Domestic Violence (full version)

ACCOMMODATION TO DEVIANCE: How Women Experience Battering



Reprinted from “How Women Experience Battering: The Pro­cess of Victimization,” Social Problems, Vol. 39, NO.3 (Feb­ruary 1983), pp. 325-335, by permission of the Society for the Study of Social Problems and the authors.


Conduct depends upon social definitions. Before people can take some action, they have to have some ideas about what kind of action to take and with whom. Some general ques­tions the sociology of deviance asks are the following: Who creates the definitions of de­viance? Who applies those definitions? and What are the consequences of applying definitions? Applications of definitions and their consequences vary considerably accord­ing to the kinds of groups in which labeling and responses to deviance occur. If in some groups there is a lapse of time between repeated violations and labeling, in others there is a history of repeated violations without labeling.

Battered women are a case in point. For example, Kathleen J. Ferraro and John M. Johnson note that the general question asked about battered women is “Why do they stay with their partners?” People outside the situation of battering are quick to define the bat­terer as the deviant. By contrast, battered women in the early stages of the relationship may not see the batterer’s actions as deviant or may define themselves as the deviant ones. In time, over a long series of stages, some battered women are able to see the batterer as the one who is the deviant. And some are able to end the relationship with their partner when others assist them in redefining their situation.

On several occasions since 1850, feminists in Britain and the United States have initiated cam­paigns to end the battering of women by husbands and lovers, but have received little sympathy or support from the public (Dobash and Dobash, 1979). Sociologists systematically ignored the ex­istence of violence against women until 1971, when journal articles and conferences devoted to the topic of domestic violence began to appear  (Gelles, 1974; O’Brien, 1971; Steinmetz and Straus, 1974). Through the efforts of grass-roots activists and academics, battering has been recog­nized as a widespread social problem (Tierney, 1982). In 1975 a random survey of U.S. families found that 3.8 percent of women experienced se­vere violence in their marriage (Strauss et al., 1980). The National Crime Survey of 1976 found that one-fourth of all assaults against women who had ever been married were committed by their husbands or ex-husbands (Gacquin, 1978). Shel­ters providing services to battered women in the United States have not been able to keep pace with requests for assistance (Colorado Association for Aid to Battered Women, 1978; Ferraro, 1981a; Roberts, 1981; Women’s Advocates, 1980).

Although the existence of violence against women is now publicly acknowledged, the expe­rience of being battered is poorly understood. Re­search aimed at discovering the incidence and related social variables has been based on an op­erational definition of battering which focuses on the violent act. The Conflict Tactic Scales (CTS) developed by Straus (1979), for example, is based on the techniques used to resolve family con­flicts. The Violence Scale of the CTS ranks eight violent behaviors, ranging in severity from throw­ing something at the other person to using a knife or gun (Straus, 1979). The scale is not designed to explore the context of violent actions, or their meanings for the victim or perpetrator. With nota­ble exceptions (Dobash and Dobash, 1979), the bulk of sociological research on battered women has focused on quantifiable variables (Gelles, 1974, 1976; O’Brien, 1971; Steinmetz, 1978; Straus, 1978).

Interviews with battered women make it ap­parent that the experience of violence inflicted by a husband or lover is shocking and confusing. Battering is rarely perceived as an unambiguous assault demanding immediate action to ensure fu­ture safety. In fact, battered women often remain in violent relationships for years (Pagelow, 1981).

Why do battered women stay in abusive rela­tionships? Some observers answer faciley that they must like it. The masochism is the predominant response of psychiatrists writing about battering in the 1960s (Saul, 1972;1 Snell et al., 1964). More sympathetic studies of the problem have revealed the difficulties of disentangling oneself from a violent relationship (Hilberman, 1980; Martin, 1976; Walker, 1979). These studies point to the social and cultural expectations of women and their status within the nuclear-family as reasons for the reluctance of battered women to flee the relationship. The socialization’ of women emphasizes the primary value of being a good wife and mother,’ at the expense of personal achievement in other spheres of life. The patriarchal ordering of society assigns a secondary status to women, and provides men with ultimate authority, both within and outside the family unit. Economic conditions contribute to the dependency of women on men; in 1978 U.S. women earned, on the average, 58 per­cent of what men earned (U.S. Department of La­bor, 1980). In sum, the position of women in U.S. society makes it extremely difficult for them to re­ject the authority of men and develop independent lives free of marital violence (Dobash and Dobash, 1979; Pagelow, 1981).

