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A Sensible Definition of Domestic Abuse
July 8, 2003
by George Rolph

Domestic abuse is people hurting people, over time, for the purposes of controlling them. Unlike "Clutching" Jack Straw's (British Government minister) definition that "Domestic violence is men hitting women," this definition seems a little more thoughtful and intelligent.

If we accept the definition above then we can see immediately that domestic abuse is the deliberate hurting of others irrespective of their age, sex or creed. So the next question we need an answer to is: What sort of people commit domestic abuse? Again, that is very easy to define. Abusers are bullies.

While both these descriptions are accurate they are also too simplistic to be workable. To really understand domestic abuse we need to flesh things out a little.

Lets take another look at the first statement: "Domestic abuse is people hurting people, over time, for the purposes of controlling them." The word "domestic" places the abuse firmly in and around the home. This is not the violence that happens at random when say, a street mugger attacks you on your way home from work, or one off violence that happens during a heated argument with your partner.

The word "violence," with its connotations of fists and feet smashing into flesh, is not really a satisfactory word to describe what happens in our scenario so I have replaced it with the word "abuse." I have done this because abuse describes the hurting of others in a way that does not necessarily involve physical violence. It can be the sustained and deliberate psychological domination of another by acting in a way that reshapes their view of themselves in a manner that affects their self worth and behaviour. As with most things in life, we need to apply some rational common sense here to avoid going to ridiculous and foolish extremes. If, for example, your partner calls you stupid during an argument, that is not necessarily abuse. If they stomp off out of a room in a sulk, that is not necessarily abuse. Even if they slap you, that is not necessarily abuse. I will explain why I say this later.

Any assault taking place outside of the home is not "domestic" (though it can be, and often is, domestically motivated and, where this is true, the event should be added to the domestic violence figures.) and is therefore, covered by the current legislation for assault and battery, grievous bodily harm, threatening behaviour or actual bodily harm etc. For these reasons I believe that domestic abuse needs a category in law of it's own, that is separate and distinct from "street" law. Though the legal devices of assault and battery can be made to work in a domestic abuse situation and it seems reasonable to apply them, they cannot, for example, take into account psychological damage inflicted on others by forcing them to live in terror of an attack that may never actually happen.

The words, "hurting people" in my definition above are important because they refer, not to a single sex, but to the whole range of people found within a domicile. For the purposes of my argument here, hurting people also refers to two classes of sufferers; I call them primary and secondary victims. Primary victims are those directly affected by the abuse. Secondary victims are those indirectly affected by the abuse. An example of primary victims may be parents, men, women and children. Secondary victims are grandparents, uncles and aunts and sometimes, brothers and sisters. Secondary victims are often ignored and this is totally unacceptable. It can be immensely traumatic to watch your son, daughter, or grandchildren adversely affected by abuse. It is also just as painful for grandparents when an abusive spouse seeks to withdraw all contact with the grandchildren because she wants to hurt her husband.

The phrase, "over time" is used here to differentiate between sudden or unintended violence that can occur because an argument got out of control and the constant abusive behaviour one associates with domestic abuse in general.

Finally we come to the term, "controlling." Abusers seek control over the life or lives of others above and beyond all other factors. All of us need controlling to a point and that is why we have a legal system at all. Equally, within the home there must also be a measure of control or domestic anarchy would result. However, social conventions dictate what is normal control and anything that steps out of those ranges is considered abusive behaviour. As there are those who are inclined to abuse power politically or socially, so there are those who abuse their power within the home.

The temptation to abuse power affects all of us in one way or another and, I would venture to suggest, most of us, at one time or another, have given into that temptation in varying degrees. Under normal circumstances, the occasional, or one-off resort to inappropriate controlling behaviour may be more indicative of childish immaturity than abusive behaviour and so needs to set in context and common sense applied.

The question I posed at the beginning was, "What sort of people commit domestic abuse?"

Abusers carry out their abuse by means of fear. The continual feeding of fear into an other creates a psychological breakdown in the defences of the victim that can be devastating in its effects. This fear may, or may not be, physical in its application. It is important here to distinguish between what is a reasonable fear and what is an unreasonable fear. Because a person claims to be in fear it is not evidence that they have a reason to be in fear. We must be careful not to condemn others because they happen to live with someone who is baselessly neurotic.

