What Intimate Partner Violence Can Teach Us About Political Violence and Calls for Unity

Today is inauguration day. Biden and Harris have just been sworn in. Things can finally go back to normal. It’s going to be OK now. 

Right? It’s going to be OK… isn’t it? 

This post has taken me quite a while to write. I started it two weeks ago after the Capitol was attacked in an effort to stop the counting of the Electoral College vote, with many of those who stormed the building hoping to hold lawmakers and officials accountable for what they had been led to believe was treason. I don’t want to say that these events were surprising. They weren’t… not for anyone who’s aware of the deep political and social divides that have been on display in the US recently. But even if these events weren’t surprising, they were still shocking, and surreal. Like a slow motion replay of an injury to an athlete: you know what’s coming, but knowing what’s coming doesn’t make it any less stomach-turning to see it actually happening.

In the aftermath of that, in trying to make sense of what we’ve seen on a national level, my mind has repeatedly been drawn back to work that I’ve done with survivors of intimate partner violence (IPV) and domestic violence (DV). I want to use this post to share some of my reflections, and some of the parallels I see between that work and what as been playing out on a national scale. 

This post is imperfect. I know that. I’m sure there are ways that my analysis goes too far and the analogies break down as they’re applied to systems as large as a nation of 330+ million people, or as small as a relationship between two people. I’m also pretty confident that there are ways that others can take the analogy further and help to illuminate the dynamics at play on micro and macro levels here. I invite you to share from either perspective if you have something to add to the conversation. 

Power and Control

One of the most important principles to understand related to intimate partner violence is that it—the overt violence—isn’t just about the physical abuse that is sometimes the most obvious manifestation, or an “anger management” problem. Intimate partner violence is almost always about exerting and maintaining power and control in a relationship. The physical assaults are often the most dangerous (and sometimes deadly) tools to exert power and control, but they are almost never the only tool an abuser will employ. Financial control. Social isolation. Emotional abuse. Threats. Coercion. Intimidation. Denial and minimization. Blaming the survivor of abuse for causing it. Each of these plays a role in setting the stage for violence (e.g. making it harder for a survivor to potentially leave or end an abusive relationship when violence does occur). When these other methods of exerting power and control “work” it can sometimes decrease an abuser’s feeling that they need to use physical violence to keep power in the relationship, but even without physical violence, these constitute abuse within a relationship. 

On social media, I’ve seen people conflating the Black Lives Matter protests we witnessed over the course of 2020 with the attacks on the Capitol we witnessed this January. But from an Intimate Partner Violence perspective, the differences are clear: one is an affirmation of the value of the inherent worth of survivors of systemic, cyclical violence and a healthy refusal to continue walking on eggshells when they have seen time and again that walking on eggshells doesn’t stop the violence, power, and control that have been targeted at them. The other is a violent escalation aimed at regaining power and control when there are signs that that control might be slipping… literally people acting on behalf of the person who holds the most powerful office in the country in a violent effort to let that person keep hold of power.

I’m reminded of a survivor I once worked with who came into session and told me how they had destroyed their partner’s phone because they were so angry about something their partner had said to them. That act—destroying someone’s phone, cutting them off from communicating with their external supports—can be a serious red flag for abuse. But what message would I have sent to my client in that moment if I had focused solely on the damaged phone or label my client’s behavior as “abusive”? As an isolated incident, breaking a phone is really concerning. But in the context of the cycle of abuse my client was experiencing—sometimes with assaults that would leave my client unconscious—destroying the phone was an act of resistance** to the broader system of power and control that allowed the abuse in their relationship to continue. 

**It was also incredibly dangerous. Resisting, challenging or disrupting the dynamics of power and control in an abusive relationship is inherently dangerous because it often results in an escalation by the abuser in order to re-establish that control. Resistance is met with backlash. Paradoxically, for many survivors of abusive relationships, silence is the safer alternative… at least in the short term. But short-term safety doesn’t always lead to long-term safety. This mirrors what we saw over the summer of 2020 as demonstrators who marched in the streets to protest police violence were met with… more police violence. Militarization. Provocation. Backlash. The same paradox: it’s unsafe to be Black. It’s unsafe to protest anti-Blackness. 

