• Kayte Thomas

Recognizing domestic violence

My plan for this week was to talk about self-care and the importance of it while providing examples of ways to practice this regularly. However, something kept bothering me while trying to write today’s post. In my usual multi-tasking style, I was intermittently writing and having a conversation on Facebook simultaneously. Without going into detail, the conversation entailed concerns about warning signs of domestic violence showing up repeatedly between a couple’s exchanges. And I realized that this is a really pertinent issue right now which should take precedence in a blog post. Let’s be clear – domestic violence is always a pertinent issue, but it is a dynamic that trauma experts have warned would worsen as an unintended consequence of the shutdown and stay-at-home orders.

How could we know that this would happen? Some might say that the increased stress will cause people to act out in violent ways, but that’s not quite accurate. Stress may cause people’s behaviour to change, it may cause an increase in frustration, maybe even leave some short-tempered with occasional emotional outbursts, but stress doesn’t cause violence. Control issues cause violence, patriarchal views and strict gender roles cause violence, intergenerational patterns of abuse cause violence…but stress does not. Specifically related to the pandemic though, increased ability for abusers to access survivors in a controlled environment will cause an increase in violence (Note: it is more appropriate to address those who are enduring violence as “survivors of violence” rather than “victims” because the word “survivor” focuses on their strength while “victim” is disempowering). Since many people do not recognize domestic violence warning signs, we will cover several basic aspects today.

When people think of domestic violence, more often than not their mind conjures images of broken bones and bruises. And this certainly is violence, but is only a portion of a larger picture. It is imperative to have a comprehensive understanding of domestic violence so that it can be easily recognized and addressed. Also, when only one aspect of domestic violence (physical violence) is understood, there is an increased risk of other forms remaining unchecked. Let’s talk about a few different types of violence for a moment. These are only a few examples and this is not an exhaustive list.

Physical abuse – intentional bodily harm caused by hitting, slapping, choking, burning, cutting, pinching, restraining, or other forms of physical force. Can also include harm caused by drugging or poisoning someone.

Emotional abuse – non-physical actions that make you feel afraid or intimidated. This can also include threatening gestures or witnessing physical abuse of another person, such as when children witness physical violence in the home between adults. Calling you names or embarrassing you in front of others while claiming it is “just a joke”. Stalking or harassment. Withholding affection or isolating you from others to ensure you are reliant on the abuser, refusing to discuss important matters, and ignoring you are all aspects as well.

Psychological abuse – this has significant overlap with emotional abuse, but a defining feature is the distortion of reality. Often called “gaslighting”, abusers will attempt to convince you that that your perceptions are inaccurate or not real and try to make you believe their versions of events. This includes denial of any harm they have caused to you. Gaslighting can leave survivors feeling very confused, and perpetrators will often try to convince others that their target is crazy in order to undermine credibility if or when they speak out. Using others to harm you by making them think you are the one causing problems and encouraging them to reject you based on false information they have provided.

Sexual abuse – any sexual act which is not consentual. This is not only limited to rape, but includes a wide variety of actions such as sexual comments or remarks about a person, unwanted fondling or touching, threats or coercion to perform sexual acts, forcing someone to watch pornography, threatening to release photos or videos of an individual publicly, causing intentional and unwanted pain during intercourse, purposely infecting someone with sexual transmitted diseases, and more.

Financial abuse – limiting your ability to work or earn money, controlling the bank accounts and/or restricting access, placing you on an “allowance” as an adult, interfering with your job or educational pursuits, tracking your spending, refusing to contribute to household bills, using your credit cards without permission, ruining your credit. Some form of financial abuse is present in nearly 99% of domestic violence cases.

Coercive control – a pattern of abuse which may include several of the dynamics listed above specifically designed to control by fear. The abuser may obsessively spy on you and monitor your communications in order to gather all possible information to use against you. When children are present, may threaten or attempt to take the children away and use the legal system as a weapon to demand joint parenting and maintain control through the children. Frequent pushing of boundaries which does not always rise to the level of illegal activity but is enough to upset and unnerve the targeted individual.

Neglect – most often seen in cases of child or elder abuse, this is when basic needs are not provided. Access to food, water, clean clothes and bedding, comfort, appropriate physical contact, etc., is denied.

