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April 13, 2009


Maybe people ask, "why do they stay" because you work with the victims but if you were directly dealing with the abusers then you'd get the question of, "why do they hit their partners". Why would I ask someone who deals with the victims why the abuser does what he does? Wouldn't I want to deal with someone on the other side of that issue?
I'm also curious as to what you do if someone you know is getting abused and they won't leave even if you offer to help them anyway you can. Can you blame someone for not making a difficult decision when you offer to ease the burden? Just curious

ray: A lot of the difficulties are psychological, not logistical. Walking out on someone you're married to, or in a serious relationship with, is difficult, and doubly so if you have kids. As I said in my last post, it also relies on a capacity that the experience of abuse undermines: your ability to trust in your own judgment. And when the abuser is plainly in some kind of serious psychological distress, it can feel very, very selfish.

If I had it in my power to give people an injection that would cause them to trust their own judgment, to distinguish accurately between selfishness and self--preservation, etc., then I would think that I had it in my power to "make it easy". As it is, I don't.

Maybe people ask, "why do they stay" because you work with the victims but if you were directly dealing with the abusers then you'd get the question of, "why do they hit their partners".

I've got the impression that the people who ask "why do they stay" are not people who work directly with the victims. Certainly I don't believe Hirschman works with victims of abuse, or was writing from any direct experience.

I'm also curious as to what you do if someone you know is getting abused and they won't leave even if you offer to help them anyway you can. Can you blame someone for not making a difficult decision when you offer to ease the burden? Just curious

If you are the kind of person who would blame the victim of abuse for not immediately jumping at your offer to help, then I for one can't blame the victim of abuse for not accepting your offer: it's probably perfectly clear that it's not exactly being offered in the pure spirit of helpfulness, but out of a grudging "See, I'll offer, and when she says no, from then on I can blame her for not leaving". Help grudgingly offered, followed by blame, is seldom useful.

Ray, I'll take that on in a slightly more direct way: You can't ease the ethical burden that I feel, you can only address the pragmatic barriers to leaving.

For some women who are battered, the pragmatic questions about where the kids will go and how they'll be fed and sheltered are the main dish.

But if what makes leaving difficult is knowing that I'm abandoning someone I care about in a time of crisis, that's not a burden anyone can carry with or for me.

Judging from Hirshman's piece, it's not that Steiner doesn't answer the "why did she stay" question; it's just that Hirshman doesn't like Steiner's answer and, having no direct knowledge of Steiner or her situation, prefers Hirshman's answer. Which may be what Marcotte is getting at: the problem isn't that people keep asking the question, it's that they don't listen to the answers they get from actual abuse victims.

Help grudgingly offered, followed by blame, is seldom useful.

Blame, in and of itself, is seldom useful.

Helping an abused friend who might not be able to leave, for any of the many reasons presented in this post and the previous one, may be a matter of finding ways to get the friend out of the house, and spending time with the friend.

Although it may seem ideal from the outside (and may truly be ideal but impossible) for the friend to leave, what the friend might really need (even though second best) are ways to make life bearable.

Is there a goal to this topic? Because it always seems to be a circular firing squad.

Are we raising consciousness? Because if so it fails badly because of the aforementioned circular firing squad.

Are we informing policy? Because it seems to me there is a wealth of evidence victims of crime need and are entitled to some form of support services.

I'll read the text again for clues.

That would have been fine had she taken the trouble to make sure that she either described them accurately or limited her observations to the specific case of the book that prompted her reflections. But I don't think she did either.
Ah, so indeed creating the circular firing squad is the purpose.

Not discussed is can I lecture them as I'm calling 911 or getting out my tourniqet. I'll assume if I substitute "lecture" with "challenging their assumptions and educating them on alternative approaches and support services" we'd all agree that is acceptable in the real world where results matter.

I'm also curious as to what you do if someone you know is getting abused and they won't leave even if you offer to help them anyway you can. Can you blame someone for not making a difficult decision when you offer to ease the burden?

If you blame someone in that situation you're implying that you absolutely know you would act differently in the same situation. And that confidence, that you would definitely do the right thing in their shoes, is normally misplaced.

As an analogy, on the occasions when I have been depressed, it has not been at all useful for me to have helpful people tell me what I ought to do to improve my mood, even if their suggestions were objectively sensible. It was not that I did not know what I should do, but that I was unable to do it, because that was how it was. I could not do what they wanted me to do, because I could not, bcause I could not, because I could not, etc.

I'm not suggesting that abused people necessarily become mentally ill, but I think the same inability to change a situation can develop, even when you know you would be better off if you could do so. What causes that: well the kind of things that Hilzoy was talking about in her first post.

"And I think that if you understand why it is so hard to leave, staying looks less like a stupid choice for which we should blame people, and more like an understandable failure to do something very difficult, which should make us thank our lucky stars if we have never had to go through it."

Here's the thing: a great many people don't want to think of someone else's troubles as something they're lucky to not have to go through, or to fear having to go through.

Because to think that is to consider that you're in danger, that you may be in danger, that your fate is not under your control.

And that's a very scary thought, with good reason.

