Defining domestic abuse by a list of behaviors is never going to capture it
Quite often authors define domestic abuse by giving a list of behaviors. The list can include things like complaining, accusing, angry looks, name calling, denigrating, yelling, threatening, ordering, demanding, belittling, using sarcasm, showing indifference, lying and deceiving, sulking, withholding sexual intimacy, using physical violence.
Here is the problem with trying to define domestic abuse as behaviors:
You can’t necessarily identify who is the abuser by looking at discrete events and behaviors.
To see why, let’s take one by one the items in that list I just gave. I’ll give examples in italics.
Complaining. Abusers often complain to their victims. Can’t you keep the kids quiet!
Victims also complain to their abusers, though it’s risky to do so. You told me you’d given up porn but I just found all this stuff on your computer!
Accusing. Abusers accuse their victims: You’re a hopeless parent! You’re mean! You’re unforgiving! Abusers also accuse their victims to bystanders: My spouse is a bit crazy.
Victims rightly accuse their abusers: That’s not what happened. You’re lying. You’re re-writing history. Victims sometimes disclose their plight to bystanders and disclosing entails making accusations about their spouse: My spouse swears at me and intimidates me.
Angry looks. Abusers give angry looks when their power is threatened, and when they deem their rights to marital services are not being met. They give angry looks randomly too, just to keep the victim walking on eggshells.
Victims may give angry looks when they are at the end of their tether from all the abuse, when they have tried every submissive and courteous attempt at problem solving they can think of. And they give angry looks sometimes when the Pharisaic church mistreats them.
Name calling and denigrating. Abusers call their victims all sorts of derogatory names. (No need to list them here or this post would be mega-long and full of #*># !)
Once victims start to come out of the fog, they may call their abusers names but these names are true labels for what the abuser is like: Liar. Deceiver. Con-artist. Manipulator. Bully. Wicked Hypocrite. Wolf in sheep’s clothing. Adulterer. Porn addict. False christian. Evildoer. Abuser.
Yelling. Some abusers yell to maintain power and control over their victims.
Victims may yell at their abusers when trying to get them to behave responsibly. The victim’s yelling probably doesn’t alter the abuser’s conduct (the abuser typically uses it as more ammunition for pulverizing the victim) but it is an understandable response to injustice and oppression, rather like Jesus excoriating the Pharisees or taking a whip to the money changers in the temple.
Threatening. Abusers sometimes threaten their victims with direct words: If you divorce me, I’ll make sure you don’t get the kids. And they threaten without words: the coercive control which they employ creates a constant background threat that the abuse is likely to escalate if the victim does not comply.
Victims may sometimes issue a threat to their abusers, but a better word would be ultimatum or consequence: If you don’t call me when you’re going to be late, your meal will be in the fridge when you get home. If you keep cursing me out in front of the kids, I will report it to the pastor. Either you quit intimidating me or I divorce you.
Ordering. Abusers issue orders to their victims. Get me a drink! Don’t spend more than twenty minutes at the shops, and make sure you can account for every cent you spend!
Victims may try to order their abusers when the abuser is acting abominably: That hurts! — stop doing it! And they may issue orders to abusers if it has to be done for the wellbeing of the family and especially the children: Give Johnny his antibiotic at 8pm. Make sure the gas bill is paid by tonight or we’ll be cut off!
Demanding. Abusers selfishly demand things of their victims: The Bible says the marital bed is undefiled, so you must give me sex the way I want it — nothing is off limits.
If victims demand things of their abusers, their demands are things like: Please respect me. Tell me the truth. Stop hurting me.
Belittling. Abusers belittle their victims: What are you? Stupid? Or the patronising attitude: You can’t understand this, it’s too complicated for you. And abusers give smirks and eye-rolls to bystanders, to indicate how silly their spouse is.
Victims do not belittle abusers contemptuously, though they may describe them as immature, behaving like a child, etc. And they may tell bystanders that they feel like they have five children to look after: four kids, plus their spouse.
Using sarcasm. Many abusers can be cruelly sarcastic. Sarcasm is a form of line-ball humor and because it is commonly used even by non-abusers to gently mock foolishness, to let off a bit of frustration, and to bond with friends, it’s hard to call out. When the victim calls out the abuser for using sarcasm cruelly, the retort is usually “Can’t you take a joke?”
