Victim vs. Non-Victim Empathy in Domestic Violence

By Dina Oketch

Photo by Run Jane Fox under CC license
Photo by Run Jane Fox under CC license


We are passing through one of the most violent times of the year. I am not speaking of crowded Christmas shopping or New Year’s celebratory madness, but of domestic violence and its occurrence during the festive season. It is horrifying to think that in worst case scenarios domestic violence can lead to death. Awareness is becoming a common feature in societies all over the world, and has turned into a featured goal for eradication by the United Nations Women’s Organization, who report that ‘of all women killed in 2012, almost half were killed by intimate partners or family members’.


What might cause violent behavior in relationships?

You may have wondered what causes people to display such dreadful conduct towards their loved ones. Unfortunately there’s no single documented reason for why violent and abusive behavior occurs in any relationship. It affects all types from society’s extremes, showing that a wide range of complex factors play part in a person’s character to warrant their vicious acts. It becomes even more complex when we speculate over behavioral characteristics that are exhibited by the perpetrators. Most commonly reported are the psychotic controlling individuals who operate in a calculative manner to bring about fear, self-doubt, and intimidation to their victims. The other type is the kind that reacts to a physical trigger such as hunger or an emotional trigger such as stress, which leads to loss of self-control, and hence violence.

Regardless of reasons why aggressive behavior may suddenly arise; there is no justifiable excuse for it.

During the festive season however, heightened emotions together with financial, family, work pressure and alcohol consumption contribute to the myriad of complex activators that result in acts of violence. We should be observant and offer support to anyone you suspect may have abusive tendencies, knowing that some do experience anguish every time they fail to control their own aggressive predisposition.

I appreciate most readers will scoff at undertones of sympathy for non-victims, and you’d be right to jeer, because domestic violence is wrong, we should not tolerate it, we must not turn a blind eye to it, nor should we ignore those who have to endure unknown horrors behind closed doors. Logic suggests that in cases where a spouse refuses to leave a partner who has recurring abusive tendencies, support for the abuser directly make a positive impact for the victim’s well-being. Support from organizations such as Mind, a UK-based mental health charity, is invaluable for those who recognize abusive trends in their conduct. Mind provides advice and support for mental health problems as well as guidance and practical counsel on anger management. General Practitioners at local doctor’s surgeries can also assist with referrals to organizations that present counseling within their areas of residence.


Unhealthy loyalties and attachment to abusive relationships

It is difficult to rationalize why anyone would continue to endure violence and remain in union with the person causing them harm. I found this hard to comprehend but my research revealed that individuals in a long term abusive relationship tend to be accepting and content with their status quo. They endure emotional and physical abuse due to unhealthy loyalties and co-dependences to their partner. You will find that both parties may remain in and support their relationship because of investments they’ve  made toward each other. For example, partners will have invested so much emotion, cried rivers, and worried a great deal about their relationship that they feel they have  to exercise the vow ‘till death do us part’. Another unhealthy attachment is related to social investment; when couples designate a sense of pride and honor toward their relationship such that they would go as far as remaining in that relationship basically to avoid social embarrassment or discomfort. Where children are involved, couples become reluctant to make relationship decisions because they are unsure what the outcomes for their children may be. When it comes to financial investments, in the majority of cases, the dominant partner creates complications in the family’s resources, denying the victim access to funds and potentially using these as ransom to enforce control. Where a spouse totally relies on their partner for financial support, the enduring party may not be willing to lose their existing lifestyle for an unknown one.

Out of fear or love, victims bond to their abuser, believing that the events of abuse aren’t that bad, or that it is the victim’s fault for the atrocious reactions of their partner. Psychologists have described this phenomenon as the   where victims cannot see past the feelings of love and loyalty they have towards their abuser. In this situation, the vulnerable spouse often declines helpful advice to get them out of the toxic relationship and they refuse to engage in attempts towards prosecuting the person responsible.


How we can help someone in an abusive relationship?

I’d hope that by now you agree that both parties in an abusive relationship need help. Statistics from Women’s Aid website leave no doubt as to the vulnerability of victims, who are the most likely to lose their lives when things go wrong. It is primarily important to recognize that victims do not always harbor animosity towards their abuser. They possibly feel responsible and blame themselves for their partner’s actions. In addition they could be experiencing Stockholm syndrome, and might defend their spouse at all costs. Therefore, being aware of these factors and, above all, acting sensitively towards the victim’s state of mind is essential in helping them realize their status as a victim and the need for action. As a friend, being the person they can call if they need to talk or offering them a place to stay if they need a break from the abuse, assisting them to identify advice and support services, and accompanying them to seek professional counsel are all practical things we can do to help. Remember there are many useful online resources that we can mention to them. These include online forums where people engage in discussions, give each other advice and encouragement. In addition to these, a search on Google for ‘domestic abuse help’ will yield useful links to organizations in your area that offer offline and online assistance. Here in the UK organizations such as The National  Domestic Advice Helpline (+44 808 2000 247) and The Samaritans (+44 845 790 9090) offer  24 hour phone lines that will be on standby over the festive season. If someone fears for their safety or expresses concerns that their life may be in danger then it is imperative to call the police immediately. Ultimately we must pay attention to the well-being of our colleagues, neighbors, family, and friends, not only over the holidays, but also all year-round, for the gift of caring is given not only in the well wrapped present, but throughout the future as well.

For more information on domestic violence and what you can do about it, see our resources page.

Contributor – Rachel Winwood is a Psychological Wellbeing practitioner within the National Health Service and a counseling director at Therapy4u.

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