Characteristics And Dynamics:
Any woman can be the victim of domestic violence, just as anyone can be the victim of any other crime. Therefore, there is no one profile of a woman who is being or has been abused. Women who have been battered tend to develop some similar characteristics, and the longer they are in the battering relationship the more likely the are to develop these adaptive patterns.
Self-esteem based primarily on self-in-relationship.
When battered women are safe from abuse and violence and receive support, many are able to recover. Battered women typically underestimate their abilities in some areas and overestimate them in others. For instance, they may believe they are powerful enough to control their partner’s use of violence, while also believing the criticism heaped upon them by an abusive partner. Many batterers seek to control their partners by emphasizing their incompetence and repeatedly stating that their partners would be unable to function independently. Because women often define themselves by their success or failure as a wife or mother, when things are not going well at home they take responsibility for the troubled relationship and feel lower self-esteem. Thus you may see clients who are professionally or socially successful, yet who do not count their competence, only their sense of private failure.
Partner’s well-being is her central concern.
Typically, whether or not a battered woman feels that her role is to nurture the man, maintain the household and/or take care of the relationship, his violence soon shows her she is safer when she adheres to the role he has prescribed for women.
She may continue her job out of economic necessity or because she loves it, but she may feel guilty about her choice. She may give up her job, hoping this will give her partner some security so that he will then be happy. Frequently this creates real economic hardship in the family, adding further stress. Some battered women turn their pay check over to their partners, who take over decisions about how family income is spent. Although the woman may be holding the entire family together emotionally and perhaps even financially, she supports the man as the head of the house.
Battered women often suffer from a variety of somatic ailments such as fatigue, restlessness, sleep problems (disruption, insomnia) and headaches. They may also complain of depression and anxiety and may be suspicious and secretive when a professional asks them about their relationship.
Suspiciousness resulting in secretiveness is usually well-founded; their vigilance helps battered women cope by increasing their perception of control over their lives and the batterer, avoiding some beatings and obtaining a few moments of privacy from their intrusive partner. The manipulative behavior that results does help protect many battered women from more serious injury.
Denial or minimization of the violence.
Battered women tend to minimize or deny the amount and intensity of the violence directed against them. The human mind can only take a certain amount of trauma; when pushed beyond the limits, they may repress memories of repeated trauma. Denial, the psychological defense mechanism that helps a person refuse to believe that the unbelievable has occurred, also is part of a battered woman’s unconscious protection. Along with minimizing the seriousness and danger of the abuse, these defenses protect the battered woman by reducing her constant fear level. They also nurture her hope that the relationship in which she has so much invested is not doomed.
Believes she deserves or adjusts to "normalize" the abuse and violence.
The vast majority of women are socialized to believe it is their responsibility to keep their partners happy and their relationship together. Battered women begin to believe that it is their fault that they cannot "fix" whatever is wrong with their batterers. Each time they feel the injustice of their situation or do something perpetrators think is wrong, they feel more guilty. They try to improve themselves and may accept their partner’s description of his violence as rightful discipline meant to teach the woman a lesson. Women whose parents identified physical punishment as a form of love are more likely to accept the batterer’s explanation. These women are more likely to be in a relationship with someone who believes it is his right and duty to discipline "his" family.
Dynamics: Barriers To Leaving
Walker (1984) found that battered women do not stay in relationships longer than other women. According to her study, the average length of stay for battered women was six years. The average marriage in the United States at that time was also six years. More women are able to terminate battering relationships sooner with the assistance of programs for battered women.
Increasingly, women do not stay. Even in cases where it appears they stay – or leave only to return time and time again – they are usually preparing to leave. In fact, women leave an average of three to five times before they change their living arrangements (Walker, 1979; 1984). Because of the nature and intensity of the batterer’s violence and threats, the battered woman leaves in stages, testing the environment to see if she and her children can safely escape and survive together.
The dynamics of a violent relationship, a community’s failure to sanction the perpetrator and the failure of society to provide females with options keep some women trapped in violent relationships. When one considers the dynamics of domestic violence and the social barriers to leaving as well as the physical, emotional and psychological consequences to the battered woman, the fact that so many women do leave is remarkable.
Factors affecting whether battered women stay in violent relationships include:
- Frequency and severity of the battering
- The battered woman’s childhood history of abuse
- Economic dependence
- Beliefs about the batterer
- Religious beliefs
Frequency and severity of the battering. When assessing a battered woman’s ability and willingness to leave a situation, consider that each battering incident may occur over a relatively short period of time – like a hit-and-run accident or a terrorist attack. If the battering is intermittent, the victim may have difficulty knowing how to interpret and deal with the violence.
