Can It Really Go That Far: Escalation in Domestic Violence

By Amy Thomson

It is possible for boundaries in healthy relationships to be moved to accommodate changes, needs, or wants – provided that both partners openly discuss and consent to any changes that occur. The changes made under those conditions are a healthy part of growth, as they neither invalidate one partner in favor of the other nor put either party at risk.

In cases of domestic violence, boundaries are constantly shifting. Although those on the outside may feel as though both parties are in agreement with changes, this is not the case. Abusers often push back against boundaries in small increments to test how their victim is responding to the priming process. Although there are general predictors of violence, there is no way to pinpoint how every abuser acts with perfect accuracy.

The common thread in all domestic violence cases is the control the abuser seeks to hold over their victim. This is achieved through a combination of love bombing – overwhelming the intended victim with affection in a manner that progresses much faster than usual – as well as gaslighting, manipulation, and varying forms of intimidation and coercion.

During the initial phase of the relationship, the abuser focuses on presenting themselves as being kind, compassionate, loving, and supportive. They put forth great effort into affecting a persona that allows them to mislead their victim into believing their bond is one of love. Later, when the victim senses something is going wrong, the abuser uses this phase of the relationship as proof that the victim is the cause of stress in the relationship.

“He was just having a bad day. He’d never hurt me on purpose.”

The history of the relationship has shown the abuser to be kind and patient. When seemingly-isolated instances of belittling or name-calling occur, it is easy to excuse as being caused by stress or speaking out of anger. It seems small at the moment, but this is a sign that the abuser is introducing small amounts of negativity into the relationship to desensitize their victim to its presence in the relationship. Over time, the belittling, name-calling, and demeaning words become a common occurrence. Everyone has bad days, but it is never okay to demean or devalue a partner. Once the abuser senses their victim has been conditioned appropriately, they will escalate to the next level.

“Those are only words. He’d never follow through with threats.”

Abusers use threats to intimidate their victims into complying with their demands. Threats are levied as veiled or direct. Veiled threats might be worded in a manner that implies a type of punishment will follow but is not explicitly stated. (i.e., “The next time I ask you to do something, you are going to do it, aren’t you?”) Direct threats leave little to the imagination. (i.e., “Talk back to me again, and I will send you to work with a black eye.”) Other threats can be even more distressing and involve implied risk to children or pets. Never assume that the abuser will not follow through with their threats; there is no way to predict which ones they will make good on, and they will follow through on enough to show you they are serious.

“He was frustrated and hit the wall near me, but he’d never hit me.”

Veiled messages can also be delivered with actions. A victim might reason an outburst of rage on an object as the abuser not wanting to hurt them. However, this is not the case. Hitting a wall or throwing something to deliberately miss someone carries two messages: one, they could hit the victim if they wanted to, and two, it is a warning not to do whatever prompted that response again.

“He hit me once, but he’d never really hurt me. I probably deserved it.”

First, no act of abuse is the victim’s fault and nothing they do can ever justify the abuse.

When an abuser hits their victim for the first time, it is a sign that they will be willing to use physical force on their partner again. Quite possibly, they will escalate the physical violence without fear of any consequences. It may take a while for the abuser to worsen the level violence used against their victim, but it is likely to occur and could include significant physical assault, rape, or strangulation. (Studies show that abusers who use strangulation against their victims are at high risk for killing their partner.)

The danger of escalation to extreme acts of violence is not restricted to relationships where physical abuse occurs. There are cases where the relationship bears the hallmarks of toxicity – selfishness, lack of respect for boundaries, manipulation, and infidelity – but may not necessarily indicate abuse. It might be natural to expect a negative experience in ending such a relationship, but violence would not be anticipated. Risk always exists where violence can occur as retribution; such attacks can range from rape and assault to stabbings or shootings, setting the victim on fire, or acid attacks.

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