Domestic Violence in a Marriage – It’s More Than Just Physical Abuse

A recent article in the New York Times discussed a frequently misunderstood subject – the issue of domestic violence, and the fact that it adds up to much more than just physical assault. If you’ve read about domestic assault at all, or discussed it with anyone who was ever a victim, then you probably already know that the actual physical abuse is only the tip of the iceberg. There is so much more going on below the surface.

A man's fist crushing a small woman, she is being painfully squeezed with her back arched

The NYT article starts with one woman’s story. She talks about how her boyfriend’s affection and generosity started out feeling wonderful, and ended up being all encompassing and crushingly suffocating. What began as cute – him answering her phone so he could chat to her friends, grew to be creepy over time as it became a case of him screening her calls. And this is a classic abuser tactic – starting out sweet and loving, but quickly using those same methods to isolate you from your support group and control your behaviors.

Domestic Abuse Rarely Starts With Physical Assault

It’s rare that a violent partner will suddenly become physically abusive with no warning. There are almost always red flags. The problem is, that those flags are often very hard to see when you’re on the inside. What seems loving and affectionate and even emotionally sensitive can slowly be used to manipulate someone and control their choices. For example, claiming they love you so much they can’t live without you might seem sweet. But when that translates into threats of suicide if you leave, it’s no longer loving. Now it’s coercive control.

One of the people interviewed by the NYT for this story is Missouri Congresswoman Cori Bush, who was a victim of domestic abuse at one point, and has chosen to be open about her experiences. She hopes that by talking about what happened to her, she can encourage other women to share their experiences as well. That will in turn normalize the conversation about domestic assault, making it easier to talk about, and help speed the process of changing the law to protect victims.

The law only addresses physical violence, not coercive control

Activists working to reduce relationship violence say that the laws governing what counts as “domestic abuse” needs to change. Currently the only actions that are illegal when it comes to treatment of a spouse or partner, are the actual acts of violence. Punching or kicking your partner or spouse is illegal, but manipulating them and controlling their behavior is not. It’s a fact that many activists are hoping to change – making coercive control not only recognizable as a stepping stone to domestic violence, but a form of abuse in it’s own right as well.

California and Hawaii have both enacted laws making coercive control illegal. Lawmakers in both New York and Connecticut have introduced similar legislation. Here in Michigan, however, there is nothing on the books and nothing in the works aimed at recognizing coercive behaviors as a form of abuse. Is that likely to change? Who knows. Cori Bush certainly hopes so, as do many others who’ve experienced domestic violence personally, and those who advocate for the victims. But we’ll just have to wait and see.