Monstrous Love: Mental Health and Intimate Partner Abuse Workshop Outline (Presented at Venus Envy in Halifax)

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by Kai Cheng Thom (modified from an earlier version prepared with Kota Harbron for Monster Academy Montreal)

Outline: 1 hr lecture, ½ hr scenarios, ½ hr community talkback


  • Welcome to the space and acknowledgment of colonial history on this unceded Mi’kmaq land
  • Situating myself: personal, community, professional
  • Dangerous space/triggers – people will undoubtedly become triggered/feel very anxious in this workshop, because this is a very dangerous topic. This is not therapy.
  • you may start to realize that a partner is abusive. You may realize that you are abusive.  This is the point of the workshop.  There is nothing to be ashamed of.
  • Space agreement: we will take responsibility for what we do and say. We agree to: try and make each other safe.  Hold each other accountable.  State our own needs.  Own our stories.
  • I don’t work from a non-judgmental standpoint. This is because everyone is always making judgments, and as marginalized people, our judgments are often what enable our survival/liberation.  However, I believe that everyone is inherently valuable.
  • We can make mistakes! I will make mistakes.  Challenge me.  Challenge everything!
  • Brief history of workshop/monster academy: Monster Academy is a montreal-based collective made of myself and my dear friend Kota Harbron. we decided to create a rad mental health school for youth, because this is what we needed and didn’t have as teenagers.
  • This is a very difficult workshop to facilitate, and was created to be a series of intimate exercises between people who know each other. This is because growing into an understanding of abuse and love is a hands-on experience that is extremely contextual.  It must be learned in dialogue with our bodies, our relations, our community.  However, the circumstances of this workshop require that this be somewhat more didactic, as we do not have the space nor the time required.  I have therefore rewritten the workshop as a talk for youth and adults, with some interactive parts.  You will have to continue talking, reading, and thinking on your own to get the most benefit


On courage and fearlessness

  • I’d like to take a moment to acknowledge that this is a scary topic. Scary for you as participants, not knowing what you’re walking into, and scary for me, as a young transwoman racialized crazy facilitator who knows just how much people in community gossip!
  • It takes courage to be here right now, having this conversation
  • It takes courage to be in an abusive relationship, to survive an abusive relationship, to leave or stay in an abusive relationship
  • It takes courage to admit that you have been abusive
  • I want to encourage – courage! – because courage is the road to fearlessness: to a situation in which we can talk about and confront abuse in our communities, and in ourselves, without fear of losing our lives, our livelihoods, our love for one another
  • Fear is the fuel that feeds abuse, and to heal from abuse, we must confront our fear

Visualization exercise

  • Think of /imagine a person with whom you feel safe
  • Take some time to mentally “be” with that person
  • List some of the qualities of that relationship that feel safe
  • My own: when I feel safe with someone, I feel like I can always leave/be left by them without either of us being in emotional or physical danger

Anatomy of a healthy relationship

  • The anatomy of a healthy relationship is complex and very contextual, but in general: everyone involved should feel as though they are guaranteed a base level of physical, emotional, and spiritual safety.
  • There must be a base level of consent, sexual and otherwise.
  • What does consent mean? It means that each individual must be able to make informed decisions about what they will or will not do in any given situation.  Examples?  (Draw from participants)
  • In a healthy relationship, partners often feel good about themselves and each other on a regular basis, though I am not comfortable putting a value judgment on this

What is abuse?

  • Abuse is a part of every community, across identity and social class
  • However, abuse takes different forms and meanings according to context.
  • We can look at abuse as collective (the abuse of Indigenous/racialized communities by white supremacy) or intimate/individual (the abuse of one parter by another, or a child by a parent)
  • Writ large, I would say that abuse is the deliberate or unintentional use of power (physical, financial, ability-based, class-related, gendered, psychological, emotional, spiritual, cultural, knowledge, etc) to violate or manipulate the boundaries of someone else’s consent
  • Some simple examples are: 1) the ways in which white colonizers used military and economic power to force indigenous communities from their lands and to warp the economic system in which racialized people lived so that they would be forced to work for white people’s benefit in order to survive. 2) the way that a man may use physical violence to coerce a female partner.  These are clear examples in which power and domination occur in a one-sided way.
  • However, things get much more complicated when we consider that people’s identities are often much more nuanced and that relationship dynamics are much more subtle than we usually discuss
  • Consider, for example a racialized queer cisgender woman dating a white transgender man – is one more capable of abuse than the other?
  • Consider: people are indeed capable of abusing each other at the same time, but the balance of power is also often skewed toward one individual
  • Things seem even more complicated when mental health and (dis)ability are brought into the picture


When does intimate abuse occur?

