How do you define abuse - sexual, physical, mental, etc.?

Mar 29, 2017

Cathy: What is abuse and when should you be concerned about it? This is Dr. Liz from Sex-Positive Psych.


Liz: This is Cathy Vartuli from The Intimacy Dojo. So to start out, we have a definition from the National Domestic Violence Hotline, “Abuse is a repetitive pattern of behaviors to maintain power and control over an intimate partner. These are behaviors that physically harm, arouse fear, prevent the partner from doing what they wish or force them to behave in ways that they do not want. Abuse includes the use of physical and sexual violence, threats and intimidation, emotional abuse, and economic deprivation. Many of these different of abuse can be going on at any one time.”


Cathy: And if you think you’re being abused or you’re concerned about it, we really encourage you to reach out professional help. There are hotlines and resources out there.

One of the reasons we’re talking about this right now is we know there’s a lot of really amazing resources out there, one where anyone who is in a situation when they need help to get it. And we’ve seen the word sometimes used in – abuse being used to apply to situations where we don’t necessarily see malicious intent and …

Liz: I think – yeah. And this is a really sticky issue.

Cathy: Yes.

Liz: From a psychological perspective depending on how far you zoom out, realistically, almost all abusive behaviors come from someone’s own psychopathology, right? And so, at what point do you draw the line between someone who is acting out of their triggers in a way that is unhelpful or toxic? What is the difference between toxic behavior and abusive behavior and how do you make those delineations?

And I think the concern for me that comes up is I see a lot of people talking about things as abuse that are absolutely toxic and negative and harmful but that seem as though they are not necessarily the sorts of things that that definition we just read would include.

Cathy: Right. And sadly, there are millions of people that are being abused that aren’t getting help for various reasons. They may not have the resources or the education or the awareness of it. And there are also people that maybe experiencing negative behavior from someone they love or someone they are close to and it’s really easy to say that person is abusing me or is abusive when perhaps they are not being very clean about things. And I would like to see things be cleaner.

But again, you talked about there are some other definitions. I really care about the word. I think that it’s so important for the people that are victims of this to have a powerful word. And I don’t like seeing it applied in places where there is a lot of power and choice on both sides and someone makes a mistake or someone is – I mean we all have our own stuff. There is no way – like we just spent the weekend together and I’m sure I stepped on your toes sometimes. But we need to work. It’s awkward. There was never the intention for that. There wasn’t the intention to control and I’m willing to clean things up if that happens.

Liz: Sure.

Cathy: And sometimes when people are overwhelmed especially if several people are overwhelmed in a group, it’s really easy to just go, “Oh my god! That person is so bad.”

Liz: Yeah.

Cathy: And it’s hard to delineate when we’re talking about. It’s so challenging. And unfortunately, there are people that are often abused that don’t define it that way. I know I didn’t define that my father sexually abused me as a child. I didn’t define it that way. I didn’t define it as abuse because that was just what was normal to me.

Liz: Right.

Cathy: And there are millions of people that don’t define abuse as abuse that is abuse and then there are sometimes when we’re really triggered that we might assign bullying to someone who is actually not abusing us.

Liz: I think – so, what we know about confirmation bias is that our brain selectively filters out things that confirm what we already believe. So when you are triggered, you’re in your fight or flight response. Your sympathetic nerve system is activated. And so, it’s going to be selectively looking for threats. It is going to over perceive what could be a threat because from a safety perspective, it’s the best way for your body to keep you alive, right?

And I think that when we’re in that state, it is very easy to perceive malicious intent or to selectively attend to the more negative parts of something that happens in a way that colors our perception to be significantly different from what may have happened.

Cathy: Yeah. And again, really problematic because people …

Liz: But that’s not your fault. Like it’s not – I don’t think that either of us are saying that there are people out there who are like crying wolf about abuse. I think that there are people who genuinely feel as though what they experienced was something abusive. And I think what I’m asking for is for us to find the spaces nuance in these conversations.

Cathy: Yes, which is challenging especially when people are overwhelmed. And we are not in any way saying that you should stay with anyone who is bad for you whether it’s abusive or they’re just toxic or really confused.

Liz: Or even just a bad fit.

Cathy: Right. If I step all of over you all weekend even if it was not by mistaken konky, you should not come back.

Liz: Sure.

Cathy: You should say, “Hey, I’ve got to leave now.”

Liz: Right. Or I can come to you and say like, “Hey, these things that you did were not OK with me. How do we move forward from here?”

Cathy: Yeah. Or this is my bottom line if you ever do these things again. I’m not coming back. So we’re not all endorsing, oh please stay with somebody. That’s not what we’re saying.

Liz: No.

Cathy: But there is a nuance – there are nuances of abuse. And as someone who was abused when I was a powerless child, it took a lot to reclaim that ownership of what happened. And when we use the word “abuse” toward something that’s not necessarily malicious or intended, again, I think we can forward to a certain extent and also puts the person on the other side. Like if you just said, “I was abusing you” that gives me no way forward. There is no – I’m suddenly a bad person.

Liz: Well yeah, in particular situations in particular. So if I say to you like, “I think that you abused me this weekend.” And then I’ve never wanted …

Cathy: By drinking Starbucks coffee.

Liz: … drinking Starbucks. Right. And then I don’t ever want to see you again. But I love that there is a possibility for both to change or that this may have been an aberration and I see you making strides to change behavior or learning behaviors or be different in a way that you talk about things and/or I also make changes of the ways that I approach my boundaries and how I assert my boundaries and how I communicate about things. I think that’s a very different situation than me coming to you and saying, “You abuse me all weekend. You’re a terrible human being. No one should ever work with you again.”

