Civility and Abuse in the Family

Written by Julia Spann

By Julia Spann, Executive Director

Civility is treating others well, and being treated well by others. That’s it. Civil behavior should be the rule, rather than the exception.

Family violence is an extreme form of incivility.  Of course we cannot go into homes and give five point lessons on civil behavior and eradicate abuse.  We have to find a new way.  I propose we adopt a different model of civic responsibility, one that embraces you and me, all of us, responsible for public behavior and family behavior.

Incivility is the lack of respect.  It’s a continuum of behaviors, with crudeness and rudeness on one end and abuse and violence at the other end.  Incivility, at its core, is hedonistic, selfish, and concerned first and foremost with self.  The same goes for people who are abusive. Family violence is about one person’s need to get and maintain “power over” another.  An abusive person does this with threats, intimidation, control, manipulation, and violence.  Violence is simply a tactic.

The number one risk factor for being a victim of family violence is being a woman. Otherwise, it is equal opportunity, anybody can be abused.  Men are abused, and children are also at extreme risk, but make no mistake, this is primarily a women’s issue.

One in four women are victims of intimate violence in their lifetime.  When you next go to the grocery store or as you sit in church, count them off….one, two, three, abused….one, two, three, abused.

So what can we do?  I believe that even among those of us who are very civil, and would never be abusive toward someone in our family; those same good folk turn our backs on instances of family violence around us.  We turn our backs not because we are bad people, but because we are taught family things are private and it is not our place to comment or to interfere.  Doing something feels uncivil and is really uncomfortable. WE even have a name for it to remind us it is bad: interfering.

I challenge you.  When you see a child getting slapped in the grocery store: that’s your call.  When your nephew repeatedly ridicules and puts his wife down at the family table: that’s your call.  Yelling and banging in the next hotel room? That’s your civic and civil duty.

It feels uncivil to interfere in private matters.  But, I think it is uncivil to allow an imaginary concept of privacy to hide real hurt.  Our civil duty is to the people who are being hurt, and to the village: it’s our call.   It is critically important that the manner in which we engage be respectful, helpful, and kind.  In fact, you can never, never go wrong being kind!

If you see a child slapped in a grocery store, say “You seem really upset, can I help you so you don’t hurt your child?”  You’ve put them on notice that what they are doing isn’t ok, but you are also being kind.  How about at that dinner table if you pulled your nephew aside to say “Brad, take it down a notch, it isn’t okay to talk to Lisa that way!”  This is most effective coming from men – man to man.

Civility grows when we accept our shared responsibility for one another, even in private relationships.  Imagine the difference when we respectfully break the silence and secrecy that cocoons abuse.

Abuse’s greatest ally is privacy.  Victims are threatened not to “tell”.   A battered woman is threatened with “I’ll lose my job” or “then I’ll tell everybody what a horrible wife and mother you are” or “I will come back and kill you.”  Of course, a victim doesn’t tell, it is just too dangerous.  The result is that the secrets and the abuse will live on.  Our inaction is complicity.

I remember an abused woman telling me she saw a doctor for years.  She didn’t have knife wounds or choke marks, but she was always sick from the stress and she routinely had bruises.  The doctor never asked about her safety.  Finally, she said to him “I’ve been coming to you for years and my husband has been abusing me all along.  You never asked if I was safe.”  His response: “You never told me.”  I ask you, who is responsible – the victim or the helper?  We’ve already established the danger she faces.

Years ago the location of SafePlace was secret.  Then, we went public.  It’s been fabulous.  It says to victims, “you do not have to be ashamed to come here.”  It says to abusers “no more secrets”.  It says to the community, “safety is not solely the victim’s responsibility.”

Let’s go further. SafePlace cannot be alone in keeping victims safe. It is ALL OF OUR RESPONSIBILITY. You and me. THIS is civility.

Civility is honorable and courageous.  Imagine we become a community that does not allow incivility even in our most private institution…the family.  That is very brave.  By modeling a form of civility that includes family, and influencing others to do the same, just imagine the number of people we could keep safe.  Can we reduce the one in four?  I believe so.