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Strategies for Battered Women
Warning Signs of Domestic Violence
Most relationships have difficult times, and almost every couple argues now and then. But violence is different from common marital or relationship problems. Domestic violence is a pattern of abuse that a partner-former or current partner, spouse, or boyfriend or girlfriend-uses to control the behavior of another.
If any of these things are happening, you need to seek help. It's important to know that you are not alone. The way your partner acts is not your fault. Help is available.
Other warning signs:
Choice and Empowerment for Battered Women Who Stay: Toward a Constructivist Model. By: Peled, Einat; Eisikovits, Zvi; Enosh, Guy; Winstok, Zeev. Social Work, Jan2000, Vol. 45 Issue 1, p9-25, 17p, 1 chart, 1 diagram; (AN 2667901)
During the past two decades, campaigns aimed at enhancing public awareness about the social problem of violence against women have brought mixed results. Although there is no doubt that public and professional awareness of the problem has increased, violence against women is far from being eradicated. In the process of giving social recognition and visibility to the phenomenon as a social problem, dramatization, simplification, and homogenization are inevitable (Loseke, 1992). Thus, the tactics that proved useful in promoting the problem of woman battering also have created new myths and injustices. One such myth is the stigmatization of battered women who stay in relationships with their abusers as a deviant group: "battered women who stay" (Loseke & Cahill, 1984).
Theory, research, and practice-based knowledge on battered women's prolonged relationships with their abusers provide us with various intrapsychic, interpersonal, and social-structural explanations for the so-called problem of battered women who stay. Common to most of these explanations is the assumption that battered women are trapped in the relationship against their best judgment or against their will. Three main explanatory themes can be identified in the literature.
First, some battered women are trapped in a relationship with a perpetrator who threatens to escalate the violence if the woman attempts to leave. Research shows that separation from the abuser does not terminate the violence. Often, leaving may be more dangerous than staying for both the woman and her children, and it may expose them to severe injury and even murder (Berk, Newton, & Berk, 1986; Harlow, 1991; Pagelow, 1984; Saunders & Browne, 1990; Stark et al., 1981).
Second, much of the literature in this domain suggests that women's psychological makeup, relationship skills, and personal and situational factors all contribute to their entrapment in a destructive and dysfunctional relationship. Depression, low self-esteem, fear, loneliness, guilt, and shame, combined with violence, isolation, exhaustion, unpredictability, and some positive attributes of the batterer, set the stage for the creation and maintenance of syndromes such as "traumatic attachment" (Barnett & LaViolette, 1993; Folingstead, Neckerman, & Vormbrock, 1988; Graham, Rawlings, & Rimini, 1988; Kirkwood, 1993; Painter & Dutton, 1985; Symonds, 1979; Walker, 1993). A woman who is traumatically attached to her abuser may feel that she loves him, depends on him for her survival, and even identifies with him, in which case it is likely that she will maintain the relationship.
A third group of explanations accounts for the entrapment of battered women in terms of social values, policies, opportunity structures, and service provision. These explanations emphasize patriarchal notions regarding gender roles on the one hand (Bograd, 1984; Dobash & Dobash, 1979; Yllo, 1993) and nonsupportive formal and informal social networks, economic dependency on the male partner, and lack of alternative housing on the other (Kalmuss & Straus, 1982; Okun, 1988; Strube, 1988; Sullivan, 1991; Wilson, Baglioni, & Downing, 1989). Those factors are seen as significant, and sometimes insurmountable, "environmental" obstacles facing women who try to end a violent relationship.
Although there are no doubt battered women stay with their abusers because of internal (often pathological) or external (situational and sociocultural) constraints, these explanations have so far received only limited empirical support (Herbert, Silver, & Ellard, 1991; Okun, 1986; Schwartz, 1988). A different set of explanations conceptualizes battered women's staying as a choice.
