This report is about women who for many years have been subjected to violence and threats of violence from their male partners. Has this topic not been sufficiently described?
The novelty of this study is that its participants comprised women who did not seek help from either the public or the voluntary service sectors in respect of the violence they experienced during the time they lived with a violent partner. Most importantly though, we have asked these women about how they handled their everyday life in a relationship where violence was committed. We have not found studies in Norway on this specific topic.
Prevalence studies show that 70 to 90 per cent of women subjected to violence from a male partner do not seek help while in the relationship. Nevertheless, most of the research available relates to women who have turned to service provisions or clinical services, including shelters. However, we have limited knowledge about how the majority of the women who are in abusive relationships, deal with the violence on a daily basis. We wanted to contribute to this knowledge by conducting this qualitative study.
Most researchers have focused on help-seeking women who have decided to leave an abusive relationship and who need to deal with the break-up itself. Seeking help may reflect a societal “demand” or a norm with regard to domestic violence. In this study, however, the aim has not been to investigate the women’s reasons for not seeking help, although some of the women talked about their perspectives on seeking help.
This report is based on in-depth interviews with eight women subjected to partner violence. At the time of the interviews, all the women had terminated their relationships with these men, most of them several years ago. The greater part of the violence the women described in the interviews may be characterised as serious, physical violence that often resulted in injuries. Threats of murder and suicide, coercion, sexual violence and aggravated rape were parts of the overall picture of the violence. There were no accounts of physical violence against the affected children in this research material, but several of the women reported that children may have seen parts of the violent episodes or could have heard and understood what was going on.
Most of the women had never before told so much and talked so coherently about the abuse to anyone. The women’s accounts represented a combination of memories from a near past and recollections about episodes several years past. According to the women, they were able to recall certain incidents in detail while other memories, and how they understood the episodes, may have changed over time.
The women’s protective work
In this report we elucidate the women’s actions from different angles. We describe the results of our analyses and interpretation of the women’s stories about their complex realities in two main chapters. In the first chapter, we present how the women tried to prevent or reduce the violent incidents or tried to lessen the consequences of these incidents to themselves and potential children. In the second chapter, we show how the women’s vulnerability, self-understanding and need for dignity was of importance for how they acted and how they related to their social surroundings in a broad sense. Our collective term for these ways of acting is “protective work”.
Although the women often lacked control over the situation and had to adjust to and resist the men’s violent actions, a prominent feature in the interviews was the women’s condemnation of the violence they were subjected to. In various ways, they demonstrated their opposition to the men’s violence, for example by using different forms of what we call “counterpower”. The counterpower included actions that gave the women respite from their problematic lives, and measures that reduced the men’s violent tendencies. The women also initiated preventive activities to avoid the violence, for example by initiating sex – in other words, ways of acting that provided some control over their lives.
Another distinct feature of the women’s stories was their persistent and multifaceted attempts to protect themselves and their close ones, especially their children. This meant that the women, as far as possible, tried to establish a form of control in their everyday lives. Examples of this included to stay completely silent, even when they were subjected to painful and terrifying acts of violence to prevent the children from waking up and being afraid, or that the woman sent the children out of the house if she suspected that the man would soon batter her. In the report, we also describe how the women acted in order to prevent the men from acting on their threats to kill the whole family or commit suicide. Moreover, the women were careful about whom they spoke to about the violence. Most of the women we interviewed deemed the risk greater when asking their own family for help, rather than asking their parents-in-law. For the women, it was important to avoid having their family members say or do anything that could make their situation more difficult or directly dangerous. When in need of medical treatment, the women would always explain their injuries as having other causes than violence. The purpose was the same: to avoid losing control over the situation.
Another reason for not communicating their experiences was a desire to protect their close family members from the harsh reality of their lives.
The need to take care of and protect their own self-image and their dignity was particularly visible when the women talked about the relations to their social surroundings. Their families were not the only ones to be kept in the dark about the violence. The women avoided telling anyone what was going on behind closed doors. They tried, with very few exceptions, to prevent neighbours, colleagues, friends and acquaintances from discovering the bruises and marks caused by the violent actions of their male partners.
The women’s protection of their self-images led, however, to what we have described as a form of negotiation as to what the men’s actions should be called, or how these actions should be understood. These “negotiations” included no one but the women themselves and could involve defining sexual violence and/or coercion, and actions the women reported to have perceived as rape, as experiences that are common in romantic relationships. In some cases, the women did not decline unwanted sex, so as not to feel abused. Others trivialised the violent acts, in some cases doing so to convince themselves they did not need help from anyone.
