Understanding family violence
Evolving understanding of intimate partner violence
2.15Visibility and understanding of family violence, most particularly intimate partner violence, is relatively recent and still evolving. In its most recent Report, the FVDRC calls for a change to how we understand intimate partner violence and victims’ responses to such violence.
Misunderstanding intimate partner violence as “marital conflict”
2.16Historically, intimate partner violence was thought of as “marital conflict” and less serious than stranger violence. Disputes between couples were seen as a private matter and a relationship issue for which both parties were responsible. The FVDRC observes that some still view family violence as “just a domestic”, which minimises the serious impact of the abuse by relegating it to “household affairs”.
2.17Not only does this misunderstand family violence and its impact on victims, it also affects family and whānau members’ perceptions of the seriousness of family violence they may witness or be involved in, and the need for intervention. Evidence suggests that misconceptions held by family, whānau, friends and wider society about violence and victimisation make it harder for victims to seek help and leave violent relationships.
Misunderstanding intimate partner violence as a series of incidentsTop
2.18To date, understandings of family violence have, according to the FVDRC, tended to be violent incident focused, that is, a series of violent incidents between which it is assumed the victim is not being abused and, in the case of adult victims, there are opportunities to leave or address the violence.
2.19Incident-focused conceptions may seem useful in court proceedings because “incidents can be asserted and often proven”, but the FVDRC argues that an emphasis on discrete events may obscure the broader dynamics of family violence. Intimate partner violence in particular usually involves a combination of physical, psychological, emotional, social and financial abuse, and focusing on discrete episodes can minimise other harmful aspects of the violence, such as coercive control (discussed below). It can also mean that some practitioners and members of the public are not attuned to the danger posed by possessive and controlling partners.
Learned helplessness and battered woman syndromeTop
2.20The concept of “learned helplessness” was developed in an attempt to ensure victims’ experiences and responses to family violence were properly understood. Central to the concept of learned helplessness is Dr Lenore Walker’s work on battered woman syndrome, which applied the cycle of violence and learned helplessness theories to battered women. Unifying Dr Walker’s theory is the proposition that “women stay with abusive men because they are rendered helpless and dependent by violence”. Like other conceptions of battering, it is incident focused, emphasising the type and number of assaults (or other coercive acts).
2.21However, the theory of battered woman syndrome is criticised for a number of reasons:
- It promotes a rigid, limited view of battered women’s experiences and behaviour that overemphasises their psychological reactions and defines women by reference to victimisation. The word “syndrome” is considered misleading as it “medicalises” a person’s response to violence and implies that battered women suffer from a condition or mental disability.
- The theory does not take into account cultural diversity. This is particularly important given that Māori women are overrepresented as victims of family violence who kill in New Zealand.
- The theory risks creating a stereotype of the battered woman to the detriment of victims of family violence who do not fit that stereotype.
2.22The FVDRC submits that its regional death reviews demonstrate that victims of intimate partner violence are, in fact, neither passive nor helpless. To the contrary, they are proactive help seekers, and those victims experiencing the lowest levels of informal support from friends, family and whānau are more active in seeking help from agencies.
2.23More recently, the FVDRC has identified that a dialogue of “empowerment” has arisen, with an aim of supporting victims in addressing the abuse they have suffered. This is the approach used by many family violence services currently. The FVDRC criticises the empowerment approach, as it places the burden on the victim rather than the wider family violence response system. It states:
It is important to put the concept of empowerment within victims’ complex and sometimes chaotic lives, as structural inequities constrain and shape the lives of victims, albeit in different ways. The concept of “empowerment” is problematic when working with victims facing lethal violence, who also frequently face severe structural disadvantages. This is because it may appear as though an individual’s inability to keep themselves or their children safe is a result of their decisions and choices. It renders invisible the systemic barriers that impede those choices (such as lack of stable housing and access to money, poverty, racism, sexism and the legacy left behind by colonisation).