As I write about spousal victimization
I realize three very different audiences will
read these words. First are those who are victims;
second are those who were victims; third are
those concerned enough to care and to learn
and to help, but never victimized themselves.
Since the word, victim, carries connotations
and associations that some find degrading, I
use it with misgivings. Once victim meant a
living being sacrificed to the gods and the
word implied innocence and virtue. Now our victor-oriented
culture disparages the victim, blames the victim,
ostracizes, isolates and condemns. Who desires
the label, victim ?
Nevertheless, many readers are
living with violent, abusive spouses and are
enduring repetitive victimization. You deserve
dignity, freedom from fear and compassionate
acceptance by your community. You are not to
blame. I hope your victim status will soon end.
Those readers who are no longer
abused, who have escaped and survived, and who
realize they were victims once, are the hope
for a sea-change in spousal relations. You know
how paralyzing the fear of the family tyrant
can be; you know how difficult and dangerous
the path to freedom can be; you know how frustrating
it is to debate those who perpetuate the status
quo, often encrusting their ignorance in a shell
of arrogant misogyny. I hope you will prevail,
maintaining your own gains, helping others escape,
persuading and educating the uninformed.
And those who have no personal
experience as a victim of spousal abuse, those
who read to understand and to help, might begin
by recalling a time of intimidation by a larger
person, perhaps in childhood, when you dared
not fight, when you felt small and hurt and
humiliated. Join hands with the victims and
the survivors. Feel the partnership, the parity,
the universality of being human and being hurt.
Because in this field, to deny one's vulnerability
to victimization is to pass from person to authority,
to appear and to become separate. We are all
colleagues when the issue is coping with human
Why does spouse abuse happen?
Although there are cases of wives who assault
husbands, by and large spouse abuse happens
because men batter and get away with it. Violent
aggression is human, And among humans, the dangerous
violators are overwhelmingly male. Males outnumber
females as murderers, assaulters, sexual abusers
and every other category of violent criminal
action. Males use deadly weapons for sport,
for war, for personal gain far more frequently
than do females. The mammalian brain has sex-linked
differences associating aggression and male
gender. The male hormone, testosterone, is implicated
in violent behavior.
Laboratory experiments on rats
and mice show hormonally induced reversal of
gender correlates with reversal of aggressive
patterns of behavior. Any attempt to explain
why spouse abuse happens must begin with the
fact that the male of our species, for many
reasons, has aggressive behaviors and these
often find expression in the family.
Spouse abuse has historic roots.
Females have been bought and sold and bartered,
ritually branded and mutilated, denied education,
land ownership, means of travel, and are not
yet full partners in owning and controlling
the major institutions of this world. In a political
sense, the female gender is engaged in a long
march from slavery, still eclipsed in the shadow
of patriarchal dominance. When parity in power
is sought, too often the seeker is punished.
Behind closed doors the punishment may be swift,
explosive and brutal.
Some cultures permit more subjugation
and intimidation of women than do others. Some
cultures extol the use of force to preserve
the status of the male. When males teach males
to slap their women to keep them in line, abuse
is normative rather than aberrant. Although
wife beating is no longer a publicly acceptable
behavior, it is privately promoted within many
Why does the victim stay?
Why would a woman whose face is disfigured,
whose bones are broken, whose pregnancy is lost,
remain with a spouse who might beat her to death?
For some, there is simply no
exit. The door is open but she cannot leave.
She has no resources of her own. Her children
need her. She is terrified of the police. Social
workers are people who can declare you an unfit
mother. The perpetrator has threatened to kill
her if she leaves or if she tells and she knows
no safe haven from him. There is no federal
witness protection program for domestic assault
victims. Her fear is real, the threat is real,
the pathway to freedom cannot be found.
For some the shame is crushing.
To heal in private, behind dark glasses, behind
closed blinds is far better than to be seen
by others. Physical pain is more bearable than
shame. The shame is deeper than embarrassment.
It is mortification, humiliation, dehumanization.
Shame depends on the eyes of others. Avoid the
eyes, avoid the shame. Stay home. Endure.
Some harbor hope for better
times. The cycle of tension, abuse, relief;
tension, abuse, relief has periods in which
optimism is rewarded. Hope for the cessation
of battering is realized and the relief experienced
in the periods of peace is profound. Animal
experimenters and human inquisitors know there
is nothing as powerful as relief from torture
as a positive reward for desired behavior. For
some battered women the thin thread of hope
and the episodic experience of relief reinforces
her decision to stay.
Why do they love?
Beyond conscious hope and relief is an unconscious
process of traumatic bonding, learned in infancy
and relearned as intimacy is interwoven with
abuse. This phenomenon appears in the bizarre
attachment of some hostages to their captors
known as the "Stockholm Syndrome. "
It explains why some victims love their abusers.
In a bank vault in Stockholm,
Sweden twenty-seven years ago, Kristin, the
hostage was held by Olafson, the armed assailant.
She could not speak, she could not eat, she
could not use a toilet without his permission.
