In order to mobilize an effective and widespread protest against intimate partner violence, the battered women's movement that emerged in the 1970s had to satisfactorily answer the question, "Why do women stay in abusive relationships?" In response, a variety of theorists emerged who explained that women were victimized and coerced into staying in violent relationships by a variety of factors. Among these theorists is Bess Rothenberg who listed several factors in "'We Don't Have Time for Social Change': Cultural Compromise and the Battered Woman Syndrome" (Gender & Society, vol. 17, October 2003). According to Rothenberg, women were victimized first and foremost by violent abusers; second, by a society that sanctioned the right of men to hit women and socialized women into staying in abusive relationships; third, by representatives of institutions who were in a position to help but who instead ignored the plight of battered women (for example, doctors, police, the criminal justice system, clergy, and therapists); and finally, by the everyday realities of being a woman in a patriarchal system that expects women to raise children and denies them access to education, job skills, and good employment.
Do Women Learn to Be Helpless from Their Life Experience?
Among the best known of the multiple victimization arguments is Lenore Walker's concept of "battered woman syndrome," based in part on the research of Martin Seligman.
Seligman, in Helplessness: On Depression, Development and Death (1975), describes how he came to discover the phenomenon he calls learned helplessness. Seligman conducted an experiment in which he attempted to teach dogs to fear the sound of a bell. He did so by restraining a dog, ringing the bell, and then subjecting the dog to a painful (but not dangerous) shock. This process was repeated many times.
Next, to test the effectiveness of the training, Seligman placed the dog in a cage with a floor that could be electrified. One wall of the cage was low enough that the dog could jump over it if it wished. Seligman then rang the bell. He expected that the dog would jump out of the cage. But most of the dogs did not. Their earlier experience, where they had been shocked with no possibility of escape, had taught them that they were helpless. And so even though they were clearly afraid of the bell and found the shocks painful, they made no attempt to escape. On closer observation Seligman found that some dogs developed coping skills, such as using their own excrement to insulate themselves from the floor.
Seligman and other psychologists have theorized that learned helplessness also occurs in humans, with similar effects. Lenore Walker, the author of several well-regarded books about intimate partner violence, theorized that victimized people tend to stop trusting their instinctive responses that protect them after they have experienced inescapable pain in apparently random and variable circumstances. When a person no longer controls his or her own life and does not know what to expect, the individual becomes helpless and develops coping skills to try to minimize the pain. Walker contends that battered women have learned that they are helpless. Although outsiders may not understand why they do not leave their abusers, battered women become conditioned to believe that they cannot predict their safety and that nothing can be done to fundamentally change their situations.
Based on her research, much of which focused on severely abused women who killed their husbands, Walker identifies five factors in childhood and seven factors in adulthood that contribute to learned helplessness. The childhood factors include physical or sexual abuse, the learning of traditional sex roles, health problems, and episodes during childhood when a child loses control of events, such as in frequent moves or the death of a family member. Adult factors include patterns of physical and sexual abuse, jealousy and threats of death from a batterer, psychological torture, seeing other abuse committed by the batterer, and drug or alcohol abuse by either partner.
Battered Woman Syndrome
In The Battered Woman (New York: Harper & Row, 1979) Walker argues that abused women suffer from a constellation of symptoms—"the battered woman syndrome"—that keeps them from leaving abusive partners. Walker argues that learned helplessness and a cycle of violence make it extremely difficult for women to leave abusive partners. When women fail to escape from violence, she argues, they become passive, submissive, depressed, overwhelmingly fearful, and psychologically paralyzed. While Walker recognizes, as did other multiple victimization theorists, that women were victims of a patriarchal society and institutions that failed to advocate for abused women, she emphasizes the psychological problems women develop in response to abuse.
In Walker's article "The Battered Woman Syndrome Is a Psychological Consequence of Abuse" (Current Controversies on Family Violence [Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1994]), Walker claims that battered woman syndrome is common among severely abused women and that it is part of the recognized pattern of psychological symptoms called post–traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Women suffering from battered woman syndrome learn that they cannot predict the outcomes of their actions because they cannot reliably determine if a particular response will bring them safety. Walker emphasizes that although they do not respond with total helplessness, they narrow their choices, choosing the ones that seem to have the greatest likelihood of success.
Normally, fear and the responses to fear abate once the feared object or circumstance is removed. People who have suffered a traumatic event, however, often continue to respond to the fear with flashbacks and violent thoughts long after the event has passed. Symptoms of PTSD can afflict individuals regardless of whether they suffer from other psychological problems. Otherwise mentally healthy, and emotionally stable people can develop these symptoms as an adaptive mechanism—a coping strategy to survive abnormal or unusually frightening experiences.
Symptoms of PTSD involve cognitive, psychological, and emotional changes that occur in response to severe trauma. Symptoms may include difficulty in thinking clearly and a pessimistic outlook. The disorder can also produce two distinct forms of memory distortions:
- Unwanted, intrusive memories of the trauma may magnify the terror.
- Partial amnesia may cause an affected individual to suppress and forget many of the painful experiences.
Other symptoms of PTSD include sleep and eating disorders and medical problems associated with persistent high levels of stress. Symptoms described under the PTSD diagnosis cover nearly every possible—and seemingly contradictory—response to battering, including chronic alertness, flashbacks, floods of emotion, detached calm, anger, inability to concentrate, sleep disturbances, indifference, profound passivity, and depression. Over time, the more aggressive symptoms diminish and are replaced by more passive, constrictive symptoms, making the affected women appear helpless. The abused woman's outlook often improves, however, when she regains some degree of power and control in her life.
