With the advent of the women’s liberation movement in the early 1970s, gender inequality and the subordination of women became the focus of activists working toward equal rights and protection for women. Among the priorities of the movement was a focus on domestic violence, the legal ramifications for abusers and victims, and the need to provide safety for women who were assaulted and battered. Shelters were initially designed to offer a temporary safe haven for women (Cardarelli 1997). More shelters for battered women now are including their children, who also need therapeutic and rehabilitative care and attention.
Despite the movement’s advocacy, activism, and efforts to empower women to take charge of their lives, women continue to be victimized and controlled in intimate partner relationships. Though domestic violence issues were mainly ignored under the guise of family privacy prior to the women’s movement of the 1960s and 1970s, public attitudes have since been altered in support of the police protection of victims and the enforcement by police of restraining orders to keep women safe from assaults in their homes. Nevertheless, violence against women remains a serious problem, often of disastrous proportions. For some women, victimization may result in posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), disabling injuries, or death. Victims still carry the stigma of blame for appearing to provoke the batterer to act out his anger toward them (Burman 2003). Additionally, children carry the remnants of parental verbal and physical fights for many years to come, in the form of psychological and social impairments that could reverberate throughout subsequent generations.
Staying in a relationship under such horrific conditions has been misunderstood. This has unjustly added to mistaken beliefs that these women are weak and masochistic and probably deserve the punishment inflicted on them. Victim blaming serves to transfer the blame from the perpetrator to the victim. Yet, many plausible reasons for battered women remaining in such relationships have been demonstrated, such as:
- financial need,
- fear of intensifying the abuse by leaving,
- the belief that the batterer can change,
- emotional attachment to the batterer,
- learned helplessness in reaction to situations women believe are beyond their control, and
- doubt that they can raise their children alone (Roberts 1996).
Therefore, rather than asking a seemingly condemning question, ‘‘Why do and how can women stay in these horrific, abusive relationships?’’ given the aforementioned predicaments, more meaningful questions would be: ‘‘What finally propels women to leave, frequently placing themselves at great risk?’’ and ‘‘What initiates and compels their departures, often under duress and dire circumstances?’’ Reframing the queries exhibits an effort to understand victims’ circumstances and the rationale for promoting change.
Women reach the breaking point and decide to leave for various reasons. Some examples of circumstances and events that may trigger such a breaking point in battered women include:
- when the children also become at risk.
- when their injuries are so extensive and their self-esteem so damaged that they believe that leaving is the only way left to heal and regain what they have lost.
- when they arrive at the realization that there must be more to life than the constant fear, savagery, and pain they are experiencing.
- when they realize that family and community help, support, and resources are available and accessible.
- when they gain hope and optimism that they can make it on their own, using their own survival and coping skills and becoming independent.
It has been reported that women leave battering partners and return many times before the final separation. They place themselves at great risk by doing so. Beatings invariably continue and tend to escalate after separation (Shalansky, Ericksen, and Henderson 1999). Under such dangerous conditions, planning to end abusive relationships necessitates unyielding courage and exceptionally high motivation. No matter how much and how long women have persevered with the hardships and pain, they must acquire the emotional stamina and coping abilities to be ready to make drastic changes in their lives. To take that final step and attempt to get out permanently requires a steady mindset and steadfast determination to develop and follow through with a plan of action. This often awakens boundless strengths, perhaps never recognized before. Such dramatic behavioral change generally occurs after serious consideration of the benefits and costs of staying versus leaving that promotes the readiness to take action.
The Stages-of-Change Model
According to the stages of change, people move through a process of defined stages that demonstrates a measure of their readiness to make significant changes in their lives. Progressing through each stage gets them closer to a desirable goal. Readiness to change and the corresponding stages-of-change model are innovative concepts and ways of thinking that have been developed from extensive research on self-changers (Prochaska, Norcross, and DiClemente 1994). The findings have revolutionized the understanding of how people alter their ingrained behaviors, feelings, and thoughts that have kept them stuck and unable to cope constructively with severe problems and issues. In doing so, the popular notion of ‘‘having to hit bottom’’ in order to make major life changes is challenged. Although generally modified to suit each individual’s circumstances and beliefs, ‘‘hitting bottom’’ usually connotes a very limited and extreme position to reach before being able to take action to alter an adverse behavior or situation. People can (and do) begin the process of change long before excessive pain and suffering might arise. They no longer have to consider losing everything meaningful in their lives before making dramatic changes to prevent it.
As an approach to assessment and treatment planning, the model matches the readiness to change with the appropriate stage clients are vested in during a specific time period. This information will identify the level of client motivation for working toward overcoming problems. To progress to a succeeding stage in the cycle, a series of tasks must be completed. Unless one becomes stuck at a certain level, working through the beginning stage (precontemplation) will lead to contemplation, preparation, action, maintenance, and termination of the difficulties experienced. Rather common is the relapse stage that interrupts the cycle, thereby promoting a return to previous stages or ending the effort to make positive changes. Hopefully, this will be temporary and progress on the path will resume.