Material and cultural conditions are the back­ground in which personal interpretations of events are developed. Women who depend on their hus­bands for practical support also depend on them as sources of self-esteem, emotional support, and continuity. This paper looks at how women make sense of their victimization within the context of these dependencies. Without dismissing the im­portance of the macro forces of gender politics, we focus on inter- and intrapersonal responses to violence. We first describe six techniques of ra­tionalization used by women who are in relationships where battering has occurred. We then turn to catalysts which may serve as forces to reevalu­ate rationalizations and to initiate serious attempts at escape. Various physical and emotional re­sponses to battering are described, and finally, we outline the consequences of leaving or attempting to leave a violent relationship.



The data for this study were drawn from diverse sources. From July, 1978 to September, 1979 we were participant observers at a shelter for battered women located in the southwestern United States. The shelter was located in a suburban city of a major urban center. The shelter served five cities as well as the downtown population, resulting in a service population of 170,000. It was funded pri­marily by the state through an umbrella agency concerned with drug, mental health, and alcohol­ism problems. It was initially staffed by parapro­fessionals and volunteers, but since this research it has become professionalized and is run by several professional social workers.

During the time of the research, 120 women passed through the shelters; they brought with them 165 children. The women ranged in age from 17 to 68, generally had family incomes be­low $15,000, and did not work outside the home. The characteristics of shelter residents are sum­marized in Table 3.1.

We established personal relationships with each of these women, and kept records of their experiences and verbal accounts. We also tape­recorded informal conversations, staff meetings, and crisis phone conversations with battered women. This daily interaction with shelter resi­dents and staff permitted first-hand observation of feelings and thoughts about the battering experience. Finally, we taped interviews with 10 resi­dents arid five battered women who had left their abusers without entering the shelter. All quotes in this paper are taken from our notes and tapes.

In addition to this participant study, both au­thors have been involved with the problem of do­mestic violence for more than 10 years. In 1976-77, Ferraro worked as a volunteer at Rainbow Retreat, the oldest shelter still functioning in the United States. In 1977-78, we both helped to found a shel­ter for battered women in our community. This in­volvement has led to direct contact with hundreds of women who have experienced battering, and many informal talks with people involved in the shelter movement in the United States and Europe.

The term battered woman is used in this pa­per to describe women who are battered repeatedly by men with whom they live as lovers. Marriage is not a prerequisite for being a battered woman. Many of the women who entered the shelter we studied were living with, but were not legally mar­ried to, the men who abused them.




Marriages and their unofficial counterparts de­velop through the efforts of each partner to main­tain feelings of love and intimacy. In modem, Western cultures, the value placed on marriage is high; individuals invest a great amount of emotion in their spouses, and expect a return on that invest­ment. The majority of women who marry still adopt the roles of wives and mothers as primary identities, even when they work outside the home, and thus have a strong motivation to succeed in their domestic roles. Married women remain eco­nomically dependent on their husbands. In 1978, married men in the United States earned an aver­age of $293 a week, while married women earned $167 a week (U.S. Department of Labor, 1980). Given these high expectations and dependencies, the costs of recognizing failures and dissolving marriages are significant. Divorce is an increas­ingly common phenomenon in the United States, but it is still labeled a social problem and is sel­dom undertaken without serious deliberations and emotional upheavals (Bohannan, 1971). Levels of commitment vary widely, but some degree of commitment is implicit in the marriage contract.

When marital conflicts emerge there is usually some effort to negotiate an agreement or bargain, to ensure the continuity of the relationship (Scan­zoni, 1972). Couples employ a variety of strate­gies, depending on the nature and extent of resources available to them, to resolve conflicts without dissolving relationships. It is thus possi.­ble for marriages to continue for years, surviving the inevitable conflicts that occur (Sprey, 1971).

