It may be difficult for those who have never experienced abuse to believe that such barbarous acts can happen in an intimate relationship. However, the list of physical abuse is long and horrifying. Physical abusers strike, punch, shove, and slap. They may hit their victims with objects or throw objects at them. They may resort to pinching, kicking and even strangling. Others instil fear by trying to drown victims, they confuse them by depriving them of sleep, and they expose them to cold, or burn them. Abusers torture their victims by electric shock, tying them up, and threatening to shoot them. Some unfortunate victims are exposed to toxic substances, infected with a disease, or deprived of food and medication. The list could go on.
Physical abuse is not defined only by violent behaviour. Violence is any act that engenders fear. It is about striking terror into victims to make them easier to control. This may mean attacking objects in their presence, for example, hitting or kicking walls and doors during an argument, throwing things in anger, and destruction of property, or like Stephen, tearing the mirrors off a car. The marks left on walls or property, and the smashed wipers and mirrors are concrete, constant reminders of control and violence that make the victim feel unsafe. Many years ago, I was in a house with large holes in the internal doors, indicating the presence of violent behaviour. It was a chilling experience for me. How much more fearful for the victim!
One particularly awful type of physical abuse is the use of pets to control and arouse fear. Perpetrators often torture their partners’ pets. The implied threat is ‘I can kill your pet, and I can kill you if necessary’. A client of Lundy Bancroft described how her partner illustrated in detail how he was going to torture and kill her cat. One of Elaine Weiss’s storytellers watched in horror and fear as her pet was being choked, its eyes bulging as it struggled to escape.
For me the most unspeakable and common form of abuse is the abuse of pregnant women. One of Elaine Weiss’s storytellers recounts how her husband kicked her when she was pregnant. Physical abuse of a pregnant woman may damage the foetus, and there is plenty of evidence of miscarriages, stillbirths and foetal deaths due to such violence. A miscarriage in itself can be a traumatic event, giving rise to intense feelings of loss and extreme loneliness. How much worse is the loss exacted by the savagery of an intimate partner? Christiane Sanderson in her blog, Counselling Survivors of Domestic Abuse, draws attention to the fact that injuries around the breast and abdomen indicate that the abuser directs his rage towards the baby as well as towards his mother. This monstrous behaviour is considered so serious and so common that the Public Health Agency of Canada has set up the Canadian Perinatal Surveillance System (CPSS) to prevent or limit it.
Adapted from Jim O’Shea’s book Abuse. Domestic Violence, Workplace and School Bullying published by Cork University Press
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