I sat down in the aging office chair and regarded the towering shelf of books. A good shake and we’d surely be buried in decades of psychology texts.
From the other side of a large desk, the world-renowned professor I’d just met asked, “How do you stay so optimistic?”
This wasn’t the question I was expecting.
To back up, I’d just given a talk on violence against women at his university. Sharing themes from Every 90 Seconds, I’d covered lots of ground. First up, data on the persistence of the problem despite decades of awareness-building. Next, research showing the dire consequences for individuals and communities, from education and health inequities to gun violence and economic insecurity.
Following the dance of usual academic talks, I’d expected tough questions about study design or analytic strategies. But it was my conclusion that caught his attention. I’d made the case that the bleak realities revealed by the data were actually the map to building shared interests with people who never thought violence against women was their problem. And that with an ever-growing network of people, we could imagine into existence a world none of has known — one without intimate violence.
Though his question caught me off guard, answering was easy. “DBT,” I said.
DBT is Dialectical Behavior Therapy. Developed by Dr. Marsha Linehan, DBT focuses on building a life worth living and has been used to treat Borderline Personality Disorder and suicidality.
In DBT, you take the side of life — without equivocation. As a therapist, you cultivate an unwavering belief that each of us, including clients who are suffering, can build a life worth living. A life in which suicide is never an option.
The unwavering part is really important. Without such a stance, we can slip into thinking that building a life worth living isn’t possible for this or that person; in this or that situation. When we give up – even a little – the things we do and say and feel change too. Those subtle changes ripple out to affect what we might expect of a client or ourselves as well as what we communicate to clients.
Back when I was writing Every 90 Seconds, I wondered what would happen if you and I took that same sort of unwavering stance. I asked myself what would change if we believed, without equivocation, that a world without violence against girls and women is possible.
The thought exercise made me reflect on the everyday-ways we talk about violence against women, which seemed to reveal a worldview in which intimate abuse is and always will be inevitable. From coffee shops to presentation stages, we treat violence against women as a once and future problem. The logic goes that people (mostly men) will always abuse and harm other people (mostly girls and women), and the best we can do is respond better when it happens while working towards a few percentage point drops in incidents.
To be fair, a couple of millennia of history provide plenty of evidence for this way of thinking. But here’s the thing: The future hasn’t happened yet, so the inevitability of violence against women is a story we tell ourselves. Telling ourselves that story affects us in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. Maybe it makes us pessimistic. Maybe it makes us less bold in what we demand or less creative in the collaborations we seek out.
I’m here to tell you that we can write a different story. I don’t say this naively. After all, I have spent a quarter century studying violence against women and other traumas, detailing the horrible things that people do to each other in interpersonal relationships and the awful consequences.
Study after study, though, demonstrate that ending violence against women is the only and best way forward to address the pressing problems of our time. It’s the best path to a future where you and I and others can thrive – regardless of our genders and life histories.
And so, like in DBT, I have decided to take a side: To believe without equivocation that a different world is possible, and that we absolutely can and must build that world together.
I invite you to join me now in also taking a side, in cultivating your own unwavering belief that a world without intimate violence is possible. From there, we’re on our way to building a better world together.
Every 90 Seconds is available now from Oxford University Press or: