By Sybil Cummin, MA, LPC, ACS
When you hear the term domestic violence, what first comes to mind? Black eyes and split lips? Who do you picture? A woman in a low-income neighborhood or trailer park with bleached hair, cut-off shorts with a cigarette hanging out of her mouth? What about the abuser? What kind of monster do you depict? Does anything change when you hear the term intimate partner violence?
There are many different definitions of domestic violence (also known as intimate partner violence). There are different legal definitions depending on what state you live in. You can find the definition for your state here. A little more similar are the therapeutic definitions used by mental health professionals and advocates. I have combined several different definitions found in the literature to create yet another one. One that, I believe, encompasses a majority of the aspects and nuances of domestic violence.
Domestic Violence (also known as Intimate Partner Violence) is a systematic and willful pattern of power and control perpetrated by one intimate partner against another and includes, but is not limited to, intimidation, physical assault, sexual assault, psychological and/or emotional abuse, and economic coercion.
There are several different pieces of this definition that I would like you to understand and acknowledge.
1. There are many forms of abuse. Physical abuse is clearly a very scary part of the power and control dynamic, but not the only part. And for many of the victims and survivors I have had the honor of working with, the other methods of power and control, the methods of coercive control are more powerful than the physical abuse they have suffered. (For more information, refer to The Power and Control Wheel).
2. The process of using abusive tactics to gain and maintain power and control over your partner is systematic. It is not haphazard and random. There are patterns that you can see in the ways in which a victim first gets hooked into staying and feeling crazy and there are patterns in which a victim will remain stuck in the relationship preventing them from leaving.
3. Domestic violence is willful. These controlling and coercive behaviors are not by accident. They are very purposeful and many times very well thought out.
It may feel nice to depict a victim or survivor of domestic violence as someone distinctly different from yourself. It allows you to believe that it could never happen to someone like you. In my experience, however, it can happen to anyone. People of all socioeconomic groups, people of every race and ethnicity, those who dropped out of school and those with graduate degrees, CEOs of big companies, stay-at-home moms, and everyone in between can become a victim of domestic violence. It is true that more women than men are abused; however, men can be victims too. Don’t forget about the children who witness violence in their homes on a daily basis. They are victims too.
For those of you in a helping profession, keep your eyes and minds open. It is a high likelihood that one of your clients will be experiencing intimate partner violence, one of your colleagues or one of your friends. Change and healing is possible, but only if victims and survivors have non-judgmental and educated support.