Myths of Intimate Partner Violence
Any activities, attitudes, or beliefs which perpetuate myths about domestic violence are dangerous. They encourage social acceptance of the problem, which engenders apathy, but even more insidiously, they lead women and the minority of men being abused to justify, minimise, or deny the violence which is occurring to them. When they do that, they are prevented from acknowledging that they are in a dangerous and violent situation, which is a necessary prerequisite for seeking help.
Thus, as mental health practitioners, our job is to help debunk the myths, not only in the wider community, but also in the individuals who come to us. This post presents 10 intimate partner violence myths. After identifying each myth, we explain why it is just that: a myth.
While there are many ways that domestic violence can occur — including toward children, the elderly, and the disabled; from women to men; and even from strangers to both sexes — by far the greatest majority of it happens to women from male partners or ex-partners. Thus, examples in this article will predominantly refer to intimate partner violence perpetrated by male partners or ex-partners.
Myth: People who stay in abusive relationships do so because they want to. It can’t be that bad, because they could leave if they wanted to.
Reality: The moment someone decides to leave a violent relationship is the moment they enter the most dangerous phase of all. Victim/survivors will only leave when they feel it is safe to do so. Beyond that, there are many reasons women, in particular, stay with their abusers. For example, lack of community services. Many communities in the Western, developed world have refugee shelters for women and their children: some where they can stay indefinitely. But many smaller or more rural communities — and even major towns in the developing world — have no such services. A woman who has been financially abused, in terms of deprivation of means to independently manage monies in the household — may literally have no funds at her disposal and nowhere to go.
Myth: It’s just a domestic row. All couples have them.
Reality: A “tiff” between partners of a couple which involves violence is based on an imbalance of power and control, and is more than a disagreement. Healthy relationships have disagreements in which the partners are still able to convey a sense of mutual respect, trust, support, and love for the other person. Intimate partner violence involves at least cyclical or possibly constant physical, sexual, emotional, psychological, and/or financial abuse. This is harmful and dangerous, and there is no room for it in a healthy relationship. When we review the statistics for how many women are killed every single week by their partners, we understand that we cannot minimise or dismiss this one.
Myth: Battering and abuse do not occur in upper-middle class families, only in working-class ones.
Reality: Nope. Intimate partner violence occurs across the spectrum of socioeconomic demographics, although with more resources, abusers are more easily able to hide their abuse. Also, we must note here two other points related to the exacerbating effects of poverty: (1) a woman’s options for other financial and practical support are more limited (or non-existent) for less affluent women and (2) financial problems in any demographic can place strain on the relationship, ultimately resulting in violence. Domestic abuse occurs to both working and stay-at-home individuals. While all these details differ, the effects of the abuse are the same.
Myth: Domestic violence is caused by alcohol or drug abuse/addiction and going through a rehabilitation program will fix the problem. It’s the drug that causes the violence.
Reality: Alcohol or drug misuse is often perceived as the cause of violence. While abusers may say that they lost control or didn’t know what they were doing because they were drunk/high, they were nevertheless responsible for their actions. Drugs may reduce a person’s inhibitions, but the actions are their own, not the drug’s. Moreover, addiction is a separate issue to domestic abuse; putting an end to addiction does not necessarily eliminate violence. The two issues are related, though, in that: (1) abusers may use alcohol or drugs to justify their actions and avoid taking responsibility for behaviour, and (2) abusive behaviour may even increase for a period as the perpetrator gets sober.
Myth: Mental illness is to blame for domestic violence. The abuser is “not in his right mind” under extreme stress or mentally ill.
Reality: This is sometimes true, but those who look at typical patterns of abuse see a much more frequently-occurring commonality: abusers believe they have the right to dominate and control their partners.
Myth: The victim brought it on herself by provoking the assault, or at least she “deserved” it.
Reality: Whoa! This one is “first cousin” to “She enjoyed it”. Look what happens when we allow this myth; the responsibility for the abuse shifts unfairly from the abuser to the abused. As we noted above, women abused (especially over a long period of time) begin to rationalise the abuse, often feeling that they are to blame for it. This is particularly true if the abuser constantly tells her that she provoked it and/or if the wider community accepts this excuse, in which case he takes no responsibility for his actions. Thus the victim may try harder and harder to be perfect in the relationship; such women often make extraordinary efforts to pacify abusive partners. It is only when the violence escalates anyway that she gradually comes to realise that the abuser is the one with the problem.
Myth: Women do not object to being mistreated.
Reality: Women have often had a terrible dilemma: be abused or be homeless (violence is one of the largest contributing factors to women’s homelessness). Friends and/or family may take her in for a while, but if she has no monetary resources and needs to look after young children, then what? The law may even forbid running away (to a safer community/state/country) with children. Many women have been hunted down and forced back (or, sadly, charmed back!). No matter how much they may dread abuse, women may figure that to endure it is better for them (and for their children) than to have no home.
Myth: Abuse is temporary, occurring only during an abuser’s lapse of control.
Reality: Once it begins in a relationship, abuse continues and tends to escalate. There is no “lapse of control”, as abusers are often very deliberate, having an uncanny ability to choose the time and place of their attack and inflicting wounds on their victims in ways that others won’t see or notice. They count on the shame and fear of the victim/survivor to collude in the conspiracy of silence. One abused woman told of being hit and bruised many times, but on one occasion being hit so hard around the ears that her eardrum was punctured, causing deafness and extreme pain. Upon going to her G.P., she felt she had to concoct a plausible reason for her problem, so she claimed that she fell off the family boat. To her chagrin, the G.P. merrily wrote that into his notes, advising her to get her balance checked, and never questioning her further, despite her subdued, sad presentation and bruises about her upper arms and shoulders (Carbonatto, 2009).
Myth: Abusers come from violent backgrounds, and they are violent with everyone.
Reality: There is a pattern going here, but it is not a perfect correlation, in that some people who grow up with violence do not perpetrate it or become its victims, and some who perpetrate it have not had violent childhoods; the family is not the only influence on a person, although it is a strong one. Moreover, even those who are violent with partners are not “that way” with everyone. Their “Jekyll and Hyde” personality enables them to be friendly to co-workers, neighbours, and friends, but come home and be abusive, using battering as a way to dominate their wives/partners. This myth does, however, underscore the need to debunk myths with reality, given that when people see the “Dr Jekyll” side of the abuser’s personality (the friendly, engaging side), they may be disbelieving or at least dismissive of the seriousness of the violence.
Myth: What happens behind closed doors is private; society shouldn’t interfere with family dynamics.
Reality: This myth makes it harder for victim/survivors to realise that they are not responsible for what is happening. But a man punching a partner at home and a man punching another man at a bar are both assault (Epstein, 2003; Bray, 2014).
Those who would work competently with victim/survivors of violence must fight against acceptance of these myths, but as mental health practitioners we need to do more than pay lip service to the notion that they are myths. We must actually address the dangers and concerns of the victim/survivors in session. Otherwise, we are as guilty as the myth proponents of minimising, denying, or dismissing the victim/survivor’s experience. The next section discusses the chief areas of concern identified by victim/survivors who experienced dissatisfaction with their counselling experience in the wake of abusive treatment.
- Carbonatto, M. (2009). Back from the edge: Extraordinary tales of survival and how people did it. Auckland, New Zealand: Cape Catley Ltd.