Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

In an Abusive Relationship

Posted by Neal on August 14, 2006

“Aha!” Mom said one day during her visit last week, as she read Dear Abby. “I knew there’d be some letters about this guy!”

“What guy?” I asked.

Mom explained: A few weeks earlier, there had been a letter written by a man who said he’d been in an abusive relationship. The letter was strange, not because it had been written by a man (since both men and women can be victims of abuse), but because as you read the letter you realized that the writer had been the abuser, not the abused. And now, a cop had written a letter taking this man to task. In addition to some on-the-mark comments about the overall manipulative character of the abuser’s letter, the cop complained that the abuser made it seem as if he was the victim rather than the perpetrator by saying he had been “in an abusive relationship.”

I realized that Mom and the cop were right: You can’t say you’re in an abusive relationship unless you mean you’re the one being abused. But why not? An abusive relationship by definition involves at least two people, at least one of whom must be an abuser. I’d say it’s similar to the Q-based narrowing (a term coined by Larry Horn) that happens with words such as gay, rectangle, and finger, such that they are sometimes (or often, or almost always) taken to exclude lesbians, squares, and thumbs, respectively. The Q refers to the principle of Quantity, such that a speaker gives as much information as is useful. Since the terms lesbian, square, and thumb are more informative than gay, rectangle, and finger, hearers tend to assume you will use them if possible. Meanwhile, in the absence of concise and specific terms for gay men, rectangles that aren’t squares, and fingers that aren’t thumbs, the general terms tend to take on those meanings. In the case at hand, the word abuser is more specific than the phrase in an abusive relationship, and thus, in an abusive relationship has settled upon the meaning of the non-abuser member(s) of the relationship.

Horn notes that there can be degrees of conventionalization of Q-based narrowing, such that some can be undone given sufficient context. Thus, you can say you have ten fingers without fear of contradiction, knowing your audience will accept finger to include thumbs. On the other hand, if you look at a square and call it a rectangle, you can pretty much count on being corrected unless you’re in a geometry class. In an abusive relationship seems to be one of the more conventionalized cases. Every Google hit I checked for “in an abusive relationship” had the phrase referring to people who were being abused, not abusers. Even when I searched for “are in an abusive relationship” and excluded the word you, hoping to find sentences like Jill and her boyfriend are in an abusive relationship, the only sentences I found referred to multiple people being abused. So how conventionalized is the phrase in an abusive relationship in your grammar? Was the abuser who said he was in an abusive relationship lying, or just misleading?

Update: Commenter Amelia pointed out that it would help to read the original letter before offering an opinion, so here it is: “I was in an abusive relationship for about a year before I was finally arrested last summer for domestic violence. Since then I have enrolled in anger management class and have seen a psychologist. I have learned a lot since then and feel overwhelming remorse for what I have done.” (link)


13 Responses to “In an Abusive Relationship”

  1. amelia said

    I would have to read the rest of the letter. I’m presuming he made it clear that the abuse was not mutual, for if he didn’t, no one would have a case against his use of the phrase “in an abusive relationship” based on his letter alone. But I wouldn’t call it lying in any case; just hedging, and perhaps, depending on context I currently lack, sneaky and suggestive of denial of responsibility.

  2. Glen said

    I wouldn’t be surprised to find that it was his psychologist who suggested using that term, perhaps by using it herself. “You need to accept that you were in an abusive relationship, in which you were the abuser. You need to come to terms with that.”

  3. Ran said

    There’s definitely a term for a victim of abuse: “abuse victim” (or sometimes simple “victim”). I think the preference for the phrase “in an abusive relationship” stems not from the lack of a term, but rather from the idea that a noun label is more intrinsic than an adjective label, and a desire not to view the abuse as something that defines the person who was abused. Ordinarily, we don’t mind labelling abusers as such; but in this case, the man is presenting himself as an ex-abuser — someone for whom having abused is apparently not a defining quality, as he’s managed to overcome it, seemingly without changing his identity (or at least, that’s how he’s presenting it) — so it makes some sense that he would use that phrase. It still sounds very strange, though; for me, “in an abusive relationship” describes the victim almost exclusively.

    (By the way, Googling “(had|having|have|has) an abusive relationship” pulls up more of a mix: sometimes the subject is the victim, sometimes the perpetrator, and sometimes the couple. It’s a less common expression, though, getting only 554 hits.)

  4. “Victim” itself has become a derogatory label, implying that abused people whine or otherwise act like martyrs about their relationships. “Survivor”, on the other hand, is dismissed as either political correctness or feel-good sugar-coating. All in all, I favor calling a spade a spade: “abuser/abused person” are simple, direct descriptions.

  5. I read that one sentence to a friend:

    “I was in an abusive relationship for about a year before I was finally arrested last summer for domestic violence.”

