Identifying Domestic Violence: Abuse is more than broken bones

TW: Domestic Violence

Most people are familiar with the prevalence of physical and sexual abuse, but what about the others? The more insidious forms that often set a precedent for physical and sexual abuse. Many of these abuses are culturally acceptable, and up until recent years were even legal. It’s only in the last century (3-4 generations), that women have gained the right to vote, the right to work after marriage and the right to own a house or get a bank account without a husband or father signing for them. Up until 30-40 years ago (my lifetime) rape was legal inside marriage, and still is in certain parts of the world.

So, what are the different kinds of abuse?

Social: Social abuse is one of the most insidious forms that often flies under the radar. It is the systematic isolation from family and friends and is usually one of the first steps in escalating abuse. It could look like “oh let’s just stay in tonight just us”, for the fifth weekend in a row. Or “I just love you so much I don’t want to share”. It can look like “You know, I think X was really out of line over *minor thing*, you deserve better friends”. Rarely, does an abuser come straight out and say, “I don’t want you to see anyone except me”. That’s too on the nose, and likely to cause a defensive reaction.

Think of the girlfriend who is uncomfortable with her partner spending any time with friends. Or the boyfriend who calls constantly when his partner is out. It could be an indicator of social abuse. This is not cut and dry however, it’s OK to raise your vigilance and be more watchful, but not a great idea to jump to conclusions. The girlfriend could be uncomfortable because her partner becomes unreliable and disappears for a full week when he goes out with friends. The boyfriend could have been told to call because the partner was dreading the social occasion and wanted an out. This is why insidious abuse is so dangerous, it can hide behind a perfectly reasonable explanation.

Emotional: This is another insidious form of abuse. It involves blaming one partner for all problems in a relationship and when they express an emotional need, gaslighting, withdrawing and punishing them. This could look like Partner A says, “I want to spend more time together” and Partner B says, “You’re so needy, you’re always at me” and then doesn’t speak to them for a week. Now, this scenario (minus the silent treatment) I’m sure has played out, in a moment of anger in a lot of households. However, when it is an ongoing state of being, with no apologies, longer silences, more gaslighting, and no open communication or meeting halfway that is a sign of abuse.

The problem with insidious abuse is that it can appear like a normal interaction. Every couple and family have cross words now and then. People lose tempers. Abuse however is the stacking of these scenarios, where they become not a once off, but a constant state of being. They become ‘normal’. And slowly, over time, Partner A stops asking for anything, and does everything Partner B’s way because it’s just too hard otherwise.

Financial: This is one that was legal and encouraged for most of the last century. Women had virtually no financial autonomy and were at the complete mercy of their husbands. Financial abuse can look like, not being allowed to work, not having access to shared money, not having your name on assets, and being asked to provide receipts for anything you purchase to name a few. Now, some families work to a tight budget, or might be trying to save. Being expected to stick to a jointly agreed upon budget is not financial abuse. Having no control or input into your personal finances is.

Financial abuse is one of the most common ‘first steps’ into a deeply abusive relationship. When one party is dependent on another for their most basic needs (food, shelter, etc) it inevitably creates a power imbalance, that can be exploited by an abuser. It keeps people trapped because it’s often a choice between the relationship or living on the street. I have heard men, with a dependent partner who is (rightfully) angry with them about something, say “What is she going to do? Leave? She’s got no money, she’s going nowhere” and then refuse to change their behaviour. Financial abuse is incredibly damaging and one of the most common forms of ‘unnoticed’ abuse.

Verbal: This one is more self-explanatory. This is continual put-downs, insults, snide remarks and even shouting/intimidating. This could look like Partner A telling Partner B to put down a piece of cake at a party, because they don’t want them to gain weight. It could look like being called stupid or ugly. Again, there is nuance here, while it is not OK to speak down to your partner, no one gets it 100% right, 100% of the time. We often learn communication from our caregivers, so if we were called stupid growing up, we might not realise it’s abusive. However, when it’s pointed out, it’s important that we correct it, so it doesn’t escalate into ongoing abuse.