How to Overcome an Abusive Marriage:

Am I Trivializing the Term Abuse?

Letter #4

Dear Dr. Harley,

My question to you regards the very broad way you use the term "abuse."  My background is analytical philosophy, and I wonder if you have not unhelpfully and substantially changed the meaning of the term, so a spouse could accurately (on this definition) complain to friends or a counselor of spousal abuse based on such minor grounds as you describe.

It just seems like such an opportunity for utter and destructive confusion, really conveying the wrong impression.  We have other words that do this job -- "rudeness", "insensitivity", "thoughtlessness" -- without trivializing "abuse" (which includes "vehemently expressed condemnation " according to my dictionary).

If I hadn't read your other stuff, I'd have stopped taking you seriously at that moment: "Oh great, another pop psychologist shooting from the hip and running amuck."  I really don't want others to so inaccurately think of you (I've referred many others to this site).  That's why I write.


Dear J.R.,

I'm guilty as charged.  It's true that I often redefine common words to make a point, and that's what I've done with the word "abuse" (my English teachers never liked me).  But I don't think that I've trivialized abuse or used the word in an unhelpful way.  Let me try to explain why I define abuse the way I do.
Those of us who deal with physical abuse in marriage (beating a spouse) are faced with the reality that it doesn't start with bloodshed.  It usually starts in a much more benign form -- "rudeness, insensitivity and thoughtlessness," the terms you use in your letter to describe "minor grounds."  Almost everyone is tuned into the importance of avoiding the most violent forms of abuse, but by the time it escalates to physical beatings, the abuser is usually out of control.  Since I want to teach spouses how to protect each other from commonly accepted forms of abuse, I must help them see that abuse is an escalating process, not a final act.  If abuse is understood in that way, it can be overcome by stopping it as soon as it starts.

Imagine each form of hurtful behavior on an abuse continuum.  On the most benign end of the continuum is a look of contempt when you didn't dry the dishes correctly.  As you go up the continuum, the reaction becomes increasingly hurtful -- "didn't anybody ever teach you how to dry dishes," "you never do anything right," "I should never have married such a slob."  Finally, at the opposite end of the abuse continuum, your spouse gets out a gun and shoots you.

Technically, I feel that anything you do that hurts your spouse unintentionally does not qualify for the abuse continuum.  You must have some sense that it will bother your spouse to qualify.  Drying the dishes wrong is not abuse, unless you already knew that the way you were doing it would upset your spouse (putting all the glasses where the plates should go).

The Policy of Joint Agreement (never do anything without an enthusiastic agreement between you and your spouse) is an excellent rule that helps prevent spouses from being unintentionally thoughtless, because it encourages them to ask before you act ("where would you like me to put the glasses?").  Spouses who get into the habit of using that policy to make decisions avoid making a host of innocent mistakes.  And when a mistake is identified, the policy encourages the couple to avoid making the same mistake again.

But something you do that unintentionally bothers your spouse can trigger a reaction that can be legitimately placed on the abuse continuum.  That abusive reaction will usually fall into one of three categories -- selfish demands, disrespectful judgments, or angry outbursts.  All three of these categories have levels of harm that go from one end of the continuum to the other, but in general, the most "benign" forms are disrespectful judgments or selfish demands, and the most destructive are angry outbursts.  Annoying Behavior, such as putting the dishes in the wrong place, can also be included on the continuum if it's done with full knowledge that it's annoying.

Once an abusive reaction is made, unless a couple does something to stop it, the "process" of abuse begins.  The first benign form of abuse triggers a more hurtful response by the other spouse.  That, in turn, leads to an even more negative reaction.  As the reactions of each spouse move further and further up the abuse continuum, eventually a response is triggered that we would all agree is abuse.  But by then it's too late.  Both spouses are in the thick of battle and fighting to the death.

That's why I have chosen to call each hurtful event in the escalating sequence, "abuse."  It seems to work for those couples who struggle with the problem.  If they see abuse as a process that begins with more benign forms of disrespect and demands, they can learn to cut it off before it becomes painfully destructive.  When one spouse decides not to react to abuse with abuse, the process usually comes to an end.  But the best outcome is for both spouses to see it coming and both agree to stop the process.  Such a couple has learned to valuable lesson of avoiding fights and arguments.  In the place of those ineffective problem-solving strategies, they can learn to solve problems in a way that increases their love for each other -- instead of ruining their love for each other.

The process of abuse is an instinctive way to solve problems.  We are all tempted to use it.  It is based on the evolutionary principle of the strong winning over the weak.  But it's a solution that destroys marriages because it destroys love.  When the strong spouse wins over the weaker spouse, love is the victim, and the solution turns out to be a hollow victory.

The only way to solve a marital problem that keeps love in marriage is to solve it in a way that makes both spouses happy simultaneously.  And abuse certainly does not achieve that objective, even in it's most benign forms.

I hope my explanation helps you see why I use certain words the way I do.

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