October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Many of you have probably seen the various social media campaigns and community events and scrolled by them thinking that they can’t possibly touch on your life or the lives of those you know. Statistically, you’re wrong. Currently, approximately one quarter to one third of all women and men in the United States are or have been the victims of specifically defined physical or sexual violence from an intimate partner, which doesn’t include other forms of abuse. If you aren’t affected, you very likely know somebody who is now facing abusive behavior or the aftereffects of escaping from it. Part of why you might not realize that is that “domestic violence” can encompass a large variety of mistreatment beyond what most people normally imagine.
We often limit domestic violence awareness to romantic or sexual relationships, particularly those of mixed gender and where the woman is the victim, but those aren’t the only ones where abuse can happen. Abuse exists within queer relationships too, and sometimes a man is the victim. While women are most likely to be negatively affected by domestic violence, it’s important to remember that they are sometimes the perpetrator or that they are part of a mutually problematic relationship. Domestic violence crosses generational lines too, and can include abuse of a child by a parent or other adult or abuse of an older adult by a younger person. Even relationships that aren’t tied together by blood or sex can include violence, though those are usually (though not always) easier to leave. The uniting factor is that these dysfunctions happen in a domestic situation, where people have their lives entwined by shared living situations or are otherwise closely connected together.
Ideas of domestic violence nearly always lean on the “violence” part of the term. We’ve talked before about how violence isn’t necessarily just one person hitting another person and leaving bruises or other injuries, and can even include neglect, but I want to be a little more specific here in the context of domestic violence (though I can’t be entirely complete). Physical violence isn’t just the stuff of marks. It includes the use of physical force that doesn’t have visible results, that is against other people or objects, that limits one’s ability to move and act freely, and even that is merely threatened but in a way that leaves the victim in no doubt that the abuser is likely or willing to carry through the threat. It may bleed into sexual violence, like the obvious badness of rape or assault by the abuser or by someone else enabled by the abuser, but also using sex as currency.
Violence isn’t just physical either. It can include yelling and screaming that threatens, accuses, or humiliates. Verbal violence is especially insidious when it belittles its target, or makes them doubt the reality of who they are or what they are experiencing. It’s not always loud, and it’s not always insulting. Sometimes, it sounds very reasonable on the surface, until you realize that it is a method for controlling who someone can talk to, where they can go, what they can do. It’s easy to say that the victim in those cases should just (wo)man up and not listen, but it’s just not that simple. Years of being told that you are not allowed, or that you are worthless or stupid and that you have no other options are difficult to ignore, and sometimes it starts so subtly that you don’t know you’ve been programmed until you wake up one day and realize you no longer believe in yourself.
Abusive control doesn’t just happen physically or verbally. It can also be economic. No fingers need be lifted or voices raised to prevent someone from being able to work, from having access to household funds or their own earnings, or from understanding the family’s financial situation. That, too, is domestic violence. When we go back to violence being the use of power to cause psychological harm or deprivation, then it’s more clear how controlling behaviors fall into that definition. While there is no immediate physical harm, there are short- and long-term effects that negatively affect the victim’s well-being. Those should not be ignored just because they’re not visible to the naked eye. After all, the bumps and bruises and intrusions of physical and sexual abuse also can’t always be seen by people looking in from the outside.
I’m not saying that all problematic behavior that can fall into one of the categories of domestic violence automatically mean that there’s abuse going on. However, when it becomes constant and pervasive, and when there is a growing power imbalance between partners or household members, then it’s time to be alert to whether something needs to change in how you treat each other. It’s not just our own relationships that we need to keep an eye on. While the very nature of abuse regularly involves hiding its signs from people not part of the dynamic, indicators can leak to those paying attention. A friend who becomes less available and more withdrawn may simply be busy and stressed. Or they may be struggling because of how their partner, parent, or child is treating them. If you ask, they may assure you that everything is fine, but is it really? Perhaps. Perhaps not. But certainly worth paying attention to, whether it’s a potential domestic violence situation or other life struggles. Both, after all, deserve your awareness.