  • I am deeply interested in the question of intimate abuse in the context of oppression and mental health because of my own background as an abused queer, asian child who grew up to become a trans asian woman who has been both abused and abusive
  • i will discuss my own experience of having been abusive in order to investigate why abuse happens in a general sense
  • How was I abusive? Won’t go into specifics, but I was abusive in the sense that I was emotionally manipulative.  I would often distort the truth or outright lie to partners in an attempt to keep them with me and to disguise personality traits or behaviors that i considered undesirable about myself.  in moments of emotional panic (which is to say, depressive episodes), i would attempt to bully partners into caring for me in the ways that i demanded
  • Why was i abusive? i was abusive because i was traumatized, oppressed, terrified, isolated, and constantly invalidated by the people around me.  i was a teenage, racialized transwoman with severe and complex PTSD.  i felt that unless i tricked or forced someone into caring for me, i would never be loved, never get access to vital resources, and i would literally die
  • yet none of this was an excuse for having harmed people. despite all of the struggles in my life, i could always have chosen a different route. there are a great many teenage, racialized transwomen with PTSD who have never been abusive.
  • regardless of social position, i believe that a great deal of abusive behavior in intimate relationships is an expression of fear on the part of the abuser that they will not be able to get their needs met in any other way. these needs may be obvious, such as the need for physical care, or for love.  sometimes they may be the result of an internal logic, or not seem to “make sense” or “fit with reality” (let us be aware of the ableist nature of these terms).  however, they are always very real to the person who has them.
  • in the case of marginalized peoples, the fear that our needs will not be met is usually at least partially based in systemic oppression
  • there is also the kind of abuse that exists when someone exercises privilege in order to control someone else and does not know that what they are doing is wrong. this is because they have been conditioned not to see the way their privilege affects people.
  • there is never an excuse for abuse. the notion of mental health is very often brought up as a reason for ignoring or “giving a pass” to relationship dynamics that would otherwise be considered entirely unacceptable.  but if we return to the idea that abuse is the use of power to violate or manipulate someone else’s consent, then we can start to consistently recognize abuse for what it is

what does intimate abuse look like in the context of mental health?

  • i believe that the question of intimate abuse is almost totally inseparable from mental health, but this is my bias because of the personal history i have just discussed
  • consider this suggestion: if everyone had access to the resources they needed to be mentally, physically, and spiritually healthy, then abuse would not exist
  • this is, to me, a radical re-conception of mental health and abuse, because it implicates the larger social system for creating the conditions in which abuse occurs
  • but to get right down to the details: can anyone think of any examples they’d like to share of abusive behaviors/dynamics related to a specific mental health experience/condition/diagnosis? (i acknowledge that not everyone relates to the language of diagnosis and its related fucked-uppedness)
  • a common scenario that i have seen as a therapist is when one partner expresses certain needs around mental health that in some way cross the boundaries of another partner. here are some highly simplified examples:
  • coercion through self-harm: partner A is depressed and isolated and needs partner B to spend all their time with them. partner B feels trapped and overwhelmed, and eventually starts trying to negotiate distance from partner A.  partner A tells partner B that if partner B does not do exactly what they say, partner A will hurt themself/commit suicide out of despair (while partner A’s feelings of despair are valid in and of themselves, they should not be used to manipulate partner B)
  • gaslighting by expressing a different perspective of reality: partner A tells partner B that they cannot respect partner B’s thoughts, feelings, and/or needs, because partner A has a different perspective of reality. (partner A may indeed have a different perspective of reality which should be respected, but partner B is also entitled to respect.)
  • justifying violence as loss of mental control: partner A tells partner B that their mental health experience results in them being physically incapable of not committing acts of violence at certain times (while partner A may certainly feel out of control, there are always ways to negotiate this in the context of a relationship so that partner B is not on the receiving end of violence)

general guidelines

  • every relationship is unique, and everyone has the right to negotiate their own boundaries
  • in general, however, i would suggest:
  • everyone has the right to have their needs met
  • everyone has the right to state their needs.
  • no one has the right to force someone to meet their needs or use their feelings as a justification for abuse
  • no one person should ever be put in the position of needing to meet all the needs of another person
  • no one can be expected to anticipate all of the needs of another person. however, we have the responsibility to do our best to educate ourselves and care for our relationship partners (in all kinds of relationships) as best we can.
  • we must take responsibility for ourselves and accountability for our own actions

