he was the catalyst for John’s deterioration.
John wanted to own Mark—he wanted to own a trophy Olympic athlete that would make him look good. Abusive people feel a sense of ownership over their partners; it’s the underlying theme that enables them to do anything they feel is justified to act out that ownership.
When John couldn’t use the same manipulations successfully on Mark’s brother, Dave, also an Olympic gold medal wrestler, John shot Dave.
I wasn’t surprised. That’s exactly how domestic violence works. The abuser only uses the amount of force necessary to control the survivor. And often, physical abuse isn’t needed to get the job done; manipulation, isolation and psychological abuse work just fine. But when those tools fail, the abuser doesn’t hesitate to use force. And, he doesn’t hesitate to use deadly force over the object he’s lost control of. That’s when it’s most dangerous for a survivor—when the abusive person figures out they don’t control you, they don’t own you, after all. ”
It isn’t unusual for me to hear women I work with describe how it is that their partner used verbal abuse, intimidation and lesser acts of violence to get what they want. This is often followed by sexual assault or a near deadly escalation once the women move to separate for good.
The film noted that John du Pont made legal claim to being mentally ill. Whatever else he struggled with, it isn’t an illness to plan to use force when you don’t get what you want. It’s abuse.