Read: Listening to my neighbors fight
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.