Monday, October 5, 2009

From Erica: Domestic Abuse 101

Domestic abuse. Domestic violence. Intimate partner violence. Conjugal violence. Battering. Wife or spousal abuse. It goes by many names, faces, and types. Its victims are old, young, dis/Abled, Abled, female, male, women, men, transfolk, queer, straight, White, People of Colour, wealthy, economically disadvantaged, addicts, clean, and possess varying levels of formal education. It has numerous levels of severity, from annoying to fatal, and it is dealt with in a number of ways. At times, even for those who aren't living with it on a daily basis, it can be overwhelming to comprehend. I hope this post- and this week of posts in general- will help clarify some of the myths and misconceptions that many of us in the Western contexts often have.

Let's begin with the basics. What exactly is abuse? The shortest, most useful definition is that intimate partner abuse is a pattern of behaviours used by one person to gain power and control over another. This is quite broad, obviously, but also quite functional: since abuse can take many forms, it's a blanket definition that can help individuals recognize when they're dealing with harmful or dangerous behaviours from their partners.

Because the definition of abuse is so broad, here are the six primary categories that abusive behaviours tend to fall into, and some examples of each:
  • Physical. Physical abuse is probably the best-known form of abuse, but is also usually the last to appear in an abusive relationship. It includes any form of manipulative or violent physical contact, including punching, slapping, kicking, choking, hair-pulling, and the use of weapons to inflict injury.
  • Verbal. Verbal abuse includes a range of behaviours such as yelling, screaming, swearing, and even the non-use of words (i.e. the silent treatment).
  • Emotional/psychological. This often overlaps with verbal abuse, although it doesn't have to. Psychological abuse can include things like playing mind games (i.e. "changing the rules" of how things are supposed to be run in the relationship), using constant put-downs to keep a person's self-esteem low, using verbal or nonverbal threats, blaming the victim for the abuse, saying that the abuse is normal or good, and "yanking their partner's chain" by deliberately antagonizing, provoking, or pushing them.
  • Sexual. This can include rape, sexual assault, forced prostitution, the use of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) as threat or control measure, withholding sex as a means of getting what one wants, or any other type of unwanted or non-mutual sexual conduct. While there have been some myths about this in the past, rape is a crime regardless of the marital status of the individuals involved.
  • Financial. Financial abuse includes a variety of behaviours that limit a person's access to economic freedoms that are rightfully theirs, including having all mortgages, credit cards, bank accounts, and leases in the abuser's name, forcing a person to turn over all or most of their paycheck, preventing a person from getting a job, and putting a person on a limited allowance.
  • Social. Social abuse disconnects a person from their friends and families, which both keeps a person from reaching out for help and from hearing anything that contradicts the things an abuser is telling them. It can include spreading rumours to friends, refusing to allow a person to see their friends or family without supervision (or even at all), and keeping a person in the house or apartment.
Obviously, there is overlap between all of these categories, and often multiple forms of abuse are used at the same time. What is clear from looking at these is that the goal of abuse is to put the victim under the abuser's control: cutting them off from support networks, convincing them that they're responsible for the abuse and thus deserve it, and making it impossible for them to leave safely.

One of the most common questions that is asked of domestic abuse crisis workers, and victims and survivors of abuse, is why they stayed or why they didn't leave. The stereotype is that a victim is helpless and stupid, and doesn't know any better than being kicked around by their partner. Obviously, this is a myth. We'll explore the reasons people stay in abusive situations later in the week, during our mythbusters post, but one of the reasons is this: it doesn't happen overnight.

Look at it this way. If you went on a first date with someone, and their version of a good-night kiss was to punch you in the face, you'd probably never see them again. You might even call the police. Most abusive relationships start out exactly like non-abusive relationships. Everyone seems charming, friendly, and good-intentioned. It isn't until a few dates later that things start to go wrong, and even then they do so very slowly. Think about the "frog in hot water" metaphor: if you put a frog in a pot of boiling water, it'll hop right out. But if you put a frog in nice, cool, pond-temperature water, and turn the temperature up degree by degree, the frog will become accustomed to the heat and will boil to death before it even realizes what's happening.

Abusive relationships tend to follow a cycle format. They start with something small, a few dates in- a rude remark, inconsiderate behaviour, or maybe boundary-pushing around sex. The abuser might apologize and make quick excuses- they had a bad day, or you caught them off-guard, or they thought you were "cooler" than that- and things move on. Over time, things get more and more serious. There will be a period where the victim feels like things are getting more and more tense, then an abusive explosion, and then a period of apologies and excuses- excuses that exonerate the abuser, and excuses that blame the victim. The cycle continues and the abuse gets more and more serious. According to research data collected across the United States by the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV), the cycle only ends when the relationship ends. And when each abusive incident is followed by excuses and promises- "I just lost my temper; I'll get counseling." "You know what I'm like when I'm drunk. You can't provoke me like that." "If you'd done as I asked, this wouldn't've happened." "I'm so sorry. It'll never happen again"- it's understandable that a victim might believe what the abuser's saying, and might hope that this time will be different.

Finally, while we'll be discussing this further when we mythbust, I think it's important to emphasize that abuse is never the victim's fault. It may take two to tango, and arguments may be a two-way street (and every other cliché description), but abusive behaviours are choices made by the abuser alone. An abuser always has the power to choose alternatives to abusive behaviour; even if not during the incident, they always have the power to make good on their promises and actually change for the future. There is no excuse for abuse.

Later this week, we'll have a post that examines some of the more pervasive myths surrounding intimate partner abuse. We'll look into where the myths come from, and what the truths about them are. See you then!


  1. I think it's important to note that the whole "it takes two to tango" thing is only true for a victim of abuse, in the sense that they have options for getting out of the abusive situation. It may not seem like it at the time, but with supportive friends, family, law enforcement and other organizations, they can break off the tango and get out of the relationship.

    So, they're not responsible for the abuse, but they do have options for getting out, options that can help them feel like an empowered individual.

  2. I meant "it takes two to tango" in the sense that people tend either to place blame entirely on the victim or say that victims never do anything wrong. The truth is that, in the course of an argument, either party (or both) can do things to escalate the situation, but the abuser makes the decision to abuse, period.

    In terms of leaving, that's something I'm planning to address in the myths post- it's an option in theory, but it's important to recognize the very real barriers to leaving that exist for many victims.

  3. I know what you meant, and you're definitely right - people are out there who think a victim is responsible for the abuse they're experiencing, and that if they wanted to walk away it would be easy.