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.
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!