What are the first images that come to mind when you hear the term, “domestic violence”? Is it a woman with varying evidence of physical assault upon her person? Bruises, cuts, broken bones?
What popular movies do you think about when hearing the category of “domestic violence”? “Sleeping With the Enemy”? “Enough”? How about music?
These questions can go on for some time about all sorts of popular media and societal norms. The answers will invariably be the most extreme behavior, the worst of the worst, violent and potentially lethal. But why is this? Don’t we, on some level at least, realize domestic violence is much broader, much bigger than just physical assault?
Often we don’t. And therein lies the biggest place where we really do not care about domestic violence.
When we make things extreme, we do so to feel better about ourselves, to feel “normal,” to avoid difficult questions, to create simple solutions.
Our society, our culture doesn’t care about a lot of social issues. We certainly don’t care much about racism, because racism is other people – extremes and horrible examples of behavior that everyone can readily see and hear. Instead of white people identifying ways that personal stereotypes about People of Color are hurtful and potentially oppressive, it’s easy to claim “reverse racism” focus on other’s behavior and hold to one’s own sense of innocence (and superiority).
We only think about people who are disabled when we see handicapped spots in parking lots, or maybe accessibility ramps. But do we think when we see such things, or do we just get used to them and therefore feel uncomfortable when we see people struggling with their physical surroundings? Maybe we think we should help, but do we really want to make the effort? Do we think about mental health disabilities and the challenges people face beyond externally visible physical ailments?
It is October 2016 – which means it is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and therefore a time we are socially obliged to have some sort of passing concern about domestic violence (and breast cancer awareness since October shares both issues as an awareness month). Have you seen purple ribbons around, or heard of various domestic violence agencies doing fundraisers? Maybe you have seen a special news bulletin or article talking about statistics. Perhaps you have heard a survivor’s story of successfully getting out of a horribly abusive relationship.
The problem is, as a society we like drama. We are caught up in fantasy thinking based on images we have seen, movies we enjoy, things we have heard from talking heads or from brief speeches on important issues. It is a fantasy that domestic violence is about extremes.
I’m here to tell you as human beings, we all do things that are hurtful and controlling to those we love. Domestic violence offenders, often referred to as batterers or abusers, make choices that lead to consequences for this behavior. It’s more about the level of harm, the pattern of harm, the responses to harm that differentiate these (often) men from the rest of our society.
Over nearly twenty years of facilitating and co-facilitating group sessions for domestic and sexual offenders, I can count on one hand the number of men I would consider to be sociopathic. The number increases if I consider men who may not be physically assaultive, and instead are emotional and psychological terrorists – but the number would not be much larger.
Most men I see make a series of choices that have negative consequences on their families (and on themselves). Their choices may include emotional harms like yelling and swearing, name calling, or just simple alienation of affection. Over time, a buildup of self-centered behavior, and/or controlling patterns lead to coercing a partner or child do things they do not want to do. These men who choose abusive behavior may be keeping those same family members from doing things they want to do.
In such cases, non-physical harms far exceed the physical harms that victimize partners and children. Often the men I see have been physically assaultive on one incident. It makes it much easier to excuse their behavior, minimize impact, or blame others for their own choices.
And our society allows that.