Fatal Attraction: Women Who Keep Falling for the Wrong Man
by Hope Rehab Team
Why Do We Choose So Badly?
Women around the world are finding their voice: un-silencing themselves, countless women unite in the ‘Me Too’ movement. Edging a taboo subject out of society’s stuffy taboo closet, women share devastating accounts of experiences with sexual violence, mostly at the hand of men, always involuntary. While many of these women may not have filed legal charges against their perpetrator, they did take steps to protect themselves to make sure the abuse did not happen again. Most of us get that; we can empathize. But what about women who tend to subject themselves over and over to abuse and violence by men they are actually in lasting relationships with?
What prompts these women to stay? More puzzling still, how do some of these women manage to find one abusive guy after another, stumbling from one horrific relationship experience into the next, each time a little bit more disillusioned, a lot more hurt and devastated. Many of us may not be able to understand, to empathize, and we may do what usually makes things worse: we judge and blame women for their predicament.
What does abuse look like?
Often absolutely convinced that this time, this guy, this relationship will be different than the last, these women somehow manage to hook up with the worst of them. White Ribbon, an Australian organization that fights domestic violence, lists the following as warning signs for women questioning whether they, in fact, are in an abusive relationship.
The cycle of abuse
Domestic violence, often also referred to as intimate partner violence (IPV) or spousal violence, typically shows a patterned cycle of abuse: honeymoon, tension build-up, and explosion.
After an acute violent incident, the abusive partner often apologizes, promises to do all sorts of wonderful things. He may, in fact, suggest that his intense jealousy is a sign of love. It is in this phase that women tend to return to the home if they managed to leave in the first place. Statistics show that it takes women up to 17 times (!!) before they actually are able to refrain from returning to an abusive relationship.
During the second phase, abusive men show all of the aforementioned behavioral warning signs, which often correspond with women trying hard to calm, reason or find other ways believed to make things better. Women may believe if they just try hard enough to please their men, then this time things will be different. In other words, women tend to take responsibility for the abuse.
Incidents of unprovoked violence constitute phase three of this devastating cycle. This usually involves physical attacks, but also includes threats to life for the woman, her children or family members, all in an effort to keep her from disclosing to outsiders. Not surprisingly, alcohol or substance misuse plays a frequent and intrinsic part in the gradual escalation and the unpredictable eruption of violence in the home.
The Scope of the Problem
Contrary to popular myths, intimate partner violence (IPV) occurs worldwide and across all cultural, socioeconomic or religious spheres. It happens in heterosexual as well as homosexual/lesbian relationships alike, and men can be the victims of such violence. However, research has shown overwhelming evidence that more than 80% of IPV victims are women, with perpetrators being almost always male. Young women between the ages of 18 and 35 are particularly vulnerable to violence by men known to and trusted by them.
Examining IPV in lives of incarcerated women, US studies have found that 80% of women in jailed attribute their imprisonment to being battered. These women are found to be victims of severe interpersonal violence, such as being subjected to repeated beatings, armed attacks, punches and kicks, strangulation, rapes, and threats. Unfortunately, it doesn’t stop there: every single day in the US, three women are killed by their intimate partner. In fact, intimate partner violence has been found to be the leading cause of death in pregnant women. Intimate partner violence is thus far from an individual woman’s personal, unique and isolated problem.
The link to Addiction
Although the jury is still out whether alcohol and substance misuse causes or just strongly contributes to IPV, the consensus is strong that incidences of partner violence are much higher in substance users compared to others. Substance use is suspected to play a role in 40-60 % of all domestic violence cases worldwide. Alcohol, marijuana, crystal meth and cocaine all have been linked to the occurrence or escalation of spousal violence
Substance Use in Perpetrators
Many batterers are regular drug users. In one study, batterers admitted to using marijuana at least four days per week. Another study found that women were eight times more likely to be subjected to violence when their partner had been drinking. In Australia, estimates suggest that crystal meth is responsible for, or involved in approximately 80% of all domestic violence cases. Furthermore, more than 30% of all IPV related homicides in Australia found evidence of alcohol intoxication at the time of the crime. In the US, England, and Wales, at least 50% of all IPV cases are found to involve both partners drinking prior to a physical assault. In Canada, approximately 35% of men committing such violence were found under the influence. In South Africa, 65% of battered women report alcohol abuse by their violent partners just before an incident.
