Is the Term “Abuse” Overused?

As a family law attorney with years of trial experience, I am  confronted with situations where actual abuse against, men, women and children occurs.  But I’m also confronted with legal cases where the term abuse is thrown about without regard to its effect on others.  To that end, this article explores the possibility that the term “abuse” may be overused in today’s society.

Let’s face it, the term abuse is everywhere.  It’s use has become commonplace in entertainment magazines, television programming and medical journals.  Without it, several television shows and magazines would cease operations for lack of content.  However, chapter 455 of the Missouri Revised Statutes narrowly defines abuse as assault, battery, coercion, harassment, sexual assault or unlawful imprisonment and not conduct that merely sells magazines, increases viewership, or offends someone’s sensibilities such as yelling, verbal disagreements, or fighting over daily issues.

“455.010. As used in this chapter, unless the context clearly indicates otherwise, the following terms shall mean:

(1) “Abuse” includes but is not limited to the occurrence of any of the following acts, attempts or threats against a person who may be protected pursuant to this chapter, except abuse shall not include abuse inflicted on a child by accidental means by an adult household member or discipline of a child, including spanking, in a reasonable manner:

(a) “Assault,” purposely or knowingly placing or attempting to place another in fear of physical harm;

(b) “Battery,” purposely or knowingly causing physical harm to another with or without a deadly weapon;

(c) “Coercion,” compelling another by force or threat of force to engage in conduct from which the latter has a right to abstain or to abstain from conduct in which the person has a right to engage;

(d) “Harassment,” engaging in a purposeful or knowing course of conduct involving more than one incident that alarms or causes distress to an adult or child and serves no legitimate purpose. The course of conduct must be such as would cause a reasonable adult or child to suffer substantial emotional distress and must actually cause substantial emotional distress to the petitioner or child. Such conduct might include, but is not limited to:

a. Following another about in a public place or places;

b. Peering in the window or lingering outside the residence of another; but does not include constitutionally protected activity;

(e) “Sexual assault,” causing or attempting to cause another to engage involuntarily in any sexual act by force, threat of force, or duress.”

As you can see, to abuse is to intentionally act.  Mere inappropriate behavior should not be included in any discussion of abuse.

Now I’m not advocating improper and abusive conduct although it’s been around since the fruit was consumed by Adam and Eve.  We must always put an end to intentional conduct that harms and we must refrain from conduct that meets the definition above-described.  Instead, I’m suggesting that the term abuse may have become so widely used as to be a catchall phrase for those who don’t like the manner in which others treat them.The term abuse should never be used as a sword.  For some, they use it with the intent to gain an upper hand in legal matter such as family law disputes.  When used in this manner, it places the accused on the defensive with a shifting burden to explain or prove that his/her actions don’t rise to the level of abuse as defined by Missouri law.  Often, the accuser uses the accusation of abuse to cover up his/her own indiscretions in the relationship such as an affair, drug or alcohol use, improper money management, abandonment, or poor parenting skills.

Still others merely rely on the inflammatory use of the term abuse in media and other circles to allege abuse when any conduct offends their sensibilities.   This type of person may seek out liberal definitions of the term abuse to suit their purposes.  According to Webster’s 1828 Dictionary, the word abuse is liberally defined as “ill use; maltreatment; misuse with bad motives or to wrong purposes.”  Under such a vague definition, who can possibly escape the accusation of abuse?  For instance, if a woman belittles, ignores, or rejects her husband in bed or in public she has abused him according to Webster’s.  If a man neglects or speaks unkindly to his wife, he has in fact abused her as well.  Finally, the boss with poor management skills who reprimands her employees improperly but unknowingly could be an abuser according to Webster’s.

It is important that in our effort to assist those actual victims of abuse, we don’t empower a different type of offender…one that uses the term abuse as a sword and not a shield; to damage another’s reputation in the community, to gain an advantage, or to excuse their own conduct.  For those who believe themselves to be victims of abuse, I encourage you step away from the party or parties with whom you are having an issue or seek counseling.  If they come after you or continue the intentionally conduct after your retreat or after counseling, there is reason to be alarmed and you should seek help.  If your issues subside, perhaps you were a contributor to the issue.

If you question whether conduct rises to the level of abuse, you should examine what contribution you had to a problem, for you must remember that the same people who have harmed or offended you may also be the very ones who cared for you, nurtured you, and loved you unconditionally through many other trying times.  If you are a person who suffers from anxiety, depression, or has low self-esteem, you must be especially willing to differentiate between the extremes of random unkindness often liberally defined as abuse and actual, legally-held, intentional acts of abuse such as habitual cruelty, lasting harm or assault.