Asking about Abusiveness
Our usual ways of understanding heterosexual domestic violence, combined with traditional ideas about gender, can stop you from recognizing female abusers and helping male victims. Rather than rely on gender stereotypes, you should ask both men and women about both their partner’s behavior and their own, and pay attention to the behavioral and non-verbal cues you get while they are talking with you. Recognize that most abusers are male, but do not assume that all abusers are men or that all victims are women.
Screening for abusiveness is particularly important with LGBTQ people seeking service, because there is a heightened risk of abusers posing as victims and accessing shelter. “What would happen if we offered the wrong services to the wrong person? We could place the survivor in danger or in jail and potentially send the message that it was their fault the abuse happened. We could also place the abuser in support services that validate the abuser and tell them they are not to blame for the abuse. We might place the abuser in a confidential shelter or help the abuser get a restraining order against a survivor. This could help the abuser find the survivor or turn a survivor away from services that they need. If we give the wrong services to the wrong person because we are not screening, people get hurt.”1
After hearing whatever the client tells you about being abused, you can ask tactfully about their own behavior. Again – put the questions in context.
- Have you ever hurt, or been afraid you would hurt, your partner?
- Have you ever hit your partner or hurt her/him in some other way?
- Is your partner afraid of you? Have you ever tried to frighten her/him?
- Have you ever followed her/him around or monitored her/his behavior?
- What would your partner say if I asked them these questions about you?
Pay attention to red flags for abusiveness.
- Demanding to be seen as a victim.
- Feeling victimized and angry.
- Blaming partner, minimizing their own behavior and making excuses.
- Exaggerating their own injuries and minimizing their partner’s.
- Dismissive of partner’s feelings and opinions.
- Refuses to cooperate with partner’s attempts to get help.
- Saying that everything that went wrong in prior relationships was ex-partner’s fault.
- History of threats, violence toward other people, non-domestic crime, or weapons use.
Recognize the limits of your knowledge. There is no way to know for sure that someone is not abusive to their partner, because batterers are skilled manipulators.
- They act differently in public than when they’re alone with their partner.
- They convincingly present themselves as victims. In fact, they may insist on being seen as victims. What makes them even more convincing is the fact that they genuinely feel victimized if their partner resists their control.
- They blame their behavior on external factors – alcohol, anger, etc.
- They give innocent explanations for abusive behavior. “I just want her to talk to me and understand how I feel, and she thinks I’m stalking her!”
- Blame their behavior on their partner. “She’s a bitch.” “He hit me first.”