Women Are Not Helpless
Beginning in the 1980s, a number of critics emerged who argued that the emphasis on psychological problems of abuse victims was an inadequate explanation of domestic violence. Lee Bowker argued in "A Battered Woman's Problems Are Social, Not Psychological" (Current Controversies on Family Violence [Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1994]) that women remain trapped in violent marriages because of conditions in the social system rather than because they suffer from psychological problems. According to the author, battered women are not as passive as they are portrayed in abuse literature and routinely take steps to make their lives safer or to escape abuse. Bowker viewed husbands' unwillingness to stop being dominant and a lack of support from traditional social institutions as the factors that delay battered women in escaping from abuse.
To support these findings, Bowker analyzed survey questionnaires completed by one thousand women and found that women used several major strategies to end abuse. They tried to extract promises from their partners that the battering would stop, threatened to call police or file for divorce, avoided their partners or certain topics of conversations, hid or ran away, tried to talk the men out of violent behavior, covered their bodies to deflect the blows, and, in some cases, tried to hit back. Of these strategies, extracting a promise to change helped most often (54% of the time), while self-defense proved the least effective strategy.
Because the effectiveness of these strategies was limited, most women turned to outside sources for help. First, they contacted family or friends. However, for most women, family and friends did not help stop the violence. Generally, these women then turned to organized or institutional sources of aid, such as police, physicians, clergy, lawyers, counselors, women's groups, and shelters. Calling a lawyer or prosecutor proved the most effective way to end the battering, followed by seeking assistance from women's groups and social service agencies offering referral to shelters or counselors.
Bowker did not find that loss of self-esteem inevitably paralyzes women, leading them to remain in abusive relationships. While battered women do lose self-esteem for a time, many still escape from their abusers. This suggests that when all seems hopeless, an innate need to save themselves propels abused women to escape from their situations. Bowker theorized that the reason women's groups and shelters are effective is that they counter the effects of abuse by supporting personal growth and nurturing the women's strength.
Bowker concluded that because women recover from their feelings of helplessness as they gain strength, battered woman syndrome symptoms are fundamentally different from the long-lasting symptoms that characterize most psychiatric disorders. In Bowker's interpretation, battered woman syndrome refers to the social, economic, psychological, and physical circumstances that keep women in abusive relationships for long periods. The abusive relationship engenders feelings of learned helplessness that are difficult to escape. Conditioned by their batterers to feel helpless, such women have not yet learned how to resist this type of brainwashing and how to compel their abusers to retreat without having to leave or kill the batterer.
Exploration of External Barriers to Leaving
In "Why Battered Women Do Not Leave, Part 1" (see previous citation), Ola W. Barnett argued that battered women face many obstacles to leaving abusive relationships. She argued that many of these barriers are external—in other words, not due to an individual or psychological problem with the abused woman. Barnett outlined many external obstacles to an abused woman's quest to leave her partner, including:
- The patriarchal structure of society—When men control all of a family's resources, women may be economically powerless. In addition, the political and legal system of the United States—particularly in areas of income, employment, and child support—have codified sexist practices that sabotage women's attempts to become economically independent of their abusers.
- Problems with the criminal justice system—The criminal justice system in the United States is underfunded and tends not to enforce legislation prohibiting the abuse of women. The lack of adequate funding keeps battered women from getting legal assistance. Police decisions to arrest or not arrest batterers tend to be inconsistent; when police don't arrest, it impedes women's attempts to leave as well as leaving them vulnerable to further abuse. Only one quarter of batterers are arrested, about one-third of those arrested are prosecuted, and only 1% of those prosecuted serve jail time beyond the time served at arrest. Orders of protection are ineffective because most judges will not enforce them.
- Child custody and visitation—Women fear losing their children if they report intimate partner violence. A report of domestic violence can trigger an investigation by child protective services. When women do retain custody of their children, judges usually do not take intimate partner violence into account when writing visitation orders. Court-ordered visitation is often used by abusers as an opportunity for further battering.
Internal and Psychological Barriers to Leaving
Barnett also outlined several internalized socialization beliefs—normal, learned beliefs about how society and relationships work—as well as psychological factors induced by trauma that serve as obstacles to battered women leaving their abusers ("Why Battered Women Do Not Leave, Part 2," Trauma, Violence, & Abuse, vol. 2, no. 1, January 2001). Barnett emphasized that many of these beliefs are detrimental to all women—but battered women are particularly vulnerable. Among them are:
- Gender-role socialization—Society values male traits more than female traits and often devalues female gender roles. As girls age into adolescents, they begin to lose self-confidence as they turn to romantic relationships for a sense of self-worth. When an adult woman values her ability to form a relationship with a male partner over other characteristics, losing the relationship may seem worse than staying and enduring the abuse.
- Distorted beliefs and perceptions—Battered women tend to hold some distorted beliefs that keep them in abusive relationships. Common distorted thought patterns among battered women include a belief that violence is commonplace and not abusive, a belief that they caused the abuse, a lack of recognition that children are harmed more by witnessing intimate partner violence than by living with a single parent, and a belief that she can and should help the abuser to change.
- Post–traumatic stress disorder—PTSD is a prolonged psychological reaction to a traumatic event. Its symptoms include difficulty sleeping, reliving trauma in flashbacks, and numbing of emotional responses. The level of psychological distress abused women experience can keep them from being able to escape the violence.
- Impaired problem-solving abilities—Many factors can impede the problem-solving abilities of battered women, including post-concussion syndrome resulting from head injuries as well as the cognitive distortions of PTSD.
- Prior victimization effects—Women who have been abused during their childhoods have an increased risk of becoming involved with an abusive intimate partner in adulthood. This may be because these women have difficulty judging how trustworthy people are, or they hold a distorted belief that they cannot escape violence.