Faculty Post: Discussing Domestic Violence

by Jennifer Howard, Supervising Attorney of the Domestic Violence Institute

A woman steals her roommate’s food and an altercation ensues. When asked to clean up his trash, a brother consistently berates his sister, to the point she is afraid to come out of her room. Shelter mates “fight” over time in the bathroom and one continually stares down the other, causing fear. To force her partner to move out of the doorway and let her leave their apartment, a woman throws a remote control, knocking her partner in the eye.   A mother stabs a father’s arm with a fork to stop him from chasing after their teenage daughter. Each of these scenarios involves the use of violence within the context of a special relationship and each of them might constitute grounds for a restraining order in Massachusetts.   But should they?

“Domestic violence” is a catchall term used widely to capture a large range of behaviors, arguably, all of those described above.   However, each of the behaviors described is missing key components of the generally accepted definition of domestic violence: a pattern of intentional, coercive behaviors, some violent, some not, perpetrated for the purposes of attaining and maintaining power and control over an intimate partner. Pursuant to this definition, a single act of throwing a remote or even stabbing someone with a fork, causing injury, is not actually “domestic violence”.   At the core of domestic violence is a sense of entitlement to control an intimate partner. This control can be established sometimes by a single act of violence, followed by a pattern of intimidation, manipulation and isolation. Frequently, survivors of domestic violence point to emotionally abusive behaviors as being even more unbearable than the violent ones and this is a critical point. Domestic violence is not about anger or the loss of control; the goal is control, violence is one of the tools used to reach it.

Why is this distinction important? Because the remedies we offer to abate abusive behavior ought to address the underlying causes of the behavior. Treating all “domestic violence” the same does not necessarily foster safety. Consider the mother’s case described above. After a long history of domestic violence perpetrated by the father against his family, there is an argument about the mother’s choice of clothes that day that leads to the father chasing their daughter through the kitchen. In a desperate attempt to stop the father from hurting the daughter, the mother grabs a fork from the counter and stabs the father’s arm.   The father files for a restraining order. The mother files for a restraining order. The Judge faces two parties claiming to be victims, one of whom has his arm wrapped in bandages, hanging in a sling. Both parties have used violence, albeit for different reasons and with different outcomes. Without seeking to determine the context for each party’s behavior, the Judge awards mutual restraining orders—because technically, each has established the required legal grounds. The message to the parties is you are both to blame, a message that will do nothing to stop the pattern of abuse plaguing this family. If anything, the Judge’s action reinforces the Father’s control over the Mother, perpetuating the domestic violence.

Distinguishing between different types of violence within families or those living together also impacts the availability of resources in our community. In the above scenario, the Father was the first to seek a restraining order. In some courthouses, this means that by the time the Mother entered the building, the restraining order advocates would likely not have been able to help her, because they would have already assisted the opposing party. Similar situations arise in accessing shelter and counseling services within domestic violence agencies required to abide by strict conflict of interest protocols. Beyond the conflict issues, most domestic violence advocates are typically trained to work with people who are trapped in a coercive, intimate relationship, not in mediating roommate disputes or even navigating complicated parent-child relationships. Victims whose cases fall into these categories are not well matched with the expertise of the majority of domestic violence advocates.

Lastly, diluting the definition of what we are talking about when we are talking about domestic violence manipulates the perception and scope of the problem. With the floodgates open, many people are able to declare themselves victims of domestic violence, which can lead to a scenario where it looks like “everyone” has a restraining order. Consequently, the assumption is there must be fraud or the harm of domestic violence is not really that unique. This kind of minimization of the problem ultimately hurts those who are truly trapped with a coercive partner, those individuals for whom restraining orders, domestic violence shelter and counseling, and batterers intervention were created. Everyone, including roommates and siblings of course, has a right to live free of violence at the hands of anyone. However, everyone would be better served if we identified the problems separately.

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