- The batterer may promise that this battering incident is the last, and she may believe him – even if he has promised the same thing before.
- Generally, the less severe and less frequent the incidents, the more likely that she will stay.
- Generally, the more benefits (whatever that means to her) she receives from the relationship between the abusive incidents, the more likely that she will stay.
- The battered woman may have a disability resulting from previous battering or from another source (head injury, developmental disability, mental illness). If so, she may not be mentally or physical able to leave under her own power. He may physically restrain her (e.g., take her wheelchair away, lock doors and disconnect phone is she is blind). He may be over- or under- medicating her to restrain her. Sometimes physicians unwittingly participate in the over-medication by prescribing powerful tranquilizers that lessen her ability to think and carry out a strategic plan.
- Is she is elderly, her physical injuries may be more extensive and perceived as more life-threatening than when she was younger. Additionally, she, like the woman with the disability, may be physically restrained, i.e., tied up or medicated so that she cannot leave.
The battered woman’s childhood.
The childhood of the battered woman may have conditioned her for violence in adult life: She may have lived in a home where her father beat her mother and accepts violence as natural, normal or inevitable. The more she was hit by her parents or siblings, the more likely she is to accept physical punishment from a family member and not to question the congruence of love and violence. She or one of her siblings may be a survivor of child abuse, including child sexual assault. She may have had a number of negative experiences she was powerless to control: neglect or abuse by one or more alcoholic parents, every parent or sibling loss, frequent moves, serious illness, chaotic home life.
Economic dependence is a powerful force that keeps many women in battering relationships. In the battered woman’s eyes, it may be worth putting up with abuse to maintain economic security for herself and her children. Women with children have fewer viable options than single women or men. If a mother has no or low-level marketable skills, has a disability or is too old (by an employer’s standards), she may choose to stay in an abusive relationship.
Government assistance is very limited and many women know that welfare is an option affording little hope for the future. Even when a woman does have marketable skills, she will still earn about 65 cents for every dollar earned by a male (Rix, 1990). This figure is significantly reduced if she is a woman of color or has a disability. Not only will she earn less if she leaves the batterer, she will have to maintain a household for her children and herself.
In addition, the batterer may use every opportunity to bring her back into court over and over again, causing her to incur legal fees or lose the children, the house, car or anything else she values. If children need special attention (physical or behavioral), she is rarely able to provide funds for these needs on her own.
The batterer may control the couple’s money. She may have no access to cash, credit cards, checks or important documents, or even if she has access, she must account for every penny spent. Even women who have their own money separate from the batterer’s may have restricted access to it.
If the battered woman has a disability or other problem that will require long-term medical intervention, the batterer may have the only health insurance from which medical bills are paid. She may fear that she will be unable to take care of the children or may fear bankruptcy, institutionalization or death if she does not stay with him.
As an elderly woman, she may rely on his pension or other retirement fund. She may fear that he will cut her off and she will live in poverty, become homeless, be institutionalized by the state or die.
Fear. Battered women typically have a number of fears that, together with the other factors listed, keep them in violent relationships.
- She may fear loss of the relationship, fear that no one else could love her.
- If she has experienced violence many times and no intervention has been effective, she may believe she can never escape from him. She may believe her husband to be omnipotent. She sees no way to protect herself from him and she does not believe anyone else can or will protect her, either. Many of her fears are justified; the violence exhibited by batterers is terrifying and potentially lethal. Many batterers threaten their partners with far-reaching vengeance if they are reported.
- She is likely to believe that if she or even a neighbor reports the batterer to the police, he will take revenge upon her, the children, friends, family, pets or anyone or anything important to her. She may believe that if she stays with him, he will hurt only her. In her mind, she is sacrificing herself so that others may live.
- Some women are afraid that if they report abuse, their husbands might lose their jobs. Many times his job is the only source of income and medical insurance for the family.
- She is typically afraid that no one will believe her or the true extent of his violence.
- She is afraid everyone will blame her for the batterer’s violence.
- She may be afraid that she will lose the children because she could not stop his violence and is, therefore, a bad mother. This fear increases if he threatens to take the children from her or if the court appears to be favoring him in a custody hearing. This factor is a major reason many battered women with children return to the abusive male. She may be charged with failure to protect and lose her children through a dependency and neglect action.
- She may be afraid of incurring the wrath of the extended family or their particular community if she breaks up with or reports the batterer. Women with strong roots in a small town or a separate ethnic or traditionally religious community are particularly vulnerable.
- She may have some event in her past that, if brought into the open, would focus social or criminal sanctions upon her, i.e., drug abuse, prostitution or adultery, writing bad checks, welfare fraud.
