RECLAIMING OUR POWER: PSYCHOLOGICAL ASPECTS OF WOMEN IN DOMESTIC VIOLENCE

RECLAIMING OUR POWER: PSYCHOLOGICAL ASPECTS OF WOMEN IN DOMESTIC VIOLENCE Jeannine Vegh
August 20, 1997

Introduction

This paper attempts to study the psychology of the woman who has been battered and how it relates to a loss of her own power. While it is the fault of the man for abusing the woman, it is the woman’s “Emotional Intelligence” (Goleman, D. 1995) that will give her the strength to escape her batterer and begin on a path toward reclaiming her power. This is not a paper that attempts to blame any woman for her choices to remain or leave the situation. On the contrary, this is about understanding the battered woman and how she might take responsibility for her safety, given the trauma imposed on her, thereby gaining a sense of self.

Historical Fact and Fiction

In an attempt to understand the psychological aspects of women in domestic violence it is important to look at the issue from a historical perspective first. This is important so that we might gain some insight and have a perspective to this issue. Hypothetically speaking, one might suggest that with the fall of the matriarch came the rise of domestic violence or the battering of women under the newly acquired gender of power: the Patriarch. What we know about our past exists in textbooks that were written under the dominance of the patriarch. Prior to this period, we have only a glimpse of the time when the goddess was our spiritual deity and women ruled. We have only a few archeological remnants and our stories are visions (fictional accounts) of the world before the dominance of men.

One such vision of the matriarch is described to us in the fictional book The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley. In her book, the author looks at the women from King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table period (King Arthur is fictional because it has not been proven). The story begins with the European countries at war in a dual conflict that is both political and religious. The Knights are failing to uphold King Arthur’s throne and begin to see this new religion Christianity, as a political advantage for them and refer to it as the “men’s religion.” The heroines of this novel pursue a victory for the Goddess (religion of the women: fairies, witches, and pagans). As a result, their conquest is wrought with torture, murder, starvation, rape and beatings by their husbands, brothers and even their beloved fathers.

Since the Mists of Avalon is a fictional account of the beginnings of domestic violence we must resort to a chronicle of events from the rule of the patriarch that will clearly show evidence of how the battering of women began. To begin with in 753 BCE, there is Romulus, the founder of Rome who gives us the first known “law of marriage.” This law requires married women to have “no other refuge, to conform themselves entirely to the temper of their husbands and the husbands to rule their wives as necessary and inseparable possessions” (McCue, M.L. 1995, p. 25). Centuries later, when the Puritans take control as they step on Plymouth Rock, we see that battering women is still not an issue in 1641. While divorce at this time is not impossible, physical cruelty alone is not enough to be granted solitude. The woman must prove that she has been a “dutiful wife” and has not provoked her husband in any way if she chooses to ask for a divorce.

The Battered Woman

The victim of domestic violence is not always a woman as this crime is not found solely in the heterosexual community but amongst homosexual’s as well. It is not always men who are violent in the heterosexual relationship, although in the majority of the cases this is so. For purposes of this paper, the concentration is on the heterosexual female. The Family Violence Prevention Fund states that “every 9 seconds in the United States, a woman is physically abused [battered] by her husband or boyfriend” (California Department of Justice – Office of the Attorney General, 1997). Physical abuse described in this statement is also known as domestic violence. This is a legal term that is used in cases where a person is abused by their spouse, former spouse, someone they live with or used to live with, a person they are dating, a fiance, or the father of their child. The California Penal Code states that abuse is “intentionally or recklessly causing or attempting to cause bodily injury, or placing another person in reasonable apprehension of imminent, serious bodily injury to himself, herself or another” (California Department of Justice – Office of the Attorney General, 1997). There is no typical profile of the battered woman. This woman may be young or old, rich or poor, married, professional, or unemployed. The battered woman is found throughout society as domestic violence affects all socioeconomic, cultural and ethnic groups.