The stages-of-change model can aptly apply to innumerable problems that people experience, such as substance abuse, eating disorders, and depression (Prochaska et al. 1994). With growing familiarity with its approach and related positive findings and results, researchers and practitioners have expanded its use to an array of presenting problems, including domestic violence. In this realm, the stages-of-change model has furthered the knowledge and understanding of the unsparing impact and excruciating traumas women endure in physically and emotionally abusive relationships. The change process examines in initial stages the subjective reactions to the violence exacted from inhumane behaviors, while establishing the need for continued vigilance and safety tasks in the planning and action stages to end the violence and prevent a reoccurrence.
An illustration of the incorporation of each stage in dealing with the crisis of battering between intimate partners will follow. The process has assisted in developing individualized methods and strategies to utilize in establishing positive life changes.
It is not unusual for people (family, friends, neighbors, coworkers, etc.) who observe and/or interact with an individual to notice that the person is experiencing problems. Yet the one who is experiencing the problem may personally lack awareness of it, deny its existence, minimize its influence, or consider the problem too hopeless to improve or change. Under these conditions, it is not surprising that there would be no incentive to attempt to make changes that will make life safer and less threatening, and no willingness to take risks to make it happen, at this point in time.
In an abusive relationship, several identifying features are characteristic of the precontemplation stage. The battered woman refrains from viewing her spouse or partner realistically, preferring to recall good times together and the ‘‘honeymoon stage,’’ when, after a beating, she was showered with gifts and affection. Yearning to believe promises that the battering will never happen again places her in a compromising position. She deludes herself into thinking that if she changes to please him and stops provoking his anger, the assaults will stop. She becomes defensive and will always have excuses when her injuries, bruises, and burns are noticed, even in the emergency room: ‘‘I’m accident prone and always falling,’’ ‘‘I’m so absent-minded and don’t look where I’m going,’’ or ‘‘Can you imagine, I just didn’t realize the stove was hot.’’
Within this stage, traumatic bonding is likely to be prominent. Dutton (1992) described this dysfunctional attachment and loyalty as a dependency that begins as an emotional connection at the beginning of the relationship and continues despite the treachery and torment. Increasing isolation of the victim encourages an unhealthy union and pact with the batterer that makes leaving hazardous, although at this stage the woman is mostly unaware of or will not accept how dangerous staying has become. Psychic numbing accentuates the denial and tendency to minimize the trauma experienced, while the growing learned helplessness promotes the feeling of hopelessness and powerlessness in the relationship.
The stories are easy to see through, yet the facade is sustained to such an extent that the victim of the battering mistakenly believes them. In this stage, self-blame is internalized and rationalized: ‘‘If I had not gotten so angry because he was late, I know he would not have struck me’’; ‘‘If I had told my mother that she could not have dinner with us again, I’m sure he would have been in a better mood.’’ This precontemplator is so bound by the deceptions and false beliefs that she tells herself and others, without reasonable evidence to prove otherwise, that she remains stuck and unable to reach out for help. The tragedy, therefore, is that the status quo is sustained. Without recognizing and acknowledging that there is difficulty or conflict of any magnitude, there will be no efforts to promote a change.
Yet if the victim is not totally entrenched in this stage, a window of opportunity can open to new insights. With this enlightenment, there is a possibility that the seeds of change will be sown. Whether on her own or in treatment, the victim must begin to doubt that her abuser will change in order to begin pondering the risks of remaining in the relationship. The probability of increasing abuse, leading to numerous hospitalizations, even death, must be faced directly. The gravity of this impending possibility can no longer be ignored. Safety is the key component to consider, for herself and her children.
During the contemplation stage, battered women are ready to acknowledge the severity of problems and deficits that earlier were minimized or denied. However, even as they begin facing the probability of disastrous consequences, they still are for the most part unable to make decisions to take action and make constructive change. Ambivalence is prominent in this stage. Not ready to make a change, battered women find their feelings frequently shifting back and forth; the resulting dilemmas create high anxiety. Lingering feelings toward husbands/partners, who once provided loving concern and security (whether real or imagined), become difficult to relinquish.
When pondering leaving versus staying, at first the choices may be bewildering. It appears that there may be much to gain and much to lose either way. In order to move forward with the most beneficial decision, it is helpful to contemplate the advantages and disadvantages of alternatives using a cost/benefit analysis of each choice. For example, advantages of leaving might include:
- safety/survival for self and children,
- feeling empowered and gaining self-confidence in taking charge and control of critical decisions,
- having a second chance at finding peace and happiness,
- being a positive role model in protecting the children, and
- breaking the cycle of violence.
Disadvantages might include:
- fears of continued harassment, stalking, and abuse,
- not being able to obtain a satisfactory job that will provide financial security, depending on educational and employment background,
- fears of starting over and independently making a new life, and
- possibly having to move to a distant area and stay hidden for an indefinite period of time.
