Once upon a time, a friend of mine had a total meltdown talking to me: I’m talking about full-on uncontrollable hysterics, to the point that I could not understand what she was trying to tell me until half an hour later when she’d finished sobbing and screeching. When she eventually calmed down enough to talk, the shocking revelation was that her husband would use the f-word when they had a disagreement.
Yes, folks: that was it. Her husband didn’t beat her or violate her or shout at her or threaten her or intimidate her or socially isolate her or financially control her or berate her or blame her or play mind games. All he did was occasionally drop the f-bomb in order to influence her behaviour.
Had he done the same to me, he would have gotten a pretty poor response. The only way in which anyone’s swearing affects me is inasmuch as it affects my opinion of them. (While I use plenty of swears as exclamations or adjectives, I don’t much hold with swearing at people. Yes, it’s idiosyncratic.) I wager many people’s reactions would be closer to mine than to those of my friend. Thing is, we aren’t the people at the receiving end of the behaviour. My friend was: the swearing was specifically aimed at her (the guy didn’t habitually swear), and she couldn’t deal with it. Not only it upset her, but it shamed her into silence, because she didn’t want to be “one of those women whose husbands swear at them.”
Now, it is tempting to class the entire thing as a non-issue. It could be that my friend was simply over-sensitive, and needed to toughen up and/or let it go. I’m a horribly suspicious bastard, though, and my money’s on another possibility. I wager that the guy was the cleverest abuser I’ve ever met.
My friend had a pretty solid social group with whom she was in regular contact. There were a number of forms of abuse she was immune to purely through having so many people ready and willing to fight for her; people who just wouldn’t have taken being dislodged from her life. As a manly-man domly-dom douchenozzle, his options were pretty limited. The least hint of physical abuse would have landed him in a police cell. That didn’t matter, though, because he didn’t need to go that far. He had found the perfect handle to manipulate her; the one thing he could do that would hurt her hard enough to make her go entirely untogether; the thing that she would find so shaming that she wouldn’t mention it to anyone; the thing that, even if she ever did mention it, most people would probably have dismissed as over-sensitivity on her part. Maximum rewards and minimum risks. Bingo.
The whole incident made me reconsider my internal classification of what is “abuse.” Seems to me that it’s less about what is being dished out per se, than why and to whom. I’m still working on a word definition, but it’s along the lines of “deliberately using excessive force (in the broadest sense of “force”) for the specific purpose of the long-term non-consensual manipulation and/or injury of another person.” Or not. Something like that, anyway. Which would be no use whatsoever in a court of law, but as a personal compass serves me just fine.