There are many terms to describe an abusive dynamic between two people in an intimate relationship: domestic violence, domestic abuse, intimate partner violence, wife-beating (just to name a few). Yet, there is one image these all bring to mind–physical violence.
Domestic violence is typically considered to be a punch, a slap, a bloodied nose, a bruised arm or a blackened eye. And only that. This misconception is damaging to the many survivors living with, or navigating life after, an abusive and traumatic relationship that wasn’t physical. It doesn’t help the stigma that the legal definition (needed to precipitate an arrest or warrant a restraining order) encompasses only physical abuse that can be proven.
An abusive relationship is so much bigger than bruises; it cuts deeper too. We often hear survivors say that bruises heal in days or weeks but it can take decades to get an abuser’s voice out of their head. Most survivors report emotional abuse as the most debilitating; it nurtures self-doubt and often leads to a total loss of self-worth.
Abuse can look and feel like many different things but always boils down to the same issue:
Power and Control
Domestic violence is not a one-time event. It’s not the result of a single angry outburst or the product of one drunken night. Domestic violence is systematic. The tactics of abuse follow a pattern and it’s a pattern both survivor and the abuser are familiar with.
If you’re having a hard time wrapping your mind around DV being purposeful and calculated, consider where the abuser directs his “anger”. It’s not at his boss. It’s not in front of his friends. It’s toward his wife and it’s in his home. So often the behavior itself disproves the “uncontrollable outburst” theory.
It’s important to understand that the survivor of an abusive relationship knows best. It is not uncommon for a survivor to struggle with labeling her relationship as domestic violence–even if she is familiar with her partner’s unique abusive pattern. If she does confide in you, recognizing the extent of her suffering can make all the difference. In a society that draws the line at a black eye, it’s easy to become desperate for validation of other forms of abuse.