“It has been suggested that batterers resort to violent acts as a way of competing with women’s superior abilities” (Walker, L.E. 1984, p. 16). This information was based on statistics that show a battered woman’s education level is higher than her batterer’s. This shows a type of power play or competition that is involved in domestic violence, the man’s jealousy of his partner’s knowledge. Another power struggle is the woman who feels that she can control her batterer by manipulating events to soften the blow. Keeping the kids quiet, making his favorite dinner, cleaning the house for his arrival, these are all measures that are taken to ensure a peaceful environment. However, these tactics fail when external factors come into play such as termination from a job, a co-worker or a stranger on the bus who gets him mad. This struggle for power is a modern day version of the transition’s effects from the matriarch to a patriarchal ruling.

Multiculturalism and Domestic Violence

Domestic violence, as shown earlier, involves all societies and is not limited to one culture. Immigrant couples come to this country one at a time in most circumstances. By the time the spouse joins up with their partner, they have become Americanized and this can have a reflection on their marriage. “Spouses who journey to the States may not fully understand the spouse who has been here for some time and who may have already done some acculturating” (Brice-Baker, J.R. 1994). When the woman comes first this puts the male in a distinct disadvantage, he is dependent on his wife for communication, income and this takes away the power he had over her in his own country. This power struggle once again shows acts of domestic violence where the male is trying to regain his dominance over a woman. Even after settling here in America over time, cultural barriers will still come into play between family violence and physicians, peace officers, and lawyers. Research shows that the failure to provide information on domestic violence in multicultural communities are the results of: 1) A lack of a translator for the woman; 2) An acceptance of violence against women; 3) Feelings of shame or self-blame from the woman; 4) Fear of further retaliatory violence if abuse is revealed; 5) Fear of losing a place to live; 6) Fear of consequences (i.e., immigration, legal, or government); 7) Fear of discrimination by insurance companies and 8) Fear of losing economic support from the partner (Pinn, V.W. & Chunko, M.T. 1997, p. 66). It should be known however, that many of these cultural barriers are representative of all battered women and are not specific to one culture or another.

Domestic violence is found in all parts of the world. However, studies have shown that there are 16 societies, representing all seven continents, that have no family violence (Levinson, D. 1989, pp. 102-107). The paper goes on to state that the general psychosocial factors that contribute to societies without family violence include: equality between husbands and wives in decision making, no division of labor, an open policy for divorce, monogamy, no double standards toward premarital sex, low divorce rates, non-violent disputes between men, husbands and wives sleep together, and when there is an incidence of wive beating the intervention is immediate. While these societies are not ruled by one dominate power, these factors still point to evidence of lacking a power struggle, and this is most important in domestic violence studies.

Learned Helplessness and the Survivor Theory

Two prevalent theories that researchers have used to explain the battered woman are the “Learned Helplessness” theory and the “Survivor” theory. The Learned Helplessness theory is based on the woman who was raised in an abusive environment and is now involved with a batterer. It is believed that this woman has become depressed over the years from her survival as a child and has learned to become a victim. This person has experiences of low self-esteem, self-blame, and guilt. She has become psychologically paralyzed. Therefore, she cannot seek help for her situation and remains passive. Her vulnerability and indecisiveness prolong the violence and may even make it worse. It has been speculated that these symptoms might even make her a masochist as she doesn’t know any better. This is not because she enjoys the pain but is used to the violence.

In the Survivor theory the woman is trying to survive in a domestic violence situation but with no avail. Her efforts prove futile and this seems to worsen the situation at home. Possibly it is the failing of the system or the communities lack of strength. She becomes anxious about her economic situation, lack of options and knowledge that will lead her to an impending doom. These women are active survivors rather than helpless victims.

