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Is it abuse, or are they just a jerk?

24-Hour Domestic Violence Hotline: 208.343.7025 24-hour Rape Crisis Hotline: 208.345.7273 (RAPE)

Written by Maureen Wishkoski, WCA Court Advocate Manager

iStock_000008940784_LargeIf a friend asked you that question this weekend over coffee, do you feel confident that you would know what to say? The above title question is actually a quiz game played with various groups when we’re talking about domestic and dating abuse. We do this because figuring our whether a person’s behavior is irritating and immature or potentially controlling and dangerous can be harder and more complex than it sounds. The following types of abuse are commonly contextualized as ‘bad behavior’ rather than a choice to control or harm another: financial/economic; emotional/psychological; using the children as pawns; making all household decisions; isolating from friends, family, work, supports; testing and breaking sexual boundaries; minimizing behavior and/or blaming behavior on someone or something else.

Generally, civil society attempts to instill a sense of compassion, forgiveness and optimism in its citizenry, especially when it comes to intimate relationships. These estimable values are also things that an abuser will use to muddy the waters of their actions. When a frightening verbal tirade is apologized for and explained through stress at work, forgiveness and optimism may prevail even as the victim is uncomfortable with what happened (here we can see potential emotional/psychological abuse and minimizing and blaming tactics). Maybe, however, this incident is truly an isolated incident. Maybe this person is a jerk but not abusive. How do you know?

Context is the key in answering the title question. Advocacy definitions of domestic violence generally differ greatly from a state’s criminal code. In Idaho, Idaho Statute 18-918 defines domestic violence as a physical act or threat perpetrated by a household member. The WCA, however, along with advocacy organizations around the country, understand domestic violence to be much broader and more nuanced. We utilize the definition set forth by the Idaho Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence: Domestic Abuse (also called domestic violence, spousal abuse, battering, family violence, dating abuse, and intimate partner violence) is a pattern of behaviors used to gain or maintain power and control in an intimate relationship. Domestic abuse can be actions or threats of actions. It is used to intimidate, humiliate, isolate, frighten, coerce, blame, or injure.

Using the lens of the above definition, we can now look to whether or not our hypothetical incident rises to the level of abuse. Does the person in question try to control the other? Do they never accept responsibility for their actions? Do they consistently make it hard for the other person to meet friends and family, go to work, or undermine their parenting? Is this a pattern of attempts to control? On the other hand, do they provide emotional and possibly financial support for each other, reciprocally, or in a way they’ve agreed on? Have the two been able to make decisions jointly that they are both comfortable with regarding finances, work, home maintenance and child-rearing? Most importantly, does the person feel safe at home with the person in question?

A clear understanding of what is abusive behavior versus what is poor behavior can mean the difference between unknowingly clouding the water for a victim or offering strong validation that abuse is just that-and is not the fault of the victim. And you can feel confident that if you’re ever faced with this difficult question, maybe with coffee cup in hand, you’ll know the right answer.

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