TEN COMMON MYTHS ABOUT INTIMATE PARTNER VIOLENCE
Myth #1: It's only abuse if someone gets hit.
As we saw on Monday, there are many forms of abuse that occur in unhealthy or violent relationships, and only one of them is physical violence. In fact, most people who have been victimized by abusive partners say that physical abuse was the last form of abuse they experienced, after the abuser had been using everything else. In 44% of abuse cases with female victims, physical abuse doesn't begin until after the victim is pregnant or gives birth. Many victims that I've worked with have said that the emotional injuries of abuse take many times longer to heal than any physical injuries they have.
Myth #2: Abuse is a "family matter," not a public one.
There is a common idea that abuse is a private concern and should not be aired in public. This can keep organizations such as the police from offering much-needed assistance to victims, and can keep victims from feeling that they can or should tell anyone about their situation.
The fact of the matter is that abuse is criminal behaviour and, as such, is never a private concern. It can have long-reaching consequences, from psychological effects on children, to missed hours and days in the workplace, to increased burdens on medical providers, to emotional stress on family and friends. When a person is being abused- is being psychologically tortured, physically and sexually assaulted, and prevented from seeking help- it is not something that we can remain silent about.
Myth #3: Abuse only happens in "problem" families.
The idea of a "problem family," one where so many other dysfunctional factors exist that abuse is hardly a problem, is troublesome and a myth about abuse. As the Outreach Coordinator of a domestic abuse organization in New Hampshire put it: "The idea of a 'problem' family is immediately suspect because it presupposes the existence of non-problem or 'normal' families in the majority of homes. The concept of a non-problem family masks the realty of the statistics on abuse: according to the FBI, one in four women is a victim of domestic abuse...The myth that only 'problem' families experience violence also encourages social service workers, police, and court personnel to look for 'reasons' and family 'problems' to explain away the violence."
Myth #4: Abuse only happens between a man and a woman.
There is no one type of relationship in which abuse occurs. The stereotype is that a man beats his girlfriend or his wife; the reality is a lot more complicated. Abuse can happen in any relationship- friendship, partnership, relatives- in which one person chooses to exert power over another. While women are overwhelmingly the victims of reported cases of abuse, and men are overwhelmingly the perpetrators in the same, it is important that we begin to recognize that abuse can happen between adolescents (approximately one in four, as with adults), in same-sex couples (one million cases of same-sex violence are reported in the US each year), and with female perpetrators and male victims. On Monday, we'll be talking more about victims and survivors whose needs aren't met as a result of this myth.
Myth #5: Abuse only happens because a person is high or drunk at the time.
The myth that a person abuses because they are high or drunk is incredibly pervasive, but not true. Abusers who also use alcohol or drugs will abuse when they are high or drunk, but also when they are sober. Some abusers don't use alcohol or drugs at all. For those that do, promising to seek assistance for substance abuse can be an effective means of maintaining control: as long as their victims believe that it's the alcohol or drugs that cause the abuse, apologies and promises to stop using will sound like the end of the cycle of abuse. Unfortunately, the problem of abuse lies not in being drunk or high, but in making the decision to be abusive. Until that decision is changed, the abuse will continue.
Similarly, many people assume that abusers have problems with their temper and need anger management therapy in order to stop abusing. Again, abuse is a decision, not an effect of a short temper. Abusers are often able to handle frustrating or angering situations at work or in other settings in a calm or reasonable manner, but choose not to do so with their partners. Abuse is a choice, not an accident.
Myth #6: It's only low-income families that deal with abuse.
This is a myth that is particularly prevalent in social service jobs, simply because many of the people who access services such as domestic abuse shelters are financially limited and can't pursue other options, like staying in a hotel or flying to family members in different states. Affluent victims of abuse may face unique challenges to escaping abuse, including pressure to "keep up appearances" of having a perfect life. The evidence shows that people from all walks of life can experience abuse and can be abusers; "certain kinds" of people aren't predisposed to violence.
Myth #7: Abused women are an easily-definable, easily recognized group.
