Abusive relationships don’t exist

Do you have any pet “hates”? I have heaps, let me tell you! The one that probably gets under my skin the most is when people talk about “abusive relationships.”  Abusive relationships aren’t real. They simply do not exist.

Abusive relationships don’t exist?

Am I saying that domestic violence doesn’t happen? No, quite the opposite. What I’m saying is that perpetrators are the source of the abuse, not the relationship. A “relationship” is a social construct- like time, money, fashion, or race- it cannot be the source of violence. It’s just a label we’ve given to something that we’ve ascribed meaning to based on our shared understanding of how we perceive our social reality. In other words, it has no agency.  A relationship is no more able to be abusive than is time. Ow! 5PM, that hurt!
[click_to_tweet tweet=”Abusive relationships don’t exist; just abusive people. Relationships have no agency; abusers do” quote=”Abusive relationships don’t exist; just abusive people. Relationships have no agency; abusers do.” theme=”style4″]

Is it just semantics?

Not to me. If we say that a relationship is abusive then that means that the relationship is the source of the abuse. If the relationship is the source of the abuse, then it means that both partners are being abused- or at the very least is it unclear who is being abused and who is abusing.
Side note: I am a word-nerd. There is something deeply satisfying about finding the perfect word to specifically describe what you need it to, and the word we are looking for right about now, is obfuscation:

Do you see what just happened?

By saying “abusive relationship” instead of “perpetrator” or “abuser,” we have shared out responsibility for the violence to both parties. This means the victim is now somewhat responsible for the violence and the perpetrator does not have to be held fully accountable for his/her actions.
A strategy of a perpetrator is to evade responsibility. They do this by:
  • minimising the abuse: acting like the violence wasn’t a big deal, oris being blown out of proportion;
  • denying the violence: acting like it didn’t happen;
  • excusing the abuse: acting like they should be permitted an allowance for their mistake because it was justified; or
  • blaming the victim for the abuse: holding the victim responsible for the abuse, by virtue of the view that the victim deserved it in some way or brought it on themselves.
This helps them to maintain their control and continue to be abusive. Perpetrators are enabled to be abusive because society largely supports them. I’m not saying people outrightly cheer them on or anything. It’s much more ingrained and much more subtle than that.

Small actions can have profound implications 

It’s little things that show the abuser the way they are behaving isn’t that bad, like asking the victim what she was wearing when she was sexually assaulted- as if that had anything to do with it. It’s the constant message women are sent that they won’t be believed; that they are not worthy; that it’s partially (or solely) their fault- that it’s the “relationship” that is violent, so they kinda deserved what they got by virtue of being in the relationship. You know, because it’s so easy to leave and all. All of these tiny little beliefs, attitudes and behaviours that we’ve been socially trained to partake in, tell perpetrators that their behaviour isn’t that bad, that they’re kinda just victims in this whole thing because they’re basically entitled to dominate women that way.
So that’s why it makes my skin crawl- because it makes us colluders with abusers. It helps mask the violence, blame the victim, and protect the perpetrator.

The way we talk about stuff matters

Seems so minuscule, but the way that we use language- the way that we talk everyday, can either perpetuate inequality and injustice; or it can interrupt the attitudes, thoughts and actions that sustain and enable violence against women. Yes- your words make a difference! We have more power to disrupt domestic violence and create social change than we realise.
[click_to_tweet tweet=”Your words are a social change tool. Wield them with intent” quote=”Your words are a social change tool. Wield them with intent.” theme=”style1″]
What do you reckon? Hit reply (below) and let me know! I’d love to hear your thoughts.


  1. Soha Zain says:

    Reading this article is quite thought-provoking. I am in total confusion right now. Need help. I love my family, and everything has been great for the last six years, but suddenly, my hubby has changed his ways. Now, often he misbehaves, not physically but certainly, his sudden behavior change is enough to give me mental torture. For the last six months, I am bearing it, but now I am thinking will it change or I am wasting my time in this marriage. I have tried to talk about this situation several times, but he denies it completely and walks out of the room. Need your expert advice.

    • Heidi says:

      Hi Soha,

      Than you for dropping by. I am sorry to hear about the way your husband is behaving. If he is completely denying his abusive behaviour and unwilling to discuss it, it does make it very tricky to address. The first thing I would suggest is to talk to a counsellor or support worker (you can try 1-800-RESPECT or 1800respect.org.au). This will be a good opportunity to talk through your feelings, consider different strategies (for example there are men’s behavioural change programs that he might be willing to go to if the alternative is that he loses you), but most importantly put a plan in place for your safety.

  2. Julie says:

    I thought you were going to say that domestic violence isn’t real. Such a good point though, I hadn’t thought of that issue before. I know I wont say that anymore, as I dont think it’s helpful (after reading this). Cheers

    • Heidi says:

      Hey Julie. Thanks for your comment. <3 I agree- there are other ways to talk about perpetrators where we don't become complicit. Every little bit helps hold perpetrators accountable and let survivors know it's not their fault.

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