All of us need a measure of fear in order to function as normal human beings. If we are fearful of the consequences of murder then we are not likely to carry out a murder and that is good and to be welcomed. However, if we are fearful of making a cup of tea or coffee because getting it wrong may result in humiliation or violence, then that is bad and is to be condemned.

For an abuser, the normal constraints on behaviour and language do not apply. Abusers have no conception of "otherness." Their victims feelings, needs and psychological well-being do not matter to them one little bit. In fact, the needs of the other become weapons to punish them with. Because of this, abusers are almost utterly self centred. However, they are also very cunning. They wear disguises. An abuser may well give the "appearance" of being a caring, sharing individual when in reality they are ruthless and destructive people. This is why a constant cry from their victims is: "But when I met him/her he/she seemed so pleasant and nice." Another cry is: "How could he/she steal my children away from me like this? Doesn't he/she care what the children need?" The answer to both these cries are the same: The abusers were in disguise until the point where they felt able to deliver maximum pain to their victims.

The husband who terrifies his wife, the gay lover who places their partner in constant fear, the grandchild who oppresses the grandparents, the children who devastate their parents, the woman who refuses reasonable access to children without good cause, the person in the court room that perjures themselves in order to destroy another, the person that gathers a gang of supporters around them and taunts their victims or physically abuses them, are all abusers. All are thinking only of their own sense of power and control over another. All are using fear as a weapon to control. All are driven by a destructive and totally selfish need to dominate another.

The language of the abuser is different to the language spoken by most people. Consequently the abuser cannot understand the needs of the victim and the victim is often baffled by the demands of the abuser. As was said before, abusers are very cunning. They are experts at "winning" arguments. For them, winning is everything. Winning makes them feel powerful and if a victim is foolish (or brave) enough to withstand them in a verbal fight, the abuser will often resort to spirit crushing demolitions of the character of the victim or, sudden violence.

The abuser will often justify their verbal battering of another by calling it assertiveness. However, there is a huge difference between assertiveness and aggression. Similarly, the abusers will seek to blame their abuse on the victim. Sometimes this will be with remarks such as, "If you had not done such-and-such then I would not have had to hit you." Or, "You act Like a kid so I treat you like a kid and kids have to be punished when they misbehave."

Verbal assaults may include statements such as, "You are so ugly and stupid, no-one else would ever put up with you." Or, "You can`t do anything right can you? You are just a waste of space and a moron." This is known as transference. The abuser is projecting their own self doubts and self loathing onto their partner. -- "I am afraid therefore you must be made to feel the same fear as I do so that I can fit in and appear normal or superior to you." -- Blaming the victim for their own inadequacies. In this respect there is no difference between this behaviour and the behaviour exhibited by the bully in the playground most of us remember from school.

Only differences in the sex of the bully will have a bearing on their behaviour. Female bullies often work in different ways to male bullies. Even so, each are driven by the same need to dominate others in inappropriate ways; each are abusers.

In the same way that female and male abusers often work in different ways from each other, male and female victims often respond in different ways to abuse. Female abusers will often gather others into her circle and manipulate then into becoming co-abusers. Female victims will often try to gather a support group around themselves in order to cope with the effects of the abuse. Males on the other hand, will tend to do the opposite. The male abuser will often work alone and will tend to try and isolate his victims. The male victim will go off alone to lick his wounds and becomes socially withdrawn. I should add here, by way of an aside, that is crucial that police officers, caring practitioners, researchers, legal and political leaders fully understand these differences and the implications of them.

An argument that flares up into violence is not the same as abusive behaviour. Couples will always fight to one degree or another. If a mans wife slaps him during an argument that is not abusive unless she makes a habit of slapping him during arguments. In a similar way the reverse is also true for man slapping his wife. Most men are very aware of the power they have to hurt another and so they "pull" their slaps when striking another in an argument. Those who do not are simply thugs. The same can be said, and indeed should be said, for a women. A woman who delivers a full blooded, arm swinging slap is just as much a thug as any man.

Violence that destroys others completely by snuffing out their lives is the ultimate form of domestic abuse. People who die in the confines of their home where they ought to be safe from harm and who are killed by partners, parents or siblings, are just as much victims of domestic abuse as anyone else. A man or woman who kills someone who shares their life and home with them is always an abuser unless they have acted in true self defence to protect their own lives or the life of another.

Domestic abuse is people hurting people, over time, for the purposes of controlling them.

Copyright © 2003 George Rolph. Used with permission. George Rolph is webmaster of Man2Man

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