In describing conflict-management, Spiegel (1968) distinguishes between “role induction” and “role modification.” Role induction refers to con­flict in which “one or the other parties to the conflict agrees, submits, goes along with, become convinced, or is persuaded in some way” (196h: 402). Role modification, on the other hand, in­volves adaptations by both partners. Role induc­tion seems particularly applicable to battered women who accommodate their husbands’ abuse. Rather than seeking help or escaping, as people typically do when attacked by strangers, battered women often rationalize violence from their hus­bands, at least initially. Although remaining with a violent man does not indicate that a woman views violence as an acceptable aspect of the relation­ship, the length of time that a woman stays in the marriage after abuse begins is a rough index of her efforts to accommodate the situation. In a U.S. study of 350 battered women, Pagelow (1981) found the median length of stay after violence be­gan was four years; some left in less than one year, others stayed as long as 42 years.

Battered women have good reasons to ra­tionalize violence. There are few institutional, legal, or cultural supports for women fleeing violent mar­riages. In Roy’s (1977:32) survey of 150 battered women, 90 percent said they “thought of leaving and would have done so had the resources been available to them.” Eighty percent of Pagelow’s (1981) sample indicated previous, failed attempts to leave their husbands. Despite the development of the international shelter movement, changes in police practices, and legislation to protect battered women since 1975, it remains extraordinarily dif­ficult for a battered woman to escape a. violent husband determined to maintain his control. At least one woman, Mary Parziale, has been mur­dered by an abusive husband while residing in a shelter (Beverly, 1978); others have been murdered after leaving shelters to establish new, independent homes (Garcia, 1978). When these practical and social constraints are combined with love for and commitment to an abuser, it is obvious that there is a strong incentive-often a practical necessity-to rationalize violence.

Previous research on the rationalizations of de­viant offenders has revealed a typology of “tech­niques of neutralization,” which allow offenders to view their actions as normal, acceptable, or at least justifiable (Sykes and Matza, 1957). A simi­lar typology can be constructed for victims. Ex­tending the concepts developed by Sykes and Matza, we assigned the responses of battered women we interviewed to one of six categories of rationalization: (1) the appeal to the salvation eth­ic; (2) the denial of the victimizer; (3) the denial of injury; (4) the denial of victimization; (5) the denial of options; and (6) the appeal to higher loy­alties. The women usually employed at least one of these techniques to make sense of their situa­tions; often they employed two or more, simulta­neously or over time.

  1. The appeal to the salvation ethic: This ra­tionalization is grounded in a woman’s desire to be of service to others. Abusing husbands are viewed as deeply troubled, perhaps “sick,” individuals, dependent on their wives’ nurturance for survival. Battered women place their own safety and happi­ness below their commitment to “saving my man” from whatever malady they perceive as the source of their husbands’ problems (Ferraro, 1979a). The appeal to the salvation ethic is a common response to an alcoholic or drug-dependent abuser. The bat­tered partners of substance-abusers frequently de­scribe the charming, charismatic personality of their sober mates, viewing this appealing person­ality as the “real man” being destroyed by disease. They then assume responsibility for helping their partners to overcome their problems, viewing the batterings they receive as an index of their part­ners’ pathology. Abuse must be endured while helping the man return to his “normal” self. One woman said:

“I thought I was going to be Florence Nightingale. He had so much potential; I could see how good he really was, and I was going to “save” him. I thought I was the only thing keeping him going, and that if I left he’d lose his job and wind up in jail. I’d make excuses to everybody for him. I’d call work and lie when he was drunk, saying he was sick. I never criticized him, because he needed my approval.”

  1. The denial of the victimizer: This technique is similar to the salvation ethic, except that victims do not assume responsibility for solving their abusers’ problems. Women perceive battering as an event beyond the control of both spouses, and blame it on some external force. The violence is judged situational and temporary, because it is linked to unusual circumstances or a sickness which can be cured. Pressures at work, the loss of a job, or legal problems are all situations which battered women assume as the causes of their partners’ violence. Mental illness, alcoholism, and drug addiction are also viewed as external, uncon­trollable afflictions by many battered women who accept the medical perspective on such problems. By focusing on factors beyond the control of their abuser, women deny their husbands’ intent to do them harm, and thus rationalize violent episodes.

“He’s sick. He didn’t used to be this way, but he can’t handle alcohol. It’s really like a disease, be­ing an alcoholic …. I think too that this is what he saw at home, his father is a very violent man, and alcoholic too, so it’s really not his fault, because this is all he has ever known.”


