Public outrage over intimate partner violence is no surprise. We don’t like to see innocent people hurt. We defend victims. We want justice. However, our collective response to domestic abuse is actually part of the problem. There are far better ways to end domestic violence than what we’re doing.
Our collective response to domestic abuse is actually part of the problem.
Last week I wrote about the viral video of minor league baseball player Danry Vasquez striking his girlfriend in the stairwell of a baseball stadium. I said then, and I’ll say again, it was painful to watch and she did not deserve to be hit. This blog will never minimize the act or justify his actions.
Typical public reaction to domestic violence
I also read comments left on the Landcaster Barnstormer’s Facebook page beneath the announcement of his dismissal following the release of the video. While I know that people tend to be the harshest version of themselves on social media, the pronouncements were ruthless. If you commented on the post, or are just someone who might have said some of the same things, this blog post is for you.
I do understand your indignation. I challenge you by asking, however, what long-term outcome do you really want? It’s the same challenge we at the Ananias Foundation give to individuals who have been violent with their partners.
Think about your long-term goals and choose actions that will return those results. I assume you actually want to end domestic violence and not just get vengeance, right?
Employment, poverty, and links to domestic violence
Many commenting on the post demanded that he not only be banned from baseball, but also kept from employment of any kind. “(T)his scum bag should never play baseball again or find a job anywhere” was one of the comments. If we want to stop domestic violence, disabling a person’s ability to work is not going to help.
If we want to stop domestic violence, disabling a person’s ability to work is not going to help.
Terminating someone who has hurt their partner is supposed to send a message to them that domestic violence is not okay. Anyone arrested for that offense already gets the message. Allowing Mr. Vasquez to work in no way says we think his actions were acceptable.
While unemployment and poverty do not cause domestic violence, there is a proven relationship between them. Both add stress to a person who is already struggling emotionally. I remember my probation officer was relieved to learn I was still employed after I was arrested for domestic violence. I was grateful too.
We should be very careful about calling for employers to fire employees who have caused harm in their intimate relationships. Most individuals who have been arrested for domestic violence are only violent to their partners and are not a danger in other settings. Their reactions happen because they have emotional control challenges surrounding threats to their sense of value.
Intimate partners have a unique power to reflect back to us our sense of lovability. Negative reflections are very painful to abusers, triggering big and sometimes violent reactions. Coworkers and the general public are not given the same reflective clout, and are therefore unlikely to set off violence.
Employers can actually play a very positive role in helping their employee overcome this issue. A professional sports team that has invested millions in a player is incented to see their investment returned by having that player contribute. While the amounts are usually smaller in other jobs, the cost of recruiting and training workers favors retaining employees despite their temporary personal difficulties.
Domestic violence is an emotional issue that can be overcome.
Many companies provide their personnel access to Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) because it makes sense to help workers overcome emotional issues that interfere with work. Domestic violence is an emotional issue that can be overcome.
Does punishment end domestic violence
There were many, many calls for more severe punishment than what he received. Several suggested that justice be administered by a vigilante. Most of the proposals were very violent and would be considered cruel and unusual punishment. A number of those posting comments even advocated for his execution, either through the courts, or by the hands of a wrathful family member.
It’s ironic that we say observing violence begets more violence, but our response to it quickly gravitates to brutality. In domestic violence, we correctly refuse to accept as appropriate a person’s response to a verbal attack by escalating it to a physical one. But, we’re perfectly willing to raise the ante and repay his or her slap with a bullet to their head?
How is responding to his violence with something even more violent any different than his escalation of whatever wrong he perceived? Be care with, “It’s different,” because that sounds exactly like justification – one of the things we demand those who commit violence to let go of.
We erroneously believe that legal sanctions are a crime deterrent. Fear of getting caught is supposed to somehow stop us from acting. This may be true for pre-meditated crimes, like planning an armed robbery. But it is not true for crimes borne from uncontrolled emotional responses, like almost all domestic violence offenses.
Studies show that a little incarceration time for those who commit this act is motivation to learn what caused the behavior and not re-offend. We mistakenly think, however, that more time in the slammer, or unpleasant enough treatment while there, will cure the criminal of future offenses. In reality, it layers on resentment and social disconnection that makes recidivism more likely.
Some of the most disturbing comments are those that were highly degrading personal attacks on Mr. Vasquez. They called him an “animal,” “coward,” “scumbag,” “crazy, violent asshole,“ “piece of crap,” “twisted caveman,” “disgusting evil monster”—you get the idea. If Danry or anyone else called their partner these names, we’d call it verbal abuse.
You might be thinking, “Yes, but he deserved to be called these things because of what he did.” Again, that sounds an awful lot like justification. We need to say and demonstrate that it is unacceptable to tear another person with our words. This is exactly the definition of verbal abuse, a form of emotional abuse.
We teach those who come to us for help to express themselves in a way that does not degrade another person.
We teach those who come to us for help that it is fine if you don’t like what someone said or did. However, you need to express your feelings or opinions to them in a way that does not degrade the other person. Talk to them about what they did, but not about who they are as a person.
Expecting domestic violence victims to leave silences them
Many of the comments assume that any partner who doesn’t want to leave is either feeling threatened or has been traumatized. They are so beat down they lack confidence to go. That may certainly be the case, but sometimes it isn’t.
Relationships happen between two flawed people. Everyone will make a different decision on the magnitude of the flaws they’ll accept in another. Relationships that survive will always need a certain amount of patience while one changes and forgiveness when we hurt each other.
I’m not advocating for partners to stay in abusive relationships, but we’re being ignorant if we say it doesn’t happen. We’re also being naïve if we only think it only occurs because of threats or lack of self-esteem. Respecting victims enough to let them make their own decisions about staying or leaving lowers the barrier for them to get help.
If the abusive partner was met with concern and genuine offers for help, we’d see more victims speaking up.
Mr. Vasquez’s girlfriend wanted him to get counseling and didn’t want this “isolated incident” (her words) to impact his career. We hear that a lot as well. The strong social and economic backlash inflicted on domestic violence offenders also works to discourage victims who love them from coming forward. If the abusive partner was met with concern and genuine offers for help, we’d see more victims speaking up.
Seeing domestic violence offenders differently
Our fury toward a person who has caused harm starts when we start with a wrong set of assumptions about them. We’re told abusers are evil and their actions will not change. And we believe this explanation, although it is not true.
Instead, what if we saw it correctly? We know that many children endure all kinds of traumas growing up—ones their young minds are not yet ready to defend against. But when the kid turns 18, we illogically expect these unaddressed traumas won’t come out in any anti-social behavior—like battering.
If we understood and accepted the axiom of “hurting people hurt others,” we’d respond to domestic violence differently. We’d still meet those causing harm with firm resolve that their actions are unacceptable. But we’d also help them heal the wounds that cause their behavior.
Domestic violence is a significant social issue. No one likes it. How we respond to it absolutely makes the problem either harder or easier to solve.
We can do better in how we respond. We can layer on shame and punishment. Or, we can offer solutions to end domestic violence. Which do we want?