Can helplessness be unlearned?

published Aug 4, 2013, MST
When we see that actress who sought a temporary protection order to keep her allegedly abusive actor-husband away from their home, or that comedienne who finally left her husband of one month because of their very physical fights, his insane materialism and unapologetic infidelity, or that news reporter who would not take her boyfriend’s jealousy and abuse anymore, what we see are success stories.  These are women who have recognized that nobody deserves to be treated shabbily or violently, and have said “I will not take any more of this!”
Show business has a way of reminding us that if bad things can happen to the most prominent of them, they can happen to the most ordinary of us.
Unfortunately, not every woman who suffers physical or verbal abuse is able to get out of that toxic relationship.  For the few who dare speak out and break free, many more suffer in silence.
Sometimes it is because of the image they protect. Many look up to them and want to be like them, believing their life is perfect. They do not want to dare challenge that perception and expose their saddest secrets.
Sometimes it is economic dependence. These women do not have their means to get by and leaving their abuser, they believe, would make them destitute. Or, at least, they could lose the comfortable life they are leading.
It could also be a belief that having a broken family would cause untold stigma and damage to their children.
It could be religion.  What has been put together by God cannot be undone, and leaving a union blessed in church will be a sin.
Finally, there are just those who are not aware that they have the option of saying “enough!”
Leonor Walker is a renowned American psychologist who is credited with coining the term “battered woman” through decades of research. In the third edition of her book, “The Battered Woman Syndrome” she says that the syndrome is a kind of post-traumatic stress disorder, which develops after a person is exposed to a traumatic situation, and not a mental disorder.
According to Walker, there are three distinct phases in a cycle of an abusive relationship.  First is the building of tension, then the acute battering incident, and the loving contrition. Little things build up, the threat gets imminent, there is a violent episode, and then everything calms down and the abuser apologizes and promises he will never do it again. (In the 2000 case of People vs. Genosa, where the Supreme Court first applied the Battered Woman Syndrome as a mitigating circumstance, the court said a woman had to go through two cycles in order to establish that she in fact has the syndrome.)
Walker also says that the battered woman syndrome is a manifestation of learned helplessness, which is a sense that a woman cannot do anything to stop the abuse from happening and that she will not leave her abuser.
Learned helplessness was first observed in animals by psychologist Martin Seligman. It says that those repeatedly exposed to aversive stimulus will eventually stop trying to resist and overlook opportunities for relief or change. In people, a woman repeatedly abused by her husband or intimate partner will eventually believe that she has no power to stop her partner’s behavior, and she also has no ability to change things.   And so she does not even try.
A woman who is able to snap out of this helplessness realizes that she can do something, and eventually actually does something. She is lucky. She crosses over from the “enlightenment” stage — recognizing that nobody deserves to be beaten – to the “responsibility” stage.  This is when she accepts that the partner will not stop his violent behavior, decides she will no longer submit herself to it, and starts a new life on her own.
Crossing over however is dependent on many factors – support system offered by family and friends, level of education, ages of children, exposure to media, and individual traits, among others. And since the abuse may include deprivation of access to other people, not everybody is able to snap out of the learned helplessness.
It could be easy to judge women who do not fight back, or do not leave, or who do leave only to return.  We could dismiss her as stupid, or a coward.  But we do not know exactly what takes place in her mind and what she has gone through.
We would do better being a steady, reliable friend or family member, offering a support system in the hope that she would one day come around, figure things out on her own, and take back her life.