Capitalism is the Abusive Relationship We Can’t Leave

By Max Sheffield-Baird
Art by Whitney Young

CW: DV, childhood bullying, SA, specifically nonconsensual exposure of genitalia.

It’s no wonder that domestic violence survivors like myself stay so long in relationships that are toxic. The entire culture we are surrounded by and what we have to do to merely survive is both pervasive and normalized. And I’m not talking about patriarchy or white supremacy, though of course, these aspects of our culture fit the bill as well.

I’m talking about capitalism.

The more I process my own history of abusive relationships and walk the path of healing, the less I have allowed anyone to control my life or treat me as subhuman. This shift in my own thinking has made me realize that this mindset is incompatible with being a willing participant in capitalism.

If a partner told you that you can’t eat lunch today, how to spend your free time when you’re not with them, which doctor you’re allowed to see (if you even have that luxury), if you’re allowed to attend a funeral, or if you can visit family, everyone would be on the “leave them” train. It’s preposterous that one person could have so much control over another and we instinctually know this. Yet no one thinks twice when this is people’s lived experiences with their employers. In fact, some employers get to dictate what you do AFTER you leave them via entirely legal non-compete contracts. Look at what when a hospital sued to keep their radiology team from leaving. It’s ludicrous, but we’ve been conditioned to accept it without considering how it would be illegal and immoral in any other application.

It’s much more insidious than you expect. Abusive relationships change our psychology, self-image, and perceptions of reality. “Studies show emotional abuse may be the most damaging form of maltreatment causing adverse developmental consequences equivalent to, or more severe than, those of other forms of abuse.” You can believe in your own worth but when partners cut you down a thousand times over: calling you stupid, lazy, selfish, the list goes on. Eventually you begin to believe this or at least wonder if it might be true. I know this was true for me in my experiences.

People who are in abusive relationships are not weak. They’re strong, empathetic, and resilient because in their journeys that’s what they needed to do to survive.

Gaslighting has become part of our popular consciousness, but part of healing from emotional abuse is how initially after the relationship, we don’t trust our reality. We can’t trust our own judgment because for years we’ve been made to question it. The process to come back to your body and feel safe again is arduous, but because of our culture, this healing is disrupted by the very culture we live in.

Capitalism does this in a way that’s socially acceptable. When we’re exploited, our culture normalizes this and even sees it as a badge of honor. Working late is a virtue. You begin to question your worth and what is considered acceptable treatment. As a nurse, I was paired to work with a physician who had a history of screaming at her nurses and in one occasion, even throwing something at them. I told them that as a survivor with PTSD, being screamed at is a trigger and if I were to have a flashback, the consequences could be dire. I was still paired with this person though thankfully no incidents happened. But the management had no way of knowing that.

Partners don’t come out of the gate being verbally and psychologically abusive. They sell you on an illusion, a person that doesn’t exist. But all of your perceptions validate this illusion. The fake person in front of you is your reality. Even when there’s a red flag, they have a reasonable explanation and you can minimize it when they show all of their other good qualities.

Once you’ve bought the convincing illusion, the abuser has just begun. They continue the charade and ensure you’re invested enough emotionally and financially before they push on your boundaries. At first, it’s subtle. When you push back, they back off or shift the blame. They do nice things and be that false person again long enough that you drop your guard. The pattern continues until you’ve normalized their unacceptable behavior to yourself.

In healthcare, my very first day on orientation as a nursing assistant I answered a call bell and fetched a cup of water for a patient. When I came back, his pants were down and he was masturbating. The whole thing was fabricated so he could assault me. After I ran out of the room, I was told that this was “Just something he did.” Not only was I not warned, but their very tone was of nonchalance. Nonconsensual sexual contact should never be considered part of a job. The facility normalized what was unacceptable behavior and in many ways it groomed me in other parts of my life.

Before we ever start a job, the toxic culture of capitalism has already made most of us internalize the belief that our worth is determined by our output and external accomplishments.

To further their agenda, abusers work on destroying your self-worth piece-by-painstaking-piece. Think of the fake award of perfect attendance in school, where we’re expected to sacrifice our physical and mental health for a system to reward. In school, bullies are not held accountable. I was bullied through 5th-8th grades and often was suspended when I fought back. Asserting your own worth, even when young, upsets the status quo. Advertising is predicated on trying to tell you what you lack and all of the things you should aspire to. Just like on an interpersonal level, capitalism’s breaking down our self worth is often subtle that it does our damage without our conscious awareness.

People who are in abusive relationships are not weak. They’re strong, empathetic, and resilient because in their journeys that’s what they needed to do to survive. But in this process, folks in this situation no longer have the same perceptions of reality that folks on the “outside” do. This is by the abuser’s design. And often, you don’t know how bad it really was until you’re out of it and can see how much you tolerated and rationalized.

