LEARNING TO FORGET: THE BATTERED WOMAN

On <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 />August 14, 1990, in a small town in Eastern Dutchess County, New York, Frances Feldman died of injuries sustained from beatings she had received over time by her husband. While this tragedy, the investigation and trial that followed, generated considerable controversy and emotional concern, it also raised intense curiosity; and questions about despair and "learned helplessness." How could a woman-- educated in two fine universities, well- read and conversant, actively involved in socially-responsible causes and a talented artist-- become a helpless victim of brutal beatings?
<?xml:namespace prefix = o /> How does a woman who, by her achievements, having demonstrated such exquisite control in her life become so despondent as to relinquish all control to another person? Frances Feldman was hardly alone in her dilemma. Surprisingly, many battered women remain with their abusers. While this seems paradoxical, there are several known reasons women choose to stay:


  • 1- Lack of socio-economic resources. While most women have at least one dependent child requiring care, many are not employed and have little access to cash; own no property and face a potential decline in living standard (which could create added resentment from the children). Moreover, if the woman leaves, she faces the risk of being charged with desertion and of losing the children and all joint assets (unbelievable as this may seem!).
  • 2- Discouragement from various institutions of our society. Religious and secular counselors frequently encourage couples to resolve their differences and remain together "for the sake of the children." Police officers, who dislike domestic calls, will often intervene to resolve the immediate "crisis", rather than rendering sole support for the woman. In fact, they often try to dissuade such a victim from filing charges. Further- more, despite the uses of injunction, there is little to prevent an arrested and released husband from returning with greater violence than before! Prosecutors may be reluctant to prosecute these cases as women frequently drop the charges after a short time, resulting in wasted efforts. When such cases are litigated and a conviction results, judges may not levy the maximum sentence on abusers. In such instances, a fine or probation results.
  • 3- The belief systems of many women prevent their leaving. Human beings have internal "programs" for processing information. These relate to how we know what to do from moment to moment; they govern our on-going activity. One such "program" has to do with motivation or movement in a direction. Generally, people are either motivated toward pleasure or away from pain. Battered women, for a variety of reasons, may consider leaving home a much more painful alternative than learning to endure the abuse. Perhaps leaving becomes associated with greater pain when a woman cannot predict her own safety; when believing that nothing she or anyone else does will alter her terrible predicament. Many women are emotionally dependent upon their husbands, having never relied on themselves to achieve desired outcomes. They are frequently "trained" to become helpless by jealous, possessive husbands who restrict their activities and there- fore, their freedom to respond.

Consequently, a woman in such a position may develop behaviors which reflect her low self- esteem; and believes abuse occurs when she violates some "rule", invariably provoking the attack. There are those who believe that divorce is not a viable alternative; marriage is a permanent commitment. Believing they are hopelessly "stuck", they will often rationalize their situation, blaming the abuse on a husband's intense stress, alcohol, work and financial problems.
 A related aspect of an abusive relationship is its interdependence. While the woman would appear trapped, the man is often desperately dependent upon this situation, too! Feeling stressed by a number of factors, a batterer frequently becomes emotionally unstable, deriving his only source of strength from the control he exerts over his mate. Often, women do attempt escape. Some learn to avoid violence by radically altering their behavior at home. However, as this severely restricts their lifestyles, they are merely trading one form of helplessness for another. Others do leave temporarily but, with intense pressure from their batterers, return only to incur more serious abuse.
 Perhaps the most effective means of "self-help" in stopping violence is to not permit it from the start! In a major study, Gelles and Straus (1988), found that a wife who will not allow herself to be beaten from the very first act of minor abuse such as a slap or push, is most successful at stopping it before it escalates. Had Frances Feldman believed she could select this strategy in 1989 instead of excusing her husband's violence, perhaps she might be alive today.