Other countries were a solid link between perpetrator substance abuse and IPV has been established are India, Uganda, Vietnam, Zimbabwe, Egypt and the Philippines. Not surprisingly, more frequent alcohol use by batterers appears to increase the likelihood of violence. Mental health problems have also been found to play a role, often co-occurring with problematic alcohol and substance use in violent men.
Substance Use among Battered Women
Victims of IPV are also found to misuse alcohol, prescription medication or illegal drugs, often in an attempt to cope. Battered women sometimes report being coerced into using alcohol or substances with their partner, sometimes so they are unable to oppose sexual practices they otherwise do not agree to. Substance use over time may interfere with women’s ability to protect themselves or their children adequately, leaving them less likely to reach out for help for fear of judgment by family, friends or employers, or to avoid contact with the law or child protection agencies.
Unlike Irena, who survived an abusive relationship for 25 years, some battered women do not. In addition to sometimes horrific physical injuries such as broken ribs, extensive facial or bodily bruises, and head injuries, women are subject to reproductive health issues, severe psychiatric problems, and worsening poly-substance use. Several studies have linked IPV with disturbed eating patterns and morbid obesity, the latter perhaps women’s ill attempt to add layers of protection. Battered women have also been found to be 70% more likely to consume alcohol heavily.
The stigma and shame associated with escalating substance, alcohol or prescription medication use, coupled with the constant barrage of put-downs and threats by her abuser, leave a woman downtrodden, depressed and cut off from what typically sustains us: good relationships with family and friends:
As if these consequences are not devastating enough, victims may also experience loss of employment and involuntary involvement with legal or child protective services as a consequence of IPV. Children exposed to such violence suffer immensely and unfortunately for a long time to come. Women often lose their cherished status as caregivers for their children, labeled ‘unfit mothers’ they are at risk for losing parental custody to the state. Pregnant women are not only at risk of physical or emotional problems, they also risk injury to their unborn child. The latter is not only due to a heightened risk of escalating partner violence, but also potential consequence increased poly-substance use.
The costs to society due to medical and legal problems, as well as loss of economic contributions, are also enormous. In the US, IPV is estimated to cost society a whopping 12.6 billion US dollars annually. Disregarding these extensive costs to individual women, their children, families, and society at large, most victims who experience significant injuries following an incident of spousal violence do not seek medical treatment or other professional support. Instead, they attempt to cope alone and suffer in silence.
The five million dollar question - Why??
The answer is this: it’s complicated!
In fact, there are many factors contributing to a woman’s vulnerability to stay in an abusive relationship.
Individual vulnerability factors
Trauma in the form of abusive childhood experiences or interpersonal or sexual violence may constitute one risk factor for being re-victimized. Trauma often contributes to low self-esteem or self-worth, a perception of self as unlovable or ‘damaged goods’. Trauma is also often a precursor to quickly escalating prescription, alcohol or illegal drugs use among women, and substance use, in turn, makes violence in relationships more likely. Trauma survivors are more prone than other women to be repeat victims of interpersonal violence across their lifespan. Survivors of childhood physical or sexual abuse have been found to suffer from devastating mental health or substance use problems in adulthood, even fifty years after the abuse stopped. Psychiatric problems have also been linked to IPV, with more than 50% of battered women reporting mental health problems, either as a precursor or a result of being beaten, bruised and abused.
