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 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 cruelty.
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
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
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 male
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
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
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
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 and pain.
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
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 abuse.
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
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 is desired.
What are the merits of counseling methods for
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 of
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
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 process.
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
Herman, J. L., (1992) Complex PTSD: a syndrome in
survivors of prolonged and repeated trauma. J. traumatic stress,
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
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: Westview .
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
Frank M. Ochberg, MD is adjunct
professor of psychiatry, criminal justice and journalism at Michigan
State University. He served in the cabinet of Governor William
Milliken as Mental Health Director. His book, Post Traumatic
Therapy and Victims of Violence, is widely acclaimed as one of
the leading resources in the field. Videotapes and articles by Dr.
Ochberg and others are available from a new international charity, Gift