We all know that domestic abuse exists, but do we all have the same idea of what domestic abuse is? In witnessing the same behaviours would we all make the same judgements? Probably not. But why does this matter? Whilst many people might like to think they would easily recognise abuse, the accuracy of this belief might depend on what behaviours they consider to be abusive, or perhaps more importantly, what behaviours they don’t consider to be abusive. When abusive behaviours first occur in a romantic relationship, they can be easy to miss. The earliest abusive behaviours are often subtle, controlling, and without physical violence.
Whilst some people might recognise non-physical abuse, others might only recognise physical abuse, whilst others still might require evidence of injury before identifying behaviour as abusive rather than just problematic. But why might people’s concepts of what abuse looks like vary? One possible explanation is that people have pre-existing beliefs about gender and relationships which colour the way in which they view interactions in relationships.
For example, if a person believes that jealousy is evidence of passion and love, and therefore a good sign in romantic relationships, controlling behaviours attributable to jealousy may be seen as consistent with a healthy relationship rather than indicative of abuse. Alternatively, if they endorse benevolently sexist ideals that men are dominant protectors and women are submissive, chaste, caregivers, they may view an unequal power dynamic with a male abuser and female victim as expected, rather than evidence of the man controlling and dis-empowering his female partner, and therefore be less supportive of victims.
In my research I wanted to explore the content of people’s schemas of abuse and the beliefs that might influence this content.
In our first study, we had participants describe a relationship with abuse. The vast majority of participants’ descriptions of abusive relationships included mentions of control and power imbalances. Although nearly half of participants mentioned physical abuse indicating that recognition of physical abuse was strongly linked to people’s ideas of what abuse looks like, the recognition of control and power imbalance seemed promising. Perhaps our participants did have an awareness that abuses comprises controlling non-physical behaviours that are vital to achieving power imbalances in abusive relationships.
But one point giving rise to concern was that most of our participants failed to describe specific abusive behaviours. Instead they used descriptive labels, that the relationship would be controlling, physically abusive, emotionally abusive, etc.. Consequently, we could not determine if participants had only an abstract awareness of the importance of control, or a more detailed understanding which would allow for the recognition of specific controlling non-physical behaviours.
In our second study, we wanted to test participants recognition of specific behaviours as abusive as it is behaviours that are witnessed, experienced and perpetrated. We also wanted to determine if identification of abuse was linked to participants’ agreement with traditional gender roles in which men are dominant protectors and women are submissive caregivers, their belief in traditional romantic values (e.g., that there is one true love and love conquers all), and the extent to which they view jealousy as good for romantic relationships.
Participants were presented with a list including non-abusive behaviours (A shows they care about B), non-physically abusive behaviours (A checks B’s texts and emails), and physically abusive behaviours (A pushes or shoves B). They were asked to rate whether these behaviours were definitely, maybe, or never abusive. Although participants’ endorsement of benevolently sexist traditional gender roles, traditional romantic beliefs, and jealousy were associated with viewing all behaviours as less abusive, the belief that jealousy is good was associated with reduced identification of non-physical forms of abuse in particular.
Collectively these findings suggest that challenging the belief that jealousy is good is crucial for early identification of abusive behaviours.
- By Kiara Minto
Minto, K., Masser, B. M., & Louis, W. R. (2020). Identifying Nonphysical Intimate Partner Violence in Relationships: The Role of Beliefs and Schemas. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 088626052093850. https://doi.org/10.1177/0886260520938505
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