Domestic Violence & Why Zero Tolerance Is So Tough
|The most common piece of advice given about domestic violence is to exercise zero-tolerance. When a competent adult assaults you, they demonstrate a dangerous disregard for your physical comfort and safety. They are dangerous. You need to leave straight away. This is good simple advice.|
I wanted to explore why people very often don't, partly because I think it's a good thing for people to understand and partly in the hope that anyone who is in that situation will find it useful. This has become epic, but I wanted to put it in one place. I've framed it as if all these adult violent relationships are romantic in nature - this isn't the case, but it is most commonly the case and it is the dynamic I know most about.
1. Love is the Most Determined Defense Lawyer in the World.
When you are in love, especially if you are heavily invested in that love for your self-esteem, then you're going to find any excuse, any extenuating circumstance to convince yourself that:
Meanwhile, our culture tends to value romantic love above all other relationships without having strong expectations for what it should be like. There's this general idea that we should put up with more from our romantic partner than we would ever put up with from our colleagues, our friends, other family members, even our own children. Lots of us have been taught that a successful relationship is, above all things, an enduring one and that good loyal loving people stick the distance, no matter how unrewarding it may be.
This is a terrific mistake. If you're going to give more of your love, time and energy to a particular person, then they absolutely have to be worthy of that. There is absolutely no virtue in wasting your life on someone who abuses you. You can't even pretend that you're sacrificing your happiness for theirs. There are millions of people on our planet who would benefit much much more from your kindness, compassion, energy and love and would never dream of assaulting you in return. Some may even love you as much as you love them. Which is lovely.
Until it becomes a regular feature of domestic life, violence is a very shocking experience. Once it has happened, you don't get to be alone for the day to think things over, talk to your friends about it and work out how best to respond. In fact, you have to respond there and then, while you're still hurting, sometimes while you're still on the floor. And usually, you have to respond to a person who is either sobbing with remorse or still in a terrifying rage.
It takes a very gutsy person to declare it's over, then and there - and I don't necessarily recommend that. But the other shocking thing is how very quickly things can go back to normal. So quickly that there's a small part of you which doubts that it ever happened, and if it did, was it really as bad as you thought at the time? Normal is nice. Normal is a massive relief! It can be extraordinarily tempting to put it all down to a horrible blip in your otherwise happy existence.
And when you think like that, the next time is just as shocking as the first.
3. Violence is on a Spectrum.
There are lots of other behaviours whose effects feel very much like physical violence, which are not so universally condemned. Things like shouting and swearing in someone's face, insults, accusations, violence towards furniture or other objects, interfering with someone's ability to relax, sleep, eat or exercise, humiliating someone in public, stopping someone leaving the room or ranting at someone about how completely useless and worthless they are.
If you've experienced this sort of thing and then your partner punches you, it doesn't necessary feel as if a terrible line has been crossed. That's because none of this stuff is okay. Physical violence takes it onto a different level because it's so very dangerous - even a push in the wrong direction could seriously hurt or kill you - and it is an unambiguous criminal act. But you shouldn't have to put up with any kind of abuse from anyone. You wouldn't take that from a stranger; you certainly shouldn't take it from someone who professes to love you.
4. Is it really Violence?
Re-enter that corrupt but tenacious defense lawyer, stage left. To me, real violence meant punching and kicking. I wouldn't have said that had I witnessed other kinds of violence or indeed if I had been assaulted in any other context. But for some reason, the first time I felt that something had gone really wrong was after my ex punched me in the back. It is hard to explain why I didn't quite count being elbowed in the ribs, being groped, being grabbed by the arm, by the throat and having it squeezed, being knocked down and pinned to the floor, among other things, as violence - even though some of those things were much scarier than a single punch.
I suppose this was chiefly because I was in denial and in all previous cases, I felt I had said or done something wrong whilst in close proximity of my ex-husband, and it was hard for him not to lash out. Punching someone in the back can't really be about snapping in the heat of an argument (not that all previous violence involved an argument, but still). He punched me in the back simply because he wanted to.
