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How to Define Physical Abuse in Relationships: Slap, Push...

Slapping is often seen as just a slap, rather than a form of physical abuse.

Key points

  • TV and film often feature dramatic slaps across the face, diminishing the reality that it is a form of physical abuse.
  • Hitting can induce immediate gratification for rageful, pent-up feelings, enticing the hitter to do it again.
  • Engaging in any kind of violence often begets further violence, so it should never be justified.

In the past few weeks, I’ve come across television shows and films that include a highly dramatic scene in which one or both members of a couple engage in a feisty slap across the other’s face in response to something horrific that was said or done. Sure, I’m referring to fictional examples in this case, but the fact that such behavior is shown with great frequency begs an important question: If your partner says or does something horrible enough, are you justified in issuing a slap across the face? Though most people would agree that it isn't right, is it, at least, understandable in response to something earth-shatteringly upsetting?

When we attempt to justify slapping

Take a moment and ask yourself if you believe it’s ever okay to slap your partner. At first, odds are that you’ll issue the appropriate and responsible answer: “No, never.” Yet taking another moment to imagine a few examples might change your mind. For example, you’re a woman, and your husband loses his cool and calls you the B-word. Imagine another situation where one parent has somehow been negligent and put the children in danger by accident, causing the worried parent to lash out and slap the other.

If you think about it long enough, you can probably come up with a few situations in which you’d give yourself a get-out-of-jail-free card to slap your lover across the face if he or she said or did something that pushed you over the edge.

Slapping is a form of physical abuse

One of the problems associated with this kind of hitting is that slapping is usually seen as just a slap, rather than a form of physical abuse. Allowing for any circumstances in which slapping or other types of physical violence is okay is a serious problem that threatens your own emotional stability, as well as the stability of your romantic relationship. Should you ever find yourself slapping or getting slapped by a partner — even just once — your relationship is in major trouble, and possibly beyond repair.

Violence is one of the ugliest colors of human nature, and engaging in any violence at all often begets further violence. If you tell yourself that there are some situations in which it would be understandable — though not ideal or right — to slap your partner, what you’re doing is giving yourself the option in the future to hit your own partner if sufficiently provoked. If you tell yourself it’s never okay to slap or hit your lover, you will hold yourself more accountable, not make excuses for yourself, and force yourself to manage your angry feelings when they overwhelm you.

Gender and slapping

Gender plays an important role in the debate about whether slapping or hitting is ever okay. In television and film, the person you usually see doing the slapping is a woman. We rarely see the man slap a woman in response because — let’s be real — a man’s reaction wouldn’t usually be to slap. If provoked and pushed too far, the average man’s angry feelings would more likely lead him to throw a punch. We also rarely see a man slap back because we hold a double standard when it comes to this kind of violence: It’s a little bit okay when a woman slaps a man, but not at all okay if a man slaps a woman. Enough with the double standards, folks: No one should ever hit anyone else, regardless of the circumstances.

It goes without saying that the characters in television and film don’t perfectly reflect what happens in reality, so the slapping and hitting we see on screen shouldn’t be used as a barometer to gauge what happens behind closed doors. But the reality is that physical abuse happens every minute of every day, and many individuals — mostly women, but some men, too — never come forward to report the abuse out of fear of retaliation, shame, or embarrassment. At the end of the day, my hope for every man and woman is that they never lay a violent hand on another person. Once you go down that road, you’ve set a locomotive in motion that is awfully difficult to stop.

If you ask anyone who's ever been violent toward another person — as I've asked many clients over the years — what it feels like to hit someone, you'll hear that hitting someone provides a powerful dose of immediate gratification for all the rageful, pent-up feelings. This kind of gratification is hard to get over, making the hitter more likely to do it again. Beyond the obvious reason that slapping or hitting someone is wrong and immoral, you shouldn't hit because you don't want to open the door to indulging a highly destructive catharsis that hurts everyone in its path.

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