  1. The denial of injury: For some women, the experience of being battered by a spouse is so dis­cordant with their expectations that they simply refuse to acknowledge it. When hospitalization is not required-and it seldom is for most cases of battering1-routines quickly return to normal. Meals are served, jobs and schools are attended, and daily chores completed. Even with lingering pain, bruises, and cuts, the normality of everyday life overrides the strange, confusing memory of the attack. When husbands refuse to discuss or ac­knowledge the event, in some cases even accusing their wives of insanity, women sometimes come to believe the violence never occurred. The denial of injury doe~ not mean that women feel no pain. They know they are hurt, but define the hurt as tolerable or normal. Just as individuals tolerate a wide range of physical discomfort before seeking medical help, battered women tolerate a wide range of physical abuse before defining it as an in jurious assault. One woman explained her disbe­lief at her first battering:

“I laid in bed and cried all night. I could not believe it had happened, and I didn’t want to believe it. We had only been married a year, and I was pregnant and excited about starting a family. Then all of a sudden, this! The next morning he told me he was sorry and it wouldn’t happen again, and I gladly kissed and made up. I wanted to forget the whole thing, and wouldn’t let myself worry about what it meant for us.”

  1. The denial of victimization: Victims often blame themselves for the violence, thereby neu­tralizing the responsibility of the spouse. Pagelow (1981) found that 99.4 percent of battered women felt they did not deserve to be beaten, and 51 per­cent said they had done nothing to provoke an attack. The battered women in our sample did not believe violence against them was justified, but some felt it could have been avoided if they had been more passive and conciliatory. Both Pagelow’s and our samples are biased in this area, because they were made up almost entirely of women who had already left their abusers, and thus would have been unlikely to feel major re­sponsibility for the abuse they received. Retro­spective accounts of victimization in our sample, however, did reveal evidence that some women believed their right to leave violent men was re­stricted by their participation in the conflicts. One subject said:

“Well, I couldn’t really do anything about it, be­cause I did ask for it. I knew how ta get at him, and 1’d keep after it and keep after it until he got fed up and knocked me right out. I can’t say I like it, but I shouldn’t have nagged him like I did.”

 As Pagelow (1981) noted, there is a difference be­tween provocation and justification A battered woman’s belief that her actions angered her spouse to the point of violence is not synonymous with the belief that violence was therefore justi­fied. But belief in provocation may diminish a woman’s capacity for retaliation or self-defense, because it blurs her concept of responsibility. A woman’s acceptance of responsibility for the vio­lent incident is encouraged by an abuser who con­tinually denigrates her and makes unrealistic demands. Depending on the social supports avail­able, and the personality of the battered woman, the man’s accusations of inadequacy may assume the status of truth. Such beliefs of inferiority in­hibit the development of a notion of victimization.

  1. The denial of options: This technique is com­posed of two elements: practical options and emotional options. Practical options, including al­ternative housing, source of income, and protec­tion from an abuser, are clearly limited by the pa­triarchal structure of Western society. However, there are differences in the ways battered women respond to these obstacles, ranging from deter­mined struggle to acquiescence. For a variety of reasons, some battered women do not take full ad­vantage of the practical opportunities which are available to escape, and some return to abusers voluntarily even after establishing an independent lifestyle. Others ignore the most severe constraints in their efforts to escape their relationships. For example, one resident of the shelter we observed walked 30 miles in her bedroom slippers to get to the shelter, and required medical attention for blis­ters and cuts to her feet. On the other hand, a woman who had a full-time job, had rented an apartment, and had been given by the shelter all the clothes, furniture, and basics necessary to set up housekeeping, returned to her husband two weeks after leaving the shelter. Other women re­fused to go to job interviews, keep appointments with social workers, or move out of the state for their own protection (Ferraro, 1981b). Such ac­tions are frightening for women who have led rel­atively isolated or protected lives, but failure to take action leaves few alternatives to a violent marriage. The belief of battered women that they will not be able to make it on their own-a belief often fueled by years of abuse and oppression-is a major impediment to [acknowledgment] that one is a victim and taking action.

The denial of emotional options imposes still further restrictions. Battered women may feel that no one else can provide intimacy and companion­ship. While physical beating is painful and dan­gerous, the prospect of a lonely, celibate existence is often too frightening to risk. It is not uncommon for battered women to express the belief that their abuser is the only man they could love, thus se­verely limiting their opportunities to discover new, more supportive relationships. One woman said:

“He’s all I’ve got. My dad’s gone, and my mother disowned me when I married him. And he’s really special. He understands me, and I understand him. Nobody could take his place.