    He was visibly jolted. He examined his reaction by suggesting that the abuser was not in fact in an “abusive” relationship. If a relationship is not the same experience for each person involved would it be fair to say that this abuser was stretching the nature of his experience to include the abuse that the other experienced?

    The inherent inequity of abuse would give us grounds to claim that conventional use has appropriately connoted the experience of abuse to the one who was abused.

    What if the man was to say “i experienced abuse in a relationship – and I was arrested” (for committing that abuse)? I would similarly argue that the experience of abuse is not merely the experience of having been in binary relationship in which abuse was perpetrated in either direction (either to one or from one). Such experience requires subjection. And the abuser is not subject to his abuse – only the appropriate consequences of it.

  6. Neal said

    Ran: Good point about the existence of the term (abuse) victim. There are other cases of what seems like Q-based narrowing, except that there does exist a term for the relevant subset. For example, congressman is almost always used to mean “congressman who is not a senator”, even though the word representative already has that meaning. And even for the gay/lesbian example that’s often cited, the two-word term gay man seems like it should work. So in these cases, it might be that the narrowing comes more from the R(elevance) principle, by which hearers assume you mean some sort of most common or stereotypical case when you use a general term, or for reaons like those that you and Ingeborg give. I’m not going to try to figure out which reason is the true one here. Thanks for the additional data with HAVE+an abusive relationship.

    Michael: I don’t think the abuser was trying to stretch the definition of experiencing abuse to mean experiencing doing it. If someone were to say, “I’ve experienced abusing people,” I’d get their meaning with no problem (though I’d probably step back from them a bit), just like if they’d said, “I’ve experienced flying a plane.” No, I take it back: The circumlocution would lead me to make a Q-inference that perhaps they’d played a video game simulation of abusing people or flying planes. But saying, “I’ve experienced abuse” in my book means that you were the one acted upon, not the actor. I think the abuser was just taking advantage of the literal interpretation of the phrase to include both members of the abusive relationship.

  7. michael said

    Yes Neal. I think we agree on the phrase “to experience abuse.”

    I see the implication of the phrase “in an abusive relationship” the same way. In fact I think I would hear “in an abusing relationship” as the claim of the abuser. It’s so hard to say without getting into pragmatics – but I can only suggest that perhaps in an attempt to be purely literal the abuser was trying to claim his “right” to say he was in an “abusive relationship” the same way another abuser might claim to have “experienced abuse.” And I would take issue with the implications of each. More on conventional grounds than on literal or denotative.

  8. blahedo said

    I think that in the context of the letter, it’s a little strange but not crashingly bad; I don’t think he was lying, and I don’t even think he was trying to be misleading. Try this on for size: what if he’d said “I was in an abusive relationship for about a year—and I was the abuser. I was finally arrested….” or “I was in an abusive relationship for about a year—as the abuser—before I was finally arrested….” Neither one sends up any red flags for me (well, not linguistic ones anyway), so I think the interpretation of the base phrase as “abused” is nothing more than pragmatics.

    Actually, in my rephrasings, I see another thing leap out: using an unusual turn of phrase to call (wry?) attention to the fact that the more usual case is that abuse victims are writing to Dear Abby. Perhaps that was the author’s intent in the first place? It’s not like he delayed the clarification even into the next sentence.

  9. Neal said

    Great point, blahedo. I think your examples show that the typical meaning is indeed due to pragmatics: It’s an implicature that can easily be canceled by saying “as the abuser”, etc. I also agree with your point about the manner of revealing that he was the abuser. It’s one thing to do it as an outright cancelation of an implicature, and another to force the hearer to infer the proposition by saying “I was finally arrested”. By making us accommodate this proposition (as pragmaticists say), he makes it sound as if it’s something we already know.

  10. jR said

    I love this type of guerilla linguistics. It seems to me a subtle rebellion against a larger power structure who labels this person as “bad.” Sure, most people may think it shocking that the writer was also in an abusive relationship, but he was! What happens is that most readers automatically give sympathy to the writer in phrases like, “I was in an abusive relationship,” and we don’t like to see our automatic reactions messed with. I think it’s great.

  11. Rashad said

    Hi, I dont mean to be a burden to anyone but I am in real need of advice. I am in a relationship with an amazing girl who I don’t want to lose for my life but we are constantly arguing and I have seemingly uncontrollable emotional abusive behavior.she is so sweet to me but I have hurt her by me ways and I really realy want to change and fix the problem..initially I came into the relationship trying to aid her from her past hurt of a cheating EX and though I feel I have hurt her more than he ever would….I dont know what to do I just need change

  12. […] a word’s meaning gets restricted over time. One is called Q-based narrowing (discussed here before). To recap, Q-based narrowing occurs when you have a term A that can refer to a variety of […]

  13. sandrar said

    Hi! I was surfing and found your blog post… nice! I love your blog. 🙂 Cheers! Sandra. R.

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