The vast majority of domestic violence is not physical abuse. It’s not about hitting; it’s about coercive control. The verbal and psychological abuse; the attack on her self esteem – those are far more damaging and much more common. But no one gets arrested for psychological abuse. And it’s hard to explain because others want to trivialize it.
Last week I testified in a court case where the opposing attorney wanted to minimize psychological abuse. During his cross exam of me he asked various questions insinuating that being called names, lots of unwanted phone calls, following her, and threatening her were not a big deal. I had just testified about the cumulative nature of coercive control and it’s impact on her.
You cannot understand domestic violence by looking at each individual incident. Calling someone a name seems trivial. After all, lots of couples argue and say bad things to each other. Calling or texting over and over seems trivial. After all, we can just not answer or delete the messages. If you look at things in isolation, it seems trivial. Where it becomes significant is when you look at the entire context; How it all fits together into a pattern of power and control.
If I tap you on the shoulder, it doesn’t hurt or probably bother you much. But what if I keep tapping for an hour? It starts to hurts. Really hurt. The force I use doesn’t change, but your experience of it changes with the cumulative effect. And that effect is real. But what happens when you complain about it? What if you call the police to make me stop? What do you tell them? She was tapping me on the shoulder. Did she use a weapon? No, she used her finger. Are there injuries? No, but it really hurt. Did she do anything besides tap you on the shoulder a few times? No. Well, there’s nothing we can do about it so call us when something serious happens. End of story.
Except it was real. And what if, while I was tapping, I threatened you that if you called the police, you would really regret it. So now, I take all the money from the bank accounts and put everything in my name only. And I start telling the kids bad things about you and undermining you as a parent. I get the kids making fun of you. Then, I start telling family members that I think you are going crazy because you are making all these statements that make no sense. I had to take all the money away so you wouldn’t do something stupid. And I’m worried you will hurt the kids because you are thinking I’m turning them against you.
If you complain about any of these things, you look petty, crazy, or like you are blowing things out of proportion. Any separate incident looks small and inconsequential. It is only if we look at the whole picture, the entire context, that it makes sense and it’s recognizable as abuse.
This is what abused women live with every day. She has trouble explaining that her experience is abuse. She has trouble believing herself that it’s abuse. There is no law against anything that has been done to her, even though it’s damaging to her.
Now, add name calling, threats, punching holes in the wall, sexual abuse, intimidation, stalking, and more financial abuse, while also systematically isolating her from friends and family. That is a picture of coercive control. Any behavior taken separately means little. It is only by looking at the context that it makes sense.
It’s not only about the hitting.