These are just a few examples of domestic violence. While domestic violence can happen to anyone in any interpersonal relationship whether it is romantic or caregiving based, it is important to recognize that domestic violence is a gendered issue. What does this mean? It means that while women can be perpetrators, domestic violence is more often perpetrated by men. Why is this? This is true because of the power and control dynamics present in our society. Men have more access to resources and have more social acceptance of violent and controlling behaviours due to toxic perceptions of masculinity. In fact, men who display hyper-masculine traits or have rigid perceptions of gender roles are more likely to engage in abusive behaviour. When women are violent it is often in reaction to violence they are experiencing, and is not comprised of the layers of oppression which make the effects of domestic violence so long-lasting for women. This does not negate that women can be violent or that violence can occur in same-sex relationships, but is merely an overarching theme in the domestic violence dynamic. This matters significantly because in the context of domestic violence, abusive men will often try to distort the situation to claim that they are being victimized and those who do not understand the dynamic may unintentionally reinforce patterns of violence against the person he is abusing. It is also necessary to note that the intersection of various individual identities such as race or socioeconomic class can further complicate the issues by creating additional layers of oppression which add more trauma for the survivor.

A really great model to be able to identify signs of domestic violence is the well-known Power and Control wheel. This is a useful tool because many survivors of violence and those who are close to them do not always recognize that domestic violence is occurring. Because of the insidious nature of violence, and because it often happens slowly, it can erode the perceptions of those experiencing it which makes them think the experience is “normal”. But domestic violence is not "normal", it is never okay, and it is never the fault of the person who is experiencing it. Additionally, abusers can be very charismatic or charming which makes others believe that they are safe people despite their abusive behaviour. There are warning signs such as those listed above though, and if we discuss and identify abusive behaviours, we can begin to change the dynamic. Take a look at the wheel and see if you recognize any of these patterns in relationships around you. Additional wheels can be found here.

Besides pandemic changes isolating survivors with their abusers, other aspects may also increase violence. Loss of employment or financial strain may create a sense of lost control in abusers. A key component of domestic violence is the abuser’s need for control, which he often then takes out on those around him. Abusers may behave more erratically when they feel that they are losing control in any way, and this includes times when others may question their motives or behaviours. Due to this, it can be very difficult to intervene if a loved one is being abused.

So what can you do if you recognize concerning patterns in someone who is close to you? One way to provide support is simply to be an example of healthy behaviour. Always treat others appropriately and respect boundaries. Practice genuine communication and acknowledge when you may have unintentionally hurt someone. Apologize sincerely (abusers struggle to do that unless it is about meaningless oversights or if they are using the apology as a means of coercion or control). Be respectful in your language and self-reflect often. Modeling healthy actions can provide a comparison for those who are being abused to recognize that their own situation is unhealthy. Expect resistance if you confront either the abuser or the survivor about the patterns you notice though. An abuser will not admit and sometimes not recognize that they are being abusive and will become angry and defensive. They may also attempt to stop contact from you in order to control the survivor. If you are able to talk to a survivor of violence, resistance may come because they are not ready to acknowledge the situation or perhaps because they are afraid of ramifications. Be supportive. Offer resources such as local domestic violence hotline information, but understand that it usually takes several attempts for a survivor to seek assistance and disengage from the relationship. Avoid judgment if your loved one decides to stay in the relationship. Consider creating a “code word” that they can use to let you know there are in immediate danger should the need arise as domestic violence in all forms can become deadly without warning.

Domestic violence education can and should be incorporated regularly into everyday conversations at home, school, and in the community. Silence breeds violence and we cannot always identify what we do not know about. This means that parents, educators, and caregivers should be educating children from young ages about healthy interactions and respecting boundaries as well as warning signs of potentially abusive situations. Conversations should continue into teen years as teenagers start to venture into romantic relationships and are potentially at risk of violence during those times as well. However, if this wasn’t discussed in childhood (as is true for many as domestic violence is often kept “secret” or is considered taboo to talk about), then it is never too late to start learning. Domestic violence often runs in families as violence can be a learned behaviour, so it is important to take an active role in breaking cycles of violence if you realize this is true for your family system. Spend some additional time seeking information about the dynamics discussed above to improve your ability to recognize various forms of violence. The more we are educated on the dynamics of abuse, the more we can intervene to change them.

Take a look at the Equality Wheel below, and spend some time reflecting on the differences between the two wheels. What do you notice?

When you reflect upon the interpersonal relationships in your life, do you notice healthy patterns, of harmful ones? Healthy relationships and genuine interactions thrive on connection. Remember that control isolates, connection does not. And....the absence of physical violence does not mean the absence of abuse. Be mindful of the various forms of violence and actively create safe spaces - what you know might just change someone's life.

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