Marital War or Terrorist Activity?

The general public sees domestic abuse as an indication of family and social patterning in which shouting, name-calling, and physical fighting are common, permissible choices. We associate these behaviors with lower classes — with lack of education, poverty, alcohol and drug abuse, with weapons in the home and neighborhood. In fact, domestic abuse occurs within all social and cultural groups.

The ‘upper classes’ can more easily keep it concealed, unless they live in the limelight of media attention. Sensational talk shows parade stereotypical examples across our television screens. (Dignified, well-spoken victims of abuse, if they agreed to have their stories presented in a public broadcast, would not make such exciting viewing. They may be more aware of the social stigma of domestic abuse, and so avoid publicity, which could only make life more difficult for them.) In the popular press and media, we often hear of tumultuous, vitriolic disputes between celebrity partners. This adds to the misconception that outrageous or violent behaviour in a relationship is just a symptom of two dominant, volatile personalities who cannot get along with each other.

More often in an abusive domestic relationship, one person is bullying and dominating the other. Recently I was shocked to hear one talk show host, whom I had considered sensible and enlightened, say to a woman, “But you are telling me that you are violent to him also! You both give as good as you get!” A statement like that oversimplifies and distorts the issues of partner abuse. It reinforces the stereotype.

How easy is it to separate self-defense from mutual combat? Issues and questions to consider involve the sequence of events, the balance of power, and the exercise of normal human reactions on the part of the victim. When a victim of abuse, violence or terrorism reacts by expressing anger and indignation, even seeking to retaliate or get revenge, does her reactive behaviour then cancel out the perpetrator’s crime, changing the situation to one of mutual domestic combat? Is it now ‘a row’ instead of a criminal act? Because abusive situations escalate over time, with perpetrators repeating their patterns over weeks, months, and years of easy access to their victims, we cannot easily determine the facts from outside.

Difficult Distinctions and Reactions

Care must be taken to examine the roots and origins of violent behaviour in a relationship. However, stopping and preventing abuse is the urgent priority! It must not be delayed while we consider and weigh the factors involved. As in the couple counseling dynamic, irresponsible statements by media personalities can only contribute to continuing cycles of abuse.

It may not be easy to distinguish mutual aggression between equal participants from abuse perpetrated by one upon the other. And for that very reason, it is imperative that observers and professionals do not draw premature conclusions — not even based upon the abused woman’s own accounts. After she is counseled and helped to escape to safety, there will be ample time to determine whether she indeed has behaved inappropriately toward her partner.

Until such determination is made, it is wisest to assume that she needs protection and understanding. Few people have been informed adequately about what constitutes abuse, about the legal definitions of domestic violence, about what their rights and responsibilities are in domestic relationships, and about what their partners’ rights and responsibilities toward them are. These matters are neither included in school curricula nor a typical part of the practical skills we learn from our parents. We usually choose partners whose belief systems and conduct are similar to ours, and whose company we enjoy.

Therefore, independent, successful, educated individuals and less-fortunate people alike, enter romantic relationships trusting that their chosen partner will behave respectfully and lovingly toward them. I am amazed to hear intelligent people say that a perpetrator must have shown signs of disrespect and brutality before marriage or cohabitation. They suspect that his partner overlooked or accepted these behaviors because “love is blind”, or because she thought she could change him. Don’t we realize that people can keep their dominating attitudes in abeyance while courting, and through the early stages of commitment? 

If others saw signs of normal difficulties between the couple before they began cohabitating, they will cite these as ‘obvious’ indications of abuse to come, and ‘proof’ that the woman made a foolish choice to trust and commit to her partner. If he was charming, extraordinarily kind and considerate toward the woman during their early days, people will say, “He seemed too good to be true; he was obviously hiding something! Nobody can be that perfect!”

Either way, the woman will be blamed for trusting him and making herself available to be abused. Who has established what constitutes a normal amount of (or lack of) difficulty between lovers before they commit to one another? These judgments are made by critics of the victim, in hindsight, after difficulties have developed into abuse and the woman has recognized that she is being victimised. They only make things worse for her. Men realize that intelligent, confident women are likely to reject them if they behave abusively during courtship. The perpetrator is more likely to begin abusing his partner after financial pressures and responsibilities, loss of separate housing, pregnancy, childbirth, and other domestic factors have compromised her independence and reduced her options.

The abusive person counts on his partner’s commitment, as well as her need for safety, security, social respect, and family cohesion. The more she stands to lose, the less likely she is to leave him. We are taught that compromise is a necessary part of adult relationships. A manipulative person can convince his partner that she is wrong or mistaken about what is happening and about what ought to happen, especially when she is exhausted from dealing with his unreasonable behaviour.

The more cooperative and congenial she is by nature, the more likely she is to adapt to his terms and conditions, trying still harder to please him as he becomes more demanding and unreasonable. If she is the one at risk of losing her home and other necessities of life, she will be the one desperately seeking approval, trying to smooth over the rough places in their interactions, trying to put abusive incidents aside, attempting to discuss things with him rationally and to create harmony in their home.

Let us suppose for a moment that critics and analysts of the situation are right… that the woman recognized that her partner was a bully, a chauvinist, a bad risk in every way! Let us suppose that she was one of those women whose partner began abusing her before she committed to him, and also that she had ample opportunities to end the relationship and avoid being battered by him… Let us assume that she was aware of all this and, because of stupidity or character weakness, she put herself at risk anyway, knowing full well that she would be abused… Does that mean she ‘got what she deserved’ or that she has no right to our compassion and help thereafter? Do her critics want to be judged and punished similarly for their faulty decisions, bad choices and stupid mistakes? Is a foolish choice or bad judgment a crime? When you make a big mistake in judgment, do you deserve to be abused? Do we really want to live in an environment where abuse is equated with punishment? Where it is condoned, excused or justified as a fitting consequence of our faults or weaknesses? 

After an abused woman leaves her partner, she will be able to see things more clearly — in retrospect, as we all do. She will then become angry and indignant about the way her loyalty, commitment and efforts at reconciliation have been exploited. She may well feel outraged to have lost the security and material things that accompanied her former life. Although physical and mental safety is priceless, no one expects to ‘pay’ for their personal safety, a right supposedly guaranteed to all people in our ‘free society’! Anyone who has come through an abusive situation has a right, indeed a need to express her legitimate anger and grief over her losses and over the pain and injustice that were perpetrated upon her.

Allowing Time for Grief and Anger

What is a permissible time limit for feeling angry or heartsick about abuse we have suffered? About having our human rights trampled underfoot and the necessities of life snatched away from us? How long is ‘long enough’ to grieve?

I’ve read heart-rending pleas for understanding from people who work with the bereaved. They tell us that a person cannot be expected just to get over the death of a loved one within a certain period that is deemed normal by others. “It takes as long as it takes”, I hear them say. In fact, we have all probably read that parents who endure the death of a child never fully recover from their grief.

A person who has been severely abused is equally in need. She must receive personal acknowledgement from others, recognition of the depth of her pain and loss, and permission to allow her grieving process to run its course. That kind of understanding and responsiveness demonstrates a healthy regard for nature’s way, respecting the individual’s innate ability to heal itself.

We still seem to need reminding that the most devastating abuse may not be inflicted by physical violence. Brutally battered people often count their physical injuries as minor ones when compared with the damage that was done to their minds, hearts, and souls. I am hoping that my blog will provide some encouragement and support for other women, wherever they may be in the stages of trauma and recovery.


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