If you believe TV and politicians, "abused women" are almost always married to an alcoholic or addict, 20-35 years old, unemployed, mothers to two or more children, religious, and are passive and meek. This is a myth. People who are abused come from every country, every background, every age group, and every sort of identity. Some victims do represent this stereotype, but many more do not. There is no particular kind of person who is more likely to be abused than any other.
Myth #8: Victims of abuse wanted it or asked for it with their behaviours.
This is a particularly damaging myth that holds no truth. Many victims are told by their abusers that they deserve the abuse they experience, or have asked for it by being "disobedient." Many are also told that they provoked the abuse in the first place, because they "know" that their abusers will respond in a certain way. Furthermore, as the Outreach Coordinator says, "many [victims] have been questioned, by those from whom they have sought help, as to what they did to provoke such violence, and have been counseled to look to themselves for reasons and/or blame for violence, and to change their own behaviour in order to avoid abuse. This has encouraged many victims to stay in a violent relationship for years, trying to discover just what they do to provoke attacks. It is erroneous and demeaning to claim that anyone ever deserves the violence done to them."
Something to consider, readers, takes us back to the cycle of violence I described on Monday: the cycle that begins with tension-building, has an abusive phase, and then switches into a "honeymoon" phase where everything seems perfect. While "provocation" is a very loaded word to use, it must be acknowledged that some victims will facilitate an abusive incident as a means of survival. The tension-building phase may have become too intense to psychologically bear, or they want the abuser to be in a "honeymoon" frame of mind for when children come home from school, or they need the assistance of police to escape the abuse and feel they can only justify a 9-1-1 call if an abusive incident is happening at the moment.
Regardless of survival tactics, remember that no one ever "asks for" or deserves the violence that someone perpetrates against them. The decision to abuse is made by the abuser, and is made in lieu of other potential responses to any behaviour of the victim. The abuser is always solely responsible for the violence that happens.
Myth #9: It's not that bad because the victim isn't leaving.
This is a myth that is easier to answer with statistics from the Department of Justice than with discussion:
- Within two years of leaving an abusive relationship, one in three victims will be killed by their abuser.
- 75% of fatal attacks by an abuser occur when a victim is trying to leave, or has recently left, the relationship.
- A victim will try to leave their abuser an average of seven times before being able to leave permanently.
- In 85% of cases of domestic homicide, the police were summoned to the home at least once before the murder occurred; in 50% of these cases, the police had been called to the home five or more times.
- Four women are murdered by their partners every day in the US.
While the statistics are scary on their own, there are other barriers to leaving that victims must deal with. Among these are financial concerns, particularly if the victim has not been working or been able to have access to personal finances; concerns about moving children, if the victim has any; concerns for the safety of pets; and, of course, the psychological abuse that has told a victim that they don't deserve help and won't be believed if they go anywhere.
Myth #10: Abused women abuse their children, and abused children grow up to be in abusive relationships as adults.
This myth is one of the ways in which we, as a society, attempt to excuse or explain away domestic abuse. If abuse is all that a person knows, how can we blame them for perpetrating it? The evidence, however, point to no connection between experiencing abuse as a child and experiencing it as an adult, and no connection between being a victim of abuse as an adult and perpetrating it on a child. Abusers choose to abuse their partners, and have grown up knowing that there are many ways that relationships function. The decision to abuse is always a decision.
I hope that this has helped clarify some of the myths that we have surrounding intimate partner abuse! For further reading, I recommend checking out this fact sheet that the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence put together, compiling statistics from national studies, the Department of Justice and the FBI, and reports from their own shelters in the 50 states. I also recommend, if you want another perspective, reading the American Bar Association's fact sheet, which gives phenomenal information, demographic statistics, and legal options.
As always, if you are experiencing intimate partner abuse or know someone who is, please contact your state's Coalition Against Domestic Violence or call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 (SAFE) for information, referrals, and safety-planning. To keep yourself safe, always remember to clear your browser history and, if using a cell phone, your call history.