Cathy: Right. And yeah, that’s a big difference. And you’re certainly allowed to have your boundary and stuff.

Liz: Absolutely.

Cathy: I don’t want to ever be with you. But to decide for other people is – I think it’s useful there are times I’m really grateful to be in a community where people will call things out. I went, “Oh, I don’t want to be with that person because of things that they’ve done or I don’t want to be – like I’ll be more cautious and see how it is.”

But I want – one of my passions is that we can make mistakes and clean them up. And when there are people – abuse to me often implies a difference in power. And if I feel like someone – there are powerful people involved that make choices like I was – I’ve been interacting with someone who is going through a really rough time, I was really passive-aggressive for a while. It was not fun and I finally said no more of that. No more of the passive-aggressive stuff.

But the whole time the passive-aggressive went on, I was choosing to show up. I was saying, “Yes, I want to continue this relationship.” So to me, it was never abuse. It was never abusive. It was me showing up and until I set a boundary and said no more, if that continued then I would have had to leave for myself. And it’s so hard because different people perceive their ability to leave very differently.

Liz: Right.

Cathy: But I think it’s also about the bounds of power.

Liz: Yeah. And I think there are some people who because of their past trauma or because of different circumstances in their lives or because of different demographic and stuff they hold, feel more disempowered in general than other people. And so, it’s much easier for them to perceive that they are in a power differential situation even when they may have choices that they aren’t seeing.

Cathy: Yeah. So we don’t have any hard and fast rules about this. But we invite people to have – the nuances are really important. And our community is sophisticated enough that I think it’s important to talk about. It’s a very difficult discussion. It’s a very challenging discussion to talk about abuse and the nuances around it. And when is it two people engaged in a dialogue that’s not working for them and we all dance with each other, sometimes we step on each other’s toes, is there malicious intent? Is there – or are there people reacting to things going on in their environment?

Liz: Yeah. We’ll put a link below for the Rush Mind Consent Violation Internet Response Model. And what I really like about that model that I think applies to these situations as well is that their first premise is that they trust everyone’s intent until they know that they can’t. I think that it is very easy when you hear an accusation of abuse or an accusation of someone harming another person to lose that nuance and lose that ability to determine whether – like how that changes things for you.

In my view, if someone comes to me and says, “This person you know did this thing that was abusive.” My next step is to go out to that person and say, “Hey, I’m hearing these things about you. I need to talk to you about this because I need to know what was going on.” I need to hear from them where they were at, what their perception is not because I think that they know more or better than the person accusing all of those problematic behaviors but because I think that in a lot of situations, the truth is somewhere in the middle. And that it’s my obligation as someone who cares about this community to hear people out and then make a decision based on all of the information that I could get.

Cathy: So again, this is a challenging discussion.

Liz: Very challenging.

Cathy: It’s not pointed to anyone.

Liz: No.

Cathy: And I just – I think that if we can find a way so that people can have open dialogues, talk to all sides of the party rather than like we’ve seen in the politics lately, it’s really easy to like with the election, everybody is jumping on one side or another and there’s a lot of false information easily going around. And again, not accusing anybody of falsehood …

Liz: No.

Cathy: But it’s really good to have a bound – like make sure that the understanding the situation and giving people space to redeem themselves. Our community is so precious to me and I know that it’s really easy to mess up. People make mistakes. I don’t want …

Liz: I make mistakes like – and I think I said this in another video, over a long enough timeline, we will all do something that can be perceived as abusive. Each and every one of us no matter who you are or how hard you try, we all have landmines that people are going to trip on that will bring out the very worst in us. And that doesn’t make us all monsters.

Cathy: Yeah. And our community is too precious to me that I don’t want to watch it implode from the inside where we’re turning out on each other. I would rather, “Hey, that really sucked. I need you not to ever do that again. And how can I help you, if I have the reserves, how can I help you clean this up? How can we figure out a way to make sure that other people are aware not to step on that point or that landmine?”

Liz: Yeah.

Cathy: Or whatever it is. And it’s just – it’s a really tough decision. By doing this again, we’re just trying to open the dialogue.

Liz: Right.

Cathy: We’d really love to hear what you think.

Liz: Please. Leave us comments. We want to hear what you think. We want to hear about what the considerations are for you, what the challenges are for you because this is hard for all of us.

Cathy: Yeah. My personal email is

Liz: I’m

Cathy: So if you prefer not to message publicly, we are open especially if you have a lot of really intense feelings. We encourage you to message us privately. Let’s deal with stuff. And I like the community to build each other up and strengthen each other. And that’s really important to me.

Liz: I’ve heard other people say a lot of us are warriors. We are a community of people who are activists, who are good at fighting. And sometimes we turn that on each other in a way that is productive and sometimes we turn that on each other in a way that is really harmful. And I think that what I would love is for us to find ways to continue these dialogues, to continue conversations with each other where like we’re all doing the best we can with the tools we have. And so, how do we respect that in each other?

Cathy: Yeah. Thanks very much. Please leave comments below. We really do upgrading all of us, myself …

Liz: Absolutely.

Cathy: A dialogue is really important to this community. What we’re doing is so valuable. So thank you for taking the time to watch. We’d love to know what you think. And we hope this gives you something to think about too.

Liz: Absolutely. Thank you.

Cathy: So I just want to add, I’m going to change the title. Make sure you don’t cut out this little section. We’d like to have a very difficult discussion about the definition of abuse.

Liz: This is a really difficult topic. And so, we are going to be talking about different kind – like definitions of abuse, what abusive behavior might look like, how to respond to abuse. If any of those are topics that are triggering for you, go on to the next video.



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