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)