Community responsibility

  • abuse never occurs in a vacuum: it exists in relation to the community that necessitates and allows it
  • we must begin to understand abuse as something that grows from austerity, from isolation, from trauma
  • we must call out abuse where we see it, and put power in the hands of survivors to make their own decisions
  • we have to be there for individuals in abusive relationships: there to give care and to create justice
  • we have to teach each other how to be responsible and accountable, to identify our power and to use it in good ways

Embracing monstrosity

  • this workshop is called “Monstrous Love” in reference to my own experience of my capacity to love: as violent, strange, desperate, warped, too hungry. it reflects the notion that certain ways of relating to people is often stigmatized as evil or wrong, and also a reclamation of those feelings that seem too strong, those needs that are always invalidated as being too much
  • it is not my interest to categorize certain people as “abusers” or certain relationships as “unhealthy”
  • i do not wish to contribute to a mainstream mental health industrial-complex that shames us and our ways of loving while also denying our realities and exploiting our bodies for financial gain
  • i do not believe that there are any easy answers, or that anything is cut and dry
  • i want us to acknowledge and embrace the messiness and complexity of loving, the monstrosity of trying to touch and care for each other in this deeply traumatized world. to refuse to hide from the frightened, terrified, fucked-up, angry parts of ourselves and each other
  • when we cease to be afraid of what we are capable of doing and what we might lose in the process of loving, we are able to find our power to heal and to grow

Read the first scenario and answer the questions.  Then read the second one and answer the questions.

Scenario 1: Your friend Ari has been dating their partner Marika for about six months. In the past couple of months you have noticed a lot of changes in Ari. They have been cancelling hangouts and when they do hang with you they are constantly texting and leaving the room to take calls because Marika “gets really pissed” if Ari doesn’t respond right away. Ari seems anxious and sad and often talks about what a screwup they are. They spend most of their time with Marika and stopped doing a lot of the things they used to be passionate about. You’ve heard other friends mention that Marika “has control issues”. When she gets upset and demands that they leave a hangout early to talk on the phone or go meet up with her, they explain that Marika is going through a lot and they are the only one who can really support her. When you ask Ari about that relationship they say that they love Marika, that no one understands them like she does and that the two of them have something really special together that is hard to explain. You think something is going on in that relationship and you are worried about Ari. What do you do?

What do you think is happening here?

How do you know?

What is your responsibility?

What are some ways that you can support Ari while respecting their  boundaries?



Scenario 2: Your friend Marika has been dating her partner Ari for about 6 months. She had her eye on her much since they started dating and it seems like when they’re not together, Ari is all she ever wants to talk about. Marika struggles with anxiety, depression, and PTSD  stemming from childhood. She gets really jealous , often talking about how Ari looks at other girls and how she is sure they are cheating on her. She’s so afraid that they will break up with her and has told you she feels like she’ll never be good enough for them. She once told you about a time when they were fighting and she was hurt and angry because of something Ari did and she shoved them into a wall. When you asked her about it later she said that she had exaggerated and didn’t really mean “shoved”, it was more a tap on the chest – they stumbled backwards against the wall and they weren’t hurt and she apologized after. You have been friends for a long time, so you know how much she struggles and how anxious she feels and all the heavy shit she has had to deal with in her life. Lately you feel like there is something going on in her relationship with Ari and you feel worried about it. What do you do?


What do you think is happening?

How do you know?

What do you think is your responsibility?

How can you support Marika while respecting her boundaries?


Further Reading List (Feel free to help me add to this!)

Samarasinha, L., & Chen, C. (2009). The revolution starts at home. Oakland, CA: The editors.

Truong, Ashley.  “4 Ways to Find Out If Your Partner Is Using Their Depression as an Excuse for Controlling Behavior”






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