  1. The appeal to higher loyalties: This appeal involves enduring battering for the sake of some higher commitment, either religious or traditional. The Christian belief that women should serve their husbands as men serve God is invoked as a rationalization to endure a husband’s violence for later rewards in the afterlife. Clergy may support this view by advising women to pray and try harder to please their husbands (Davidson, 1978; McGlinchey, 1981). Other women have a strong commitment to the nuclear family, and find di­vorce repugnant. They may believe that for their children’s sake, any marriage is better than no marriage. One woman we interviewed divorced her husband of 35 years after her last child left home. More commonly women who have sur­vived violent relationships for that long do not have the desire or strength to divorce and begin a new life. When the appeal to higher loyalties is employed as a strategy to cope with battering, commitment to and involvement with an ideal overshadows the mundane reality of violence.



Rationalization is a way of coping with a situation in which, for either practical or emotional reasons, or both, a battered woman is stuck. For some women, the situation and the beliefs that rational­ize it, may continue for a lifetime. For others, changes may occur within the relationship, within individuals, or in available resources which serve as catalysts for redefining the violence. When bat­tered women reject prior rationalizations and be­gin to view themselves as true victims of abuse, the victimization process begins.2

There are a variety of catalysts for redefining abuse; we discuss six: (1) a change in the level of violence; (2) a change in resources; (3) a change in the relationship; (4) despair; (5) a change in the visibility of violence; and (6) external definitions of the relationship.

  1. A change in the level of violence: Although Gelles (1976) reports that the severity of abuse is an important factor in women’s decisions to leave violent situations, Pagelow (1981) found no sig­nificant correlation between the number of years spent cohabiting with an abuser and the severity of abuse. On the contrary: the longer women lived with an abuser, the more severe the violence they endured, since violence increased in severity over time. What does seem to serve as a catalyst is a sudden change in the relative level of violence. Women who suddenly realize that battering may be fatal may reject rationalizations in order to save their lives. One woman who had been severely beaten by an alcoholic husband for many years explained her decision to leave on the basis of a direct threat to her life:

“It was like a pendulum. He’d swing to the extremes both ways. He’d get drunk and beat me up, then he’d get sober and treat me like a queen. One day he put a gun to my head and pulled the trigga It wasn’t loaded. But that’s when I decided I’d had it. I sued for separation of property. I knew what was coming again, so I got out. I didn’t want to. I still loved the guy, but I knew I had to for my own sanity.”

There are, of course, many cases of homicide in which women did not escape soon enough. In 1979, 7.6 percent of all murders in the United States where the relationship between the victim and the offender was known were murders of wives by husbands (Flanagan et al., 1982). In­creases in severity do not guarantee a reinterpreta tion of the situation, but may play a part in the process.

  1. A change in resources: Although some women rationalize cohabiting with an abuser by claiming they have no options, others begin rein­terpreting violence when the resources necessary for escape become available. The emergence of safe homes or shelters since 1970 has produced a new resource for battered women. While not com­pletely adequate or satisfactory, the mere exist­ence of a place to go alters the situation in which battering is experienced (Johnson, 1981). Public support of shelters is a statement to battered women that abuse need not be tolerated. Con­versely, political trends which limit resources available to women, such as cutbacks in govern­ment funding to social programs, increase fears that life outside a violent marriage is economi­cally impossible. One 55-year-old woman dis­cussed this catalyst:

“I stayed with him because I didn’t want my kids to have the same life I did. My parents were divorced, and I was always so ashamed of that…. Yes, they’re all on their own now, so there’s no reason left to stay.”

  1. A change in the relationship: Walker (1979), in discussing the stages of a battering relationship, notes that violent incidents are usually followed by periods of remorse and solicitude. Such phases deepen the emotional bonds, and make rejection of an abuser more difficult. But as battering progresses, periods of remorse may shorten, or disappear, eliminating the basis for maintaining a positive outlook on the marriage, After a number of episodes of violence, a man may realize that his victim will not retaliate or escape, and thus feel no need to express remorse. Extended periods devoid of kindness or love may alter a woman’s feelings toward her partner so much so that she eventually begins to define herself as a victim of abuse. One woman recalled:

“At first, you know, we used to have so much fun to­gether. He has kind’ve, you know, a magnetic personality; he can be really charming. But it isn’t fun anymore. Since the baby came, it’s changed com­pletely. He just wants me to stay at home, while he goes out with his friends. He doesn’t even talk to me, most of the time …. No, I don’t really love him anymore, not like I did.”

