The Term ‘Domestic Violence’ Is a Failure

The phrase is cold and sterile, conveying nothing of the terror that victims feel.

Selman Design

I met a woman once whose husband threw golf balls in front of her face as she drove down the highway, in an effort to both terrify her and establish his dominance and fearlessness. Then there was the teenager who told me how her father used to sit at the kitchen table and spin his pistol around as a reminder of his power and authority; he kept his loaded guns hanging on the wall like art. In researching my new book, No Visible Bruises, I met a woman whose husband had brought home a rattlesnake and kept it in a cage, threatening her with its presence to ensure her compliance.

The English language has a name for this kind of viciousness, a catchall phrase for this particular brand of human meanness: domestic violence.

But as a term, domestic violence is wholly inadequate, failing to capture the nightmare that people experience. For other kinds of terrible events, English has terms, dark and foreboding, that vividly communicate the situations they describe. Genocide, for example. Crimes against humanity. Holocaust. They are all abstractions—fundamentally just a bunch of phonemes cobbled together—that nevertheless conjure startling images. As I type these words, pictures form in my mind: starvation, disease, torture. They are a kind of shorthand for the worst that humans inflict on one another.

Domestic violence does little of this. It doesn’t convey the psychological terror of knowing that a snake could be slipped into bed while you’re sleeping, or the emotional betrayal of having a loaded gun toyed with as a threat from someone who has complete control over your life. At its worst, domestic violence suggests complicity in one’s victimhood. One chooses one’s partner, after all.

The word domestic is where the trouble begins. Domestic has a blunted feel, connected as it is with the idea of “home.” Violence that is domestic is somehow a softer, less brutal violence.

And then there is the gendering this term implies. Many people still tend to associate the world of the domestic with the world of women, relegating the problem to a “women’s issue,” or a “private” one, and not one for all of society.

The story of Doug McLeod, the Mississippi representative who allegedly punched his wife recently, illustrates the point: Just days after the incident, the couple issued joint statements that focused on “the twisting of information” in media reports, though they did not say what those reports had gotten wrong. The statements in no way actually addressed his alleged violence. Instead, they spoke of the incident as a “private” matter and asked that the public respect the “family’s privacy.” This is precisely the kind of framing that keeps domestic violence from being seen as a criminal act—and criminal acts are public problems. If a stranger came up to Michele McLeod, punched her in the face, and then asked for “privacy,” I feel confident that the couple would be issuing a very different statement. The notion that this violence is “domestic” somehow enables the idea that it is “private.”

I should mention here that my book has the term in its subtitle, the words boldly crossing the cover: What We Don’t Know About Domestic Violence Can Kill Us. Astute readers might presume I had some resistance to this subtitle, and those astute readers would be correct. In fact, it was a months-long, simmering, entirely passive and polite fight in which, strangely, all parties in question—from me to my editors to sales and marketing people and even my agent—were somehow in total agreement. “It’s shorthand,” I told them, “for something most people don’t understand and aren’t interested in.”

Yes, they agreed.

“It’s easily dismissed.”

Yes, they agreed.

“It’s not an apt description of the reality.”

Yes, they agreed.

“We need a better way to describe it.”

Yes, they agreed.

So how did it wind up on the cover?

Because it is still the best option available. For now anyway. Because No Visible Bruises: What We Don’t Know About Wife Beating Can Kill Us is a million times worse for reasons so obvious, they need not be named. While everyone in my publisher’s office understood my resistance and, indeed, agreed with me, everyone also understood the larger cultural context into which this book was being released: that while the phrase domestic violence was troublesome for all kinds of reasons, it was also the commonly understood, commonly used term for what I was writing about. It may fail to capture the terror I’m writing about, but at least people have a passing acquaintance with it. And it’s the passing acquaintance that put it on the cover. So my book, much as I love it, carries right there on the cover a reminder of our collective failure to name and understand the exact problem my book is about.

I’m not alone in my frustration over the term. Researchers I’ve spoken with tell me they have tried for many years to find a more apt description. Today, some scholars and advocates prefer terms such as intimate-partner violence, family violence, familial violence, dating violence, intimate-partner terrorism, and domestic abuse. They are all used in the literature, but each comes up short. Intimate partner leaves out, for example, dating violence, or abuse of a child by a parent. Family violence has limitations for those not related to each other through blood or marriage.

What would be better?

For help, I turned to my friend Deborah Tannen. Tannen is a sociolinguist at Georgetown University and the author of numerous books on language and communication, including You Just Don’t Understand, about how men and women communicate differently, and the recent You’re Wearing That?, which looks at mother-daughter communication. We began by discussing how domestic violence was supposed to be an improvement on what people used to call it: wife beating or battered-woman syndrome. Strangely, there are ways in which wife beating was better. It certainly conjures an image. Battered-woman syndrome, on the other hand, not only failed to acknowledge men and children as victims, but, through its passive construction, kept the perpetrators of such violence cloaked by a kind of linguistic finesse.

As Tannen and I spoke, the thing we kept coming back to was that domestic violence just doesn’t capture what victims say they have experienced—that, in their telling, the physical abuse is usually far less treacherous than the psychological and emotional abuse. The worst part of victimhood is the dread, the fear of what can happen, the fear of what an abuser could do, and that is really what’s at the core of understanding the stress of such a relationship. A victim of domestic violence lives in a heightened state of vigilance, tiptoeing around an abuser every minute of every day. Of the examples I opened with, none involved physical beatings. None of those women—they were all women—ever had broken bones, for example. None of them ever had a black eye. And yet researchers compare the psychological stress of people who live under such conditions to that of prisoners of war. Certainly the same tactics of isolation, humiliation, and brainwashing are at play.

Tannen and I worked for a long time that day to come up with a different term, a more encapsulating phrase. We are working on it still. But even in our conversation, there was a word that we both kept returning to throughout our call: terrorism.

This word, of course, has its own associations these days. Towers falling down. Suicide bombers in public markets. Pairing it with domestic only makes matters worse—the phrase means something else entirely.

But terror is also precisely the feeling of those living inside a home where a partner, a parent, or another loved one is the biggest threat to their life. “Terrorism carries that notion of fear,” Tannen said, finally. “Beating only captures the pain of the moment. Terrorism captures the lifelong effect of that pain.” And that, more than anything else, is the story that needs to be told.