The image of women who stay with their battering partners because they are socially and psychologically victimized to the point of helplessness is by no means universal in the literature. Some writers portray staying as the result of a rational decision-making process based on weighing the perceived costs and benefits in the context of a multidimensional relationship (Pfouts, 1979; Schechter, 1982). Such intimate relationships are understood as "set within contradictory interactional contexts, that is, abused women hold opposite beliefs in their partners as their sole sources of love and affection and, simultaneously, as the most dangerous persons in their lives" (Lampert, 1996, p. 270). These explanations acknowledge not only the constraints preventing battered women from leaving but also the positive feelings and perceptions that they may hold regarding their partners and the relationship. Positive aspects of the conjugal relationship mentioned by women include love for the man, hope that he will change, and the desire to maintain children's relationship with their father (Dobash & Dobash, 1979; Giles-Sims, 1983; Saunders & Size, 1986; Stacey & Shupe, 1983; Strube & Barbour, 1983).
Also common to much of this literature is the controversial assumption that some battered women have a certain degree of freedom of choice within the constraints of their life situation. Such an assumption may stem from insensitivity and ignorance regarding battered women's experiences of brutalization, trauma, and danger. However, it also may be an integral part of an empowerment-based feminist perspective advocating support of women's strengths, autonomy, and control over their lives in the context of multiple constraints and despite them (Burstow, 1992; Lampert, 1996; Schechter, 1982). Although most of the authors promoting this perspective do not elaborate on the meaning of choice under such circumstances, Burstow (1992) suggested that "it would be foolish to pretend that women subjected to severe partner abuse have either free or ideal options" (p. 159). Hence, while respecting battered women's choices, Burstow also assumed that the women would need professional help in assessing and reassessing their situations.
Whether women are seen as trapped in a violent relationship against their will or as choosing to stay in it, it is commonly assumed that freedom from violence entails leaving the abuser. This assumption is reflected both in research designs aiming to better understand why women return to the abuser after a stay in a shelter (Compton, Michael, Krasavage-Hopkins, Schneiderman, & Bickman, 1989; Okun, 1988; Schutte, Malouff, & Doyle, 1987; Snyder & Scheer, 1981; Sullivan, 1991; Worth & Tiggemann, 1996) and in reports describing service providers' goals and standards for success and failure in intervention with battered women (for example, Davis, 1984, 1988; Gondolf, 1988; Hart, 1991; McKeel & Sporakowski, 1993; Schillinger, 1988; Schwartz, 1988; Whiple, 1987).
In line with the above assumption, an increasing number of social services and intervention strategies have been developed during the past two decades to support battered women and their children before, during, and after separation from the perpetrator. Some of these interventions, such as shelters, legal measures, and advocacy programs, provide battered women and their children with immediate and long-term protection and material support (for example, Gamache, Edleson, & Schock, 1988; Hart, 1991; Pence, 1983; Soler, 1987; Sullivan, 1991). Other counseling programs focus on healing victims and survivors from the damaging effects of abuse (Dutton, 1992; Goodman & Fallon, 1995; Kirkwood, 1993).
Recent literature on social work intervention in general and with intimate violence in particular often uses the rhetoric and ideology of empowerment as an important guiding principle. However, in the context of battered women who stay, the concept seldom is carried beyond the ideological and prescriptive levels. Attempts to operationalize the means by which those women can become empowered are scarce. The rhetoric alone may lead to disempowering results by enhancing the gap between expectations (for example, needs) and means (for example, rights) to fulfill them. Two approaches to empowerment appear in the social work literature: (1) the clinical-individual and (2) the political-social. The first approach focuses on needs and problems of individual clients who "are unable to cope effectively with stressful situations and to avail themselves of essential environmental resources because of sense of powerlessness or helplessness" (Hepworth & Larsen, 1993, p. 495). The second centers on the oppression of groups and communities and emphasizes social change in addition to individual intervention (Payne, 1991; Solomon, 1976; Van Den Bergh & Cooper, 1986). In both approaches the concept of empowerment is often presented in "either/or" terms (Goldner, 1992)--that is, the person is either empowered or not empowered. In examining empowerment by its absence rather than by its presence, the person understands it through the experience of being powerless, helpless, alienated, and without a sense of control and choice (Hepworth & Larsen, 1993; Ryan-Finn & Albee, 1994; Van Den Bergh & Cooper, 1986; Walker, 1991). In accordance, the main goal of an empowering social work practice in general, and with battered women in particular, is to allow clients control over their own lives and the ability to make decisions for themselves--that is, to provide them the conditions to balance rights and needs and thus make choices (Dutton, 1992; Schechter, 1982; Stark & Flitcraft, 1988; Van Den Bergh & Cooper, 1986).
