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The Behaviors We Fail to Define as Domestic Violence

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Remember that the primary strategy of domestic violence is to control; to establish control; to maintain control; to exert control over another human being, in this case a partner.  This is the fundamental premise of domestic abuse: to control a domestic partner in order to preserve and perpetuate one’s identity, agenda & existence.

Theorists debate the reasons for domestic violence.  Why do people domestically abuse?  Feminists believe that it is due to the overarching patriarchal constructs in society that value the male experience over that of female experience.  In patriarchal societies male dominance, which lead to abuse is viewed as acceptable aspects of masculinity.  Family system therapists have questioned if it is an issue of learned behavior.  Do abusers learn to abuse by what is modeled in their home?  Ecological psychologists consider environmental systems.  Are those who are exposed to the stressors of poverty more likely to exhibit aggressive behaviors under the pressure of extreme stress?

I get it– in identifying root causes perhaps we can predict and prevent (this is especially important for legislative and policy making purposes).  What we’re finding in the domestic violence literature is these root causes are complex and there can be overlapping contributing factors to abusive behaviors.  From an individual perspective, we can’t always identify someone as an abuser based on these variables alone.  In fact, sometimes reviewing these variables alone can be problematic, as some will utilize justifications for someone’s abusive behaviors when they can’t simply place the person or his/her abusive behaviors into a categorical box.

Whatever the cause/reason for domestic abuse the outcome remain: a domestically violent individual uses abusive behaviors and strategies to produce fear, submission and oppression of their partner in order to control.

Let’s talk behaviors.  For the majority of us physical aggression and violence in a relationship is recognized as domestic abuse.  Although, you will find people creating justifications for physical abuse, especially when they are having difficulty believing that a family member or friend could act abusively.  Research shows that only half of those who are exposed to domestic violence report it.  Statistically speaking between 25-34% of women are domestically abused (1 in 3 or 4 women; 1 in 7 men) and only half of these survivors will report.  The reasons for this include: 1) they fear retaliation from their abuser, 2) they believe they will not be able to access help (i.e. police won’t help, will not be able to access resources needed like housing, financial assistance, etc.), 3) they have had family and friends tell them that the partner’s behaviors are not abuse and that perhaps they are making a big deal out of nothing.  This is why advocacy and education is tremendously important because those that justify are complicit to the harm that domestic violence produces for the survivor.

Now imagine– if it is easy to justify or ignore an individual’s experience with physical violence– when there are physical representations of domestic abuse on the individual’s person– how easy is it deny a person’s disclosure and experience with psychological and emotional abuse?

Yes, domestic violence occurs in many different forms.  One form of domestic violence that researchers are documenting have to do with abusers using a partner’s credit and ruining their credit to make it difficult for the survivor to leave or to obtain housing on their own.  Some abusers use contraception as a form of control by poking holes in their condoms to increase the chances of the survivor getting pregnant.  The belief for the abuser is if she gets pregnant then 1) they will be linked permanently and 2) having a child makes it more difficult to leave and to live independently.  These are strategies of control and more often than not there are multiple strategies that are being used to control another person.  In times of domestic violence where the abuse is more subtle or difficult to quantify survivors are less understood or believed.

Psychological and emotional forms of domestic violence occur.  At times, these forms are difficult to identify for the survivor and that is why it’s important we talk about it.  These forms of abuse are often ignored by family and friends, which further isolates and makes confusing the process of identifying emotional abuse for the survivor.  We all need more education around this so that we can support survivors’ agency and human right to do what is in her best overall health and interest.

Survivors need this information to alleviate the isolation one feels when being emotionally abused.  Survivors need to hear that you are not alone and that you are not crazy.  The abuse is meant to make you feel crazy and to make you doubt your own inner voice, but you are not crazy.  Survivors need to hear that the pain you feel is legitimate and real and although you don’t carry visible physical signs of your wounds the pain is excruciating and can lead to many complex feelings of depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts.

Psychological/Emotional abuse:

Character Assassination: When an abuser picks apart the character or personality of their partner by stating that their character/personality differences are wrong or weird or unacceptable.  We all are different.  We all have different ways of navigating the world.  We all think and process things differently.  An abuser who uses this tactic views the difference of their partner as less than.  The abuser will see their way of being or character as superior to the other person and will make comments or emotionally sabotage the other person by planting seeds of doubt about what the other person does or thinks.  Abusers who sabotage their partner’s character do this in private, as well as by demeaning them in public or putting them down in front of family or friends.

Name Call: Emotional abusers verbally put down their partner.  They may yell at them and call them names and make them feel less valued or dumb or insignificant in the world.

Emotional Manipulation: Abusers typically know triggers and areas that are sensitive to their partners.  They know what kind of emotional dynamic or language to use to get a certain kind of outcome from their partner.  The survivor may have even said, “no” or “I’m not comfortable with this or that” and the abuser may use previous information or knowledge about the survivor to derive guilt or shame in order to get the outcome that they wanted in the situation.

Gaslight: Emotional gas lighting is a recent term that refers to the absolute denial and displacement of emotional abuse/manipulation by the abuser.  In other words, the survivor at some point may call out these behaviors and how it creates feelings of hurt and pain and the abuser will deny the behavior.  Additionally, they will use this opportunity to question the survivor’s emotional stability and acuity.  “Are you okay”?  “Why don’t you see that I just love you”?  “You know you’ve always had trust issues”.  “Why can’t you assume the best of me”?

Insistence that they are the Experts in your life/experience: Psychological abusers believe that they know the survivor’s experience better than the survivor.   They believe that they know what the survivor needs and what they need to be doing.  A survivor may try to explain that this or that doesn’t work the same in their experience and the abuser is convinced that they know the situation better.  They undermine the survivor’s experience by saying things like, “you know you have this habit of…” They will insist that the survivor submit to their perspective and opinion on the situation.

Emotionally Withholding and Angry: When the survivor is unable or unwilling to go along with (fill in the blank) the abuser will be emotionally withholding, cold, distant and pout.  The cold stance may shift to anger over time and will manifest in putting pressure on the survivor to do what it is the abuser wants.

What happens to the Survivor?

The emotional and psychological consequences of this sort of abuse is extensive.  Survivors describe everything from depression to anxiety to feelings of inadequacy.  Survivors talk about how they have difficulty trusting their judgement.  They struggle to identify their own needs or desires because they hear the voice of their abuser overriding their own.  I’ve had survivors describe to me a sort of brain fog where they had difficulty thinking or focusing on anything.  When they did feel that they had an idea or opinion on a matter they weren’t sure if they could trust the new information.  Survivors describe feelings of doubt and self-blame about their situation.  I’ve heard women describe a somatic pressure on their chest or abdomen that are associated with exposure to emotional oppression and suppression.  For some the pain is indescribable– it is difficult to find language to describe the invisible pain.  Still others describe feeling completely isolated– left to navigate this emotional landscape on their own while in incredible pain and confusion.

I think one thing this blog can provide is a place to affirm that this suffering is real.

The suffering is real and survivors must not endure this suffering alone.  As one sojourner, I know the benefits of community and advocacy support.  There are no easy or quick solutions but I can’t leave this entry without giving some information to those who may need to reach out for assistance.  You can find that information below and know that I believe you and I hope for you– safety & relief from this pain.

National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-SAFE

Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence: https://wscadv.org

LifeWire: http://www.lifewire.org // 800-827-8840

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