3 Kinds of Abuse
by: Jonathan Hart, LPC
There are many kinds of power, and anywhere there is power, there is the potential to abuse it. Not all people who abuse power are abusers. It is possible to be abusive without abuse defining one’s character. Many instances of abused power are either Situational or Contextual rather than Characterological.
“Situational” abusiveness occurs when “we” are having an argument and it escalates. We both “lose control” and cross lines in the heat of a moment. We still need to apologize and take responsibility for our actions across lines, but this is not *characteristic* of who either one of us is at our core, even if it happens “all the time”. What we do and say in these moments is not something we enjoy or approve of.
What I’m calling “Contextual” abusiveness generally occurs in places where one or the other of us does not fully recognize how much power we have in our context, that is, in the culture that we come from. We don’t recognize how our own culture interacts with the culture of another. We don’t have a frame of reference to understand just how much power we have even walking into a room when people unlike ourselves are there. We trample people underfoot or insult them without recognizing what we’re doing.
This is the most common kind of power struggle that shows up in relationships (in my experience). It shows up even when the relationship is not racially or culturally mixed. We all have a family culture that is often more powerful than we understand. We have a set of “normals”: expectations that come from our customary experience and which we often simply take for granted. These are almost invariably different from the person with whom we are in relationship, because they have a different family.
Normally, this leads to all manner of conflict and argument in a couple’s relationship. People in healthy relationships learn how to adapt to these differences and continue to function. Many folks – even those in healthy relationships – need help in recognizing each person’s blind spots and learning how to value or at least account for the other person’s family culture.
Oppression or “Characterological abusiveness” in relationship happens when I treat my “normal” as the only “right” way to operate and refuse to take the other person’s different “normal” into account. It happens when I attempt to coerce (force, deceive, confuse) the other into my way of being and operating as the only acceptable mode. It happens when I know what kind of power I have and I knowingly and deliberately misuse that power to gain victory or control over another person. The thing that separates this from Contextual is a lack of willingness or ability to bend and learn.
My aim with this post is to help the reader develop language and understanding around the pain they are experiencing in relationship, to be able to seek the help they need more accurately, and by finding that help, to connect with hope in what often seems to be an overwhelmingly hopeless situation. –JH