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Reader Question of the Week
On Monday I like to post reader questions and take a stab at answering them. Usually I post a question that came in by email or on my Facebook Page. Today I thought I’d do something different, and respond to some comments on some posts last week.

I suppose I’m a glutton for punishment, but last week’s two posts dealing with abuse drew so many comments and got me all riled up, and I thought something more needed to be said. I’m not sure I clarified well last week that I do believe abuse is real, and I’m not sure I was clear about what is abuse and what is not. I wrote that piece for a specific purpose–sometimes we use the word “abuse” too cavalierly. But the discussion veered from there in the comments, and I thought clarification was in order, especially since so many people were asking me about what abuse really is.

So I want today to talk about what is abuse, what is NOT abuse, and why we need to be very careful about labelling things as abusive. If we aren’t careful, then we’re not really taking abuse seriously.
What Is Abuse, What Is Not, and The Difference

Let me start with a story.

When my daughter Katie was 4, she and her sister had been bugging me all morning, being loud and fooling around and not listening to anything I said. I told them to clean up. They did not. I told them again. Rebecca did. Then Katie started messing it all up again. In anger I hauled Katie up by an arm and plunked her down on the floor, where she promptly fell and hurt herself. She burst into tears, I burst into tears, and we had a good hug. That’s the only time I remember really hurting one of my children (and it wasn’t that bad), but I felt terrible.

I was not an abusive mother, because that was not typical of our relationship. However, had I acted in exactly the same way, everyday of our lives, Katie would have been better off removed from our home. What I did was wrong. But it was not abusive, because it was not typical of our relationship, nor did it cause much harm. But if I did it everyday, even though it didn’t cause much harm, it still would be abusive.

The key in this case is two factors: first, the severity of the harm; and second, the overall context of the relationship.

I think much of what we call verbal and emotional abuse fits into this category. In some cases it rises to the level of abuse, and in some cases it does not. It depends on whether the behaviour is part of a larger pattern or not.

An abusive relationship is one in which the abused person spends much of their emotional energy trying to figure out how not to provoke the abuser.

They hide their true feelings and their true thoughts. They try to gauge the abuser’s mood. Their lives become characterized by fear. What makes the situation abusive is not just the behaviour, but the fact that the behaviour forms a pattern. And rarely is it only one behaviour; it is usually several. The spouse yells; the spouse is jealous; the spouse withholds affection unless you completely conform; the spouse goes behind your back and separates you from friends; the spouse demands an accounting of all of your actions. There are few behaviours which are automatically abusive in and of themselves (the exception being sexual abuse or real physical harm, which are always abusive), but the pattern of behaviour can constitute abuse. That’s why I don’t like the emphasis on “is what he did abusive?” Sometimes someone can be abusive without doing any one thing that’s particularly horrible. It’s a whole pattern where a spouse has to deny their feelings and placate the other, and be constantly told that they’re stupid and don’t know what they’re talking about.

Let’s take the spanking-with-a-belt example, because that’s something that all of us can easily understand.

Personally, I don’t spank. I never thought it was a very effective method of discipline, and we used other methods when the girls were young that worked fine. I know some people do spank, and I understand. Most western countries, though, make it illegal to spank with anything other than one’s hand, and I agree with that.

However, pretty much everyone I know of my generation and those generations before me was spanked with belts, and the vast majority of them turned out okay. To say that spanking with a belt is abusive, then, to me, also says that they would be better off if they had been removed from the home, and that’s not so.

Do I think it was right for them to spanked with a belt? No. Do I think it was abuse? Not necessarily. In many cases it would be, and I’d point people to the critiques of Debi and Michael Pearl’s books To Train Up a Child, and the children who have been killed using their methods of corporal punishment, as examples. But at the same time, I’m supremely uncomfortable saying it always is abuse.

Let’s flush this out a bit using two different examples.