- If she is an undocumented alien, she may fear arrest and deportation, perhaps having to leave her children behind.
- If she is a woman of color or a lesbian, she may fear that the system will treat her unfairly, possibly taking her children or putting her in jail. The battered woman may fear that the police will beat or kill her partner. While she wants him to stop the violence, she usually does not want him hurt or killed, especially because of something she may believe she did to set him off.
- In some cultures, the police and social services are seen as the enemy, agents of the government to be feared. Only under the most extreme conditions would battered women, family members or neighbors in these cultures call the police.
- She is typically afraid that is she leaves, he will commit suicide. Generally, she does not want him dead; she just wants him to stop the violence.
- In rural areas, Indian reservations and other small communities, she may fear that the neighbors will talk about the battering if they find out, bringing shame to her family. The sheriff, district attorney and judge might all be his friends or drinking buddies. Additionally, there are fewer helpful resources for battered women in rural areas.
- An elderly person or a person with a disability may fear not being believed. She may fear that others will see her as incompetent or incapable of getting the story straight. She herself may not trust her abilities to protect herself. Some elderly, frail men often find themselves in this same vulnerable position.
- Often an elderly abuse survivor will not reach out to services because of pride or ignorance of the system and how to use it.
A major factor keeping battered women in violent relationships is social isolation. Often he has become her only psychological and emotional support after having systematically destroyed her other friendships. Friends and family typically feel uncomfortable around his intimidation, hostility or violence, and withdraw from spending much time with either of them. This isolation supports her perception of his omnipotence. As time passes, she has fewer and fewer people to validate her feelings and her perception of reality. The children often act out what they see and experience at home. Some children who are exposed to violence may identify with the aggressor, blaming the mother for his violence. Thus, children are often unable to provide healthy reality checks since their reality is distorted.
Beliefs about her batterer.
- Neither the survivor nor the batterer may know there are domestic violence services to help them if services do not exist in their area. Where services exist, many people would never ask for help from "social services," "charity," or "the government" because "what happens in the family stays in the family." Battered women do not trust others to be able to help without intense meddling. Effectiveness of the helper may be limited if the helper is of a different race, ethnic group or class.
- Service providers, including health care providers, often do not seek accurate information about injuries. When presented with an unlikely explanation of the injury, many avoid probing.
- Because the battered woman may leave the batterer an average of three to five times before she finally leaves for good (Walker, 1979, 1984), relatives, friends, police and service providers may fail to understand that she develops strengths and resources each time she leaves. They become tired of helping her only to see her return to the batterer, and they become decreasingly willing to be resources upon which she can rely. They may also be afraid of him or may be in denial. They may blame her for his violence and tell her that she is a bad mother is she does not protect the children. Because this reinforces what she already believes but feels powerless to act upon, it only raises the battered woman's levels of guilt.
- The batterer often threatens to kill his partner, the children and anyone else she involves if she leaves him. In response, she usually cuts off communication with potential helpers. In her mind, she would rather take the beatings than "cause" others to be hurt.
- Ashamed or afraid to share information about their abuse, women in abusive relationships rarely see themselves as battered. Unwilling to label their violence as battering or abuse, batterers rarely seek help for their behavior. Some batterers do not know how to relate without using intimidation and violence. The couple may realize they have problems, but may not identify the battering as being the main problem. Often, batterers and survivors identify the "real problem" as his drinking, or more commonly, something she is doing.
- Some women and men believe that outsiders should not be involved in the affairs of the family.
- Some battered women abuse alcohol and other drugs. Typically, as battering increases, substance abuse increases, multiplying her isolation.
- A battered woman may need medication to pull out of a depression or to reduce panic attacks. However, some women who go to the doctor or therapist complaining of physical and emotional problems are given drugs to address their symptoms without a thorough assessment of the violence that is generating these symptoms. Without proper discussion and monitoring, this action by the doctor may imply that it is her feelings, not the violence, which need "fixing." The effects of the drugs themselves may decrease her ability to gain access to appropriate services.
It is also important for those who work with battered women to understand the beliefs women commonly hold about their partner. She often still loves him and is emotionally bonded with him. Motivated by pity and compassion, she may feel she is the only one who can help him overcome his problem (alcohol, violence, depression). When he is also abusing alcohol or other drugs, she typically believes that he will stop battering if he stops the substance abuse. If the batterer is elderly or has a disability, she may think that he will die without her.
While increasingly members of the clergy are gaining an awareness and understanding of domestic violence, many believe and perpetuate all the myths of domestic violence and counsel the woman to "submit" and to be a better wife, mother or nurturer. The more a woman internalizes this advice, the more likely she is to stay (Fortune, 1987) and the more likely the battering will continue.