Young Couple Arguing and Fighting.

What Is Mutual Abuse & Does It Exist? Here’s What Experts Say.

TW: Discussion of domestic violence. Call 1.800.799.SAFE (7233) or visit the National Domestic Violence Hotline.

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Right now, there is a high profile domestic abuse trial that is being dissected online, which has resulted in a lot of harassment for anyone who wants to have a real discussion on the subject. However, one term has been brought up repeatedly, and it bears to be discussed: mutual abuse.

This term is being used to implicate two people as being the instigators and perpetrators in a domestic abuse situation. However, among experts who have studied domestic violence, it is largely considered a myth, at least in the way most people frame it.

Why?

According to the NDVH, “Abuse is about an imbalance of power and control. In an unhealthy or abusive relationship, there may be unhealthy behaviors from both/all partners, but in an abusive relationship, one person tends to have more control than the other.” Power imbalances can include: age differences, monetary or social capital, gender, etc. It is not always the case, but when many of these overlap, it can create an environment where it is hard for both people to be “equal” in a domestic violence situation.

Mindy Mechanic, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and California State University Fullerton psychology professor focusing on interpersonal violence, said the following on the subject: “They don’t initiate the violence, and they don’t use it with the motivation of limiting agency or controlling a partner. They’re using it either defensively or preemptively. But it can look on the surface like mutual abuse if you’re not looking at who’s initiating and who’s in control.”

This would be called reactive abuse, rather than mutual abuse.

David Cropp, a retired sergeant with the Sacramento police and an expert witness consultant for domestic violence, explained the difference as “They don’t want power and control. They want the power and control to stop.” However, due to the fact that, many times, we do not have all the details about the background of someone else’s relationship, it is hard for people, especially law enforcement, to discern that difference. It is also possible to manipulate reactive anger as aggressive behavior.

“It can be hard for [law enforcement] to sort out the chain of events,” explains Sherry Hamby, Ph.D., editor of Psychology of Violence, the scientific journal of the American Psychological Association. “What sometimes ends up happening is that they might arrest both parties even though one party was acting entirely in self-defense.”

When police respond to an incident, they’re focused on the incident. “They’re failing to look at all that came before it, which is the environment that victims live in,” Cropp says.

An environment of threats, isolation, intimidation, minimizing the abuse, coercion or economic abuse puts one person as the dominant aggressor over the other, even when physical abuse isn’t involved.

Cropp says he sees scenarios where female victims are terrorized emotionally by demeaning, degrading comments to the point where they start crying and screaming. “They just want the abuse to stop,” he says. At that point, the aggressor starts recording her with their cell phone. When they show the police that video, she looks violent and crazy.

(via Domestic Shelters.org)

Claims of mutual abuse can also be used to shift blame. When trying to address a partner failing to take responsibility for their actions, they will claim that you are also “equally or more responsible for an incident, or that you too were abusive, this is their way of manipulating you into believing you did something to deserve this treatment. Believing you’re at fault helps the abusive partner continue to have control and often leaves you feeling as if you’re the one who needs to make changes.”

I remember watching the O.J.: Made in America docuseries, and one thing that stuck out to me is, at one point, there is a woman who says something along the lines of “I don’t respect a woman who stays with a man that beats them.”

That is a mentality that many carry despite wanting to seem more evolved than that—these ideas of perfect victimhood, while ignoring the deep complicated reality for women who leave. Nicole Brown Simpson’s ex-husband was found liable for her death in court, after she’d left him and was trying to move on. She’d called the police, who did nothing. When she reacted in response to O.J having introduced violence into the relationship, the refrain became “They were both violent.” We even heard the same thing with Lorena Bobbitt.

We have not erased the stigma of what it means to survive domestic abuse—not for women. We have only really begun, with men, to acknowledge that they can be victims, and within the queer community, there are so many complex layers that many stay silent. What does matter is the language we use and the way in which we allow our assumptions to override everything else. Abuse can also look very different depending on the circumstance, like litigation abuse. Litigation Abuse happens when an abuser “may try to keep power and control over the victim by misusing the court system against the victim.”

Until we erase the ideas of the perfect victim and what being a victim/survivor looks like, we will never see changes, especially since the media seems content to make the same mistakes, again and again, until someone has their name dragged through the mud or, worse, dies.

(featured image: gorodenkoff)


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Princess Weekes
Princess (she/her-bisexual) is a Brooklyn born Megan Fox truther, who loves Sailor Moon, mythology, and diversity within sci-fi/fantasy. Still lives in Brooklyn with her over 500 Pokémon that she has Eevee trained into a mighty army. Team Zutara forever.