In much of the literature about domestic violence today, we are told to never try and distinguish between domestic abuse and situational violence.
This raises the interesting question of whether the experts in the field are able to distinguish between what some call “situational violence”—which again, is considered normal and acceptable—and what others call “domestic abuse”—which is grounds for restraining orders or worse.
Let’s consider another hypothetical example.
Domestic abuse advocate Lundy Bancroft forthrightly states: “[I do not believe] that every man who has problems with angry or controlling behaviors is abusive” (Bancroft, xiii). So what if a man, for instance, continues to get angry on occasion with his partner, semi-regularly saying rather hard things that could potentially be construed not to have been consciously manipulative, but nevertheless to have effectively gained “control” of a situation at this or that time?
Even as afterwards, he apologizes about his anger, bad choice of words, etc. again and again?
In other words, this just seems to be a part of his personality that comes out not only in the home, but also with close friends while playing basketball, colleagues at work, etc. How, in a case like this, is what is just a regular pattern of his behavior to be distinguished from a pattern of “domestic abuse” which should involve outside authorities? That is, not just any occasion of “coercion and disrespect” (Bancroft, xiii), but a pattern of manipulating others that involves, for instance, all manner of deception?
This is made much more complicated by the fact that neither conscious lying nor anger are necessary for one to be an “abuser”—the kind of person who, practicing “domestic abuse,” requires outside intervention from the authorities (hence Bancroft’s descriptions of the abusive Mr. Right, The Water Torturer, Mr. Sensitive, The Victim, etc., spoken of in the previous post). In great tension with his statement above, Bancroft defines an abuser as “any man who has recurring problems with disrespecting, controlling, insulting, or devaluing his partner, whether or not his behavior also involves more explicit verbal abuse, physical aggression, or sexual mistreatment” (xiii). Further compounding the difficulties is the fact that men who are abusers also feel real remorse, are not always aware of what they are doing, and even unconsciously deceive themselves. As Bancroft notes:
“When one of my clients says to me, ‘I exploded’ or ‘I just lost it,’ I ask him to go step by step in his mind through the moments leading up to his abusive behavior. I ask, “Did you really ‘just explode,’ or did you actually decide at one point to give yourself the green light? Wasn’t there a moment when you decided that you ‘had had enough’ or you ‘weren’t going to take it anymore, and at that instant you gave yourself permission, setting yourself free to do what you felt like doing?’ Then I see a flicker of recognition cross my client’s eyes, and usually he admits that there is indeed a moment at which he turns himself loose to begin the horror show” (Bancroft 36).
Presumably, according to Bancroft, those who just get angry in “situational violence” are more authentic in a sense, and would not be able to have a similar recognition. Clearly, matters such as this need to be explored and explained more. In any case, what sticks out to me about this paragraph above is the author’s implicit admission here that there is a sense which, at least until he helps them see, “they know not what they do”. This comes through in other parts of the book as well. Bancroft also states that “much of my work as a counselor involves helping abusive men to become conscious of, and face up to, their real reasons for choosing to behave as they do” (114). As he puts it, while their behavior is primarily conscious, “the underlying thinking that drives the behavior is largely not conscious” (113, see 223 as well).
At this point, let me be absolutely clear again. I think it is very important for us to look at this matter deeply, and to question and challenge Bancroft. At the same time, I will affirm that in spite of the difficulties we are presented with here, it is nevertheless fully understandable that we would want to draw a clear distinction between acceptable and unacceptable behavior. In other words, between problematic actions that nevertheless fall within some normal range and those that demand extra help and intervention.
And, in spite of the difficulties mentioned above, Bancroft’s book gives us even more reasons for thinking we should do this (even as, unlike him, we can see the same kinds of problems in many women as well). After all, he notes that the default orientation of those who abuse is to believe “that the problems [in one’s relationships] are all the woman’s fault and that he is the real victim” (29). If things go wrong, it is not his fault, but his partner’s (118). Not only this, but he has a “core attitude,” which he “never explicitly states and may not even be aware of consciously himself: ‘You have no right to object to how I treat you’“ (125, see 224 as well). “Notice whether he does a lot more than his share of the talking, listens poorly when you speak, and chronically shifts the conversation back to himself. Self-centeredness is a personality characteristic that is highly resistant to change” (118). This means that upon being confronted by their actions abusers are likely to attempt to justify them, as they often have full knowledge that their particular actions have a chance to be interpreted as having been within proper limits.
Certainly, being able to diagnose things like this would give us more confidence that the experts are able to determine what really is “situational violence” vis a vis “domestic abuse”.
That said, when it comes to some situations how sure can anyone–even an expert—be? While there are situations most all of us would probably agree on, there will be grey as well. What about these grey areas? Here, I think the critical question is this: are we willing to reflect on why the powers that be—those activists who are driving this matter forward largely because of their willingness to get involved—have framed the issue of “domestic abuse” the way they have?
What am I getting at here? This:
When it comes to what we label “domestic abuse,” which should involve outside help and legal authorities, it appears that in the minds of many (not all) what ultimately matters is not any particular kind of behavior that would qualify as abuse. On the contrary, what really seems to be at issue is whether a person gains “power and control” over situations in the domestic sphere, which in male-female relationships of course often includes one’s partner’s emotions, behavior, etc.
More on this in part 8.
“The salient point about remorse, however, is that it matters little whether it is genuine or not. Clients who get very sorry after acts of abuse change at about the same rate as the ones who don’t. The most regretful are sometimes the most self-centered, lamenting above all the injury they’ve done to their own self-image [or their own sense of how they would like to be]. They feel ashamed of having behaved like cruel dictators and want to revert quickly to the role of benign dictators, as if that somehow makes them much better people” (see 132-133, italics his).
“As we review the stories of my clients throughout this book, you will observe over and over again the degree of consciousness that goes into their cruel and controlling actions. At the same time, I don’t want to make abusive men sound evil. They don’t calculate and plan out every move they make—though they use forethought more often than you would expect. It isn’t that each time an abuser sweeps a pile of newspapers onto the floor or throws a cup against the wall he has determined ahead of time to take that course. For a more accurate model, think of an abuser as an acrobat in a circus ring who does ‘go wild’ to some extent but who never forgets where the limits are” (Bancroft, 36).
One of the more harrowing moments Bancroft describes is the man who intentionally bruises his wife on her legs, where others will be sure not to see it (204).