Before we ever start a job, the toxic culture of capitalism has already made most of us internalize the belief that our worth is determined by our output and external accomplishments. This happens in school and by our parents, either directly or by observing their own experiences with capitalism and poverty. Homework normalizes that “your job” is allowed to claim your free time. Dress codes enforce a patriarchal double standard and police femme bodies.

Even in high school, if you experience burnout or struggle with all of the things you’re told you need to do, the explanation given is that’s just how it is and you have to push through it. This is the response to overwork throughout our lives, and we’re set up for it early. Our schools, families, and the overarching culture do all of the heavy lifting before we enter the world of work.

Job interviews are another example. I think we all know how much bullshit they are. They’re not good at figuring out who’s right for the job or for preparing the applicant for what their actual job will be like. No one’s getting what they want out of the situation, and yet we still continue the practice. You’re being told what you want to hear, like a first date, when the reality is far different. As applicants, we do it too, but even potential employers are already displaying the uneven power dynamic that we accept for the means to eke out a living in this system. 

Companies have denied people from positions they’re qualified for due to classist reasons like their credit, and, of course, any amount of enforcing your own boundaries around work is an instant disqualifier. You often need to demonstrate a willingness to make sacrifices on behalf of a company you don’t even work for yet. (See this Catcall article on how femme-coded career fields foster a culture of self-sacrifice and burnout.) There’s no room for self-expression, individuality, or your own fresh ideas in my former industry of nursing, everyone is invested so heavily in the status quo that it bullies and demoralizes anyone who would challenge it. You learn very early that you’re a cog in a dispassionate machine that thrives on chaos, and coworkers vent their frustrations on each other instead of the system that creates friction and burnout in the first place. 

And in the case of capitalism, you’ve been given no other alternatives other than pushing through exhaustion and burnout.

None of these demands of our time and energy even contribute to productivity or revenue for the organizations that espouse these policies. Working at home, which includes having more control over our working hours and environment improves performance, fewer working hours made us more productive, and even benefits such as on-site childcare impact the bottom line by reducing turnover and absences. But, it’s never about that. Your employment is about your control and about demanding all of your mental energy. Abusive partners require control over all else, and any time you lodge a complaint, they wear you down until you give in. If you’re exhausted all of the time, you can’t resist. And in the case of capitalism, you’ve been given no other alternatives other than pushing through exhaustion and burnout.

In each of my toxic relationships, walking away from a fight was the trigger for violence. They have to control the argument and it ends when they say so. The worst thing (for them) is for you to disengage. They can’t keep up the elaborate lies, and the last thing they want is for you to come to the realization that you deserve better. They don’t want you to find the end of your tolerance for mistreatment. 

With our culture propping up the toxic qualities of capitalism, disengaging seemed impossible. The pandemic, while horrific and traumatizing, was the involuntary paradigm shift that has reshaped our relationship with our employers and those who benefit from our labor. Despite widely publicized strikes and union elections across the US, union membership continues to decline. “The lack of an increase in union membership points to the fact that there are still so many barriers to organizing,” said Heidi Shierholz, the director of policy at the Economic Policy Institute, told the Washington Post. “When people try to organize at their workplace there is just a relentless, fierce opposition on the part of employers.” But it can be seen as a natural progression of when we collectively disengaged from capitalism for six weeks of 2020. 

The Great Resignation is another way we are wielding our own power as workers and humans deserving of dignity. I too have put in my two weeks at what will likely be my last ever nursing job. It doesn’t feel like resigning. It’s a reclaiming. We’re reclaiming our time, our energy, and our labor. We’re collectively demanding more for ourselves. The toxic environments of the past will not be tolerated. It’s going to take all of us to end this abusive relationship. It’s going to take rewiring core beliefs we might not even realize influence our behavior. It’s going to take big structural shifts to a system that knows how to break us down and deplete us. It’s time to get more intentional with how we engage in an abusive, exploitative system and reclaim our power by any means necessary.

Max Sheffield-Baird (they/he) is a writer and marketing strategist who’s passionate about racial and economic justice. Max is a parent of a rambunctious infant and is a graduate of Colorado State University. In their dwindling free time (hello parenthood!), they enjoy podcasts, reading fantasy and non-fiction, and educating people on kyriarchy on the internet.

Whitney Young (she/her) is a photographer, graphic designer, and conceptual artist who currently resides in Kansas City, MO. She is passionate about the environment, local communities, and intersectional feminism, and those values often show up in her personal work. She received her BFA in Design with an emphasis in Photo Media from the University of Kansas. When she isn’t working her day job in marketing she can be found playing video games or bouldering at the local Kansas City climbing gyms. 

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