Mad Love & The Dilemma of Domestic Violence

It’s time the community of Mad, Neurodivergent, and Mentally Ill people contend with the violence we experience within our community and the violence we may inflict on others. Given the stigma against our community, it is understandable why this has not been a public conversation. I am not trying to play into the stereotype that we are inherently violent and have tendencies to random acts of violence like school shootings and attacking strangers. More often than not, the people closest to us are the receiving end of violence and are the most severely impacted. Also, let me be clear. Neurotypical people are just as capable of domestic violence as the rest of us. My intention for this post is to open a discussion of how we navigate the complexities mental illness adds to the topic of domestic violence, especially when altered states like mania, psychosis, depression, intoxication, etc. play a role in our interpersonal relationships.

Like a fish in water, I did not realize how domestic violence was the backdrop against which I live my 28 years of life so far. Until recently, I would have never seen myself as a victim of domestic violence because my story didn’t neatly mirror cultural images, such as that of the battered wife. Common definitions of violence emphasize the use of “physical force” to injure, abuse, damage, or destroy (Merriam-Webster Dictionary). However, expanded definitions encapsulate the full scope of the way domestic manifests.

A WHO report (2002) defines violence as “the intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against oneself, another person, or against a group or community, which either results in or has a high likelihood of resulting in injury, death, psychological harm, maldevelopment, or deprivation.”

Krug et al. (2002), “World report on violence and health”

Power, social or political, can take many forms allowing the perpetrator to weaponize their identity, intellect, resources, and experience of distress for their benefit. I also like how this definition highlights that we can perpetrate violence against ourselves.

Now that I am beginning to unpack how domestic violence has been a part of my life, I am learning that there are many kinds of abuse outside of the physical and sexual. There is emotional abuse, psychological abuse, financial abuse, educational abuse, and the list goes on. As I dive into the darkness of my own experience, I am convinced that abuse and violence begin in the mind, in the way the victim is manipulated into relinquishing their autonomy. Once someone has used manipulative tactics like threats, gaslighting, neglect, isolation, and deception, other forms of abuse are much easier for the perpetrator to inflict.

I do not believe that violence is an inherent trait, but rather a learned behavior that begins in childhood and is picked up from the way adults in our lives modeled behavior and conflict resolution. From a very young age, we learned that violence in intimate relationships is normal so we develop behaviors to survive either as victims, as perpetrator, and, oftentimes, as both. In fact, I do not believe in the binary designation of victim/abuser. The unjust systems in which we live — medical, legal, financial etc. — inflict violence upon us all. Therefore, we all have the capacity to inflict harm on our loved ones since we’ve adopted violent coping behaviors to navigate the violent systems we live in.

This leads me to question that has been plaguing:

Is it possible for people with mental illness to be in a romantic partnership without inflicting violence upon each other?

I believe the answer is yes. Violence is learned, it is not who we are. But it will take a lot of intentional work towards self-awareness, developing coping tools to manage distress, communication skills, and a concerted effort towards healing the relationship and re-establishing trust when violence is inflicted. Violence can be unlearned. As a society, “The less we focus on the inherent defect of people who harm and the more we focus on the problematic behaviors, the more likely we will have successful repair and transformation” (Access Centered Movement). As I continue to build a road map for Mad Love and revel in the magic of it, I do not want to lose sight of the risks and pitfalls as well as possible solutions. Tackling the dilemma of domestic violence is one way to do so.

Image Description: A black-and-white photograph of the silhouette of two hands reaching upward from behind a faded floral curtain.

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