I remember a domestic violence poster that I saw in the early 90’s. The poster showed the picture of a battered woman. Her face was bruised and swollen. The caption said something like, “If this is happening to you, call this number for help”. In big bold numbers, the hotline number was inviting victims to call. When I started facilitating groups for those who batter, this poster represented my belief that our mission was to help protect women from being beaten up in relationships.
Every time we selfishly think of ourselves without considering the impact of our decisions on others, we have crossed the line into cruelty.
It did not take long before I recognized that my definition of abuse was entirely too narrow. Of course we want to help women, or men, who are being physically abused in relationships. However, there are plenty of other behaviors present in abusive relationships that are equally harmful, yet leave no tell-tale signs. My focus on the physical types of “abuse” was counterproductive in working with those who batter, as it allowed them to avoid examining the full spectrum of their abusiveness. Working with the FPI staff, we examined our use of definitions. We thought about the impact of our definitions on those we served. We explored how the definitions invited introspection or created defensiveness. We wanted a definition that encompassed the magnitude of the problem. Over the years, we've adopted some definitions, from other programs and from other sources, that have helped us immensely. Here are some of the definitions that have become central to our work:
Abuse: “Any attempt to impose one’s will on another.” When I learned that Mahatma Ghandi had defined “abuse” as “imposing will”, something clicked for me. With this definition, any time I try to make somebody do what I want them to do, or keep them from making their own choice, or, If I attempt to make them feel what I know they do not want to feel, I am being abusive. I may think I know what is best, and I have the right to express my opinion, but as soon as I “Impose my will” I have crossed the line. Those who dominate their partner need to know this.
...where there is physical abuse, other non-physical abusive behaviors are also lurking.
Violence: “Any behavior designed to create fear.” There are so many behaviors that can be used to dominate another person through the use of fear. When thinking of “creating fear” as a tactic to “impose our will”, it brings a new perspective to that seemingly harmless slamming of a door, yelling at someone, threatening to leave, or, giving "that look”, etc. Those who dominate are experts at using fear to impose their will. This definition sure helps when that participant says, “I never hit her”.
Physical Abuse: “Any Abuse or violence with physical contact.” Physical abuse is a slice of dominating behavior. Physically abusive behavior is commonly the reason that people are arrested and referred to batterer intervention programming. Participants and facilitators need to understand that ending the physical abuse does is a step in the right direction, but where there is physical abuse, other non-physical abusive behavior are also lurking.
Cruelty: “The intentional infliction of pain and suffering”, or “The blatant disregard for another.” These definitions of “cruelty” have become the foundation of the Family Peace Initiative’s “River of Cruelty” model. Obviously, every act of abuse, violence or physical violence meets the definition of cruelty. Every time we selfishly think of ourselves without considering the impact of our decisions on others, we have crossed the line into cruelty. For example, the overused phrase of “my way or the highway” is a classic belief that “blatantly disregards another”. Some professionals have expressed concern that using "cruelty" may be too harsh. We have found the opposite to be true.
Trust: "The knowledge that one’s interest will be considered.” We have used the definition of “trust” that Dr. John Gottman discusses in his book, The Science of Trust. In dominating and abusive relationships, the abusive partner commonly fails or refuses to consider their partners’ interests. Dr. Gottmans’ definition of “trust” works nicely in opposition to our working definitions of “cruelty”. Whenever we fail to take our partners' interests into account, by definition we have crossed the line of cruelty.
These definitions, and others, are a vital aspect of our program. I would encourage you to know your definitions, and consider whether the definitions you are using are communicating what you intend to communicate. This concludes your “one defining moment”. See you next month.