We all seek to be happy, or at least comfortable, in our relationships, and we generally accept the fact that sometimes they don’t work out. However, the more we have invested in a relationship, the more we may seek to preserve it—even when there is overwhelming evidence that it has deteriorated to an unhealthy state. Logic may take a back seat to denial and confirmation bias (and any number of other mental manipulations). From a safety point of view (both physical and emotional), the single most effective prevention strategy is to be open to the idea that as a relationship changes, so can your opinion of it and your commitment to it.
There are three key areas of change that impact a relationship. Those areas are:
- Changes in the intended victim;
- Changes in the pursuer/abuser/person of interest, and;
- Changes in the situation.
When change is noticed in any one, or all, of these areas, asking if this change made the situation better or worse provides a benchmark from which to measure the nature of the overall relationship. A key follow-up question then arises: “How willing am I to tolerate the change?” All healthy relationships include negotiating boundaries. Almost all cases of inappropriate behavior involve violating an existing boundary or unilaterally demanding new ones.
The single most pressing question to which potential victims want the answer is: “Is he/she dangerous?” Underlying this question is the unspoken assumption that “dangerousness” is a permanent state of being or an attribute of a person. It is not.
Dangerousness depends on the situation. A more productive discussion would center on the likelihood that the situation will escalate, possibly to violence, because dangerousness itself is the total of many variables.
This leads to two important axioms:
- No one is dangerous to everybody all the time. Male batterers don’t beat their female co-workers or women on the bus. They beat their wives/domestic partners, and not all the time. Even the worst sociopaths with very violent pasts spend most of their day not being violent.
- Everyone is capable of violence given sufficient provocation and an absence of inhibitors. Inhibitors are factors that generally act to reduce the likelihood of violence. They include but are not limited to, a calm or reasonable disposition, steady employment, honor or favorable reputation, support system of family or friends, interests and hobbies outside of work, stable routine, and dignity. One must be careful not to confuse the potential to do harm with the intent to do harm.
Accepting these concepts makes it almost impossible ever again to say: “He would never do that. It’s just not like him.” Being aware of changes in the situation is critical to safety planning.
Not long ago, the following headline appeared in The Los Angeles Times: “Senior Accused of Manslaughter in Movie Ticket Line Altercation.” In the story, we learned a 68-year-old man had been charged with manslaughter for punching an even older man as they stood in a line for movie tickets. The victim hit his head on the sidewalk and died. The aggressor’s attorney described him as a “decent, nonviolent man who’s broken up…as a result of this unfortunate incident.” As with “dangerousness,” nonviolence is not a permanent state of being either. In most situations, I am sure that describing this man as nonviolent would have been appropriate, but there was something about this situation that changed his behavior.
Understanding the full range of human interactions from appropriate to inappropriate to hazardous is important to the concept of prevention. At the same time, it is important to note that meaningful assessments are not assessments of an individual; they are assessments of a situation. Rather than saying “that’s just not like him,” a more accurate comment would be “I have never seen him in that situation before.”
It then follows that when the situation changes so should the assessment of it.