A look at intimate partner violence.

Jason Brien.

     If you have read my previous article exploring how repeated exposure to trauma can lead to learned helplessness you will remember the famous experiment involving Seligman’s dogs. For those who have not read my previous article let me give you a quick recap. Seligman and Maier (1967) realised that if the dogs they were studying were not presented with a means by which to stop or escape an electric shock (i.e., a way to escape their cage or a button/lever to push to stop the electric current) the first time that they were shocked, then most of the dogs would lay down cowering and whimpering during subsequent shock events even if a clear and obvious escape route was provided. Seligman therefore interpreted the dog’s unwillingness to escape as a sign that the uncontrollable stress had rendered them ‘helpless’ and ‘depressed’ which consequently led to their flight/escape responses/motivations deactivating. Learned helplessness (LH) was therefore introduced into the intimate partner violence (IPV) domain in order to help explain two matters of interest;

1. Why individuals exposed to IPV remain in abusive and violent relationships despite experiencing horrendous violence and abuse (Dutton & Painter, 1993).

2. Why depression often arises in individuals exposed to IPV (Clements & Sawhney, 2000)

     Whilst LH has achieved a modicum of success within the IPV domain, the theory suffers from a significant limitation which is often overlooked and dismissed specifically by IPV researchers. That is, Seligman reported that most of the dogs would not escape if given the opportunity. If most of the dogs did not escape then logically a proportion of the dogs did escape. To date however, LH theory does not provide an explanation for why a proportion of the dogs in Seligman’s experiments (or humans in subsequent LH studies) did not have their flight motivations deactivated as implied by the theory. Similarly, IPV researchers who support LH theory fail to provide an explanation for why a proportion of IPV victims do make active attempts to leave their abusive relationships. For example, in a study conducted in 2005 by the World Health Organisation (WHO), between 19%-51% of women who were studied made multiple successful attempts to escape their abusive relationship with 8%-21% of those women successfully escaping their abusive relationship between two and five times (Garcia-Moreno, Jansen, Ellsberg, Heise, & Watts, 2005). Other studies have obtained similar results (Griffing et al., 2005; Stroub & Barbour, 1984).  

     These findings contradict LH theory as the premises underlying LH would necessarily imply that all individuals exposed to IPV are incapable of a flight response due to the abuse, violence and depression that they are experiencing within the abusive relationship. Since LH theory cannot provide insight into why some individuals exposed to IPV make multiple escape attempts, it is necessary to view individuals exposed to IPV through the lens of different theoretical framework. Interestingly, defeat and entrapment (D&E) theory may provide just the theoretical framework needed. To the best of the current authors knowledge, D&E has not previously been studied in direct relation to individuals exposed to IPV. Scores on scales of defeat and entrapment have been successfully shown to be associated with scores on scales of depression in domains not related to IPV (Lester, 2012). These findings therefore provide the empirical basis by which to introduce D&E into the IPV literature for the first time.

     Carvalho et al., (2013) and Trachsel, Krieger, Gilbert and Holtforth (2010) suggest that D&E are better mediating variables in the etiology of depression than learned helplessness because, according to LH theory, helpless individuals/animals have lost their motivation to escape whereas in D&E theory, the motivation to escape remains active and aroused even if an escape route is blocked. Defeat is commonly characterised as a loss in social rank or a failure to attain some valued status (Taylor, Wood, Gooding & Tarrier, 2011). However, these losses of rank or status are of significant internal importance thus differentiating defeat from external attributes such as uncontrollability for example (Taylor, Wood, Gooding & Tarrier, 2011).  

     Alternatively, entrapment is characterised by a strong desire/motivation to escape an aversive situation which, if blocked for any reason, leads to the sensation of feeling ‘trapped’(Gilbert & Gilbert, 2003). Entrapment can be broken down into external entrapment and internal entrapment (Gilbert & Gilbert, 2003). For example, its logical to assume that an IPV victim may feel trapped by external events or circumstances since a lack of finances (a common consequence of leaving an abusive relationship) would ‘block’ their ability to move into private accommodation or to geographically separate themselves from the abuser (Rusbult & Martz, 1995; Stroub & Barbour, 1983). Likewise, it is logical to assume that having children with the abusive spouse may ‘block’ their ability to live without the constant presence of the abusive spouse/co-parent if custody agreements need to be arranged (Hardesty & Ganong, 2006). Similarly, an IPV victim may feel trapped by internal events/circumstances such as their cognitions and emotions (Wilner & Goldstein, 2011). For example, feelings and thoughts of shame and/or embarrassment related to loss of social rank, perceptions of having ‘failed’ as a husband/wife/partner or maternal blame (Terrence, Plumm & Little, 2008). In the D&E framework, these ‘blocks’ and feelings of being ‘trapped’ and defeated, leads to the onset of depression (Gilbert & Allen, 1998).

     Within D&E theory, depression is thought to be unconsciously manifested as a submissive behaviour which is displayed in order to minimise conflict and restore social rank imbalances (Griffiths, Wood, Maltby, Taylor & Tai, 2014). If we were to reinterpret Seligman’s findings, it is reasonable and plausible to conclude, given that dogs are pack animals who abide by a hierarchical social structure, that the laying down, whimpering and unwillingness to escape that was interpreted as a sign of helplessness, may have indeed been a submissive response displayed to the alpha male of the pack the dogs were currently a part of (i.e., the researchers were the alpha males since they ultimately provided the dogs with the necessities of life – safety, food, water and shelter). During conflict between competing dogs, attempting to escape can be perceived as an act of aggression and not an act of submission. Therefore, from a submissive perspective, it makes sense for a dog to remain still and not attempt to escape in order to reduce the conflict and minimise potential harm/injury/death. It is plausible therefore to speculate that the submissive dogs in Seligman’s studies were not helpless but instead were both defeated and trapped (since attempting to escape may be perceived as aggression and exacerbate the conflict).  

     The same can be said of humans. For example, returning to an abusive relationship after a successful escape would inevitably lead an IPV survivor to feel defeated and trapped thus leading to the submissive act of depression which, consequently, serves to reduce the ongoing conflict with the abusive spouse and display to the abusive spouse that they are no longer, at least on the surface, willing to try and escape again. D&E is therefore able to explain why some individuals who are exposed to IPV do not have their flight responses/motivations deactivated nor rendered ‘helpless’ and incapable of escaping. D&E can also account for the manifestation of depression in a similar fashion to the way LH did. As such, D&E, more so than LH, provides a holistic account of why individuals exposed to IPV may find it difficult to leave their abusive situations. Additionally, when we stop looking at individuals exposed to IPV as being ‘helpless’, we can remove the stigma of them being responsible for their situation and perhaps deserving of the abuse they receive and experience. This opens the door to examine what measures society can implement/construct which would allow individuals exposed to IPV to successfully escape their abusive relationships a lot sooner than current research suggests (after 2-5 attempts).


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