Does Abuse Require Bad Intent or Can It Be the Result of Simple Incompetence?

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I didn’t think of myself as being a survivor of anything — much less abuse — until I was in my 30s.

The news was delivered to me in my therapist’s office, spoken as an casual aside, quickly, as though she assumed the information was obvious to me.

“Well, that’s pretty common for people who have had abusive childhoods, that behavior,” she said, in response to my telling her something I’d been struggling with.

“Are you saying I had an abusive childhood?” I asked, stunned.

At the time, the idea that my childhood could have been abusive was so foreign to me. It was strict, and my mother and I surely warred, but perhaps I had been a difficult child. Perhaps it had been primarily my fault that we hadn’t gotten along.

It was only when my therapist flipped the script around and asked me of my current expectations of the behavior and maturity of children now that I myself was an adult that I began to understand her point.

Nonetheless, it was still months before I really absorbed what she’d thrown out there so casually. And years before I believed it fully.

I Couldn’t Prove That My Mother Meant to Harm Me, So I Didn’t Know If It Was Abuse

My sticking point was simple: I couldn’t be sure whether my mother had meant to harm me via her actions. Even when they were particularly cruel, perhaps they had been conceived of by her as juvenile pranks. Acts perpetuated by an insecure person who had never learned how to maturely manage her own emotions.

Even acts of violence, when viewed through the proper lens, could be understood as a loss of control. Acts of a woman who was in over her head. Who didn’t know how to parent and had been left alone with four small children while her workaholic husband traveled the world in the ever-moving goalposts that being a “good provider” (his own model of virtue) entailed.

Perhaps my mother was mentally ill. She did deny her actions later whenever I’d try to talk with her in order to debrief. But even when I approached her with an apology for my part in things, she would question my memory, tell me I was imagining things again. (A tendency of hers that led me to a habit of extensively journaling that I’ve maintained my entire life.)

Through a certain lens, this was gaslighting, a form of emotional abuse. But how was I to know that her memory wasn’t faulty? Perhaps she was experiencing breaks from reality, blind rages that she couldn’t organically remember later.

It was all possible.

And I had basically nothing to go on outside of what she said and did, all of which could be interpreted ambiguously, particularly if I wanted to give her the benefit of endless doubts.

At that point in my life, I needed her to have meant to hurt me for it to have been abuse.

Huh. Apparently There’s No Mention of Abuser Bad Intent in the Definition of Abuse

abuse (verb) –

  1. use (something) to bad effect or for a bad purpose; misuse
  2. treat (a person or animal) with cruelty or violence, especially regularly or repeatedly

abuse (noun) –

  1. the improper use of something
  2. cruel and violent treatment of a person or animal

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I always know I’m deeply troubled about something and feeling like I’m out of options for reasonable answers when I’m consulting a dictionary definition.

But at some point I did consult the dictionary (feeling like such a pedant all the while, egads). And there it was. Abuse, both as a noun and verb, was described in terms of impact instead of intent. In the dictionary definition at least, there was no mention of ill intent.

I began to see that perhaps there was room for me to prioritize my experience of the bad treatment over whatever my mother was (or wasn’t) thinking while she acted out.

And I began to realize that the reason I was so reluctant to was also a side effect of what she’d done, that I’d been systematically trained to defer to another person’s experience over my own when our views were in conflict.

It’s taken an awfully long time, and I still have no love of the A-word (abuse) nor am I particularly excited about accepting that it applies to me (I come from a long line of stoics and people who generally don’t like to complain), but I’ve finally accepted that a lot of what I’ve experienced is common to abuse survivors.

Does Abuse Require Ill Intent or Can It Be the Result of Simple Incompetence?

Anyway, I’m writing today because the question occurred to me: If ill intent isn’t in the dictionary definition of abuse, then where did I get the idea that it was a necessary component of abuse?

It occurred to me that there must be others out there who currently now believe or have believed that abuse requires ill intent. Who believe that someone needs to be acting in bad faith to be an abuser. And that you can’t abuse someone simply via incompetence.

So I thought I’d open up the question to you, readers: What do you think? Does abuse require ill intent or can it be the result of simple incompetence? Why or why not?

Thanks in advance for any of your thoughts on the matter.

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Books by Page Turner:

Dealing with Difficult Metamours

A Geek’s Guide to Unicorn Ranching

Poly Land: My Brutally Honest Adventures in Polyamory 

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Featured Image: CC BY – I am R.