Dear Dr. Michelle:
I just moved to a new state and temporarily moved in with my son and daughter-in-law until I find an apartment. This has been a very difficult living situation because I am learning that they fight a lot. A recent incident occurred that really shook me up. My son and daughter-in-law were fighting and my son pushed her quite hard and she pushed him back. I was really worried about what would have happened if I had not been there and jumped in the middle. I am worried that they are being physically abusive with each other and that their children are observing this. What do I do? It has stressed me out so much that I am moving out earlier than I had planned.
It is good that you are moving out sooner than planned if you are not comfortable with the family situation. You are right to be concerned for your son and daughter-in-law and their family. The use of physical force between adults can easily escalate to violence and injury and can also lead to fear, resentment, and a breakdown in effective adult relationships. Likewise, the children observing such altercations will only teach them to use physical force to work out differences and the cycle of violent behavior can continue within the family.
It is possible that the physical altercation you observed between your son and daughter-in-law was a one-time incident, but more than likely, it is not the first time. Be aware that there is a difference between physical force and domestic violence, the latter of which would be much more concerning even though both should be avoided at all costs.
Physical Force vs Domestic Violence
Domestic violence, or being physically abusive, usually includes direct threats prior to the abuse and can appear to be quite controlled and intentional whereas physical force is not usually preplanned; rather it happens in the moment that does not escalate to the threat of injury. Physical abuse between adult partners is often referred to as domestic violence or domestic assault. While using physical force can also be described as physical abuse or domestic violence, domestic violence is usually an ongoing repetitive interaction used to intimidate and control another person.
There are telltale signs of domestic violence occurring that you can watch for such as the sight of bruises, reports of a lot of “accidental” injuries, history of broken bones, not wanting to be around other people, etc. There are also emotional signs such as the victim engaging in profuse apologies and being subservient or submissive to the abuser.
It is important to keep your assumptions in check when assessing for domestic violence. Physical abuse is not just initiated by men. It is also common for women to initiate domestic violence toward a male partner, as well, same-sex relationships can be just as likely to engage in physical violence as opposite-sex relationships.
How To Help
If you are interested in trying to do something to help, you could have a direct conversation with both your son and your daughter-in-law, but best to have this conversation in private and separately to ensure the other person is not there to intimidate.
A word of caution - if you choose to talk to your son and daughter-in-law about your observations, be prepared that this is a very sensitive topic for a parent to address with an adult child and they might not take kindly to the intervention. Be sure you are prepared to withstand rejection or anger in return because they might perceive this as interference.
Sorting Through the Altercations
Here are the questions you might want to ask each of them that could help them to sort through the seriousness of their altercations:
- How often do you use physical force during fights?
- How often have you been the receiver of physical force? The sender?
- Do you feel safe with your partner?
- How often have you been punched, hit, slapped, pushed by your partner?
- How often have you punched, hit, slapped, or pushed your partner?
- How often have you received a bruised, injury, or a broken bone after having a physical altercation with your partner?
- How often are you being verbally threatened to be hit, punched, or injured by your partner?
- How often are you verbally threatening to hit, punch, or injure your partner?
When To Seek Professional Help
If your son and daughter-in-law indicate that many of the scenarios above are occurring beyond the one incident you witnessed, then their experience is likely to be considered domestic violence. If this is the case, then the next best step is to encourage and support them to seek professional help from somebody who specializes in domestic violence. There are very specific interventions that need to occur to stop this patterned behavior and conversations that need to be managed to heal from the damaging effects on the relationship that only a trained domestic violence professional will be able to manage effectively.
If you do not feel like you can talk to your son and daughter-in-law, or you talk to them and they are nonresponsive to your help call the National Domestic Violence hotline and seek advice about what you can do to help and intervene. If you witness another altercation call the police to ensure that the altercation does escalate. To find a specific therapist to treat domestic violence visit your local domestic violence website in your area by searching for “domestic violence hotline in X” and insert your city or state.
Dear Dr. Michelle blog posts are informational in nature. The posts are not meant to take the place of consulting your physician, mental health professional, or other qualified health providers regarding your well-being or the well-being of others.