Defining abuse, violence, or assault

A friend of mine, another abuse survivor, asked me an interesting question. I was going to respond directly to her, but I thought perhaps other people might have the same question.

“Someone recently asked me if I had ever experienced emotional or verbal “violence” by any of my partners. Her use of the word “violence” stopped me. I asked, “Do you mean violence or abuse?” Her response was something like, “Whichever word fits for you.” I can’t stop thinking about that. To me (and the dictionary I consulted), violence requires a physical action. But upon further pondering, I can see how violence could be construed as synonymous with abuse, regardless of the type. I’m curious as to your thoughts on this; you’re the only person I know who has the insight and personal experience to draw on to help come to a conclusion.”

The first thing I did was to hit the dictionaries:

From abuse

verb (used with object)
1.  to use wrongly or improperly; misuse.
2.  to treat in a harmful, injurious, or offensive way.
3. to speak insultingly, harshly, and unjustly to or about.
4.  to commit sexual assault upon.

5.  wrong or improper use; misuse.
6.  harshly or coarsely insulting language.
7.  bad or improper treatment; maltreatment.
8.  a corrupt or improper practice or custom.
9.  rape or sexual assault.

Merriam-Webster was basically the same, so I’m going to assume for space and time sake that they’ll be the same on all the words.

Now for the word violence – noun

1. swift and intense
2. injurious physical force, or treatment.
3. an unjust exertion of force or power, as against rights or laws.
4. a violent act or proceeding.
5. rough or immoderate vehemence, as of feeling or language.

And since it was used to define abuse, I decided to look up assault as well.

1. a sudden, violent attack; onslaught
2. Law. An unlawful physical attack upon another; an attempt or offer to do violence to another, with/without battery.
3. Military. The stage of close combat in an attack.
4. rape.

5. to make an assault upon; attack; assail.

OK, so we got all the technical stuff out of the way. What I see from this, is that all three words could be interchangeable when you take into consideration the 5th definition for violence (immoderate vehemence, as of feeling or language), which pretty much matches the 3rd and 6th definitions of abuse (3. to speak insultingly, harshly, and unjustly to or about. 6. harshly or insulting language.) Assault also relates to these words when you take into consideration definitions 1 and 5.

It’s vital, when discussing domestic violence, to think carefully about our language. There are so many ways to describe DV – physical, emotional, spiritual, sexual, verbal. It can be of only one type, but usually it’s a combination of many (or even all) types.

I’ve probably said this before, but sometimes we don’t even realize we’re being abused (I had never heard of marital rape before the therapy I had after I left). My abuser was heinous and clever, never leaving obvious physical marks (when that was the abuse du jour). My neighbor was married to an alcoholic, and he was a mean drunk. She would have broken bones and bruises on her face. I used to think “Why doesn’t she leave that asshole?” never even considering that I was abused as well. We can be made to believe we either deserved or caused the particular type of behavior. All leave scars (which in general usage is caused by some sort of violence or assault), and in my opinion not one is worse than the other; although some will tell you differently.

So in fact, it is true – “whatever word fits you.” They seem pretty interchangeable to me. They can all define horrific behavior towards a partner, and they are all damaging, each in their own way.

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