Even though most of the conversation about violence in relationships over the past few weeks has been dedicated to Chris Brown and Rihanna, I’m glad the discourse is surging. It’s interesting how often the romantic lives of everyday people intersect with public policy. This week, Department of Justice made available to offer $43 million of recovery act funds to women in violent domestic relationships who need transitional housing.

But government can only go so far. The key to addressing violence in relationships is linked to questioning the obsolete attitudes often expressed in the discussion on violence. To my dismay, many of the good old gender norms have reemerged, and these gender social norms are worth exploring and analyzing as we pursue healthy relationships.

There are two gender norms in particular that I would like to grapple with. The first is that a man should never hit a woman. The subtextual element to this gender social norm is that women are, with respect to physical strength, biologically inferior. It would then follow that since women are physically inferior, they cannot commit violence in their relationships.

It’s not my intention to take on the scientific community. But it seems that research on the physical strength difference between the sexes and how it correlates with the capacity to commit violence is lacking.

Beyond the data, I can’t help but feel bothered that an element of sexism is the driving force behind restraining oneself from intimate partner violence. Updated norms should reflect that women deserve to live violent-free lives not because they are women but because they are human — and it’s morally wrong to commit violence against another human being.

It’s not only straight women who experience violence. Lesbians and men of all sexual orientations are often victims as well. But we need to recognize that women in heterosexual partnerships disproportionately experience this crime and that there is an element of discrimination involved that requires thoughtful government intervention.

The second, perhaps more controversial, gender norm is that there are two types of men: the violent and the non-violent. This is particularly problematic considering that violence exists on a continuum and not in two columns.

It’s true that there’s a difference between the man who hospitalizes their partner on more than one occasion and the man who thinks that it is perfectly okay to use their drunkenness as an excuse to grope a woman’s behind on a Friday night. But characterizations that only recognize violence after the worst-case scenario occurs allow socially acceptable forms of violence to go unnoticed and unpunished.

Andrea Dworkin, an author and activist, once said she believed “in the humanity of men against all the evidence.” Color me optimistic. I believe in the humanity of men who have been physically violent, no matter how deeply buried that humanity may be. We have gone to a very dark place when we say that there are crimes people can commit that rob them of their ability to rehabilitate. Faith in rehabilitation is not in opposition to the often-reported high relapse rates of violent offenders. It simply hopes to envision a world where people aren’t doomed to be battered or a batterer after one act of violence has occurred.

But it all starts with us. We may win brownie points in our social networks by polarizing the debate and making it about how much we can stick it to domestic violence offenders in the public eye. But these actions don’t get women any closer to healing, men any closer to questioning their sexism on multiple levels or our society any closer to rethinking conflict resolution in partnership. These constructive activities aim to stifle violence and lead us on the path to healthy relationships.

When pursuing healthy relationships, these gender social norms are highly problematic because they often imply gender is destiny and that behaviors can’t be changed.

Violence can happen in relationships and is harder to escape and prevent for some more than others. But we should be reminded that beyond our political affiliations or gender loyalties, we are responsible for our own growth and development after the storm.

Rose Afriyie is the Daily’s sex and relationships columnist. She can be reached at sariyie@umich.edu.

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