Susan G. Bednar, LCSW

Is it Conflict or Abuse?

This is the first article of a previously published series about the differences between conflict and abuse, and why it’s important to recognize those differences (Bednar, 2012).  I am bringing this series back to life, perhaps with a few revisions, because this topic seems particularly relevant to current events.  While I won’t be focusing much on current events, I will use this series to sensitize readers to those interpersonal dynamics that may be presented as a “conflict,” when in fact they are purposeful exploitation and abuse.

While this distinction may seem unimportant to those who have never been victimized, it becomes critically important to those who have been on the receiving end of abusive behavior.  It often seems that no attempt at resolution makes a difference, or that in fact, everything tried seems only to make matters worse.  While reaching out to others, making amends for unintended hurts, and making a genuine effort to understand each other and resolve differences often goes a long way towards reducing conflict, such efforts often backfire in an abusive relationship.  In fact, they may actually render the victim more vulnerable.  That’s because the abusive individual may actually intend to hurt, control, or humiliate the victim, and may therefore use any personal information shared, apologies offered, or weaknesses exposed for the purpose of inflicting additional harm or gaining greater control.  Unfortunately, it is difficult to know with certainty what the intent of another person is, so recognizing abuse may depend on our ability to pick up on other cues.

While no one piece of information will clearly identify an abusive relationship, below are a few questions that may aid in making this critical distinction.

Is there a power or status difference, or are the parties relatively equal?  At the heart of an abusive relationship is a power imbalance, and it is misused by the abuser in order to control, hurt, or humiliate the victim.  While inequality does not necessarily result in abuse, it is extremely difficult, and perhaps impossible for a less powerful individual to abuse a more powerful person.

Did the confrontation grow out of a disagreement in which both parties participated, or was it imposed on one party by the other?  Arguments between two individuals of equal power who both contribute to escalation may indeed become hostile, or even violent.  In an abusive relationship, however, one party may act to antagonize and provoke the other, despite the non-abusive person’s attempts to avoid escalation.  Think “schoolyard bully” as opposed to a fight between two longstanding rivals.

Did the actor in question have legitimate authority to act as they did, or have they overstepped their authority?  A police officer may have the right to restrain a criminal with handcuffs.  On the other hand, a parent does not have the right to handcuff their children.  A supervisor may have the right to direct the work of a subordinate, however they don’t have the right do direct a subordinate’s personal life, or the right to require illegal activity as a condition of employment.  A public servant has certain powers that are not bestowed upon the rest of us, but they are expected to use those powers for the public good, not to benefit themselves or their families.

If the alleged victim has complained or asked for offensive behavior to be stopped, did it indeed stop, did it continue, or did it escalate?  Generally, when we discover that we have inadvertently hurt someone, we are anxious, or at least willing, to change our behavior.  One telltale sign of intentionality, and therefore abuse, may be persistence in a behavior known to be offensive, or even an escalation of such behavior after being asked politely to stop.  We have probably all been guilty of repeating problematic behavior out of habit, at times, however well-meaning people do not repeatedly engage in behavior they know is hurting someone else.  Certainly, they do not increase or escalate behavior once they know it is hurtful.

If the alleged victim has complained or asked for offensive behavior to be stopped, did the alleged offender respond in a concerned way, or did they respond by ridiculing or blaming the alleged victim?   If the hurt was indeed unintentional, a response to the effect of “Oh, I’m sorry” would be more believable than “I don’t know what you are talking about.  You’re just imagining things.”

Was the offensive behavior an apparent accident, and a one-time event, or is it part of an ongoing effort to control, humiliate, or harm the other party?  If an incident was truly accidental, we have reason to trust that it will not be repeated over and over again.

Is one person genuinely afraid of the other?  When one party has been victimized again and again by the same person, or if harm is accompanied by threats, they have good reason to be fearful.  If one party is calm and composed, while the other party is fearful, this suggests the possibility of abuse, even if we see no apparent reason for fear, or if it seems out of proportion, given what we know.  There may be more going on than meets the eye.

What harm is done?  While unintentional acts can indeed cause serious harm, and abuse may be relatively mild, in that no apparent harm has yet been done, the severity of the damage may be an indicator of the dangerous nature of a situation.

Once again, there is probably no one question that will tell us definitively whether we are faced with an ordinary conflict or intentional abuse, however the answers to these questions often suggest one rather than the other.  Taken together, a clearer picture is likely to emerge.  A person in power who repeatedly acts so as to publicly degrade and humiliate a person of lesser power, and who responds to requests for different behavior by belittling the asker and escalating the behavior suggests to me a strong likelihood that this is an abusive relationship.  On the other hand, two equals having a vociferous argument, even one that ends in mutual physical aggression, is less suggestive of abuse, particularly if this is a one-time event.  If neither party is fearful of the other, and if both are later embarrassed and remorseful about their behavior, this further suggests a non-abusive relationship.

While conflicts may be resolved or at least manged by well meaning parties who are willing to listen and consider compromise, abuse typically requires much stronger interventions, and it is unlikely to be stopped solely by the actions of the victim.

If you or someone you love is being abused, don’t go through it alone.  Seek support from others whom you trust, and consider obtaining professional assistance as well.

If you look around you, you will probably find examples of abusive behavior that is being represented as somehow “normal.”  It is not.  Don’t let abusive individuals define reality for you.


Important Note:  This blog is intended for informational and discussion purposes only, and does not substitute for professional care.  Your circumstances may differ from those discussed, and your needs may be different.  If you are experiencing distress you feel unable to resolve on your own, please seek assistance from a qualified professional of your choice.