Victims sometimes use sarcasm to vent about their abusers’ horrible behaviors. But victims do not use sarcasm maliciously like abusers do.
Showing indifference. Abusers show indifference because they are selfish. They are indifferent to the hurt they cause to others. They also intentionally show indifference as a way of hurting their victims and throwing victims and concerned bystanders off balance.
Victims may also show indifference, but their motives for doing so are very different from abusers. Because an abuser can turn every emotion the victim expresses into fuel for the abuse, the victim may choose to show outward indifference in order to survive. (the Gray Rock response)
Lying and deceiving. Abusers are highly skilled liars. They lie to obtain their selfish ends and to maintain power and control over their targets. They deceive in order to charm targets into their web and to recruit bystanders and children as their allies.
Victims also lie, but for very different reasons. They lie to conceal their pain and their shame. They lie to try to avoid the abuser’s cruelty, like the midwives lied to Pharaoh. They tell untruths to themselves, their children and to folk at church, by pretending that things are okay. Is the pasted smile a lie? In one sense it is; in another sense it is a survival strategy. (See my 3-part series “Is it always sinful to tell an untruth?” Part 1 here)
Sulking. Abusers use sulking as a weapon of abuse: to make the victim feel guilty and thus coerce the victim to cater to the abuser’s demands.
If a victim appears to be sulking, what is probably happening is that the victim feels so mistreated, disbelieved and misunderstood that speaking out seems pointless and even dangerous.
Withholding sexual intimacy. Some abusers withhold sex from their spouses to ‘punish’ them for the supposed infractions they have committed against the abuser’s power and control. Some abusers withhold sex from their spouses as a form of reproductive control. Some abusers are so heavily addicted to pornography that they prefer porn to real sex. A great many abusers have sex with their spouses but without any intimacy; this has a life-sapping effect on the abused person. This kind of sex can include the abuser insisting on sexual practices that Christians would consider unnatural, such as anal sex.
Victims of abuse sometimes decide to withhold sex from their spouses. This typically happens when the victim has been so hurt for so long that having sex with her abuser is emotionally if not physically excruciating. Sometimes the victim imposes a ‘separate bedrooms’ policy as a way of setting a boundary against the abuse, and perhaps a way of hopefully prompting the abuser to see their dire need for a change of heart and attitude.
If this strikes a bell with you, you might like to read my post Do you tell others about the sexual abuse?
Also, some victims have suffered previous sexual abuse (in childhood for example) and sex is a minefield for them at the best of times. My personal experience is that previous sexual trauma can be worked through and recovered from IF one’s sexual partner is loving and caring and patient. But abusers are often unloving, uncaring and impatient, so there is small hope of the traumatized survivor of sexual abuse being able to heal while she (or could be he) is with a dedicated abuser.
My observation (and personal experience) is that survivors of childhood sexual abuse rarely withhold sex altogether from their spouses, unless that spouse has abused them for so long that sex is excruciating, as described above. Other than that, CSA survivors might sometimes say “I can’t right now” but they do their best to keep their triggered responses from making too negative an impact on the quality of their relationship with their spouse.
Physical violence. Some abusers employ physical violence. By physical violence I mean anything from standover tactics, getting in your space to intimidate and threaten, being violent to property, pushing or shoving the victim, right up to assault, grievous bodily harm and murder. And in that list too are acts which are ‘hands-off’ violence, things like tampering with the brakes on your car so you have an accident. And remember:
- some abusers never use physical violence
- many who do use violence only do so a few times a year or less.
Some victims have at times used physical violence. There are probably quite a few of us at this blog who have done so in self-defence, or done so on the odd occasion when we may have been so outraged by the taunts of the abuser that we have unwisely let ourselves be violent. And of course there are some victims who have killed their abusers because they believed they had no other way of escaping the intense and unrelenting abuse.
There are also instances where victims are accused of using physical violence but in fact they were only trying to escape the abuser. I can think of one example from my own life: My ex was forcibly holding my car door open so I could not drive away after having dropped our child off for access. I prised his fingers off the car door and drove away. He later told the magistrates court that in that act I had assaulted him and he therefore needed a protection order against me.
When it comes to behaviors — context, attitudes and motives are everything!
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