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Let's Call Domestic Violence What it is: Violence

by on April 01, 2013 7:27 AM

With recent incidents of domestic violence escalating and murder-suicide making local headlines, it raises questions. How do our court and mental health systems keep missing the very troubled? Just days after a man in Huntingdon County shot and killed his toddler and injured his wife before committing suicide, a man enters a market in Philipsburg and kills his wife and then himself in front of her co-workers.

The perpetrator in Philipsburg had a history of domestic violence. In January, he reportedly became violent with his wife when she told him she wanted a divorce. According to court documents, he repeatedly threatened her with a gun and attempted to tie her up. She was able to escape; a passer-by intervened, and the woman was not injured.

If this obviously deeply-troubled man had perpetrated the same series of crimes against a stranger, it would have made headlines and he would have been viewed as a monster. If he had dragged a stranger into his home, tied her up and threatened her with a gun, it would have been resulted in news broadcasts, public warnings and the figurative all-points-bulletin. Instead, it’s “domestic violence” and he’s released from jail after a week and she is provided a piece of paper that reportedly protects her from any further contact from her assailant.

Why do we downplay violent behaviors in domestic violence just because it involves a partner?

We need to teach our young people not to tolerate behaviors from our partners that we would not tolerate from strangers.

The whole idea of having different sets of standards in our home from what we expect outside of our safe haven has always been a sticking point for me. From manners to the language and tone that we use with parents, spouses and siblings, I’ve never understood why we permit double standards for acceptable behavior just because we have a relationship with that person. The fact that it’s “home” should not mean that it’s okay to treat others with disrespect. The fact that we are related – either in marriage or by blood – does not mean someone has permission to be rude or mean or violent.

This is not about blaming the victims. To the contrary, if our society didn’t categorize the abuse that takes place between people who know each other as being somehow different from violence between strangers, it would change the face of domestic violence. If the consequences and legal ramifications of striking or threatening someone else were applied without regard to the relationship between the attacker and the attacked, we would likely see a reduction in these incidents. Violence against another should be even more unacceptable in a relationship where people are supposed to trust and care about one another.

It is the relationship that makes the cycle of domestic violence so complicated.

No young woman enters a relationship with the expectation of violence. I suspect that their abusers also don’t plan it in advance. The natural evolution of relationships – initial attractions, polite conversations, developing trust, increasing commitment, caring, – is inherently anti-violent. At some point, however, for some, the warning signs of violence begin. Anger. Insecurity. Control. When those warning signs erupt into the first violent incident, the victim's response is tinted by embarrassment, disbelief, social and financial dependence, one’s upbringing, and all of the ties that bind people in relationships.

In effect, our society gives spouses and abusive partners permission to treat each other in ways that would never be tolerated from strangers.

I have always remember a conversation I had with teenage girls at the in-patient treatment facility where I once worked. The kids would often open up to us as we built relationships without the perceived barrier of the “lab coat.” One of the girls shared that her boyfriend had been rough with her. Some of her peers responded in outrage. Others responded as a matter of fact. Many of them had grown up in homes where violence was the norm. One girl shared that she had been surprised in one relationship when her boyfriend didn’t hit her. Another said “I would only break up if my boyfriend hit me a second time.” We talked about how we teach others how to treat us by where we draw that line in the sand. We talked about what kind of relationships they would want for their daughters.

When I asked “What would you do if someone you didn’t know, walked up to you on the street and hit you or called you a name or called you a slut for talking to another boy in class?” I could almost visibly see the lights coming on. It provided some great conversation points about how we sometimes seem to have different standards for people who are supposed to care about us and how everyone has the right to be treated with respect.

The cycle of domestic violence shows itself in several ways. It can be that cycle of anger, the violent outburst and then the period of contrition until the next incident that happens behind the closed doors of a relationship. It can be the expectations and learned behaviors that children who grow up in violent homes take with them to their own adolescent and adult relationships. It can be the revolving door of the judicial system that permits a criminal to be released into the community with only a paper “protection from abuse” order preventing further threats or harm.

The cycle will only stop when we take the “domestic” out of domestic violence and recognize it as the crime that it is.

Patty Kleban is an instructor at Penn State, mother of three and a community volunteer. She is a Penn State Alumna. Readers of State College Magazine voted her Best Writer of 2010 and 2012. She and her family live in Patton Township. Her views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State.
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