The Potential We See

After the last happy-go-lucky post about celebrating Heritage Day at the shelter, today I want to turn to a less cheerful subject. A question that I have often been asked since I have taken up my research on domestic violence and counselling is simple and yet most complicated to answer: Why do women stay with or go back to their abusive partners? Or more general: Why do people stick to relationships that are harmful to them?

I’m afraid, I won’t be able to give a straightforward answer to this question. But I can offer you a story that I am still processing.

A couple of days ago, I met a woman who had just arrived at one of the shelters I visit. She allowed me to stay in the room during her assessment in which a client for the first time shares her story with a social worker and explains what has brought her to the place. She said she was fine now and that after such a long time she was finally able to speak about the things that had happened to her. For the past eight years she had been abused by her husband – emotionally, physically and sexually, even during her pregnancy. As I listened to her describing how he had locked her into the house, controlled her comings and goings, isolated her from family and friends and – mostly when being drunk during the weekends – assaulted her, I was perplexed by her composure and the clear and straightforward way in which she voiced her story. There were no tears. And I had goosebumps all over.

She said she had thought about leaving him before, but she had never managed to bring up the courage to make a final decision. It was only when a colleague at work told her about the possibility to come to a safe place like a shelter – after yet another violent outburst that had left visible marks on her body – that she made her move. When asked if she saw a chance of ever going back to her partner again, her answer was an immediate ‘no’. She said that he had already promised her the world if only she came back to him and that they could just move on and forget about all the bad things that had happened. But she was well aware that these promises would not last, they had already failed her often enough in the past.

Attached to a billboard on the wall at the social worker’s office is a diagram, right behind the chairs where the social worker is usually sitting with her client. It depicts ‘The Cycle of Abuse’. According to this theory – that I have often encountered during my research in South Africa – abusive relationships are characterized by three consecutive phases: the tension building phase followed by a phase of battering followed by a honeymoon phase, going back to the tension building phase and so on. The theory was introduced by the psychologist Lenore E. Walker. She argues that women who for a longer period of time are exposed to the cycle of violence can develop the so-called battered woman syndrome. According to Walker, the symptoms of the syndrome can prevent women from leaving an abusive relationship (see Psychiatric Times, July 7th 2009: Battered Women Syndrome).

The Cycle of Abuse theory clearly frames the phenomenon of women who stay in abuse relationships in a medical discourse and thereby transforms women to patients. Hence, the inability to let go of an abusive relationship becomes pathological. However, I would like to offer a different perspective on the subject.

During a group program that aims at reintegrating offenders of domestic violence into society, I have met ten men who attend the weekly program because they have been convicted of domestic violence. The sensation I had is probably familiar to anyone who has ever been confronted with a person who has committed a serious crime: I am not sure what exactly I had expected but these men did not look like the monsters I probably had imagined them to be. If I would not have known about their background, there was nothing in their behavior towards me or in general that would have brought me to the conclusion that these guys are the reason why women end up seeking help in a shelter.

The victim/perpetrator binary, omnipresent in the context of crime, reduces complexity as it allows categorizing people according to their (unlawful) role in a specific event or series of events. This categorization is especially relevant from the perspective of law enforcement and prosecution. However, the clear-cut opposition of victim and perpetrator makes things appear more straightforward to bystanders than they are perceived by those ones involved. In regard of how people experience the situation, the victim/perpetrator opposition can be an oversimplification that also conceals the ambiguity women feel towards their abusive spouses. Labeling someone a perpetrator objectively identifies the person as pure evil. But this does usually not correspond to the subjective experience of a woman in an abusive relationship as the man who abuses her in one situation may at other times be a loving father and even a supportive and caring husband. How do women who are in an abusive relationship cope with this ambivalence?

My impression is that it is the ability to see a person’s potential that plays a crucial role in this context – because potential means a possibility for change. Seeing a transformative potential in people forms the basis of reintegration programs that work towards changing the mindset and the behavior of abusive men. Our society has created places in which people who have committed crimes go through different kinds of intervening programs and exercises that aim to change the individual (on this topic, see Foucault’s essays on the technologies of the self). This means in general, we acknowledge the possibility to change one’s attitudes and behaviour. Therefore, one should not be too surprised that people in abusive relationships see this potential in their spouses as well and – as a consequence – stay in the relationship.

So what are we going to do with this ambiguity, with this potential that we see in other people? Because as good and supportive this quality may be, it can be dangerous as well. One solution may be to leave it to experts like social workers to find out if a person truly has the potential to change, to people who will neither physically nor emotionally have to suffer from the consequences of a broken promise.

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One response to “The Potential We See”

  1. diemexikanerin says :

    I agree with you solution that people should be informed from social workers and different kind of organization, and as it may happen everywhere, not everyone knows about this.
    I do think nobody likes to be threated badly, but why do they stay in that relationship? I really don’t know, lack of information, lack of education regarding this topic (because even rich people suffer from this), family history of extremely tolerance, perhaps. And maybe in some situations women have a “dependency” with the husband, maybe economic interest or social status to maintain that could in a way be obstruction their decision to leave the husband.

    Best regards

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