Why Michael Sheen was right to draw parallels between the union and an abusive relationship
Niki Jones, counsellor who works with survivors of abusive relationships
Michael Sheen recently compared the arguments used to convince Wales to stay in the union with those used in an abusive relationship. His decision to do so was criticised by some who thought the comparison was inappropriate.
When analysing this, it is important to deconstruct what being in an abusive relationship really means. As a counsellor who predominantly works with clients who are either currently or have been stuck in abusive relationships in the past, one of the biggest challenges of the therapeutic work I do isn’t the part where they break the chain and get out of the cyclical abuse.
The key challenge is identifying and acknowledging that they’re in fact caught up in an abusive dynamic. Accepting that the relationship they deemed to be perfectly safe and mutually respectful is in fact damaging to their existence and is preventing them from prospering, is a difficult and emotionally exhausting process. Once they start seeing the patterns, with some support, they automatically start breaking the barriers and the cycle of abuse. Awareness is empowerment.
Abuse is any act that benefits one individual or group at the expense of the others using tactics such as discrimination, coercive control, exploitation and the like. These tactics elicit specific psychological and emotional responses such as fear, insecurity, loss of self-worth, loss of confidence in being able to self-determine, a diminished sense of autonomy and so on.
It’s important to note that abuse is not restricted to Domestic Violence. Abuse is the blanket term and Domestic Violence is one manifestation of it. Even within Domestic Violence itself, abuse doesn’t always resemble the more blatant form of physical attacks that we’re used to seeing in media and popular culture.
In some ways this kind of abuse can be even more dangerous because the brutality is so invisible that most people don’t spot it for decades. It systematically breaks the psychological world of the person and all their support systems down to the extent that worthlessness is internalised, thus making abuse normative.
Abusers thrive because the survivors become hollow shells that never retaliate and just follow commands. They never tell anyone because they don’t feel that this is something outside of the realm of ‘normal’ bounds of a safe and trusting intimate relationship.
Usually, the victim genuinely believes that they owe the abuser and that they deserve this treatment. The abuser makes the survivor internalise a sense of worthlessness. That’s what coercive control does.
Michael Sheen’s comments about Cymru being stuck in an abusive relationship cycle within the union merely points at the discriminatory and exploitative patterns that are based in observations of current and historic events.
Taking away financial autonomy is a classic form of abuse. Coercive control becomes very easy to exert when you do that. I have known people in what they believed to be happy relationships, who had no personal bank account. Their income went straight to the abuser’s account who then gave them a tiny calculated daily allowance.
Westminster is in control of Wales’ money. Money given by the UK Government is often a consequence of projects in England. Westminster proudly states we are given this money like some sort of charitable donation as opposed to what we are due as a consequence of our own contribution to the economy.
Westminster refused to extend the furlough scheme to Wales when we went into the firebreak lockdown, stating lack of funds. Yet, in less than two weeks the funds became available when England decided to follow suit. A very common response to the Welsh outrage that followed was, ‘why should we have to pay to subsidise you ungrateful Welsh lot?’.
Nothing would stop an independent Wales from borrowing money and use it to improve the nation, just as the UK (which is £1,876.8 billion in debt) does. But somehow, we’re made to believe, through years of disrespect and theft of autonomy, that we are ‘too small, too poor, too stupid’ to do so.
Wales has an economy worth £70 billion. We have 15 per cent of the Europe’s tidal energy and produce double the amount of electricity we use. Yet we pay higher electric bills than many regions in the UK and reap little benefit from what we produce. Private companies in England take 243 billion litres of Welsh water and sell it for billions in profit yet Wales receives nothing.
Yet, it’s been drilled into our collective psyches over centuries that Wales is subsidised by England that we have internalised the mantra that we are ‘too small, too poor, too stupid’.
We’ve had centuries of abusive, controlling, and punitive measures in place to drown out the Welsh language. It’s outrageous that Welsh people are not only actively discouraged but bullied and ridiculed to this day for speaking or wanting to learn their own language. This has led many Welsh people to internalise a negative attitude towards it.
Most people living in Wales have little knowledge of their own history. Instead, they are taught British history. While still relevant and undoubtedly forms a part of our own, it is very myopic and is centred around the story of England.
History forms a huge part of a nation’s identity. If we don’t teach it to our children, we essentially rip away the country’s identity. This is the kind of thing that is often observed in abusive relationships. The survivor, whilst being abused, can only exist as an extension of the abuser, with absolutely no autonomy or individual identity. This is effectively the case of Wales. Our unique identity has been stripped away
A healthy relationship is a mutually respectful partnership. It is not a sign of a healthy or respectful relationship if people are told they are too stupid to look after themselves and will amount to nothing without their partner.
The Welsh people have had centuries of xenophobic remarks peddled at them, such as ‘sheep shaggers’ and ’taffs’. If we heard that a victim stood up to their abuser, we applaud them and call them survivors. When Welsh people stand up for themselves against abusive comments or actions, they’re called ‘toxic Welsh nationalists’, ‘xenophobic’ and even ‘racist’.
One of the first parts that is systematically broken down in an abusive relationship is the person’s ability to self-determine. In effect, they believe that they can never leave. Once the person firmly believes that, they become more compliant because they are at the complete mercy of their abuser.
Wales did not vote to join this arrangement with the UK and has never had the chance to leave either. Isn’t self-determination a basic principle of democracy and a healthy relationship?
Wales’ relationship with the union does not reflect the dynamic of a healthy relationship of equals that mutually respect each other. We can’t resolve a problem until we know what the problem is. Then we can discuss resolutions.
I can understand that people who’ve had abuse may feel triggered by the very mention of abuse. That is true of all social evils. If we don’t talk about them, what chance do we have to address them?
I would just like to add that I have tried my best to ensure that any survivors of any form of psychological or physical abuse aren’t left feeling hurt about anything I said. However, if you do feel triggered by anything in this article (and it’s completely understandable if you do), please don’t hesitate to reach out.
Drawing parallels to the abusive patterns in Wales’ relationship with the union, by no means takes away from your very real and unique experience of trauma and abuse.
Your voice is important and should be heard.