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The many strengths of battered women

By Sherry Hamby


One woman, to save money to prepare for leaving her abusive husband, sewed $20 bills into the hemlines of old clothes in the back of her closet. Another woman started volunteering at her school so she could keep close watch over her children and earned Volunteer of the Year at her school. Another woman reached out to her family, who provided her and her son with food and shelter and helped her retain a high-quality lawyer which enabled her to resolve custody issues in a way that protected her children as well as herself.

Call for helpOctober is Domestic Violence Awareness Month and it is the perfect opportunity to take a moment to appreciate the amazing strength and resilience that battered women show when coping with the problem of domestic violence. Battered women protect themselves and their loved ones in many, many ways. By stereotyping battered women as passive and in denial, we are missing the chance to help them build on their strengths and their own coping efforts. We are shortchanging ourselves, too, because we are missing the opportunity to learn some of the truly inspirational and heroic acts that all part of the daily existence of many battered women.

Battered women often make choices to protect their children and other loved ones. Sometimes this means leaving, but other times this can mean staying if the batterer has threatened to kidnap the children or wage a nasty custody battle in court. More than one in four battered women are worried about losing custody of their kids. Like most mothers, they would gladly risk their own personal harm if they thought it would help protect their children. Sometimes battered women are protecting dogs or cats from murder and abuse.

Many social service and health care providers do women a grave injustice by ignoring or dismissing the importance of faith — another place where many battered women turn. When access to many public social services is only getting harder and harder, with more forms, more waiting lists, and higher co-pays, churches are some of the most easily accessed and most generous social institutions in the country. Most agencies serving domestic violence victims (police, hospitals, shelters) emphasize short-term emergency services. Women can easily run into maximum stays in shelters (often 30 days, sometimes even less). Research by Cattaneo and colleagues has shown that months after reaching out for formal professional help, women are more likely to still be in touch with their churches than with either shelters or the police.

Contrary to the myths about secrecy and denial, research shows that about 90% of battered women have disclosed the abuse to at least one person, most often family or friends. Extensive data also show that many women turn to professional help, ranging from calling the police to going to shelter to joining a support. Additionally, battered women seek help at rates that are similar to other crime victims and to people experiencing psychological problems.

Finally, there are all sorts of invisible and understudied strategies: saving money, following standard recommendations in safety plans, protecting oneself from digital harassment and identity theft, or seeking couples counseling. Multiple studies suggest that counseling can help some couples, especially those where only more minor violence has occurred.

Step back and consider all of these protective strategies together, and the result couldn’t be more different than the unfair and damaging stereotypes about denial and passivity. We recognize that some soldiers struggle with what they have seen during war without painting all soldiers as helpless. We manage to acknowledge the enormous losses that follow hurricanes or other natural disasters without concluding that the victims are weak when it takes time to reconstruct their lives. We know how to give help and respect at the same time. Battered women also need help and respect as they cope with the complex problem of domestic violence. This Domestic Violence Awareness Month, let’s honor all of the victims of domestic violence by letting go of harmful stereotypes and building on strengths.

Sherry Hamby, Ph.D. is author of Battered Women’s Protective Strategies: Stronger Than You Know, which will be released this month by Oxford University Press. She is Research Professor of Psychology at Sewanee, the University of the South and founding editor of the APA journal Psychology of Violence. Battered Women’s Protective Strategies: Stronger Than You Know provides a new strengths-based framework for understanding coping with domestic violence. The book also presents a new safety planning tool, the Victim Inventory of Goals, Options, and Risks (the VIGOR) to help put this strengths-based approach to practice.

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Image credit: Crying woman sitting in the corner of the room, with phone in front of her to call for help. © legenda via iStockphoto.

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