The “domestic violence problem”- an issue with language

In social service and community mental health settings, domestic violence tends to be talked about in a very general or vague way. For example, clinicians may say, “the family has a domestic violence problem”. Or they may say, “the parents were involved in domestic violence”. Or even, when referring to a victim of domestic violence, they were in a domestic violence relationship”.

What do these commonly heard phrases really mean? How does a family get a “domestic violence problem”? How does one become involved in a “domestic violence relationship”? Putting it in these words makes it sound quite ambiguous, like something just sadly but inexplicably happened to create violence between two or more people. Does no one know where the “domestic violence problem” is actually coming from?

Well, we do know. We know exactly where the problem comes from, and we know precisely how a family becomes violent one. At least one person in the family has to perpetrate violence against at least one other person in the family. This is the root cause of violence in relationships: someone at some point has to make a choice to behave in a violent manner. It is unlikely that everyone in a family will have equal power or influence when it comes to the perpetration of violence. Parents generally have more power than children. In our culture, men generally have more power than women. And often one person has more access to money and other resources. These and other factors influence who has power in a family system, and who does not. Access to power and desire for control significantly influence who is more likely to perpetrate violence in a relationship. Using specific language that references the power differentials within relationship is a more accurate way to describe family dynamics and provides necessary information for proceeding with treatment.

There is also an important distinction between using violence to obtain power and control in other people, and using violence as a way to defend yourself against an abusive person who is targeting you. Using specific language helps us pinpoint the actual cause of domestic violence in a family and releases victims from harmful blaming or dismissive attitudes. By using generalizing terms such as “domestic violence in the family”, we lose the important details about what roles each person in the family played and how very different interventions will be appropriate for family members depending on their role.

We can easily shift our language to be more accurately describe domestic violence, and what the dynamics more realistically look like in family systems. We can say, “There is a violent person in the family”. Or “This parent was a perpetrator of domestic violence.” Or “They were in a relationship with an abusive person.” These are subtle changes, but extremely important ones. They provide far greater insight into the specific situations that people affected by domestic violence experience.