I used to be under the delusion that there were levels or categories of abuse. So, physical abuse was qualitatively different from emotional abuse. That yelling at someone could not possibly do the same damage as breaking their arm. It seemed logical, even rational. It was and is, of course, completely wrong.
That’s because abuse is in the form of a relationship. There is the abuser and there is the one abused. If you are damaged by abuse, feel damaged by abuse, then you were abused. No qualitative difference between whether the scars are external or internal. Broken bones may heal better than broken spirits. But abuse is abuse.
In fact abuse exists on a continuum. It is often on an escalating line. Things that start with screaming move on to pushing and then to hitting. In some case it moves on to murder. Every woman (or man) murdered by their spouse or partner has always been first yelled at, insulted, diminished, shoved, hit, choked. Some abusers stop at some point on the line, thinking they’ve done a good thing, shown control. But the difference is only quantitative not qualitative. Abuse is abuse.
Breaking that pattern is terribly difficult. It is not enough to say the abused should walk away. Often they can’t. They are afraid, they are dependent, they fear for their children if they leave. Worse — sometimes they still love their abuser, still believe the promises of incipient change. Often, too the victims become convinced that they might be somehow at fault or if not that, others will think they are or won’t believe them. Abusers are practiced in their abuse — they know how to hide, fool, intimidate, cover up, excuse. Many were well trained by their own abusers. That’s why they so often get away.
Abuse is not a single act; it is a complex and difficult relationship. This is not in any way blaming the victim. The victim did not ask to be abused, never deserves to be abused, does not want to be abused.
So it is incumbent on us — those who exist outside the relationship of abuse — to be vigilant. More important it is incumbent on us to create social supports, modify police practices, revise judicial systems to make it possible to discover abuse before it is too late.
Most importantly we have to stop the culture of abuse. This goes way beyond sexual abuse. It goes beyond the belief that men are better than, or deserve power over, women. We have to stop thinking it is okay to hit children. Spanking is abuse, too. We have to learn how to discipline without belittling and diminishing the child. New studies show that guilt and shaming damage the ability of teenagers to have positive relationships — sometimes all the way into their thirties. Abuse is abuse.
Abuse is not acceptable. Not in any form. It took me awhile to realize that. Now that I do I cannot be silent about it. Nor should you.
But that’s ten minutes.