These theories were put together based on studies held at different shelters and the observations of their workers. Criticism has attributed learned helplessness symptoms to that of women transitioning from one environment to another. There is no denial that women show signs of low self-esteem, guilt, self-blame, and depression. However, these women have come to the shelter having suffered severe physical abuse (in some cases). Learned helplessness might be a temporary case of traumatic shock, a sense of commitment to the batterer, or separation anxiety within an unresponsive community. In view of the survivor analysis, this information was based on a study from 1988 when battered women’s shelters were up and coming. Nine years later there is more of a focus on domestic violence and current studies might view this theory in another light or refute it all together.

Both options have been refuted by feminists who say that a theory about the psychological aspects of women are irrelevant since it is not their fault anyway. They believe that research should concentrate on the batterer and more immediate legal actions proposed to end the cycle of violence. Feminists believe in a “Patriarchal Theory,” which believes that the dominance for male power alone is the reason women are abused. Studies have shown that this reason alone does not give us the answers but is a factor in solving the problem (Levinson, D. 1989, p.84). This paper discusses the woman’s role in reclaiming her power as a way to stop the violence in her own life. Martz and Rusbult (1995) put it quite eloquently when they state:

Studying women who broke off violent relationships teach us about how women are either entrapped in or able to free themselves from battering relationships…Our intent must be to discover factors that enhance women’s freedom, and not to find ways to blame the victims of prolonged battering (p. 569).

Emotional Intelligence

We have looked at the psychological aspects of the woman who has been battered. However, not all women will leave their partner in a domestic violence situation. In fact 42% of female homicide victims are killed by their partners (California Department of Justice – Office of the Attorney General, 1997). To examine this issue we look at the book, Emotional Intelligence, by Dr. Daniel Goleman (1995) who introduces us to this concept, which is a breakthrough in understanding the successes of one human being over another and why emotional intelligence matters more than the I.Q. (Intelligence Quotient). The understanding of emotional intelligence begins with “abilities such as being able to motivate oneself and persist in the face of frustrations; to control impulse and delay gratification; to regulate one’s moods and keep distress from swamping the ability to think; to empathize and to hope” (p.34). Those who have emotional intelligence will survive life’s turmoil and the degradation of mankind while others will not. Dr. Viktor Frankl discusses logotherapy in his book The Doctor and the Soul and the choices one has through spirituality, freedom and responsibilities, that can help one survive even through a concentration camp in the Holocaust. Dr. Frankl does not blame those who did not survive the holocaust but looks at how those who did survive and how they were able to. Both Frankl and Goleman present ways in which someone can survive the most brutal forces of evil by their decisions, thoughts, and actions. Who a person chooses to be in a situation depicts the outcome of their very survival.

Reclaiming our power in a domestic violence situation, involves risking your life and making conscious decisions, thoughts and actions. The first step begins by calling “911” and asking for help. This call is followed up with a placement in a “Safe House” (term applied towards shelters specifically designed for domestic violence victims because it is in a secret location). This would be a woman’s first decision to make as she is motivating herself to survive this circumstance she has been presented with. The second step involves being consistent in your actions towards the batterer. Staying away from the perpetrator, following the advice of the staff at the shelter you have been taken to, and managing your emotions learned through group work, shows an example of a woman who is determined to succeed and regain her power after having been battered. Finally, ending the violence and reclaiming your power is shown by your future actions in choosing partners and handling relationships. This involves knowing your partner, looking for warning signs but above all choosing to have a partner who respects you as a woman because you have learned to respect yourself.

The five domains of Emotional Intelligence listed in Dr. Goleman’s book (which can be used as goals or markers of achievement) are:

  • 1. Knowing one’s emotions: Self-awareness -recognizing a feeling as it happens is the keystone of emotional intelligence;
  • 2. Managing emotions: Handling feelings so they are appropriate is an ability that builds on self-awareness;
  • 3. Motivating oneself: Emotional self-control, delaying gratification and stifling impulsiveness-underlies accomplishment of every sort;
  • 4. Recognizing emotions in others: Empathy, another ability that builds on emotional self-awareness, is the fundamental “people skill.” and
  • 5. Handling relationships: The art of relationships is, in large part, skill in managing emotions in others (p. 43).