The emphasis of empowering practice on clients' choice making poses a challenging dilemma when counseling battered women who request help but express their wish to remain with the abusive partner. This dilemma may be easier to solve, at least from an ethical standpoint, when severe abuse is involved and the woman's safety takes precedence over all other considerations. However, issues of accountability toward battered women, in addition to attempts to predict and prevent danger to them, need to be re-examined in light of data suggesting that many battered women are living with violence that is not life threatening but nonetheless produces intense suffering and points to the acute need for intervention (Johnson, 1995). It is likely that empowerment of women experiencing "regular violence" requires a frame of reference and a set of competencies different from those needed by women at risk of severe violence and abuse. In such cases, staying can be viewed as a choice made by women who are consciously negotiating their reality and actively creating meaning within the constraints of their situational freedom (Eisikovits & Buchbinder, 1996; Sartre, 1948).
Thus, a picture of apparent tension emerges between battered women who choose to stay and service providers who, as demonstrated earlier, often practice intervention aimed at facilitating the termination of the abusive relationship. This troubling gap between battered women's choices and the solutions commonly offered to them by social workers and other practitioners has been addressed only sporadically in the literature (Baker, 1997; Mills, 1996; Schechter, 1982; Schillinger, 1988). Baker examined strategies used by battered women to resist the "cultural script" directing them to get away and stay away from their abusers. Based on in-depth interviews and participant observation data, Baker reported that the battered women studied tried initially to follow the dominant cultural script but found it overly narrow. She suggested that because of the lack of coordinated institutional support for their decisions, these women have developed a "culture of resistance," asserting control and making choices relevant to their needs and interests, including that of staying with the abuser. In addition to raising questions as to the meaning of empowerment and choice, Baker's study suggested that the apparent conflict between women's and social workers' beliefs about desired goals of intervention may lead to clients resisting and eventually dropping out of treatment.
Some battered women wish to maintain the relationships' positive attributes while finding a way to stop or lessen the abuse. Facilitating women's freedom of choice as a mechanism for empowerment implies accepting and respecting their choice to stay with their abuser as a viable alternative. Ending violence from within the relationship is a perfectly reasonable wish, but is it a realistic one? And do we know how to help battered women accomplish this goal? How and under what circumstances can we empower battered women who wish to stay with their abusers while providing them with measures of safety to which they and their children are entitled?
Thus far, little professional energy has been devoted to the study of relationships that have remained intact through violence and have successfully brought about its cessation, nor has attention been given to the ways in which women have managed to free themselves of the abuse without terminating the relationship (but see Bowker, 1983; Woffordt, Mihalic, & Menard, 1994). Furthermore, only a few existing intervention models have been designed to support women who wish to end the violence while staying with their abusive partner (but see Burstow, 1992). There is also little discussion of the philosophical, psychological, and ethical meaning of "choice" in the context of abuse that battered women experience. Helping battered women experience empowerment while staying in an intimate relationship with the abuser requires a different conceptual framework that will take all these meanings into account.