Among trauma, exposure to family violence plays a significant role. Multiple studies have shown that victims of IPV often show family violence in their background, thus indicating a transmission from one generation to the next. How so? As children observing our parents, we learn about gender roles; what it means to be a man or a woman in the respective culture we grow up in. Children witnessing violence learn to define relationships in terms of power and submission, being the abuser or the abused. Furthermore, they learn that violence is a response to conflict or even slight disagreements.
Over time, an indifference to, or acceptance of violence as a normal part of male-to-female relationships may develop. For children growing up with repeated spousal violence, love, relationships, and violence are intrinsically intertwined. An understanding of what healthy relationships look like remains missing, and constant tension and threats of violence may feel familiar. Some women may unconsciously seek drama and crisis in their relationships, as this produces levels of emotional hyper-arousal similar to what they experienced in their formative years. In other words, good guys and normal relationships may be experienced as boring.
Shame & Guilt
These emotions play a role in more ways than one: first, they are closely linked to trauma in complex ways. Young children observing spousal discord, or experiencing other forms of child abuse, tend to believe they are somehow at fault. As such, they feel that something is profoundly wrong with them. Similarly, women experiencing sexual violence at the hand of someone they know may experience shame and guilt thinking they should have known, or believing they somehow contributed to the horrible event.
Shame and guilt also surface when examining the context in which sexual violence occurs; for example, if women consumed substances or alcohol, they shoulder sole responsibility. Women believe they are at fault, that they would have been able to prevent what happened if they did not drink or use. They think about their behaviors, and their clothes, and conclude they should have behaved or dressed differently than they did. In short, they blame themselves.
Shame is also an important barrier to reaching out for help; shame for not being able to have a healthy relationship; shame of getting it wrong again. For pregnant women and mothers, shame is particularly strong due to their inability to protect their offspring. Shame and guilt are also unfortunately linked to increased alcohol and substance use, allowing for a brief escape from the ever-present and relentless critical voice in their heads.
Called the ‘bedrock’ or blueprint of all future relationships, attachment describes the emotional bond between an infant and her primary caregiver. The quality of this bond, or the absence thereof, translates into internal beliefs about others in relation to us, and us in relation to others. For example, when our caregiver is emotionally attuned to us, responding to our needs reliably and in nurturing ways, we are likely to internalize a positive view of others, and of ourselves. In other words, we tend to believe that we are worthwhile others’ attention and love, and we trust that others reliably and lovingly respond to our needs.
On the contrary, when nurturance is absent or at least very unpredictable, our beliefs about ourselves may be negative, and our views of others ambivalent. Unable to elicit positive and consistent caregiver responses, infants may experience helplessness as a consequence of being ignored and neglected. This perception of self as helpless or powerless over time becomes internalized, translating into a firm belief that we cannot cope, cannot help ourselves and cannot survive without a significant other by our side. In short, we cannot be alone. As such, we may be attracted to someone who appears strong, confident and powerful; someone in control of things.
Family violence, parental substance use, parental failures, intergenerational trauma all may contribute to a lack of understanding as to what healthy relationships look or feel like. Similarly, growing up in a chaotic home environment, parent-child roles may often have been reversed, the child often already in younger years becoming their parents’ caretakers. As such, they learn that they are responsible for others’ well-being, others’ feelings, and happiness, or lack thereof. They become the ‘fixers’, drawn to others equally void of a healthy relationship ideal, caught in an enmeshed pull-push dynamic that leaves no one happy. Believing if they only did the right thing, the other would change into becoming more loving or more caring towards them.
The Larger Picture: Gender Socialization and Other Culprits
As previously mentioned, blaming individual women for their difficulties to leave an abusive relationship is an easy and convenient way. Doing so allows the rest of us to look the other way, and to ignore the fact that intimate partner violence does not occur in a societal, cultural or economic vacuum.
