Why Women Stay: Understanding The Battered Wife

Why is it that many woman don’t leave their abusive partners? Once the reasons they don’t are understood, it becomes clear why battered women so often react with shame and confusion when asked to explain their behavior and why it is so inappropriate to conclude that if they were up against real abuse they would leave[1]. Actually, the opposite is true. Let me explain.

Learning to be Helpless

One of the ways psychologists study behavior is by setting up problems for laboratory rats used as experimental subjects; consider one of those experiments. A rat is put in to a small enclosure. His food and water dishes are in one corner placed on an electric grid. When the rat goes to his dishes sometimes he is allowed to eat and drink. At other times he gets a shock. There is no way for him to prevent the shock because it is administered entirely at random. No matter how he tries to approach his dishes sometimes he is shocked and sometimes he isn’t. The rat has no control over the shock in this situation because getting the shock has nothing what so ever to do with the rat’s behavior. If the gate to his enclosure is open, studies have shown that the rat usually doesn’t leave. Instead he cowers, positioned somewhere between the food and water he needs to sustain his life and the gate through which he could leave. Essentially he is frozen, unable to approach or leave his source of sustenance.

Another way to understand this phenomenon is to consider a common brain washing technique used by cults to take away normal independent volition. In this system a person is treated with alternately positive and then negative regard and behavior for no reliably ascertainable reason. People treated this way fall into pleasing behavior, trying to get the positive response.

The historical record of the behavior of guards and inmates in prison camps offers another analogy that can also fit the battered woman’s situation. Guards often treated inmates erratically sometimes offering kindness (food, shelter, relief from labor) and sometimes meting out sadistic cruelty (beatings, starvation, and random shooting). Again, there was no way to prevent the cruelty or to earn the more humane treatment. This resulted in many prisoners giving up and becoming indifferent to beatings and self care. They stopped washing or feeding themselves and didn’t move to shelter to avoid the cold winds. People reduced to this state died rapidly.

I think this is much the same state battered women speak of as a “fog” they existed in while living with their abusers. Psychologists recognize this dangerous state of apathy in domestic abuse victims. It can signal the time just before these women are finally killed by their perpetrator.

Perpetuating a Pattern

So why would anyone get caught up in this terrible situation in the first place? Why wouldn’t they get out at the very first sign of mistreatment? Let me offer a quick, and to that end incomplete, explanation: A major reason we all pick the partners we do is in hopes of getting the love we longed for (and didn’t fully get) from our parents. The problem is that in our unconscious cleverness we pick psychologically “reasonable facsimiles” of our parents and therefore we wind up with a partner who in many ways acts like our mother or father. So if our parents mistreated us as kids, we will likely pick partners capable of similar abuse. Since we still need love and approval, we still continue to try, fruitlessly, to get their love and approval just as we tried with our parents.

Women that stay with abusive partners very often have had abusive parents. To them it’s normal to get hurt by the people you love. Their self esteem is very low from childhood mistreatment and is further undermined by violence from their partners. No wonder women can’t give a good reason for why they stay: It would take therapy (and education) to understand it themselves. If they had good therapy, they could learn that they didn’t cause or deserve the abuse. Then they would leave.

Punishing the Victim

The injustice of abuse is all the more destructive when society punishes the victim through ignorance. The more of us who understand the complex effects of abuse, the less tolerance there will be for this behavior in our communities. People who have been wronged to the point of taking out their rage on others can be treated and helped to have useful lives. The survivors of their ill-directed revenge can also. Let’s all work, each in our own way, toward this goal.

1. This was published as a responce to an article in a local newspaper that questioned the reality of “battered wife syndrome” and suggested that women suffering “real” abuse leave their partners.

© Ann Veilleux, MSSW