She was not only terrified, she was infantilized.
Infants cannot survive without
care and feeding by their parents. They do not
know the meaning of the word love. But they
must experience relief when their hunger is
sated, when a wet diaper is changed, when a
warm blanket is provided. And we can assume
that the child experiences a precursor of love
--a profound, primordial gratitude for the continuing
gift of life, expressed in finite acts of kindness.
Often the kindness is relief from discomfort
Kristin denied that Olafson,
her captor, was the source of her pain. Many
hostages deny or repress or forget that fact.
They do realize, consciously and deep inside,
that someone with the power to take their life
is not killing them. On the contrary, this powerful
person gives them food and blankets and permission
to speak and the right to use a toilet. The
hostage feels grateful and attached. Scores
of ex-hostages have described this phenomenon
to me. Only when the feeling of attachment has
faded, sometimes years later, do they fully
appreciate what occurred and arrive at a reasonable
explanation. They describe that they did not
seek a loving or compassionate attachment to
a killer (many hostage survivors saw their captors
kill others). The survivor often tried to fight
a feeling of affection. But gradually they felt
warmly toward one or more hostage holders, particularly
those that showed some signs of nurturance.
If the age and gender were appropriate, the
positive feelings could approximate romantic
love. Kristin felt it so strongly toward Olafson
that she became his lover and broke off an engagement
to another man. Patty Hearst felt it toward
Cujo, one of her Symbionese Liberation Army
captors. But others (a senior magistrate held
by young Italian Red Brigades; a 50 year old
editor on a train captured by Dutch Moluccans)
described fatherly or avuncular affection. And
the feelings were often reciprocated from hostage
holder to hostage. Both parties feared and resented,
even hated, the authorities outside--the government
and the police who seemed to be the enemy .
Those authorities delayed the negotiations,
wouldn't take them seriously, and might storm
the sanctuary and kill them all. Within the
siege room traumatic bonding had occurred.
So in the case of the Stockholm
Syndrome a normal adult may experience ironic
attachment to an abuser through the sequence
of terror, isolation, infantilization, denial,
gratitude and attachment. Love is felt by some.
A battered wife might love for similar reasons.
Or, a battered wife might love
her spouse because she was trained from infancy
to love an abusive parent --that is, to equate
love with the intimate enduring dependence on
one who provides life's necessities and who
also hits and hurts.
Or, the battered wife might
love her spouse because relief from punishment
is so rewarding that she has learned to savor
this feeling while denying the pain of physical
Or, she might love qualities
that are lovable and suppress any outrage in
response to behaviors that are cruel. Love is
notoriously irrational, complex and paradoxical.
To regard all love in abusive relationships
as a product of abuse is unhelpful and untrue.
Few women and none that I have
worked with as patients or clients wanted to
be beaten. They were not masochistic. Because
the term, masochism, exists, we seek examples
to fulfill the concept. Theoretically, it is
conceivable that love could be based on the
aberrant attraction to a sadistic sexual partner.
But this would be a rare exception. It is insulting
to victims of abuse to suggest that the abuse
What are the merits of counseling methods
Given the many forms and facets and stages of
spouse abuse, generalizations about counseling
are hazardous. Those women who are currently
being battered need physical protection, advocacy,
financial resources, and a reliable support
system. Practical training to assure independent
survival is necessary. No single counselor can
provide all the help that is usually needed
at the outset. A successful intervention is
multidisciplinary, proactive, and well coordinated.
Survivors who have learned to cope not only
with abusive spouses, but with intimidating
bureaucracies are valuable allies. Attorneys
who are willing to help with civil orders on
short notice are critical assets. Shelters are
often necessary. Doctors who will document wounds
and testify to their findings may save a life.
Police and welfare professionals are now more
educated, aware and specialized. Unfortunately,
other obligations frequently intrude. The therapist
or counselor helps initially by opening the
door to all of these resources, by assuring
that life threatening issues are appropriately
addressed, by deferring any exploration of self
defeating patterns of behavior until safety
is achieved and a new network has been formed.
Since the family of origin is,
too often, a source of insult and betrayal,
undermining the woman's search for freedom and
dignity, counselors learn to assess trustworthy
contacts. Shelters may offer the best initial
environment not only because they keep the perpetrator
out, but because they offer an esteem-enhancing
human group instead of a dysfunctional family
Ultimately, psychological issues
are addressed. Herein lies a strenuous challenge
for survivor and therapist. The disturbing fact
that more depression is encountered by battered
wives who leave than by battered wives who stay
must be confronted. And the treatment of post-abuse
depression is not as simple as the treatment
of common mood disorder. The victim/survivor's
depression is rooted in the reality of abuse
and neglect and historically condoned cruelty.
Prozac wont change that truth.
The emerging specialty of traumatic
stress studies provides a new generation of
clinicians with diagnoses, theory and techniques
that help victims of sudden, catastrophic stress.
PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) is well
understood as a common syndrome including flashbacks,
nightmares, unwanted memories, emotional numbing,
avoidance of reminders, concentration deficit,
insomnia, irritability and other related symptoms.