  1. Despair: Changes in the relationship may re­sult in a loss of hope that “things will get better. When hope is destroyed and replaced by despair, rationalizations of violence may give way to the recognition of victimization. Feelings of hopeless­ness or despair are the basis for some efforts to assist battered women, such as Al-Anon.3 The di­rector of an AI-Anon organized shelter explained the concept of “hitting bottom”:

“Before the Al-Anon program can really be of bene­fit, a woman has to hit bottom. When you hit bot­tom, you realize that all of your own efforts to control the situation have failed; you feel helpless and lost and worthless and completely disen­chanted with the world. Women can’t really be helped unless they’re ready for it and want it. Some women come here when things get bad, but they aren’t really ready to be committed to AI­Anon. Things haven’t gotten bad enough for them, and they go right back. We see this all the time.”

  1. A change in the visibility of violence: Creat­ing a web of rationalizations to overlook violence is accomplished more easily if no intruders are present to question their validity. Since most .vio­lence between couples occurs in private, there are seldom conflicting interpretations of the event from outsiders. Only 7 percent of the respondents in Gelles’ (1974) study who discussed spatial lo­cation of violence indicated events which took place outside the home, but all reported incidents within the home. Others report similar findings (pittman and Handy, 1964; Pokorny, 1965; Wolf­gang, 1958). If violence does occur in the pres­ence of others, it may trigger a reinterpretation process. Battering in private is degrading, but bat­tering in public is humiliating, for it is a statement of subordination and powerlessness. Having oth­ers witness abuse may create intolerable feelings of shame which undermine prior rationalizations.

“He never hit me in public before-it was always at home. But the Saturday I got back (returned to husband from shelter), we went Christmas shop­ping and he slapped me in the store because of some stupid joke I made. People saw it, I know, I felt so stupid, like, they must all think what a jerk I am, what a sick couple, and I thought, “God, I must be crazy to let him do this.”

  1. External definitions of the relationship: A change in visibility is usually accomplished by the interjection of external definitions of abuse. Exter­nal definitions vary depending on their source and the situation; they either reinforce or undermine ra­tionalizations. Battered women who request help frequently find others-and especially officials­don’t believe their story or are unsympathetic (Pagelow, 1981; Pizzey, 1974). Experimental re­search by Shotland and Straw (1976) supports these reports. Observers usually fail to respond when a woman is attacked by a man, and justify nonintervention on the grounds that they assumed the victim and offender were married. One young woman discussed how lack of support from her family left her without hope:

“It wouldn’t be so bad if my own family gave a damn about me …. Yeah, they know I’m here, and they don’t care. They didn’t care about me when I was a kid, so why should they care now? I got raped and beat as a kid, and now I get beat as an adult. Life is a big joke.”

Clearly, such responses from family members contribute to the belief among battered women that there are no alternatives and that they must tolerate the abuse. However, when outsiders re­spond with unqualified support of the victim and condemnation of violent men, their definitions can be a potent catalyst toward victimization. Friends and relatives who show genuine concern for a woman’s well-being may initiate an awareness of danger which contradicts previous rationalizations.

“My mother-in-law knew what was going on, but she wouldn’t admit it …. I said, “Morn, what do you think these bruises are?” and she said “Well, some people just bruise easy. I do it all the time, bumping into things. ” ... And he just denied it, pre­tended like nothing happened, and if I’d said I wanted to talk about it, he’d say, “life goes on, you can’t just dwell on things.” … But this time, my neighbor knew what happened, she saw it, and when he denied it, she said, “I can’t believe it! You know that’s not true!” … and I was so happy that finally, somebody else saw what was gain’ on, and I just told him then that this time I wasn’t gonna’ come home!”