Finally, the three styles of how people tend to deal with their emotions, detailed in Dr. Goleman’s book of emotional intelligence and how they correspond with the battered woman.

  • Engulfed [The Batterer]: These are people who often feel swamped by their emotions and helpless to escape them, as though their moods have taken charge.
  • Accepting [The Victim]: While these people are often clear about what they are feeling, they also tend to be accepting of their moods, and so don’t try to change them.
  • Self-Aware [Surviving the Crisis]: Aware of their moods as they are having them, these people understandably have some sophistication about their emotional lives. (p. 48).

Emotional self-awareness is the building block towards emotional intelligence and in this case ending the violence and reclaiming one’s power.

Conclusion

I like to turn to Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (a book about a woman reclaiming her power from an unhappy marriage) for a clear statement of the psychological aspects of trauma in an unhappy family. He says on page one that “All happy families are like one another; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” With this quote he presents the problem of trying to understand or even comprehend the unhappiness that occurs in so many families that will lead to domestic violence in some homes. It is a long journey that women can take part in by taking that risk and reclaiming their lives.

My reasons for studying the psychological aspects of women in domestic violence are very personal. I am a 15 year veteran of surviving both domestic violence and child abuse and believe that there is a reason why some women survive and others die or continue to be involved with violent partners. I have always believed that there are reasons why people survive and others do not in any type of violence, grief, or anxiety within our nation. I have looked at this matter spiritually and considered the possibilities of cause and effect. I do not believe in the concept of a coincidence or accident but as Dr. Frankl would suggest, our choices that we make in our thought process. When I chose to leave my husband at the age of 19 and with a 2 year old in tow, I put together an escape plan without the aide of social services (Domestic violence agencies did not come into view until around the mid 1980’s). I feel that my learned helplessness put me into the way of a batterer and my emotional intelligence kept me from staying in a situation that I knew did not make any sense. As a child I had dreamed of being an independent woman someday, free of abuse and the contradictions of parental figures who went against fairytale society (I would have to say family television shows and movies were a good influence in the 60’s and 70’s). I married a batterer because he was my child’s father but soon recognized that my dream would never come true.

History shows us that women in power have been no better than men in power, but it can be refuted with the argument of the patriarch causing a political disadvantage for these women. It seems that we must instead turn to the societies where there are no cases of family violence to have a vision for our own future without violence in this country. A more holistic environment without a supreme rule appears to be the answer, one that is being pursued by many people today (including myself) as a vision for the new millennium. But until then, our ability to survive the obstacles presented to women during the patriarch, will depend on our strength in making safe choices for our life and well-being. As we reclaim our power within, then might we be able to look at the world as a whole and help to bring back a society of peace on earth and good will towards all.

References

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California Department of Justice/Office of the Attorney General. (1997). Domestic violence handbook: A survivor’s guide. State of California: Crime and Violence Prevention Center.
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Frankl, V.E. (1986/1955). The doctor and the soul. New York: Random House.
Goleman, D. (1995). Emotional intelligence. New York: Bantam.
Gondolf, E.W. & Fisher, E.R. (1988). Battered women as survivors: An alternative to treating learned helplessness. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books.
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Levinson, D. (1989). Family violence in cross-cultural perspective. Newbury Park, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc.
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Rusbult, C.E. & Martz, J.M. (1995). Remaining in an abusive relationship: An investment model analysis of nonvoluntary dependence. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. Vol. 21 (6) 558-571.
Tolstoy, L. (1961/1877). Anna Karenina. New York: New American Library.
Walker, L.E. (1984). The battered women’s syndrome. New York: Springer Publishing Company.
Zimmer-Bradley, M. (1982). The mists of Avalon. New York: Ballantine Books.

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