Such a framework is based on the assumption that battered women cannot be empowered according to our perception of what is right for them (see Stark & Flitcraft, 1988). Rather, social workers should attempt to understand women's subjective perceptions and choices without regard for the values and stereotypes of others; these values may be benign, but are of little practical use and often in contradiction to women's sense of autonomy and self-determination. As Mills (1996) has suggested:
Interventions for battered women, both legal and otherwise, should... respect the possibility or likelihood of this relational structure [and] provide the time and fluidity for self-guided resolution. Such a system should recognize that a true empowerment for battered women is achieved not through obedience to the expectations of legal or social work advocates or models but through acknowledgment of the woman's need to reconsider and reevaluate the meaning of the trauma in a flexible time frame and a supportive environment. (pp. 265-266)
The model suggested here conceptualizes empowerment of battered women who stay. It consists of an ecological dimension, which includes the sociocultural domain, institutions and organizations, and significant others surrounding battered women (that is, the interpersonal level), and the women themselves (that is, the individual level) (Bronfenbrenner, 1977, 1986; Edleson & Tolman, 1992; Eisikovits & Edleson, 1989; Garbarino, 1992). Specific suggestions are made to promote and operationalize empowerment on each level. The second dimension deals with plans of reality construction and provides three interrelated components through which reality is shaped within each ecological level. The first component, reality perception, consists of acknowledging the existence of a phenomenon ontologically and attempting to locate it within one's existing mental categories. It leads to questions such as "Does it happen?" and "What is happening?" The second component relates to the meaning ascribed to an act; that is, how one evaluates, explains, and controls an occurrence and, in so doing, makes it meaningful on the personal, organizational, or cultural levels. The assignment of meaning is based on earlier experiential knowledge, as well as on pre-existing values and attitudinal structures. The third component includes the behaviors and actions undertaken as a consequence of the reconstruction process. These three processes should be viewed as coexistent and interactive, rather than as separate steps in the construction process (Table 1).
The presented model is heuristic rather than exhaustive and is provided with the hope of facilitating further study and dialogue concerning the ways in which social workers, in their capacities as practitioners, advocates, and researchers, can contribute to the empowerment of battered women.
The sociocultural system is located within the ideological and institutional patterns of a culture. It serves as a set of broad cultural "blueprints" guiding perceptions, interpretations, and actions concerning social phenomena. As noted, an unanticipated result of the social campaign against woman battering has been the creation of the dominant cultural image of a helpless, victimized battered woman whose only hope of terminating violence is to leave the abuser. Over the years major gaps between empirical evidence and public perception concerning the issue of staying and leaving became evident, but the cultural script remained intact: "Battered women should leave, but most do not."
We suggest that an empowerment-based perspective should present staying as a legitimate choice, which does not preclude fighting intimate violence from within the relationship. This modified social-cultural meaning ascribed to staying should be instrumental in redefining these women as "legitimate" and focusing on the particular circumstances and cultural scripts in which their choices are made. Instead of turning to ready-made "shelved solutions" stemming from the currently common perceptions and meaning systems, flexible and culturally sensitive attitudes are needed to accommodate and legitimate a variety of choices made by battered women. For instance, there are cultures and religions in which divorce, or even temporary separation, is not recognized as a plausible option for women who wish to overcome intimate violence (Haj-Yahia, 1996). The choices made by women in these cultures should be examined within their situational constraints rather than within a prescriptive scenario held by members of the dominant culture.
An important question on the level of meaning creation relates to the source of the sociocultural expectation that battered women should leave the relationship. Such expectations often stem from a legitimate concern about protecting women and their children and skepticism about the feasibility of ending the violence without separation from the abuser, but may also be seen as the result of an attempt to dramatize various aspects of the problem. The dramatization of woman battering through the emphasis on incidents of women experiencing severe abuse has overshadowed the lives of women less severely abused (Loseke, 1992). This image has been supported further by the tendency to recruit participants for domestic violence research from shelters and through the criminal justice system, where severely abused women are overrepresented. Also, well-meaning public opinion shapers, such as women's advocates and researchers have made continuous efforts to persuade the general public, and especially professionals, that battered women are victims of tragic social, relational, and situational circumstances. However, because the notion of victimization resonates with traditional gender stereotypes, it may have further fostered the image of the passive battered women, along with the belief that overcoming such passivity necessarily involves leaving the abuser. Implied in such attitudes is the assumption that the woman has no choice other than to leave; staying, then, becomes the supporting evidence of the woman's inability to decide for herself and calls for the intervention of social agents on her behalf. These assumptions seem to have interfered with the development of public knowledge about battered women's power, competence, and choice making (Mahoney, 1994).
