What is domestic violence? A series on Dr. Bradley's sourcebook (part 10) Learned Helplessness
Another complex taking place within an abusive relationship is what Dr. Seligman, currently a Psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, identified as "learned helplessness" (Bradley 37). Dr. Seligman developed this term after extensively studying animals and humans who were placed "in environments where they were trapped without the possibility of escape, and then subjected to random, unpredictable torment" (Bradley 37). At first glance it may seem like an inhumane way to study such a phenomenon, but the results have generated valuable data which researches are currently using to try and understand why domestic violence is such a wide reaching issue. The aforementioned study included an experiment where dogs were locked in a cage and subjected to random shocks via the charged floors. Initially, the dogs tried to find any means to escape their situation, but after they realized there was no where to go they instead developed coping mechanisms to reduce discomfort. Instead of using energy to escape the situation, the dogs expended all their time and energy doing things they wouldn't normal due under typical circumstances- like "lying in their own excrement to insulate the electric shocks or lying in abnormal ways on the floor where the shocks were weaker" (Bradley 37). Dr. Bradley also notes that even when the cage door is opened and the dog can see a possible escape route, it still chooses to stay in the cage and practice its coping strategies (Bradley 37).
Obviously humans aren't a 1:1 comparison with dogs, but when placed in a similar situation like the one noted above, the response from the victim is similar. Even though a woman/man in an abusive relationship seemingly has more control than the dog counterpart (an unlocked door and a car in the driveway) he/she still prefers to cope rather than escape (Bradley 38). One of the reasons that humans decide to stay in their unfavorable situations is due to anxiety of the unknown. A victim of abuse learns that they cannot predict the effect of their behavior, so they attempt to stay in their situation that is familiar to them, rather than facing the unknown head on.
Researchers have also proven how abusers practice similar strategies to those of Nazi concentration camps in terms of "isolation, degradation, monopolization of perception, induced exhaustion, and enforcing trivial demands" (Bradley 38). Dr. Bradley is not saying that all abusers are trained psychopaths, but instead that these controlling tactics can be found within both groups of people, leading credence to the idea that abusers have an idea of how powerful these tactics are. Living in a constant state of torture leads to an all encompassing fear which dilutes the emotions of the victim. The victim assumes the learned helplessness mentioned previously, and instead of searching for possible escape, develops extensive coping strategies to deal with their fear induced living situation. Lastly, another facet of the learned helplessness is that victims often believe space won't be enough insulation between them and their abusers, and that if they do run their abusers will be able to find them and commit even worse torture than they are currently experiencing. Many different variables come into play within an abusive relationship, but as researchers are more readily available to study the unfortunate situation, important concepts like the cycle of violence and learned helplessness show themselves as valuable tools to help understand domestic violence.
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Berry, Dawn Bradley. The Domestic Violence Sourcebook. Contemporary, 2001