In recognizing Domestic Violence Awareness Month this October—and maintaining an ongoing conversation throughout the year to safeguard our most intimate relationships—it’s helpful to look at healthy relationships. Renowned feminist writer bell hooks (lower case pen name of Gloria Jean Watkins) leads us toward a clear understanding of love and healthy romantic relationships.
In her book “All About Love: New Visions,” hooks refutes claims that love evades any concrete definition; conversely, she directs us toward writers who’ve vigorously explored and asserted its meaning, such as psychiatrist M. Scott Peck, who has heavily influenced her own meditation on this universal topic.
“Imagine how much easier it would be for us to learn how to love if we began with a shared definition… When we understand love as the will to nurture our own and another’s spiritual growth, it becomes clear that we cannot claim to love if we are hurtful and abusive. Love and abuse cannot coexist. Abuse and neglect are, by definition, the opposites of nurturance and care,” she wrote in her national bestseller published in 2000.
Hooks’s incisive definition of love invalidates the deeply entrenched myth that perpetrators of abuse can still love their partners, as suggested by Northeastern criminologist James Alan Fox in a piece he wrote about the horrific murders this year by Thomas T. Mortimer of his wife and two young children in Winchester, Mass. In “Crime and Punishment,” a blog on boston.com, he wrote, “Regardless of how despicable we feel about what he allegedly did to his family, his motives could still have had an element of love.”
Hooks leaves absolutely no room for abuse within any authentic loving relationship—ever. Her bold assertion is salient for all of us. As we date and enter intimate partner relationships, a common understanding about the attributes of healthy versus unhealthy relationships is crucial. While disagreements and arguments typically arise within any relationship, a glaring difference exists between non-threatening quarreling by a couple and an escalating pattern of control and power practiced by one partner on another.
At Casa Myrna Vazquez, our education and prevention work teaches youths and adults to recognize the differences between healthy and unhealthy relationships. Participants in our workshops and trainings learn that dating and domestic violence transgress racial, ethnic, gender, education, socio-economic, religious and sexual orientation boundaries. They also become equipped with the skills they need to identify the warning signs of abuse, such as a partner constantly belittling you or being extremely jealous or possessive, among others, and to avoid potentially abusive dating relationships. Additionally, we discuss resources available for help if a person or someone they know is experiencing this type of behavior.
The urgent need for a sound commitment to domestic and dating violence prevention and education is corroborated by its alarmingly high prevalence in our communities. According to the Boston Police Department, there were over 5,000 domestic violence-related calls for help made in Boston and over 4,000 calls for restraining orders in 2009. In Jamaica Plain, men were arrested for 129 domestic violence-related crimes last year.
As we continue to educate our communities about healthy, respectful romantic relationships—and participate in romantic relationships ourselves—we should let hooks’ definition of love lead us in the right direction.
The writer is the development and communications associate at Casa Myrna Vazquez, a provider of shelter and supportive services to victims and survivors of domestic violence. For more info, visit CasaMyrna.org. For help for yourself or someone else, call SafeLink, the 24/7, toll-free, statewide domestic violence hotline, 877-785-2020.