In Family A, this spanking happens for the slightest infraction. It is often arbitrary; sometimes the children get whipped for something, and sometimes they can get away with it. The children are often punished for their feelings–they aren’t allowed to be sad, or angry, and anything other than happiness is considered a betrayal. Even if they’re not punished, they’re ignored if they don’t behave perfectly and put on a smile.  (This, by the way, is quite characteristic of some of the harsh discipline techniques advocated in some parts of Christianity. In To Train Up a Child, for instance, the Pearls actually advocate that if the child is not misbehaving, that you set up a situation to tempt the child, so that you can then spank them with a plumbing line and teach them.) The children thus spend their lives trying to cover up their emotions, and trying to mollify their parents to prevent a spanking or to avoid entrapment. Whenever they want something, they second guess themselves, wondering if this will invoke anger. They thus have a difficult time figuring out what they think about anything. Their whole emotional and psychological well-being is affected.

In Family B, the spanking with the belt follows a large infraction. The child knows it will be the punishment for the specific instance of disobedience. It’s rare; it really is only used when something huge is done. The rest of the time, the relationship tends to be a loving one, where the child is able to share true feelings.

In both cases the spanking with the belt is wrong; in only one case is it part of the pattern of abuse.

And that, to me, is the issue: when we debate whether or not something is abuse, we’re usually not talking about severe beatings or sexual abuse (at least I hope we all agree that these things are automatically abusive, and you must take steps to keep yourself and your children safe). We’re talking about the grey areas: the yelling, the lashing out, the sulking, the controlling, etc. We often ask, “is this behaviour abusive?”

I think it’s the wrong question. It’s not whether the behaviour is abusive; it’s whether or not it forms a pattern of an abusive relationship. The same behaviour, in two different contexts, could mean something quite different.

I think the problem with our language is that we don’t have a word for behaviour that is WRONG, but isn’t part of a pattern of an abusive relationship, and so we call everything that is dysfunctional “abusive” to stress the severity of it. There’s two problems with that:

If everything is abusive, then nothing is. It diminishes the seriousness of abuse.

And secondly, it can make it difficult to deal with problems that aren’t as serious because we’re labeling someone as evil. That’s never a good way to inspire change.

There is behaviour which is absolutely wrong: blowing up at your family; manipulating family members; trying to control family members; getting overly jealous; picking at family members. It is ALWAYS wrong to do these things. But it is not ALWAYS abuse. It really depends on the nature of the rest of the relationship.

Abuse is a term which should constitute the sum total of the relationship and its effects on your mental and physical health.

I think we need a better word to denounce things like temper tantrums and rages and picking, when it doesn’t cross the threshold of abuse. We need a way to condemn it, and say, “it is not right to speak this way or act this way with your wife/husband/kids”. Instead we seem to have only one word, and that word is “abuse”. But as soon as you tell someone they’re being abused, it’s like saying “you should leave.”

What if the rest of your relationship is pretty good? You don’t walk on eggshells all the time; you just have hard periods occasionally. So you don’t want to leave. Or you decide leaving isn’t worth it. You now feel like you can’t complain about the behaviour, because it’s either abuse or it’s fine. And that’s not true.

There’s that middle, where the whole relationship isn’t abusive but someone is still doing wrong.

We need a word, like “abuse”, to mean:

The pattern of the way you are being treated is so harmful to your physical and/or emotional well-being that you need to distance yourself from your abuser.

And then we also need a word that means:

The way you are being treated is wrong and is harmful, and you have the right to speak up against it and to try to change it.

We need both words, so that we are able to tell someone:

You do have permission to leave. It honestly is okay.

But then we are also able to tell someone:

It is natural and right that you are hurt, and we all need to take action to change the behaviour.

If we don’t have both words, then we don’t really have the tools to help families in crisis.

In one case we may blow things out of proportion, which doesn’t solve the problem; and in the other, we may not treat things seriously enough.

I wish we had both words. If we did, I think we’d get into fewer arguments like the one last week, and it would be easier for us to address problems in the home without escalating them.

I think the reaction to articles like these largely depends on your own cultural framework. In some Christian circles, where an interpretation of submission includes never speaking up for yourself, abuse likely is unreported and not taken seriously enough. In other Christian circles, like the one I’m in, as soon as someone says the word “abuse” we all run around like  we have to protect someone from Evil Incarnate. It’s taken too seriously. Depending on which culture you’re in, you’ll likely read this article, and the one last week, with very different conclusions, and those conclusions likely relate less to what I’ve said than to what you have seen around you. Please keep that in mind in the comments!

I’m not going to participate in the comments today because I really said all I need to say in last week’s posts and in today’s, and I’m busy with other projects. But feel free to leave a comment if you’d like!

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