It can take many months, even years, of weighing how life would change for better or worse. Considering the ongoing fears that battered women experience when faced with making such a life-altering decision, it is understandable that there would be apprehension about the future. Nevertheless, with an awareness of the sharp disparity between positive (and often exaggerated) memories of a caring relationship and the painful reality of what life has become, reasons to change are magnified and weighed carefully. As the intensity of violence escalates to life-threatening proportions, the benefits of staying lessen. Research findings have shown that as children are threatened and also become targets of the abuse, the desire to stay becomes even more narrow. In this way, the decisional balance is tipped, establishing necessary, even crucial, reasons to change. Once this is accomplished, the move toward the preparation stage takes effect.
Making an important decision after much reflection and deliberation of the critical nature of its consequences increases the motivation to carry it out and make it work. For a woman who realizes that sustaining the status quo is fraught with peril, there is a perceptible awareness that she has no other recourse, excepting more of the same punishing injuries and possible death. The journey to this point has not been smooth. The entire process preceding and during this stage has been an emotional and cognitive roller coaster, with shifting moments of clarity of purpose and ambivalent reconsiderations. Yet safety concerns eventually take precedence as reminders of the agony of the abuse take hold.
Being committed to taking action, she is ready to make a viable escape and safety plan for her children and herself, including an assessment of the degree of danger in each step taken. Consideration of supports and resources that can be tapped, while utilizing various sources to ensure safety and protection, are important to include in a safety plan. Phone numbers, identifying items (driver’s license, Social Security card, children’s birth certificates), and money saved are just a few items to gather. Having isolated herself due to years of making excuses and covering up evidence of the battering, a woman reaching out for help hopes she will receive positive responses to her appeals. People can be skeptical under the circumstances. Frequently, women have called upon trusted individuals (for example, relatives and clergy) who may have offered solace but urged them to stay in the relationship for the sake of the children. Although frustrating and disappointing, these reactions must not interrupt her persistence in following through with the primary objective of seeking safety measures.
Shelters are open to women, and in some locations, to their children also. They provide time-limited housing, therapeutic services such as crisis intervention and problem solving, and referrals to the community for vital resources such as legal and financial assistance, job training and employment opportunities, and police protection. The greater the strategic planning and corresponding resources and supports, the more opportunities there will be for finding safety and well-being. This necessitates careful and methodical preparation in planning to accomplish well-constructed goals.
Taking action involves challenging fears, facing intermittent uncertainties about having made the right decision, and experiencing doubts about moving forward with the plan. It means affirming the necessity and ability to take action, after a great deal of deliberation in earlier stages. Having built up the momentum and made preparations for many months or even years, not proceeding toward the goals of stopping the beatings and ending the relationship can be even more anxiety producing than doing so. Nonetheless, it often takes another horrendous incident (possibly after a lull in the battering and a promise that it will not happen again) to drive the will to immediately take action to leave and end the abuse. This is often described as the final incapacitating assault, the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back, and strategies already developed are implemented. Women have remarked that they did not realize their own strengths, survival skills, and ability to cope under such duress and hardships before having to do so. Affirmations such as these express personal accomplishments and, under the circumstances, are well deserved.
Having advanced through grueling and stress-producing stages, undertaking tasks that beforehand would have been considered unimaginable if not impossible, women are next challenged to maintain the gains they made in leaving behind a life filled with injuries, pain, and fears. They often need lifetime support, or at least support until assured that the perpetrator of the violence will not offend again. This is the time when relapse prevention should be addressed. Unknowingly, when distant distressful memories fade, a longing for the affection and attention once shown can emerge and create a desire to regain the positive parts of the relationship that were lost.
This is a danger zone, where fragile emotions reign and rational thought processes plunge almost spontaneously. Feeling lonely and not having reinvested socially in acceptable outlets, the temptation to reconnect with the abuser can be hasty and very risky. Without contemplating ominous consequences, a reenactment of the past and a cycle of violence can be repeated. Support groups, telephone hotlines that offer information, and treatment resources are crucial to counteracting these urges. The most important things for the woman to do are to get back on track, renew goals, and avoid being discouraged.
One might wonder whether it is ever possible to terminate an abusive relationship, mourn the loss, and start life anew, safely and securely. Women do it, with varied emotions, numerous uncertainties about what lies ahead, and frequently a feeling of relief that the horror is ending. If achieved under their own actions, an empowering reaction and enhanced self-confidence can emerge. They made a difference in their lives and their children’s lives.
There could be many misfortunes and tragedies that might interrupt the stages of leaving an abusive relationship and create a relapse. Unable to earn an income adequate to satisfy even the basic necessities, having recurrent mood swings, and feeling lonely and overwhelmed with added responsibilities may instigate a return. Self-medicating with alcohol and other drugs can be a temporary escape but often exacerbates the problems experienced during the time of change. Women have been known to take drugs with their partners (many having been introduced to drug use by them), making it more difficult to sustain the detachment. Too often, the consequences can be serious and unrelenting. Developing and adhering to protective policies, providing the wherewithal to sustain lifesaving changes, and helping women free themselves and their children with obtainable community supports, resources, and available treatment should be a priority. Only then will women believe that they have achieved peace of mind and freedom from strife.
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