PTSD specialists know how to educate and coach
and guide survivors toward mastery of traumatic
memories and a new emotional equilibrium.
But liberation from a lifetime
of abuse is a different issue entirely. PTSD
may or may not be present. If it is, it is complex
rather than simple. Brief therapy is usually
insufficient. Issues of trust, rejection, anger
and abandonment take time, skill and patience.
Writing about long term therapy
with battered wives who are alternately compliant
and resentful, Lenore Walker observes "Some
therapists become so confused by this process
that they relabel it as borderline behavior
because of the intensity of the client's angry
or smothering demands. . . battered women feel
so unlovable that they need to be sure that
their therapist likes/loves them, and like adolescents
they are constantly testing it. Keeping to firm
limits and calm but minimal responses are the
most helpful behavior the therapist can engage
in. This gives the message that you like her,
are willing to stay with her in treatment without
being abusive, and understand that she is scared.
However, some of the limit setting and distancing
techniques recommended for use with borderline
clients would be counterproductive for use with
a battered woman as they would set up power
and control issues and not provide the warmth
and understanding needed to regain feelings
of safety. "
Obviously, not every therapist
is equipped to help the woman who wants to change
the habits that helped her endure abuse. In
fact, many therapists make matters worse. They
do this by announcing their skepticism. They
do this by withholding support. They do this
by falling in the traps identified by Dr. Walker.
Therefore three caveats are
offered for those seeking counseling:
1. Shop Around. The first or
second counselor may not be right for you. This
relationship will be very important. You should
feel comfortable and you should be sure your
counselor is comfortable with you.
2. Change Counselors
If You Must. Early in a therapeutic
relationship you may feel betrayed or insulted.
Since sensitivity to rejection is often a problem
for persons dealing with interpersonal issues
in therapy, you deserve a counselor who you
can trust. If a counselor cannot deal with your
anger, you might be better off elsewhere .
3. Endure Once You Find
the Right Counselor. Those who are
out of an abusive relationship, but struggling
to find a sense of personal worth, consistency
and security, will often have stormy times in
therapy. Your job is not to please your therapist,
but your therapist will be pleased if you reach
your goal of independence.
In sum, spouse abuse happens
because our so called civilization is not that
civilized and men get away with beating women.
Women stay with these men for several reasons,
including fear, isolation and unusual forms
of love. Leaving is dangerous for many, difficult
for most. A common long term consequence of
abuse is an interpersonal and intrapersonal
condition that includes depression, rejection
sensitivity, anger and difficulty with trust.
Counseling for victims should be practical,
multidisciplinary and geared to security needs.
Therapy for those who are safe but not fully
"whole" is a longer, more demanding
Therapy is not the answer; we
must do more than treat the wounded. Spouse
abuse is a long standing, entrenched problem.
Fortunately, there are experienced, effective
survivors committed to changing this cruel aspect
of human history. We who treat and teach can
do no better than to join hands with them.
Demause, L. (1991). The universality of incest.
Am. j. psychohistory, 19:2, 123-164. (A thorough
and frightening account of historic and cultural
mutilation and subjugation of girls and women.)
Herman, J. L., (1992) Complex
PTSD: a syndrome in survivors of prolonged and
repeated trauma. J. traumatic stress, 5:3, 377-391
Martin, D. (1976, revised 1981)
. Battered wives. San Francisco: Volcano Press.
(Says it all, in paperback.)
Raisman, G . (1972) . Sexual
dimorphism in rat preoptic area . Res . Publ
. A nerv. ment. Dis., 52, 42-51. ( First evidence
of reversible sex-linked anatomical differences
in mammalian brains).
Scheff, T.J. and Retzinger,
S.M. (1991). Emotions and violence. Lexington,
MA: Lexington Books. (Shame and rage in destructive
conflicts ) .
Schellenbach, C.J. (1991).
Biological correlates of gender differences
in violence. In J.S. Milner (ed. ), Neuropsychology
of aggression (pp. 117-129). Boston: Kluwer
Academic Publishers. (Good, scientific review
chapter. Incidentally, females do outnumber
males in arrests for child abuse and infanticide
--exceptions to the rule of male predominance
in violent crime.) (Another good chapter in
this volume is, Rosenbaum, A. The neuropsychology
of marital aggression.)
Strentz, T. (1982). The Stockholm
syndrome. In F. M. Ochberg and D. Soskis (eds.
), Victims of terrorism (pp. 149-163) . Boulder:
Walker, L. (1991). Battered
woman syndrome. Psychotherapy, 28:1, 21-29.
(A recent sample of Dr. Walker's prolific contribution
to this field, including her insights on controversial
diagnoses such as Selfdefeating Personality
Disorder and Borderline Personality Disorder).
Young, G. H. and Gerson, S.
(1991). Masochism and spouse abuse. Psychotherapy,
28:1, 30-38. (Covers traumatic bonding, cycle
theory of violence, abuse during childhood,
and includes an excellent bibliography).