Linear vs. Cyclical

As humans, our understanding of time, of cause-and-effect tends to be linear: this happened, then this happened, then this happened, then it resulted in this. Now a new thing is happening and it led to this, and so on. Sometimes, that’s useful. But other times, this linear thinking limits our ability to see a repeating pattern. As it relates to domestic violence and intimate partner violence, linear thinking can contribute to survivors of the abuse feeling unrealistic optimism that this was the last time that the violence will occur. But from the experiences of people who have experienced intimate partner violence, we know that that’s most often not the case. One model of understanding this cyclical pattern of abuse has 4 stages: 1. Calm —> 2. Tension Building —> 3. Abusive/violent incident —> 4. Reconciliation/Honeymoon

When I hear Biden’s calls for unity (during the campaign as a candidate, before the assault on the Capitol as the President Elect, and in his inaugural address as the President) and his desire to “turn the page,” it worries me. Unity and reconciliation before genuine accountability and change is just the honeymoon phase of the cycle of abuse. It’s absolutely a more pleasant phase than tension-building or outright abuse, but it’s just as much a part of the cycle as the abuse itself. The periodic honeymoons when things feel so good are part of why survivors of IPV stay in abusive relationships. 

If the “Trumpian” response to the assault on the Capitol is denial (Actually, it was Antifa in disguise) and gaslighting (Well, if you didn’t steal the election, I wouldn’t have needed to mount an insurrection), and other efforts to regain power and control, I worry that Biden’s approach is going to be cheap apology (Hey baby, I’m sorry. I know that was wrong but I’ve changed. I swear. It won’t happen again) that represents a return to the honeymoon phase of the abuse cycle. Reunification without actually addressing the underlying issues. We may experience a period of “peace,” but I would argue that it will not be a lasting peace yet because we haven’t earned lasting peace yet. It’s only ever been a “let’s just put the past behind us” sort of peace, rather than a “let’s really look at the past and take a look at the deep, deep wounds our past—and present!!—have caused” sort of peace.

When I talk with clients who are survivors of DV, IPV, child sexual assault, or other forms of abuse about what parts of their experience were/are the most difficult, I’ve often heard that the part of the cycle that had the most lasting impact on them wasn’t the violence they experienced, but rather the way that—when they finally did disclose to someone they trusted who they thought would help them—they were asked (or told) to sweep it under the rug in order to preserve the family. In order to preserve the marriage. In order to preserve unity. They were asked (or required) to be complicit in their own abuse because someone else’s comfort or status was made more important than their safety. I worry that Biden’s calls for unity are serving the same purpose here: asking the individuals and communities who have experienced and survived (or sometimes not survived) years-/decades-/centuries-long abuses to make peace with the systems that have perpetrated that abuse before any real change has occurred.

In his inaugural address, Biden made repeated calls for unity, but he also made an important statement: “The cry of racial justice some 400 years in the making moves us. The dream of ‘justice for all’ will be deferred no longer.” I’m glad to hear Biden saying that explicitly, but saying something in an inaugural address and putting it into practice are two different things. And putting it into practice is—I would argue—impossible without really reckoning with the many ways that it has continued to be a dream deferred for many in this country. The social, legal, economic, political, religious, ideological dynamics that have allowed injustice to persist for centuries. The US is no stranger to rhetoric and ideals of freedom, justice, and equality on one hand, while simultaneously enacting enslavement, violence, and selective humanization on the other. Promises of change without accountability and action are just one more step in a centuries long cycle of violence.

What To Do With This (Relative) Calm?

I’m going to assume for a moment that there will be a period of (relative) calm here after the inauguration.


We need calm as humans. Our brains, our nervous systems need calm. Persistent stress and constant crisis makes long-term planning and action nearly impossible. Chronic stress leads to operating in survival mode, and survival mode leads to fight/flight/freeze responses. 

So take a deep breath. Center yourself. Let your heart rate slow. Take stock of how you’re doing… the state of your life, your relationships, your energy, your emotions. Check in on your people. 

But, just like I would gently-but-firmly remind my clients who may be experiencing a period of calm in the cycle of intimate partner violence I want to gently-but-firmly remind you: this calm is not permanent. We’re in a new phase of the cycle (maybe), but the cycle itself is still intact. Violence and insurrection is one way to re-exert power and control, but it’s hardly the only way. Voter suppression. Over-policing in communities of color. Economic exploitation. Mass incarceration. Displacement. Limited access to healthcare. Congressional apportionment and redistricting for political (and racial) advantage. Stripping back civil rights protections. All of these—and hundreds of others—are tools for regaining power and control among groups that feel that their grasp on that control is slipping. 

It’s imperative that we use this period of (relative) calm to prepare for the next part of the cycle. To identify and understand how those systems of power and control our operating in the systems around us. To build our capacity to deal with crisis. To address the many complex factors that are keeping us stuck in the cycle and have been for centuries. 

Let’s get to work.

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