October was Domestic Violence Awareness Month. In his proclamation President Barack Obama said it was a time to “shine a light on this violation of the basic human right to be free from violence and abuse.”
It is important to “shed a light “ on domestic abuse because it is a complicated issue made even more complicated by myths and misconceptions.
For example, some people think that domestic abuse is mostly something that happens in private, or that it always involves physical violence. On the contrary, domestic abuse can and does occur in public and often doesn’t involve violence.
I know this first-hand. For several years in the '90s I worked in retail at a local shopping mall. While there, I saw a surprising number of acts of domestic abuse. Two examples particularly stuck with me.
One involved a new female employee—I’ll call her Jane—who was scheduled to start work on Tuesday, my day off. I came in on Wednesday and noticed her name was no longer on the schedule. I asked my store manager what had happened.
He explained that Jane had indeed started work the day before. A few hours into her shift her boyfriend came into the store and started berating her, his voice growing louder and louder. Then he slapped her and stormed off. Jane began to cry. The manager quickly ushered her into the stock room and locked the door. He asked what had happened. She said her boyfriend was upset that she was working with men and helping male shoppers. The manager started to call mall security to file a report. Jane stopped him, forced a smile and said, “Don’t bother. I’ll just quit.”
Obviously, physically assaulting someone is abuse. But not all abuse is physical. It can be subtler.
The other example had to do with another woman I worked with. I’ll call her Jill. She was smart and funny, and we often chitchatted during slow periods. I noticed her boyfriend would often sit on a bench outside the store staring at her for what seemed like very long periods of time. Eventually I asked Jill what exactly he was doing.
It turns our Jill’s boyfriend didn’t like her associating with male customers or co-workers either. He was watching to make sure she didn’t get too friendly with any men. It occurred to me that he often saw Jill and I talking. Didn’t that qualify as “too friendly”?
“Not really,” she said. “I told him you were gay.”
That irritated me. Not the gay thing; I’m no homophobe and am pretty fabulous for a straight guy. No, I was irritated for two specific reasons.
One, I didn’t like the fact Jill somehow thought it was necessary to protect me. I can take care of myself.
More importantly, I hated that Jill was in an abusive relationship. Even though there was no physical violence (at least none that I was aware of), Jill’s boyfriend displayed some classic signs of an abuser as described by the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. These signs included:
• Extreme jealousy
• Extremely controlling behavior
• Sabotage or obstruction of the victim's ability to work or attend school
• Harassment of the victim at work
In the case of Jane’s abusive boyfriend, you could add the additional clear signs unrelated to his physical violence:
• Verbal abuse
• Demeaning the victim either privately or publicly
• Embarrassment or humiliation of the victim in front of others
(The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence’s complete list of signs of an abusive partner is available here.)
Sadly, I have seen many women (and a few men) in situations very similar to Jane and Jill’s. In cases such as Jill's where there are no obvious signs of physical violence, the abuse often goes unacknowledged, both by the victim and those around him or her. People are all too ready to disregard possessive, controlling behavior as acceptable. It isn't. I tried to explain that to Jill, to no avail.
If you or someone you know is in a domestic abuse situation, help and information is available at the National Domestic Violence Hotline.