Domestic Violence Awareness Month Guest Blog By CAYEN Board Member Morgan Nguyen
There is much more to domestic violence than what we see on the outside. The gap between visual signs of abuse and what happens in private is vast, and it can provide a lot of “cushioning” room for the harmful perpetrator to use in their favor. So, even though it is perceived that the only misconduct portrayed is physical, there is much more that goes into domestic abuse than just physical violence. People who abuse their partners are experts in controlling their partners physically, emotionally, sexually, and mentally. In other words, not all toxic relationships have external proof of trauma. For example, gaslighting, a form of deception in which one makes another person question their reality, is a recurring element in abusive relationships. There are also other strings that perpetrators of abuse use to control their partners, such as manipulation, threats, coercion, intimidation, violence, and more. For example, someone may cause bodily violence to another, quickly apologize, and then defend themself by stating, “You just made me so angry”. This example of abusive behavior includes physical violence, manipulation, and victim blaming. This can create a cycle that will never end. The perpetrator of harm hurts the person, manipulates the person through a seemingly sincere apology, then brainwashes the person to believe that the harm they experienced was their fault. Over time, this abusive cycle can rework the survivor’s brain into believing that if they don’t do what their abusive partner wants, they deserve to be put through this harm. Nevertheless, no matter the type of abuse imposed on the survivor, the long lasting mental anguish remains.
Oftentimes, people in abusive relationships may not realize that they are being abused. Domestic violence does not just abruptly appear in a relationship with violence and screaming matches. It often happens slowly and over a period of time in which the abusive partner slowly works towards controlling the other partner. Emotional and mental derision are prevalent themes during this time. Strategies like lowering the unsuspecting partner's self-esteem through backhanded compliments, acts of humiliation, and gaslighting can go almost unnoticed. Additionally, it is vital to state that it is never the survivor’s fault. Arguments and disagreements between partners happen daily, but violence or manipulation as a result should not. Asking a survivor questions like, “why didn’t you leave”, “what did you do to make them so upset?”, or even “did you scream for help?” are not helpful because these questions target the survivor. Turning the questions towards the person experiencing harm instead of the person causing harm flips the responsibility therefore victim blaming and harming the survivor, rather than holding the abusive partner accountable. This is absolutely wrong, as the last thing any survivor of violence needs is to be told that it was their fault.
What about the person who causes harm in an abusive relationship? What drives them into a mindset where they decide to harm someone else? There isn’t a “one size fits all” simplification. Situations like this will never have a foolproof explanation, but there are a few common factors worth taking note of. First and foremost, abusive behavior can be learned behavior. For example, people who grow up in abusive households might assume that the abusive behavior they grew up around is normal. One parent may have been physically abused by the other parent while they were growing up, leading it to feel like second nature for their child to mimic such behavior. In cases like this, parents or caregivers may pass on harmful norms and expectations about relationships to the child, which can perpetuate a cycle of intimate partner violence in the child’s life. These types of harmful norms and expectations can also be learned through experiences of violence in the community, such as interactions that youth may have with peers or other adults in their lives growing up. With that being said, not all children exposed to violence or raised in abusive households will become abusive people themselves. Another common trait in abusive partners is that they have an unhealthy desire for power and control. They may do anything to maintain control in the relationship, including isolating or demonstrating to their partner that they are in charge. Additionally, many instances of domestic violence or intimate partner violence involve a perpetrator who abuses substances like drugs or alcohol. Substance abuse can impair judgment and alter their emotional state. If the perpetrator already has the mindset of wanting control and is okay getting that through abusive behavior, substances can make their behavior worse. They can become easily angered and run off impulsive decisions, which may trigger violent behavior towards their partners. These are just a few of many factors that may explain how people end up becoming abusive partners.
Abuse in a relationship is not always so easy to identify. For example, an abusive partner may try to prevent a survivor from experiencing any form of empowerment. The fear of the survivor being able to leave or wield control is a major trigger for perpetrators. Meaning, if the survivor gains more money, obtains a better career, or has any other opportunities that build a sense of empowerment, the abusive partner might regard it as a threat to their own power and control. Perpetrators of harm are also highly skilled at persuading the rest of the world of how wonderful they are. Outside, they may appear to be a caring spouse, but at home, this seemingly kind partner becomes a completely different person. This is also known as fragmentation, in which the perpetrator separates their abusive behavior from the rest of their lifestyle. This can make it very difficult for outsiders to acknowledge or see the signs of ill treatment in the abusive partner. It may be more noticeable to find signs of abuse through the person experiencing distress from the abuse. Some signs of abuse we may look out for are bodily marks (bruises, scratches, red marks around the neck and wrist, etc.), flinching, suddenly quitting their job, low self-esteem, losing contact with friends and family, and having to ask their partner for permission to do something. If these signs are present and persistent, it is advised not to bring it up around the possibly abusive partner. As said before, intimidation and threats are a common tactic they use against their spouse. It is our natural instinct to protect the ones we love and the survivor wouldn't hesitate to lie if they ever felt threatened, or if their friends and family were threatened. Instead, reaching out to the survivor separately can ensure a safe space for them to openly communicate.
In this day and age, domestic abuse cases continue to exist in high numbers, and due to Covid-19 and the rise of stay-at-home mandates, some people who are being hurt may be trapped at home with their abusive partners. However, with the rise of technology and virtual meetings like Zoom, silent signals were made. During the peak of covid in America, the silent hand signal was spread around the internet. The simple motion of bringing your hand up, closing your thumb in, and your four fingers shortly after, brought awareness to fellow Zoom meeting attendees. Social movements, such as the #MeToo movement, have empowered survivors to speak up against intimate partner violence while standing in solidarity with other survivors to demand justice. In China, survivors of domestic violence started to creatively use the rice and bunny emojis to participate in the #MeToo movement as well. Rice and bunny are pronounced “mi tu,” which allowed survivors to vocalize their solidarity with other survivors while passing through the Chinese government’s censorship of this movement. Examples like these show us how the world can come together to protect one another. These powerful signals and movements can be the start of something bigger to aid and help support domestic abuse survivors.
It should be known that hidden behind facades of perfection and manipulation, domestic abuse happens daily. Abuse can occur over long periods of time and may look very different across different relationships, however it is important to keep in mind it is never the survivor’s fault no matter the circumstance. The deadly pandemic has been a troubling experience for all of us, and it demonstrates just how much we need to be there for each other. Ultimately, It is important to take notice of possible signs of domestic abuse and take proper action in aiding the survivor. Hopefully one day, domestic abuse cases will slim down to a rarity, but until then, it is our duty to help and protect one another through raising awareness, learning about this issue, and using the power of our solidarity as survivors and allies.
If you are or know someone that might be in an abusive relationship, please call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 (SAFE) or 1-800-787-3224 (TTY). We include footnotes of all our sources to help connect you with resources to understand the signs of abuse, get help for you or a loved one, and to advocate with organizations helping to end violence. Please look through the following resources page for more support.
Understanding the Signs:
Substance Abuse and Violence
Supporting Survivors of Abuse
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