However, the interviews also demonstrated how difficult it was to live with these “re-written narratives”, and several of the women obviously had a need to find explanations for why they stayed in the marriages and cohabiting relationships as long as they did. Some of the women told of very difficult childhood experiences, including sexual assaults, physical violence and/or what they described as neglect. The women referred to their childhood experiences to explain themselves and to understand what they had experienced as adults and stated that they had been vulnerable for long periods of their lives, because of their personal histories.
A particularly central theme in the interviews was the need the women had to be perceived as “ordinary” women. Some feared that society would perceive them as “battered women”, a term they neither recognised as applying to themselves nor wanted to be associated with. It was rather evident that the women wanted to protect themselves from interpretations and understandings that are still part of a public discourse on women subjected to partner violence, namely that men’s violent acts leave women passive or helpless. Such an understanding often leads to a perception of such women as being in need of help, primarily to get out of the relationship. Despite the fact that the men’s violence left the women vulnerable, they also considered themselves strong, autonomous and action-oriented. In other words, they wanted others to regard them as multifaceted persons.
Research also shows that terminating a violent relationship often is a process that takes time. This is also evident in our interviews. The women also cherished and needed parts of the life they shared with the men. Consequently, it took time to realise that the situation would not improve, and that the violence was so destructive that the relationship had to end. To avoid more violence and danger, many of the women had to tread lightly, and spent more time than perhaps they wanted on breaking out of the relationship. A relevant description of the women’s course of action is that they dismantled the relationship emotionally long before physically leaving the men.
The dilemmas of openness
Through their actions, the women protected themselves against the violent acts, as well as against coming to terms with elements of their lives they in fact did not accept. This entailed many shameful feelings. The women talked about how the shame of being subjected to violence by the men was contrary to their ideals of a loving relationship. Not leaving the relationship led to increased shame. What would it have been like if the women had chosen to be open about the violence? Is openness exclusively a good thing? The answers to these questions are neither simple nor unambiguous. Even though being open could have saved the women from a lot of suffering and the heavy responsibility they carried, especially for their children, it was also, in their opinion, risky to speak to others – including formal helpers – about the violence. Partner violence is met with condemnation in society, and a theme in the interviews was the fear that this condemnation would «stick to» the women themselves, by them being perceived in a special way. The women were also afraid that the openness would lead to loss of control in a difficult everyday situation, and that life itself would be more dangerous. Hence, we can state that ideal conceptions about help (requiring openness) being an indisputable good, was regarded by some women as the exact opposite. Previous research shows that an important prerequisite to telling someone about the violence is that the relationship already has ended, or is close to ending, and we see some of the same phenomena in this research. As long as the relationship continues, the need for having a degree of control is great. Thus, it may be difficult for a woman to take advice that she neither perceives to be good advice nor is ready to follow, not least because she might appear as someone who does not know her own good.
In this report, we also present examples of how openness at a correct and important point in time can contribute to greater safety and predictability, and thus provide more control for the women. Alliances with, and support from, one’s employer, friends and family can be of great significance. Besides, being open could have a practical function: To let someone know about the violence, the women had to brave their own feelings of shame, which in turn felt like the men lost some of the power they had in the relationship.
The double life and in many cases the self-imposed loneliness the women described, was straining for many of them. During the course of the study, we have repeatedly thought that the women could have needed someone to confide in and from whom they could have received emotional and other types of support. At the same time, we observe that the issue of openness was filled with dilemmas for the women. Considering this, a timely question might be whether the longstanding, public attention regarding intimate partner violence has made it easier to be open about the violence, compared to earlier. The women interviewed have not confirmed such a development. Even today, it is still unusual to talk about being subject to intimate partner violence. As a society, we apparently have a long way to go in reducing feelings of shame caused by this type of violence. We may even be facing greater challenges today than before: While hoping that increased financial freedom for women as well as other forms of gender equality can lead to more openness, one can also wonder if in fact such changes can make it even harder for women to disclose that they are living in relationships where violence occurs.
We hope that this report will be a valued contribution to future discussions on how we as a society can contribute to reducing partner violence. Based on this study, we cannot claim that the experiences conveyed by the women are representative of women who have not sought help while in the relationship. However, by drawing attention to the women’s ways of handling their lives, we have gained knowledge that shows both the need to reflect on how we can contribute to less silence and less shame and the need to nuance the perceptions of women being subjected to partner violence. When we emphasise what the women do while living in a relationship with a man who commits violence, their actions become both visible and explicit. Without this knowledge, we may fail to recognise the women’s efforts to protect their children, themselves and other loved ones.