Shelters for battered women serve not only as material resources, but as sources of external defi­nitions which contribute to the victimization pro­cess. They offer refuge from a violent situation in which a woman may contemplate her circum­stances and what she wants to do about them. Within a shelter, women meet counselors and other battered women who are familiar with ra­tionalizations of violence and the reluctance to give up commitment to a spouse. In counseling ses­sions, and informal conversations with other resi­dents, women hear horror stories from others who have already defined themselves as victims. They are supported for expressing anger and rejecting responsibility for their abuse (Ferraro, 1981a). The goal of many shelters is to overcome feelings of guilt and inadequacy so that women can make choices in their best interests. In this atmosphere, violent incidents are reexamined and redefined as assaults in which the woman was victimized.

How others respond to a battered woman’s situation is critical. The closer the relationship of others, the more significant their response is to a woman’s perception of the situation. Thus, chil­dren can either help or hinder the victim. Pizzey (1974) found adolescent boys at a shelter in Chiswick, England, often assumed the role of the abusing father and themselves abused their moth­ers, both verbally and physically. On the other hand, children at the shelter we observed often be­came extremely protective and nurturing toward their mothers. This phenomenon has been thor­oughly described elsewhere (Ferraro, 1981a). Children who have· been abused by fathers who also beat their mothers experience high levels of anxiety, and rarely want to be reunited with their fathers. A 13-year-old, abused daughter of a shel­ter resident wrote the following message to her stepfather:

“I am going to be honest and not lie. No, I don’t want you to come back. It’s not that I am jealous because mom loves you. It is [I] am afraid I won’t live to see 18. I did care about you a long time ago, but now I can’t care, for the simple reason you[‘ re J always calling us names, even my friends. And another reason is, I am tired of seeing mom hurt. She has been hurt enough in her life, and I don’t want her to be hurt any more.”

No systematic research has been conducted on the influence children exert on their battered mothers, but it seems obvious that the willingness of chil­dren to leave a violent father would be an impor­tant factor in a woman’s desire to leave.

The relevance of these catalysts to a woman’s interpretation of violence vary with her own sit­uation and personality. The process of rejecting rationalizations and becoming a victim is ambigu­ous, confusing, and emotional. We now turn to the feelings involved in a victimization.



As rationalizations give way to perceptions of vic­timization, a woman’s feelings about herself, her spouse, and her situation change. These feelings are imbedded in a cultural, political, and interac­tional structure. Initially, abuse is contrary to a woman’s cultural expectations of behavior be­tween intimates, and therefore engenders feelings of betrayal. The husband has violated his wife’s expectations of love and protection, and thus be­trayed her confidence in him. The feeling of be­trayal, however, is balanced by the husband’s efforts to explain his behavior, and by the woman’s reluctance to abandon faith. Addition­ally, the political dominance of men within and outside the family mediate women’s ability to question the validity of their husband’s actions.

At the interpersonal level, psychological abuse accompanying violence often invokes feel­ings of guilt and shame in the battered victim. Men define violence as a response to their wives’ inadequacies or provocations, which leads bat­tered women to feel that they have failed. Such character assaults are devastating, and create long­-lasting feelings of inferiority (Ferraro, 1979b):

“I’ve been verbally abused as well. It takes you a long time to … you may say you feel good and you may … but inside, you know what’s been said to you and it hurts for a long time. You need to build up your self-image and make yourself feel like you’re a useful person, that you’re valuable, and that you’re a good parent. You might think these things, and you ma .say them …. I’m gonna prove it to myself.”

Psychologists working with battered women con­sistently report that self-confidence wanes over years of ridicule and criticism (Hilberman and Munson, 1978; Walker, 1979).

Feelings of guilt and shame are also mixed with a hope that things will get better, at least in the early stages of battering. Even the most vio­lent man is nonviolent much of the time, so there is always a basis for believing that violence is ex­ceptional and the “real man” is not a threat. The vacillation between violence and fear on the one hand, and nonviolence and affection on the other was described by a shelter resident:

“First of all, the first beatings-you can’t believe it yourself. I’d go to bed, and I’d cry, and I just couldn’t believe this was happening. And I’d wake up the next morning thinking that couldn’t of hap­pened, or maybe it was my fault. It’s so unbeliev­able that this person that you’re married to and you love would do that to you but yet you can’t leave ei­ther because, ya’ know, for the other 29 days of the month that person loves you and is with you.”

Hope wanes as periods of love and remorse dwindle. Feelings of love and intimacy are grad­ually replaced with loneliness and pessimism.

