The trouble with “provocation” & domestic violence


It’s been pretty harrowing listening to today’s coverage of the case of domestic violence that culminated in the murder of a young mother. The man, who strangled his wife and allegedly threatened to kill her on more than one occasion is pleading guilty to manslaughter, not to murder. That’s one issue I have with this case.

The real issue I have, closely related, is that nature of his reasoning – he says he was ‘provoked’.

Last night I was speaking on CRY Perspectives show with Rosarii Griffin about road rage. She scrolled through Google looking for a generally accepted definition of road rage and found this:

“Road rage is sudden violent anger provoked in a motorist by the actions of another driver”And I asked her to find another definition because that one is way off. Why? The word provoke.

Here’s a better one:

“Road rage is aggressive or angry behaviour exhibited by a driver of a road vehicle, which includes rude gestures, verbal insults, physical threats or dangerous driving methods targeted toward another driver in an effort to intimidate or release frustration” – in other words – it’s on the driver. Just the driver. No-one else.

Good ol’ Wikipedia!

But of course it’s not just road rage – it’s all rage. Including domestic violence and murder.

What’s wrong with the word “provoke”?

When he says she 'provoked' him into strangling her, he's saying it's REALLY not his fault #victimblaming tweet to a friend

When we say that a woman provoked a man into strangling her so violently and for so long that he actually kills her , we are saying that it’s not really the man’s fault. Gawd love him. She made him do it. She did something to irritate him – like maybe not putting enough butter in his sandwich or worse – asking him to make his own. Maybe she asked him to take responsibility for something he did or perhaps she met a friend for coffee – a friend that he didn’t like. Maybe she wore something he didn’t approve of in public, or maybe she refused to wear something she didn’t feel comfortable in at home. Maybe she didn’t want to watch porn with him – the kind where it’s all about the aggressive sexual gratification of men. I mean, what woman wouldn’t enjoy that? Clearly that is unreasonable and a deliberate provocation…

These are things I and colleagues of mine have heard men and women say to me in the sanctity of the therapeutic space. They are things I have read about in psychological journals or simply on Twitter. This happens, every day, in a home near you. Maybe in your home. I hope not, but I also know that spousal abuse is so common that many people reading this have, or are, experiencing it. And men aren’t always the aggressors.

Here are very some sobering Irish statistics.

So when I hear someone say they were provoked into (choosing) a violent behaviour of any kind I get the rages, I really do.

The rages..

(But I don’t punch or strangle anyone…). We are all responsible for our own choices – good and bad. We alone choose to roar or shout or manipulate or abuse. If someone’s behaviour triggers a painful emotion and we feel anger as a result, we alone decide what to do next. There is no plausible excuse for abuse. It is never OK. Think about this: how is it that abusers choose their victims? Why don’t they beat everyone they know up?

I can tell you – it’s because there is a split moment when they assess whether or not they will get away with this action. And if the target is a vulnerable woman or child, not the big guy at the gym, then yes, they’ll likely get away with it. There is always a moment where a choice is made.

Mr Keena was not provoked. Just as rapists are not enticed, teased or provoked. To say otherwise is Victim Blaming and that needs to stop. We need to call people on it. We like to explain things away, I understand that. We like to think there is a reason other than some human beings can behave monstrously. And so some of us still look to victim and wonder – what did they do to make this happen?

And that is why so many crimes committed by people who are aggressive, abusive and utterly lacking in empathy go unreported. Vulnerable people fear judgement and not being believed. They fear the isolation that that means, and they know that the more isolated they are, the more dangerous it is for them.

And so I am appealing to you to not take the blame for another’s actions, ever. If you are promised that that behaviour will change and it doesn’t, please know that it’s OK to mind yourself by exiting that relationship – be it a sexual one or a friendship. And if you find that you yourself have behaved badly, be it by being controlling, aggressive, manipulative, or even ignoring someone as some sort of punishment – take responsibility for it and make amends. That’s more than apology. It’s understanding that your behaviour has consequences, and making a choice and commitment to change that behaviour. Knowing that your current partner has the right to choose to not be with you.

This is not ‘giving in’ or being less than, it’s being respectful and honest. People like that – people need that.

Know the Signs

If you are reading this and aware that you are in trouble either as the aggressor who wants to change, or the person who can’t find a way to leave, there is help out there for you. Lots of it. Make the first step – you deserve to be safe, and you deserve to feel happier.

Some links:

Cork domestic violence services

Mná Feasa

Womens’ Aid

Rape Crisis Centre


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