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Q: Sometimes I playfully slap my boyfriend’s arm when I’m being silly with him. But the last few times I’ve done this, he’s slapped my arm back, only way harder. I notice his face changes when he hits me like this—he doesn’t look like he’s playing around. He looks angry. When I’ve asked him about this, he says he’s “just joking.” Should I be worried?
A: For a long time, what did we tell little girls when little boys would tease them or even hit them “playfully” at school?
He probably just likes you.
I would like to think that we’ve corrected that very misguided response. While children need to learn how to respect body boundaries, I’m hoping by adulthood we all understand what hitting conveys. It conveys power and control over someone else through the use of violence and intimidation. So would I be worried if my boyfriend was hitting me on the regular with a look of anger on his face? Yes, yes I would.
There’s no context, besides maybe self-defense, in which anyone deserves to be hit. Though I doubt he considers what he’s doing is self-defense. He claims he’s “just joking,” which can be a common excuse of male privilege to demean or intimate women. You may even be accused of “having no sense of humor” when you don’t find this funny.
This is worth a conversation. Even a “playful slap on the arm” can be aggressive if done with ill intent. Make sure that, as a couple, anytime a part of your body touches any part of your partner’s body, it’s done with both consent and respect.
Consider telling him that you both need to agree that you won’t be hitting each other under any circumstances. Even a “playful slap” can be a form of physical violence, but it sounds like your boyfriend is escalating the situation to something much bigger. You may want to say something to your boyfriend like, “If you don't like it when I do this playfully to you, please tell me instead of hitting me back hard and scaring me.” Let him know clearly that the way he’s hitting back hurts you. His reaction to that will tell you everything you need to know. Here are some examples of his possible reactions:
He shows remorse and apologizes. A healthy partner will listen to a boundary being set and respect it. A healthy partner also makes their partner feel safe and never wants to intentionally hurt them. It’s possible your boyfriend’s “playful slap” back went too far, in which case, he would apologize sincerely and not do it again.
He gets angry and shames or blames you. “You shouldn’t have hit me. You deserved it.” You never deserve to be hit, nor do you deserve to be shamed or blamed when you make a mistake. If he’s not remorseful about hurting you, this is a major red flag.
He ignores you until you apologize for even bringing it up. The silent treatment is a tactic abusers use to mess with a victim’s self-esteem. You begin to blame yourself and may even end up apologizing for bringing it up. This is also a major red flag.
Setting clear boundaries is important in every aspect of the relationship—physically, emotionally and sexually. A few years back, I interviewed Mike Domitrz, the founder of the Date Safe Project (now known as The Center for Respect), who began the project after his sister was the victim of a sexual assault. In talking to young people across the country about sexual assault, he began to realize that many partners weren’t talking about consent, which could lead into trouble.
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“The problem is that most people base their ideas of consent around assumption instead of communication. They assume they have consent, but don’t confirm it with words.” He says acting without consent is paramount to assault.
“It’s arrogance to assume you can do something to someone’s body and if they don’t want you to, they can stop you. That means you’re going to touch them until they stop you. Think about what that sounds like.”
Again, it’s worth a conversation to better determine if what your boyfriend is doing is abusive or simply very misguided. In any case, you need to feel safe first and foremost with your partner. If you don’t feel safe and are worried that he’ll hurt you again, or hurt you worse, this is plenty enough reason to move on.
If you’re dating but not yet living together, you may want to read, “Leaving an Abuser When You Live Apart” for tips on breaking up with someone who, even if not abusive, could get volatile when the break-up speech happens. And for more on how to set boundaries, read “Where Are Your Boundaries?”
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