People who are the victims of women abusers often struggle to recognise their experience of violence as violence. In the movies, women slap men round the face all the time, sometimes for comic effect (in older movies, both parties of a straight romantic couple would slap each other almost constantly and nobody ever bruised or seemed to mind). Men who are abused by women can feel (as they are sometimes told) that it's not violence if you're bigger and stronger than the person attacking you. This is nonsense. It's all violence.
5. Is it really Domestic Abuse?
The first thing to say about this is that it doesn't matter what words you use. If you feel hurt, humiliated or scared within a relationship, then it doesn't really matter. You shouldn't have to feel like that.
Domestic violence or domestic abuse are, quite rightly, seen as very serious things. However, along with words and phrases like rape, sexual abuse, child abuse and many others, we tend to perceive these experiences as meaning the worst possible manifestation; the calculated crimes of unremitting monsters against unwitting innocents. Abuse, ongoing and mixed up with love, guilt, compassion and a sense of duty, rarely feels like that at the time.
This is one huge reason why victims of all kinds of abuse often struggle to put a name on what they've been through - even though they'd generally have no trouble identifying it as abuse if they saw it happening to someone else.
When challenged, abusers will invariably differentiate between what they do - snapping, lashing out, losing their temper - and real abuse. They will argue that there is a difference in intention; an abuser carefully plans his actions to control and manipulate, whereas they just get frustrated or jealous and don't really mean to hurt you at all. This is nonsense. Outside questions of self-defence and insanity, the law only ever differentiates between violent crimes according to what a person did.
After I left, I often wondered how conscious my ex was about what he was doing. To what extent he really meant to control me, to make me feel so bad about myself, or whether that was all an accident of his anger and arrogance. My conclusion was that it doesn't make the slightest bit of difference. In morality, all that matters is what we do to one another.
6. They are unwell/ under a lot of stress.
Everyone has stress in their lives. One in four of us will experience a mental illness of some kind during our life time and almost everyone who lives to adulthood will experience bereavement, romantic problems, employment or money worries, illness, anxiety about friends and family. Lots of marriages endure tension and conflict over matters as diverse as sexual jealousy, debt, problems with children or the matter of who left the toilet roll holder with no toilet roll on it. Life is sometimes very tough.
The good news is that the vast majority of people, including those under immense stress, including those with severe mental illnesses, have never been violent towards a loved-one. This isn't part of the normal ups and downs of things.
This includes men. The vast majority of men manage not to be violent towards loved ones ever. Some men will try to argue that testosterone makes them impulsive, while women have magic powers of self-control. Of course, it's generally a very convenient impulse that only takes over in the presence of people who are smaller, physically weaker and very unlikely to hit them back.
People are violent because they want to be. The physical act of violence releases endorphins; it feels good, it relieves tension. It makes you feel powerful to physically dominate another person. It makes you feel powerful to be feared, to exact pleas and apologies. And it feels good when you have so much temporary power over a person that they forgive you or blame themselves and choose to stay with you and keep on loving you, even though you don't deserve to touch the cloth that shines their shoes.
This is why domestic violence always gets worse; even though it involves getting angry, it feels good, so there will be more and more of it and it will be more extreme and more dangerous and eventually deadly. The only clear causal connection between mental health and domestic violence is that being or having been a victim of domestic violence is a major risk factor for various mental illnesses.
7. Guilt and Shame.
The easiest way to reassure yourself that you are loved, that your beloved is worthy of your love and that everything is going to be all right, is to imagine that you are the one who screwed up, that this is your shame. This is made easier by the fact that abuser's violence is rarely completely random - you've generally just said or done something that has upset them, however unwittingly - and they're generally very happy for you to take the blame. They may well insist upon it.
