Thomas Fiffer believes the big factor in domestic violence is ‘relationship entitlement,’ and he’s calling it out to stop the hurt.
Let’s start with two startling facts:
1. 60% of Americans know a survivor of domestic violence.
2. One in three women (30%), and one in seven men (14%) report living with intimate violence.
The statistics are startling, because they make it clear, beyond a reasonable doubt, that what we call domestic violence isn’t a small, limited, other people’s problem but a national epidemic affecting 60 million people or 22% of Americans. It’s affected me, my friends, my colleagues, and people I’ve met in person and cyberspace who have shared their experiences—people I never would have guessed had domestic violence in their history.
If you have three daughters, one of them is likely to face this problem.
If your son is on a baseball team, he or one of his teammates will experience abuse.
The fact is, your chances of being raped, beaten, sexually and physically abused, even murdered, are much, much greater with people you know than with people you don’t know. The greatest danger is not the stranger but the person who is right there next to you. The person you eat, breathe, and sleep with every day. Yes, that person. The person with whom you’re “in a relationship.”
When one partner hurts another with fists or words in an intimate relationship, it’s rarely a single, isolated incident, though the victim often treats the first occurrence as such. Abuse follows a pattern, and abusers follow a playbook, using tactics such as physical force and intimidation, financial and emotional withholding, and threats of punishment—physical harm, emotional blackmail, or both—to dominate and control their partners.
What underlies the abusive dynamic? Clearly there’s the abuser’s personality and how it was shaped in childhood—as the saying goes, hurt people hurt people—though not all hurt people grow up to be abusers. In addition, there is often a co-dependent relationship between the abusive and abused partner. Regardless of the personality issues, which are often complex, abuse manifests itself in behavior, and abusers consider abusive behavior not only acceptable but also justified—both a right and a privilege. When they treat another person—a person they claim to love—as lacking rights, less than equal, and deserving punishment and harm, it’s because they feel entitled to do so. And this entitlement is often specific to the intimate relationship. They don’t abuse their bosses, their colleagues, or their friends, which makes the abused partner doubt that anything is wrong. They present their behavior in the relationship as normal and frame their abusive actions as “normal reactions” to things their partners are “doing to them.”
This is not an in-depth exploration of abuse, because the point here is to identify the role of entitlement in abusive relationships, and to set forth a five-point manifesto that I hope will help end it.
1. Our relationship does not entitle you to have sex with me. Not every night. Not every week. Not even once. Not ever. I may be your wife, husband, girlfriend, or boyfriend, but I don’t have to put out. A relationship creates the opportunity for sex but does not guarantee it. Your needs are important, but they don’t ever determine the outcome. If you’re not getting enough, you can leave. Sex is requested, negotiated, and agreed on, and my consent—expressed in words or with clear, non-verbal communication—is always required.
2. Our relationship does not entitle you to treat me with disrespect. There is nothing I can do to you that merits contempt or scorn. You may be upset with me, disappointed, even angry. And you have every right to express your feelings in a healthy, constructive way. But you have no right to insult, mock, demean, or dismiss me, or to treat me as anything but an equal. I don’t stick around where I’m not appreciated.
3. Our relationship does not entitle you to use physical force against me, except in self-defense. If I start beating you up, you have every right to defend yourself and subdue me. Otherwise, you must never strike me, push me, restrain me, or interfere with my physical freedom. You must respect my body space at all times. No matter how angry you are—with me or anything else in your life—and no matter how much you may hurt inside, hurting me physically is never an option. If a stranger attacked me, I would call the police, and our relationship will not prevent me from calling them on you.
4. Our relationship does not entitle you to emotional manipulation, to use my fears and vulnerabilities to hurt me or get your needs met. If I don’t want to do something, I don’t want to do it, and I get to choose not to do it. If you want to convince me, give me a good reason. Show me the benefit for me. If you threaten pain for non-compliance, I will lose all respect for you, instantly. And I will pack my bags (if I live with you) and leave.
5. Our relationship does not entitle you to assume you’re fine and leave your own issues, illnesses, and disorders untreated. Just because I’m dating you, or married to you, I don’t have to accept your hurtful behavior and destructive patterns as givens. You may have hidden these things during courtship. Or I may have ignored all your red flags. Either way, I don’t have to be stuck tolerating stuff in our relationship just because we’re in a relationship. Nothing is permanent, and if you take me or my love for you for granted, you’ll soon find yourself alone.
Whether you keep this list to yourself, share it with your partner, or take it to heart and change your own behavior, my hope is that it will make our fantasy that domestic violence is a small, limited problem real.