Chapter 2
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.83 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.84 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”.85
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.86 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.87

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.88
2.19Incident-focused conceptions may seem useful in court proceedings because “incidents can be asserted and often proven”,89 but the FVDRC argues that an emphasis on discrete events may obscure the broader dynamics of family violence.90 Intimate partner violence in particular usually involves a combination of physical, psychological, emotional, social and financial abuse,91 and focusing on discrete episodes can minimise other harmful aspects of the violence, such as coercive control (discussed below).92 It can also mean that some practitioners93 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.94 Unifying Dr Walker’s theory is the proposition that “women stay with abusive men because they are rendered helpless and dependent by violence”.95 Like other conceptions of battering, it is incident focused, emphasising the type and number of assaults (or other coercive acts).96

2.21However, the theory of battered woman syndrome is criticised for a number of reasons:

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.102
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.103 The FVDRC criticises the empowerment approach, as it places the burden on the victim rather than the wider family violence response system.104 It states:105

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).

83As to which, see Stark, above n 69, at 142–145. See also Martha Mahoney “Legal Images of Battered Women: Redefining the Issue of Separation” (1991) 90 Mich L Rev 96 at 27.
84Family Violence Death Review Committee, above n 60, at 34; and Stella Tarrant “Something is Pushing Them to the Side of Their Own Lives: A Feminist Critique of Law and Laws” (1990) 20 UWAL Rev 573 at 579–581.
85Family Violence Death Review Committee, above n 61, at 77; and Family Violence Death Review Committee, above n 60, at 35.
86Family Violence Death Review Committee, above n 61, at 77.
87Fleur McLaren Attitudes, Values and Beliefs about Violence within Families: 2008 Survey Findings (Ministry of Social Development, March 2010) at 14.
88Family Violence Death Review Committee, above n 61, at 77–78.
89Mahoney, above n 83, at 30.
90Family Violence Death Review Committee, above n 60, at 35.
91Victorian Law Reform Commission, above n 71, at 161.
92Family Violence Death Review Committee, above n 61, at 71.
93Including all practitioners who work within agencies to provide services that are accessed by people experiencing, perpetrating and exposed to violence and abuse. This may include dedicated family violence services, as well as mainstream services (such as health, housing and income support). It includes people who operate in the criminal justice system, as well as teachers, psychologists, and those delivering parenting programmes. For further information see the Family Violence Death Review Committee’s discussion of the terms “multi-agency family violence system” and “family violence workforce” at 13–14.
94J Bruce Robertson “Battered Woman Syndrome: Expert Evidence in Action” (1998) 9 Otago L Rev 277 at 281, discussing Dr Walker’s books The Battered Woman (Harper & Row, New York, 1979) and The Battered Woman Syndrome (Springer, New York, 1984).
95Stark, above n 69, at 120.
96Mahoney, above n 83, at 28–32.
97Elizabeth Sheehy, Julie Stubbs and Julia Tolmie “Securing Fair Outcomes for Battered Women Charged with Homicide: Analysing Defence Lawyering in R v Falls” (2014) 38 MULR 666 at n 2.
98Law Reform Commission of Western Australia Review of the Law of Homicide: Final Report (Project 97, September 2007) at 286; Victorian Law Reform Commission, above n 71, at 170; and Elisabeth McDonald “Battered Woman Syndrome” [1997] NZLJ 436 at 437.
99Law Reform Commission of Western Australia, above n 98, at 286.
100Family Violence Death Review Committee, above n 61, at 44.
101Law Reform Commission of Western Australia, above n 98, at 286; Victorian Law Reform Commission, above n 71, at 170; Danielle Tyson and others “The Effects of the 2005 Reforms on Legal Responses to Women Who Kill Intimate Partners” in Kate Fitz-Gibbon and Arie Freiberg (eds) Homicide Law Reform in Victoria: Retrospect and Prospects (The Federation Press, Leichhardt, 2015) 79 at 83; and Heather Douglas “A consideration of the merits of specialised homicide offences and defences for battered women” (2012) 45 Australian and New Zealand Journal of Criminology 367 at 377.
102Family Violence Death Review Committee submission at 12.
103Family Violence Death Review Committee, above n 60, at 33.
104At 33.
105Family Violence Death Review Committee, above n 61, at 83 (footnote omitted).