When we hear stories or statistics about dating abuse, we start to form an image in our mind about what it typically looks like, the typical abuser or the typical victim. We might even get better at recognizing a common case and maybe even doing something about it. However, the downside is that any dating abuse that does not fit this description is even less likely to be recognized or addressed.
In an earlier post, I pointed out that domestic abuse does not have to be physical and that emotional and psychological abuse are just as valid and just as damaging. Here, I want to introduce what I think is another overlooked and delicate topic.
Women can be abusers too, they are not always the victim. It sounds obvious. Even though, statistically, the vast majority (92%) of domestic abusers are male and the victims are female, occasionally it does happen the other way around (this differs in same-sex relationships). Still, I would argue because it is far less common, often looks different, and goes against most of our gender stereotypes we are less able to see it for what it is.
Stereotypes associated with women such as weak, passive and nurturing are nearly the complete opposite of those that we associate with somebody who is abusive (e.g. controlling, aggressive, angry). Acknowledging and/or rejecting stereotypes about women does not, unfortunately, mean we are not affected by them. So my point is that abusive behavior by a woman is in direct conflict how they are viewed by other people, and even how they view themselves.
Gender stereotypes in relation to domestic abuse are harmful for both men and women. When women are viewed as weak and passive, it appears more “natural” for them to be the victim and easier for all parties to justify the abuse. Yet, women who abuse will never have to be justified because it sounds like too much of an oxymoron to be taken seriously. For that reason, men who are being abused by women are just as likely to be disregarded.
For men there is so much shame around reporting abuse that a large number of cases likely go unreported. “We tell boys to “man up” and be strong, and this means that they should not have emotions, never feel weak, etc. and continues a vicious cycle of men feeling unable to express themselves about hurtful experiences,” which clashes strongly with the image of a victim.
I was surprised to see how much the statistics evened out in younger groups. One study found that in dating abuse with teen couples girls were more likely to report both being a victim (41%) and a perpetrator (35%), which was surprisingly close to boys reporting victimization (37%) and perpetration (29%). This “leveling-off” was thought to due to recognizing more female abusers, rather than an actual rise.
Emotional abuse, by either gender, is now listed as a common form of abuse, but was under the radar for a long time. Belittling a partner or criticizing them in front of others can be written off as a joke. Having to “get permission” to do something might be seen as acceptable. The silent treatment or emotional isolation might just be their way of handling things. And it’s expected that your significant other should be a priority over all others or else it means that you “don’t love them,” right?!
If it’s harder to see women as abusers and to recognize emotional abuse, in combination it would probably be very easy to overlook. What makes this even more complicated to address is that oftentimes the person does not realize that what they are doing is considered emotional abuse. A whole range exists from mild to severe, and probably fluctuates over time.
What I do feel is a very important distinction between being assertive and being abusive. I’m a huge advocate of people (especially women) being able to communicate their needs and expectations in a relationship and not backing down just to avoid a conflict. Given that, there is a difference between expecting honesty and invading the other persons privacy. In the same way that wanting to be the center of their world and isolating them to make that happen.
As an advocate for awareness of domestic abuse (and dating abuse in younger groups) especially in diverse populations, I still have a hard time getting past the stereotypical case. The man as the abuser, the woman as the victim, physically violent, and blatantly obvious. We need to push ourselves to recognize all forms of abuse and that everyone, ourselves included have the potential to fall into either role.
Whether it’s mild or severe, your best friend or an acquaintance you should consider doing something about it. Don’t give up on a who seems to have isolated themselves. Talk to a friends if you suspect they could be abusive. Monitor how you treat you own partner. Still, remember that not usually straightforward or clean cut so use discretion 😉
Disclaimer: I am aware that this post is heterosexist in that it uses a heterosexual relationship as the standard and does not address these issues in the context of same-sex relationships. I wanted to specifically address the assumption that women do not abuse men and the consequences of that.