Battered women who no longer feel love for their husbands but remain in their marriages enter a pe­riod of emotional dormancy. They survive each day, performing necessary tasks, with a dull de­pression and lack of enthusiasm. While some bat­tered women live out their lives in this emotional desert, others are spurred by catalysts to feel ei­ther the total despair or mortal fear which leads them to seek help.

Battered women who perceive their husband’s’ actions as life-threatening experience a penetrating fear that consumes all their thoughts and energies. The awareness of murderous intent by a presumed ally who is a central figure in all aspects of her life destroys all bases for safety. There is a feeling that death is imminent, and that there is nowhere to hide. Prior rationalizations and beliefs about a “good marriage” are exploded, leaving the woman in· a crisis of ambiguity (Ridington,1978).

Feelings of fear are experienced physiologi­cally as well as emotionally. Battered women expe­rience aches and fatigue, stomach pains, diarrhea or constipation, tension headaches, shakes, chills, loss of appetite, and insomnia. Sometimes, fear is ex­pressed as a numbed shock, similar to rape trauma syndrome (Burgess and Holmstrom, 1974), in which little is felt or communicated.

If attempts to seek help succeed, overwhelm­ing feelings of fear subside, and a rush of new emotions are felt: the original sense of betrayal re­emerges, creating strong feelings of anger. For women socialized to reject angry feelings as un­feminine, coping with anger is difficult. Unless the expression of anger is encouraged in a sup­portive environment, such women may suppress anger and feel only depression (Ball and Wyman, 1978). When anger is expressed, it often leads to feelings of strength and exhilaration. Freedom from threats of violence, the possibility of a new life, and the unburdening of anger create feelings of joy. The simple pleasures of going shopping, taking children to the park, or talking with other women without fear of criticism or punishment from a husband, constitute amazing freedoms.

One middle-aged woman expressed her joy over her newly acquired freedom this way:

“Boy, tomorrow I’m gain’ downtown, and I’ve got my whole day planned out, and I’m gonna’ do what I wanna’ do, and if somebody doesn’t like it, to hell with them! You know, I’m having so much fun, I should’ve done this years ago!”

Probably the most typical feeling expressed by women in shelters is confusion. They feel both sad and happy, excited and apprehensive, inde­pendent, yet in need of love. Most continue to feel attachment to their husbands, and feel ambiv­alent about divorce. There is grief over the loss of an intimate, which must be acknowledged and mourned. Although shelters usually discourage women from contacting their abusers while stay­ing at the shelter, most women do communicate with their husbands-and most receive desperate pleas for forgiveness and reconciliation. If there is not strong emotional support and potential ma­terial support, such encouragement by husbands often rekindles hope for the relationship. Some marriages can be revitalized through counseling, but most experts agree that long-term batterers are unlikely to change (Pagelow, 1981; Walker, 1979). Whether they seek refuge in shelters or with friends, battered women must decide relatively quickly what actions to take. Usually, a tentative commitment is made, either to independence or working on the relationship, but such commitments are usually ambivalent. As one woman wrote to her counselor:

“My feelings are so mixed up sometimes. Right now I feel my husband is really trying to change. But I know that takes time. I still feel for him some. I don’t know how much. My mind still doesn’t know what it wants. I would really like when I leave here to see him once in a while, get my apartment, and son of like start over with our relationship for me and my baby and him, to try and make it work. It might. It kind of scares me. I guess I am afraid it won’t …. I can only hope this works out. There’s no telling what could happen. No one knows.”

 The emotional career of battered women con­sists of movement from guilt, shame, and depres­sion to fear and despair, to anger, exhilaration, and confusion. Women who escape violent relation­ships must deal with strong, sometimes conflict­ing, feelings in attempting to build new lives for themselves free of violence. The kind of response women receive when they seek help largely deter­mines the effects these feelings have on subse­quent decisions.



  1. National crime survey data for 1973-76 show that 17 percent of persons who sought medical attention for inju­ries inflicted by an intimate were hospitalized. Eighty­-seven percent of injuries inflicted by a spouse or ex­-spouse were bruises, black eyes, cuts, scratches, or swell­ing (National Crime Survey Report, 1980).
  1. Explanation of why and how some women arrive at these feelings is beyond the scope of this paper. Our goal is to describe feelings at various stages of the victimiza­tion process.
  1. Al-Anon is the spouse’s counterpart to Alcoholics Anonymous. It is based on the same self-help, 12-step program that AA is founded on.


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