I dreaded the day I'd have to visit my folks or see my friends with a black-eye - or hide away pretending to be ill until it healed. Whenever something in the house got broken, it was me who primed my ex on the innocent explanation we would give to anyone who asked. I frequently apologised after he assaulted me.
I wasn't merely afraid that someone would realise what was going on and apply pressure on me to leave. I was afraid of being found out. I didn't want people to think I was that kind of woman. I was strong, I was opinionated, I was a feminist. I didn't want people to think I was some kind of victim. A victim is helpless, hopeless, dependent on others.
My capacity for guilt about the violence was so great that, when I was leaving my marriage, having realised how utterly unacceptable my situation had been, I actually apologised to my husband for letting him be like that. I had shifted from thinking that I had provoked him to thinking that I had harmed him by putting up with it.
Don't worry; both the guilt and shame will go away. The biggest aid by far for me was reading and listening to the stories of other survivors of domestic violence. None of them fit a stereotype. None of them were weak people. All of them were loving people and most of them had been vulnerable in some way when they'd entered these relationships. But apart from that, all they had in common was experience.
8. The Complicated Business of Forgiveness and Redemption.
Unless you can do something productive with it and especially when it is directed towards someone you care about, anger is an extremely ugly, uncomfortable, intrusive emotion which you want shot of as soon as possible. For this reason, good people often try to forgive crimes against them very quickly, simply to make the negative feeling go away. It feels like the right thing to do, the big thing to do, the loving thing to do. It can make you feel like a good person, especially at a time when someone else has made you feel rotten about yourself. But it's very complicated.
First off, it could be that all things may be forgiven, but not all things should be tolerated. If you tolerate someone hitting you, then you are holding them to a much lower moral standard than you would ever hold yourself. Are you a better person than them? Definitely! Should you treat them according to different standards? Well, no. That won't make the world a better place for anyone.
The other major complication is that true forgiveness - for something that has caused real harm - takes a long time. I forgave my ex-husband everything he did, I tried to wipe the slate shiny clean as soon as possible, until one day I realised my own value and all that forgiveness crumbled away.
It's not supposed to work like that. Then I got angry, far angrier than I had ever been in my life and that was fairly horrible. Eventually I seemed to recover from the anger, and maybe this recovery can be described as genuine forgiveness. I don't know. Perhaps it's just indifference. I really don't care.
The third complication is that there simply must be some people who strike a loved one, feel terrible and manage to sort themselves out and never do it again, which leads us to...
9. It won't happen again. They promised.
It is impossible to say that anyone who assaults a loved-one is, to a man, irredeemable. I think it is very likely that those relationships are irredeemable and the most helpful thing a person can do in aid of their partner's redemption is to leave them. However, people are people and people sometimes do make good with a second chance. But honestly, a third? Love is worth all kinds of sacrifices, but that's just not love.
So, if your partner has been violent towards you for the first time ever, some useful questions to ask yourself:
People are afraid to leave abusive relationships for various reasons. Many of them are just the same reasons as those effecting people in ordinarily unhappy relationships, but often exaggerated. For example, the fear of being alone and unloved is made worse when someone has repeatedly told you that you are unlovable and nobody else would put up with you. The fear of being lonely is made worse when you have been isolated from your friends and made to feel that nobody else really cares about you. The fear of being unable to cope by yourself is made worse when you have been told that you are profoundly incompetent.
There's also fear of what the other person will do. This is not an unfounded fear; the most dangerous time in a violent relationship is just before, during or just after an attempt to leave. However, staying doesn't keep you safe either and there is support to help you get away unharmed:
Refuge for women and their children.
Men's Advice Line for men in straight and same-sex relationships.
Broken Rainbow for lesbian, bisexual, gay and trans gender people.
There's also the police. The police have specialist domestic violence officers who can help keep you safe and get you the help you need. Personally, if you have good friends and family, I would suggest placing yourself in their physical presence and telling everyone what has been going on, as soon as possible.