The operational implication of changing the dominant sociocultural perceptions and meaning systems would be to alter social expectations concerning women's choices when faced with intimate violence and to provide societal support for their choices: to leave or to stay and resist the violence. Such support needs to be limited by the real dangers grounded in women's specific existential situations, rather than assumed on the basis of cultural beliefs and attitudes. To make such an adjustment, social work needs to enhance its ability to make more accurate clinical predictions of lethality on the one hand and better understand the contextual and situational nature of women's heterogeneous and idiosyncratic choices on the other hand.
The interpersonal ecological system relates to contexts and interactions in which women participate directly. Both researchers and practitioners have addressed this system, mostly within the context of the nuclear and extended family. It includes perpetrators, children exposed to violence, and various significant others from within or without the family. Although many studies have examined the characteristics of discordant and violent relationships (for recent reviews, see Holtzworth-Munroe, Bates, Smutzler, & Sandin, 1997; Holtzworth-Munroe, Smutzler, & Sandin, 1997; Holtzworth-Munroe, Smutzler, & Bates, 1997), little is known about the ways in which partners and children perceive women's decisions to remain with their abuser.
The available knowledge about batterers suggests that they tend to blame the victim for the violence and expect her to initiate reconciliation and take primary responsibility for the family's integrity (for example, Eisikovits & Buchbinder, 1997). In addition to the use of violence and threats of violence, batterers tend to persuade their abused partners to remain in or return to the relationship by using a variety of tactics such as gifts, promises to change, apologies for the violence, reminders about motherly and spousal duties, and even willingness to seek counseling (Gondolf, 1988; Schutte, Malouff, & Doyle, 1987). Overall, it seems that battering men perceive the violence as a family problem rather than an individual one, if they are willing to recognize that there is a problem at all. They also believe that the woman should remain with them despite the violence and are willing to go a long way to achieve this end. However, once this end is achieved, men tend to perceive their partners as locked in the relationship, not necessarily as powerless victims but as acting on a commitment that goes beyond the violence itself.
In an alternative empowerment model, battering men come to perceive women's staying as a choice, reflecting their wish to stop violence from within the relationship. Such a perception is critical insofar as subsequent meanings of the violence are likely to change accordingly. For instance, a man's perception of his abused partner as trapped in the relationship is likely to be accompanied by an understanding that the violence does not threaten the existence of the relationship. However, the introduction of the element of choice into the man's perception of the woman's behavior may bring him to understand that if violence continues she may decide to leave him, just as she decided to stay. The operational implication of such a change in understanding would be a shift in his perception of the partner from a weak and easy prey to a strong and competent survivor whose decisions are to be respected.
An additional important element in the microsystem are the children exposed to woman battering. Whereas the effect of battered women's concerns for their children on their decision to stay or to leave has been documented (Giles-Sims, 1983; Henderson, 1990; Hilton, 1992; Humphreys, 1995), little information exists on children's perceptions of their mothers' decision to remain with or leave the abuser. The few available studies on the experiences of children of battered women suggest that, on the one hand, they commonly express fears and worries about potential and actual danger to their mothers and, on the other hand, often are trapped in conflicts of attachments and loyalties between their parents (Blanchard, Molloy, & Brown, 1992; Eisikovits, Winstok, & Enosh, 1998; Ericksen & Henderson, 1992; Graham-Bermann, 1996; Humphreys, 1991; Peled, 1998). This complex emotional experience is likely to create in children feelings of confusion, ambivalence, anxiety, and anger regarding either of their mothers' options to leave or to stay with the abuser (Peled, 1998). If she chooses to stay, the children may regard her as a weak victim and blame her for the continuation of her abuse and their distress; if she chooses to leave, they may blame her for "breaking the family," separating them from their father, and disrupting their normal routine.
Although children cannot participate directly in empowering their mothers, they may be helped by their mothers to process the complexity of their feelings and perceptions about their family situation in general and their mothers' responses in particular. This interaction can serve to alleviate some of the children's distress and to provide support for their relationships with their mothers (for a review of intervention models with children of battered women, see Peled, 1997). Such interactions with children also can have an empowering effect on their mothers, who may subsequently come to perceive themselves as more competent and successful parents.
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