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Roots of Abuse

The roots of partner abuse lie so deeply imbedded in the inequalities of sex roles and the pro-violence values of the total culture, that we are often unable to see the conditions which make family violence inevitable.

The general level of violence in a society affects the level of violence within families. Family violence tends to increase when the subsistence base of a society is threatened as in times of high unemployment and high inflation.

The typical experience of an abused woman can be broken down into a five-stage process. The length of time a woman takes in each stage and her eventual end point in the process vary tremendously, depending on her history, current circumstances and environmental supports.

Stage 1: Denial

Many women react to their first assault with disbelief. It is usually painful to think about the assault; therefore she tries to forget it. It is difficult for these women to identify themselves as victims of abuse. Society discourages women who have not been brutally maimed from recognizing the seriousness of their dilemma. A wide variety of male violence is neither questioned nor punished, especially when that violence is directed against women. Very often a man’s violence progresses from attacks on objects to shoving, pushing, and hitting his wife with an open hand, and finally to severe assault.

The woman needs to admit to herself that she is being physically abused and that this is a serious problem which she must try to do something about. The women needs to overcome her shame to the point that she can seek the help she needs.

Stage 2: Self Blame

This stage begins when the woman recognizes that she is an abused woman. She is now in a stage of guilt and turmoil. Her previous experience may have left her with such low self-esteem that she feels she deserves to be beaten. Also almost everyone else including friends, family, husband, helping persons like ministers, doctors, mental health workers and the general public, blame the victim in woman assault. This makes it very difficult for a woman to leave an assaulting partner.

The emotional dependence an abused woman feels is a result of many factors which she may be only dimly aware of. The dependence can develop as a result of never living alone as an adult; death or illness of a parent; an unpleasant divorce or the experience of having been abused as a child. All these factors encourage a woman to blame herself for being abused.

It is common for persons who feel powerless in a situation to misrepresent the situation to themselves in order to feed hopes that they can do something about it. Women often accepts society’s belief that her job is to keep the relationship going; and her partner’s view that she causes the beatings.

The woman needs to recognize that she does not deserve to be beaten. She needs to put responsibility for the violence where it belongs – on the person who is assaulting her. She needs to explore her part in the marital conflict and the total relationship, but not as a “provoker” of violence. She needs to become more aware of the factors which influence her to stay in the relationship.

  • a) economic dependence
  • b) no place to go
  • c) identity as a wife and mother
  • d) love for husband
  • e) isolation and emotional dependence
  • f) feeling sorry for or responsible or helping partner
  • g) feeling responsible for keeping family together
  • h) religion
  • i) fear of being without partner

She also needs to get some perspective on her emotional reactions.

  • a) extreme fear
  • b) degradation and shame
  • c) anger turning to guilt, anxiety, depression, hopelessness and suicidal feelings
  • d) stress reaction – exhaustion, illness, lack of sleep, no sleep, over eating dependence on alcohol or drugs, withdrawal, survival instincts

The woman needs to realize that no matter what their conflicts are, violence is unacceptable. She must begin to see that nothing can excuse the violence or make the violent man less responsible for his behaviour.

Stage 3: Seeking Help

This is often a negative experience for abused women. Police may not respond when called and when they do respond they rarely make arrests. Most police do not understand the emotional state common to a woman who has just been beaten.

The usual response of hospital emergency rooms and private physicians to battered women is also inadequate. Most often assaulted women are briefly talked too, given medication, or referred for psychological help. No meaningful attempt is made to recognize or treat the primary cause of these women’s symptoms – that they are being beaten up by their husbands.

Mental health workers, therapists and ministers almost always ignore the seriousness of the crime being committed. They often adopt a view, which blames the victim for her circumstances. Therapy almost always concentrates on “communication”. Often the woman is encouraged to return to her partner prematurely which removes the one source of pressure the woman may be able to put on the man to seek help. This process shows the woman that she is not being listened to, taken seriously or helped. She begins to feel quite confused and crazy. She believes that she is to blame or that she is crazy.

Stage 4: Ambivalence

In this stage a woman spends some time going back and forth between the two choices of leaving or staying in the relationship. Some women choose to stay in an abusive relationship in the hope that individual therapy or marriage counselling will end the beatings. In order for therapy to work the man must recognize that he has a problem which only he himself can solve. He must understand and take responsibility for his own actions.

The woman needs to realize that therapy and marriage counselling are steps in a process which may or may not result in being able to develop a non-violent relationship with the man she lives with. The therapist must be willing and able to convey to the couple that violence is an unacceptable behaviour under any circumstances.

There are many factors which may lead to a woman’s decision to leave an abusive relationship. Realization that her life is in danger or fear for her children’s emotional and physical health are compelling factors in influencing them to leave. A woman who permanently ends the abusive relationship has to some degree solved some of the reality problems of independent living. The abused woman who leaves permanently has gradually built up her self-esteem and self-confidence to the point that she believes she can live a more satisfying life independently.

Almost all abused women leave their mates and go back to them before leaving for good. This may occur once or many, many times. Each move toward or away from the relationship is an attempt by the women to create a living situation in which her needs can be met. Each time she goes back to her partner she tries to determine if enough change can take place in the relationship to make living in it possible.

This pattern of going in and out of the relationship often contributes to increased lack of support and a frustration on the part of helping people that causes them to give up on individual abused women. Without this recognition and validation of the abused woman’s need to go in and out of the relationship until she is fully prepared to leave for good, effective work with abused women is impossible.

The task of building up one’s self-confidence in order to be able to live independently from an abusive man involves several steps. First, the woman must make a strong emotional connection with another person or persons whom she can rely on for continuance of aid and support. Ending her emotional dependence on an abusive man is the second step the woman must take in building up her self-confidence. The third step is to overcome her natural fear of the unknown. The next step is learning a process of strengthening herself in healthy ways. She must learn to take care of her own needs first, to identify what she wants and how she can get it. Finally she must learn to be self-nurturing, to build relaxation and pleasure into her life.

Stage 5: Living Without Violence

This stage may be reached through either of two life choices by the battered woman: to stay in a relationship which has become non-violent or to leave the abusive relationship. Discussing with a woman her choices to stay in the relationship will help her to assess the positive change she sees in herself and her partner. This will enable her to see her decision as being based on reality, not mere hope. This work should also include a discussion of danger signals which the woman might recognize and act on to remove herself from the situation before actual violence does reoccur. This work must be done in such a way that is does not undermine the woman’s confidence in her decision.

The woman who decides to permanently leave an abusive relationship needs continued support and follow-up. Contact with other abused women or formerly abused woman can be of great benefit to her.

Condensed from: “Living Without Violence” By Frances B. Woods 1981