I’m going to say something you already know: what we see in movies and on television doesn’t always reflect reality. Producers often have to suspend the truth in order to keep the story flowing and prevent audience boredom. While these liberties are usually harmless, there are some altered narratives that shape wrong beliefs that don’t serve us well. I’m talking about violence in the media and domestic violence.

One false reality example is the scene where a character lights a match and sets off every sprinkler in the building as a diversion. Sprinkler systems simply don’t work this way—a small flame only triggers the nearest sprinkler, not the whole shebang. Of course, the plot works better when the villain escapes while everyone else heads for the exit.

Shaping beliefs

What we see on a screen often shapes what you and I believe about the world. This is especially true in areas where we have little personal experience. Those images set our expectations of normal.

I’ll bet that when you went on your first date, you had a picture in your mind of what that occasion should look like. You probably envisioned how you both would act, what you’d do together, which one should pay, etc. Your mental picture likely came from what you saw on TV or in a movie, not from a class or your parents’ instruction.

The damage

Unfortunately, we can end up setting irrational expectations from some of those unrealistic scenes. One of the life skills most damaged by the media is in the area of relationship conflict. We often see violence used to successfully solve disputes with little, if any, consequences.

Your boyfriend says something you don’t like? Slap him across the face. Your wife starts to walk away rather than listening to what you have to say? Grab her and hold her there. This behavior seems normal based on the shows we watch, linking violence in the media and domestic violence in our minds.

What we don’t see in these scenes is the damage that slapping, pushing, hitting, or restricting movement does to the relationship. The story continues with no one checking out or leaving their partner because they no longer feel like they can be themselves. And of course, no one is arrested, even through a crime (battery) was committed. Violence in the media and domestic violence are different in all of these ways.

We are even more likely to see rough behavior as normal if we witnessed domestic violence between our parents. And if violence ran rampant in our childhood neighborhood, then a physical altercation between lovers might seem like no big deal. The more consistently we view violence in the media and domestic violence at home, the more likely we are to use it ourselves.

Our brain’s auto-responder

By now, everyone not living under a rock knows that using violence in a relationship is wrong. However, our brains are still quick to suggest some sort of physical force during relationship conflict, even when we know that behavior is inappropriate. Why is that? It’s because we’ve recorded thousands of incidents where violence worked, even if most of those images were fiction.

We are especially susceptible to this bad behavior when we perceive some kind of threat, like in the heat of an argument. Under duress, our brain’s amygdalae hijack our response, leaving us two options: fight or flee. If our brain “learned” violence as a response, we may automatically slip into fight mode without thinking about the consequences or considering other options.

Of course, allowing our brain’s auto-responder free reign over our actions is not good, especially if that reaction is violence. Restricting movement, slapping, kicking, biting, hitting, or using a weapon can injure our partners and is therefore considered abuse. Even if they are not hurt, the threat of harm impairs a person’s sense of safety, wholeness, and autonomy. When this happens, their positive feelings toward us and our relationship with them is severely damaged or lost.

The way out

This isn’t a post calling for less violence in the media, although that would be a good thing for reasons that we’ve already covered. It isn’t even a request that Hollywood portray the downside of violence more realistically, because I know that isn’t going to happen. All we can control is ourselves, so that’s my focus.

The way we can neutralize violence in the media and domestic violence that results is first to realize it is not normal or healthy. Don’t be duped by what you’ve seen in shows or with your family of origin. Physical altercations between intimate partners does not happen in most relationships, and it wrecks havoc when it does.

Second, don’t allow your auto-responses to take you there. We can’t un-see the violence we’ve already been exposed to, but brutality doesn’t have to be our reaction when in conflict. Use techniques like time-outs to maintain emotional control. Go deeper to discover and heal the core hurts that make life situations seem far more threatening than they really are.

Real life is not like the movies. Drama can be entertaining on the big screen, but it is exhausting when we create it in our own lives. Violence has no place in our intimate relationships, so if it has found its way into yours, then it is time to remove it.

Oh, and the next time you’re trapped in a room and need to sneak out without being seen, forget about crawling through the air ducts. You won’t fit, the ducts won’t support your weight, and they are full of dust. Besides, you’ll make so much noise that you’ll be discovered immediately.