We’ve all seen the posters and pictures of cowering women with black eyes and casts on broken bones. We’ve seen pictures of women placing themselves physically between their children and their abuser. Maybe pictures of older siblings taking the same stance to protect younger siblings.
So, if you aren’t bruised and don’t have any broken bones, that means you’re not being abused, right?
The legal definition of domestic violence is: Any abusive, violent, coercive, forceful, or threatening act or word inflicted by one member of a family or household on another can constitute domestic violence. In my mind, it really boils down to fear. If you are afraid of your spouse, significant other, parent, child, or caretaker, you might be in an abusive relationship. If they are using fear, either through words or actions, to control you, it is abuse.
I have come across discussions about whether or not to spank your children. Opinions, of course, range from “spare the rod, spoil the child” to pearl-clutching horror that you could even think such a thing! The discussion usually involves talking about what crosses the line from discipline to abuse. A pretty standard answer is that if you are hitting them in anger, it’s abuse.
The problem with that is that I have been spanked and paddled in anger. I was not abused. I do not fear my parents now, and I never feared them as a child. Sure, they could be scary if they were pissed off. I come by my temper honestly. It wasn’t fun to piss them off- but that was because there were consequences to my actions, not because I had any fear of being hurt or worse. On the rare occasions I was spanked or paddled in anger it was because I was either being an unreasonable and unbearable brat or I’d scared them silly. In either case, it was a reaction to get me to see that my behavior was not acceptable and would have very uncomfortable repercussions. It was, in the end, an attempt to help make me a better person and a better citizen because I would think twice before being an unbearable brat or doing things that scare the people that care about me.
In an abusive situation, when the abuser is hitting the victim they may well be red in the face, veins popping, and otherwise exhibiting signs of anger or rage. However, in most cases if the phone rings or someone knocks on the door, the abuser can speak to the non-victim in a perfectly calm, rational manner. I don’t know about you, but when I’m pissed, and I get interrupted in the middle of being pissed, I’m going to be less than calm with the person on the phone or at the door. Why? Because real, genuine anger doesn’t dissipate that fast. Which means that the abuser probably wasn’t angry. What they were doing was using physical (or mental, or sexual) aggression to cow the victim. It’s very easy to hide that behind phrases like “I just lost it” or “I went crazy for a minute.”
Spanking is something that I’m sort of on the fence about. I don’t think it’s automatically abuse, but I also don’t think it’s the most effective response. Possibly because it never worked that well on me. I don’t have children, but I do work with animals. Training the two is similar enough to be able to draw some parallels. Something that crosses species is that you get more out of an animal that is allowed to try things and make mistakes than you do from an animal that is so afraid of being wrong that they never try anything but the handful of responses that they have found to be “safe.” An animal that is allowed to try things, to experiment, and to make mistakes is going to test your boundaries and have opinions that you may not share. However, you are giving the animal the chance to develop as far as they are able to. An animal that is terrified of being wrong, usually because the punishments were way out of proportion to the crimes, is not going to test you. The other side of that lack of pushing boundaries is that the animal will never reach their full potential.
To bring it back to humans, I was allowed to push boundaries and make mistakes as a child. Sometimes those mistakes resulted in disciplinary measures because consequences are real. The discipline was never given in a way that would stop me from wanting to keep asking questions and growing, though. Today, I am a fully realized person with thoughts and opinions that my parents may not like. That’s ok, because they would rather have a whole daughter than an easy life. In an abusive relationship, it’s about an easy life, not a whole partner. The victim is hounded until they stop straying from the handful of “safe” answers. Those answers or actions are usually very good for the abuser and vary from neutral to bad for the victim.
So, are you being abused? Do you know someone who is in an abusive relationship and may not recognize it? Fear is not normal. Making everything all about one family member is not normal. Completely and perpetually bypassing your own needs to always cater to the needs of the other is not normal. Everyone changes small things as they grow with their partner, but in a healthy relationship, they are still able to grow and express themselves as an individual. Are you a fully-realized person, or have you shed all of those parts of your personality that annoy your significant other? Domestic violence seldom starts with black eyes and broken bones, but all too frequently it ends up there. Recognize it before it does.