Gender Stereotypes: The Example of the Cinderella Blueprint
Children around the world know and love Disney’s princes and princesses, influencing girls’ and boys’ perception of gender-specific appropriate and desirable demeanor. Cinderella, for example, much loved and admired by little girls, conveys that a good woman attends to her looks, is warm, kind and nurturing. Cinderella remains pretty and kind, always with a smile on her face, albeit the abuse she endures from her step-mother and step-sisters. She is submissive, she endures, she continues to fulfill her homely duties. She dreams of a different life, but she is too weak to take action. She needs a man, a prince, a knight in shining armor to end her misery as she cannot do so for herself. She needs someone else to take charge. Sounds familiar?
A recent study found that although changes in gender stereotypes were evident over time, allowing princesses to be depicted as exploratory and assertive at times, gender-specific qualities still remained. In terms of female stereotypes, the study concluded that: “A princess has not yet performed the final rescue without the involvement of the prince”. It deserves mentioning that gender stereotypes equally affect men, who may feel their efforts to be ‘a real men’ in charge feel threatened by those either wanting to share this societal mission, or question male status altogether. Perhaps princesses ought to be taught that they can stand on their own two feet, while princes can learn that there are other more healthy ways to be a man than to be in control.
Culture and Other Usual Suspects
Similarly, religious or cultural norms and beliefs may reinforce such rigid and unhealthy gender roles for women, and this is especially true for women from male-centered or ‘abuse-tolerant’ ethnic backgrounds. Firm beliefs about the sanctity of marriage or family can serve to further reinforce such stereotypes, viewing women without a man as an undesired and unfortunate exception, rather than a consequence of her free will and choice. While Cinderella may be a thing of the past, limited or unequal educational and/or employment opportunities remain very much a common thread in women’s lives around the globe. Coupled with lack of appropriate resources such as first and second stage transition houses, legal advocacy, accessible mental health and substance treatment facilities or affordable childcare, lack of social housing, women in abusive relationships face a multitude of barriers to making changes in their lives. As such, women may feel that a life in poverty is the only available alternative to staying in an abusive relationship.
Increased vulnerability status
Like all perpetrators, violent men are skilled at choosing vulnerable women, including single mothers or pregnant women, immigrant women or those newly in recovery from addictions. Immigrant women may feel their right to stay is dependent on continued support of their violent partner, and they may lack finances as well as knowledge regarding existing medical, legal or fiscal support services in their new communities. Single mothers or pregnant women may feel overwhelmed at the prospect of continued or new sole responsibility for their offspring. Coupled with financial distress, barriers to affordable housing or employment, these circumstances point to a life in poverty for themselves and their children.
Women newly in recovery from addictions face the daunting task of having to rebuild their lives, often in the context of establishing new social support circles, and convincing family, service providers and potential employers they will remain clean. Although they are committed to continuously work on the painful issues underlying their addiction, they are now unable to resort to their habitual chemical crutch for an occasional escape from these overwhelming challenges. To add to this, a large percentage of female substance users have a background of interpersonal violence, either as a precursor or a consequence of their use. Women in recovery may thus be unsure what a healthy relationship looks or feels like, leading to confusion about intimacy and sexuality that does not involve alcohol or substances. What all of these women have in common is a gap in emotional and practical support in their lives that is all too easily filled by a pretend knight in shining armor.
The Way Out
By now, two things should be clear. First, blaming women for being fearful of leaving an abusive relationship is actually reinforcing part of the reasons -stigma, lack of support, and shame- why she stays. Secondly, failing to address the larger medical, legal, economic, societal context and gender inequalities in which intimate partner violence occurs will continue to provide the soil in which violence against women and children flourishes.
Working towards change, then, involves addressing all of these factors, including but limited to:
In the absence of such concerted efforts, violence against women and their offspring will continue and perhaps escalate. The eradication of interpersonal violence is not a male or a female problem. In contrast, it is one that affects us all, and society at large, “For where the human rights of one woman are violated the human rights of all are in jeopardy.”- Alexander Benjamin, Executive Director O.A.B.I
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