My stepchildren are 10 and 12, and very assertive. They frequently ask questions regarding the things that they see on the news, and these questions often spiral into in depth conversations regarding topics that one would consider very “adult”.
Recently, my family was watching the local news together. A story came on about a young woman who was killed by her spouse. We listened to a tearful mother and father speak about how they had suspected their daughter was the victim of domestic violence, but they had never said anything.
My 10 year old stepdaughter turned to me and said “What’s domestic violence?“
Immediately, I was overtaken by thousands of painful memories. A familiar tightness suddenly gripped my chest. In my mind, I watched images of my ex scream and throw things. I saw his fists and feet as they lashed out. I heard him scream. I heard him belittling and humiliating me. I heard him whisper threats and grip my thigh under a table to show his dominance. I felt myself shutting down.
My stepdaughter stared at me, waiting for me to answer her question. She had no idea where her question had sent my mind. She has no idea what my past entails.
But most importantly, she didn’t know what domestic violence was. She has never seen violence between intimate partners. She does not know that level of evil exists. She believes that when two people love each other, that’s all that matters. Part of me didn’t want to change that.
But the other part of me wanted to educate her. I want her to know that evil can hide behind a smile. I want her to know the red flags of a toxic relationship. I want to protect her from ever feeling the pain of an abusive partner.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find the words to answer her question. Luckily, her father stepped in and explained that sometimes in a relationship, one person mistreats the other. He said this can be done in many different ways, but sometimes it’s done physically. Sometimes one person in a relationship hurts the other. He explained that when this type of thing happens in a relationship, it’s called domestic violence.
And while that is a perfectly acceptable answer for a ten year old, is that truly what domestic violence is?
I kept thinking about the question, long after the news was over and well after my stepdaughter had gone off to bed.
What is domestic violence?
How can you define something that is so many things?
I think the first thing that comes to mind when someone says domestic violence is the classic black eye. An image forms of a woman wearing sunglasses and heavy concealer, trying to hide an ugly purple bruise. And while sometimes this is domestic violence, there are so many more layers than this. There’s so much that happens under the surface. Domestic violence doesn’t usually start with a black eye. Sometimes there never is a black eye. There are words. There are looks. There are stares. There are commands. There are accusations. There are feelings.
There is fear.
There is intimidation.
There are so many things that make up abuse. I haven’t even named a fraction of them. Domestic violence is so many things. How can you possibly define it?
And maybe you can’t define it because it can be as unique as the abuser.
No two abusers are alike.
My abuser favored intimidation. He liked the threat of violence. He liked the fact that I knew he was capable of violence. He thrived of the fact that I never knew when he would resort to violence. He also favored gaslighting and belittling. In public, my abuse might have even looked like playful teasing. But there was intent behind his words. There was a threat in his eyes that only I ever saw. There was the painful squeeze when he would “lovingly” reach for my hand.
But my abuse probably looked very different than the abuse suffered by the other one out of every four women who are experiencing abuse. Abuse doesn’t fall into a cookie cutter shape (if it did, perhaps it would be easier to recognize).
So how do you define it?
How do you answer the question “what is domestic violence?”
How do you sum it all up?
Maybe you can’t. Maybe the world needs to know that the definition of domestic abuse is a broad range of behaviors designed to control and manipulate a partner. Maybe instead of picturing the woman covering her black eye with sunglasses, we need to open our mental picture of domestic violence up to include women who look perfectly normal on the outside, but are painfully being destroyed on the inside. Maybe we need to consider that 1 out of every 7 men is also a victim of domestic violence. Maybe we need to recognize that not all abusive behaviors leave physical marks and scars.
Maybe we can’t define domestic violence.
But that doesn’t mean we can’t stand up and speak out against it.
I may have been a victim, but now I’m a survivor.
And I want to live in a world where my stepdaughter never truly knows what domestic violence is.