Most people have heard the term “domestic abuse” and are probably quick to think of stereotypical tropes played out in movies…scruffy drunk husband in what became known as a “wife-beater” shirt backhands woman for speaking her mind or not having dinner on the table on time…or both.
No doubt this type of abuse occurs. What the movies don’t show us is how insidious and hidden other forms of abuse can be.
What exactly is domestic abuse?
Great question and one without an easy answer. First off, this social affliction does not discriminate… anyone can be a victim or perpetrator regardless of race, gender, religion, or socioeconomic standing. According to thehotline.org, “domestic violence (also referred to as intimate partner violence (IPV), dating abuse, or relationship abuse) is a pattern of behaviors used by one partner to maintain power and control over another partner in an intimate relationship.” Just like physical abuse, stalking, as well as emotional and verbal, sexual, financial, and digital abuse, are prevalent and have short and long-term negative impacts on physical and mental health.
- Emotional and verbal abuse tactics are “nonphysical behaviors that are meant to control, isolate, or frighten.” These include isolation, threats, gaslighting, and punishment with the goal of disempowering and creating an unhealthy reliance on the abusive partner. They are often a foundation for other types of abuse and since they leave no bruises, they are harder to detect and prove.
- RAINN.org states that “intimate partner sexual violence often starts with controlling behavior that can escalate to further emotional, physical, and sexual abuse”
- Financial abuse involves controlling one’s ability to acquire, use, and maintain financial resources, which leads to fear and instability.
- Loveisrespect.org writes that digital abuse is the use of technologies to bully, harass, stalk or intimidate a partner and is often perpetrated online.
- Stalking is a form of abuse and harassment that can happen after leaving a controlling partner or while still in a relationship, making separation very difficult.
50 States. 50 Definitions.
Abuse in any form has traumatic consequences regardless of how it is inflicted. But when it comes time to make your case for court, a lot rides on your state laws and what they consider a “valid form of abuse.” As it turns out, in most states, it appears your scars only count if they’re on the outside. Only 8 states have some form of emotional distress listed in their definitions of domestic violence and those are limited at best. For example, California specifies that “abuse is not limited to the actual infliction of physical injury or assault.” This is a good start in identifying and acknowledging other forms of abuse, but it is open to interpretation. Hawaii and Missouri cite extreme psychological abuse and substantial emotional distress, respectively. Again, at least it’s mentioned, but there is no exact definition or way of measuring subjective terms like “extreme.” Delaware knocks it out of the park relatively speaking with the clause, “engaging in a course of alarming or distressing conduct in a manner which is likely to cause fear or emotional distress or to provoke a violent or disorderly response.” Here, there are more measurable conditions, but even still, it can be easily disputed. And then there are states like Connecticut with proclamations like “verbal abuse or argument shall not constitute family violence unless there is present danger and the likelihood that physical violence will occur.” They might as well have written “only if you’re about to get your ass kicked” since that expresses about the same level of care and concern for other forms of abuse as what is actually written into their laws. Having no standardized definition is reckless and means victims must prove that they were indeed harmed and that although their pain is “invisible,” the consequences are not.
The Ugly Truth
Domestic violence often leads to complex PTSD and asking a survivor to recount their trauma can be harrowing and very painful. The effects of various types of abuse are well documented and yet it appears that legally speaking, nonphysical forms of violence are not treated with the same level of importance. This disconnect, whether it is due to outdated laws in need of an overhaul or the ubiquitousness of the patriarchy, has ramifications that affect our whole society. Difficulty concentrating, a decrease in self-trust, and trouble in social situations are among the devastating effects of PTSD. Seemingly innocuous things can be triggers and when trying to make a case for yourself, the last thing you want is to look unstable. Sadly, the feelings of anxiety, fear, and hopelessness are some of the many symptoms to overcome after abuse.
Violence in a relationship has many facets and causes a lot of harm. Wishing you had bruises, scars, or broken bones to show proof that your experience was in fact real and caused a substantial amount of distress should not be a thing. But unfortunately, for many women in most states, they have the daunting and demoralizing task of convincing others that their horrific, yet, nonphysical abuse has left long-lasting wounds.
What is your state’s definition of domestic abuse? Is there any legislation regarding this matter and how can you make an impact to protect all victims of domestic violence?