So many people find it infinitely preferable to find reasons to blame other people for their own problems. "They're stupid, and I'm not," is a very comforting thought for many folks, because if you're not in that category, "stupid," then, hey, you don't have much to worry about.

You'd never be caught in that ridiculous trap that other person is! You're smart, and they're stupid, so you're safe!

Admitting that the other person isn't at fault is to admit that you, too, might be in danger, might be vulnerable, to some similar terrible problem/danger, and that's a thought that a lot of people are going to resist with all their might.

People break under sustained abuse. It's a form of torture. Asking a torture victim why they went along with their torturer, doesn't make a lot of sense, now does it?

Hominids. Krawk!

Actually, Observer, I do not find your option acceptable. Perhaps, once the patient is stabilized and no longer needs urgent care, the lecturing, challenging and educating can take place, but doing it simultaneously with applying the tourniquet has no potential upside and possibly severe downsides.

I avoided the other thread and will make just a couple observatyions based upon my years as a relationship counselor.

Number one is that abuse goes both ways, but it is almost impossible to assess what the ratio is, and making that into an arguement one way or the other is pointless.

Nymber two is that there are probably as many, if not more, answers to the question "why does the abuser do what he/she does?" as there are to "Why does the abused stay."

There are many of both genders that do leave at the first sign of abuse. It is just as imperative, I think, to get an understanding as to why they are able to leave as it may help understand those who stay.

Thirdly, many people are hesitant to get into the understanding realm. There sometimes is the sense that to understand is to condone or justify. As hilzoy pointed out at the end, that isn't really so. And to go OT for just a second, that was what was wrong with those who criticized those who said we need to understand the terrorists and why they do what they do.

Finally, to address a topic that was way overdone on the other thread, yes there are gender differences, and yes, it probably does play a role in abusive relationships, but to just say that and let it go is overgeneralizing to the nth degree.

I can't speak for anyone else, but I can say that the reason I never ask why people abuse their partners is that I've generally unthinkingly assumed that abusers are simply bad people, that the question isn't worth asking, because it can't be answered in a productive way. That's probably not actually true (not the part about them being bad people, but the part about them simply being bad people), and it probably bears more thinking about. Which actually hadn't occurred to me until I read this post, so thanks.

apparently, asking the question is its own reward

Precisely. It's called defensive attribution. As Gary notes, if we can find something dumb in another person's actions, we can reassure ourselves that we are safe. ("She did stupid thing X which led to a bad outcome. I would never do stupid thing X. Therefore the bad outcome will never happen to me.")

An even better reframing is "What do batterers do that keeps their victims from leaving?"

This post and a lot of the comments are unfortunately assuming there must be a clear dichotomy between totally blameworthy acts vs. totally non-blameworthy acts. In fact, life is often a matter of grey areas. Cigarette smokers should be blamed in that they are doing something they shouldn't do, but at the same time you can understand that it's very difficult for them to quit. This isn't either/or. People who harm themselves or let themselves be harmed shouldn't do so. In other words, the correct advice to them is: "You should stop that." I think everyone reading this would agree that the correct advice to women in abusive relationships (aside from maybe the exotic situations hilzoy points out) is: "You SHOULD leave." If someone SHOULD do something, that implies they're open to some amount of blame if they don't. At the same time, as with cigarette smokers, they deserve sympathy and it's important to understand the difficulty of their situation.

Cigarette smokers are just one example, but there are countless examples of people behaving self-destructively; suicide is another obvious example. These people SHOULD NOT do what they do. That implies they have responsibility. To deny that someone has autonomy or responsibility is to view them as a bit less than fully human. You can still feel sympathy for them and recognize that they're genuinely struggling to do the right thing. I wish life didn't have these painful grey areas, but it does.

I'm surprised at how many people are saying this discussion simply shouldn't be had. If domestic violence itself is an important issue, then this is an important issue. As Hirschman notes, you can't stop people from asking obvious questions.

It is a complicated topic, made much worse by the fact that at least some of the people who ask "why do they stay" aren't trying to be helpful.

But on some level it is a really good question. What is it about an abusive relationship that breaks down the self-defensive reflexes of the battered person? How does that happen? What can we do to help that not happen/reverse it when it happens?

Questions like that are useful.

"What do batterers do that keeps their victims from leaving?"

Love them?

For the record, the question 'why do they stay?' is one that people who work with battered women are asked endlessly, while 'why do people beat their partners up?' is pretty rare. That fact accounts for some of our impatience with it.

Here's an article from CNN/Oprah.com asking that "rare" question: Men tell Oprah why they beat the women they love.

I think ray is right: people who work with abused women are asked the former question, not the latter, because they're more likely to have the experience needed to answer the former than the experience needed to answer the latter.

Everybody gets asked annoying questions, especially people with special expertise. (As a professional philosopher, Hilzoy, you should be particularly aware of that.) One should try to be patient with these questions, when asked sincerely, just as you did in your previous post on the topic. (I'm always being asked "How tall are you?" and "Do/did you play basketball?" As annoying as these questions are, I try not to snap at the people who ask them.)

"What is it about an abusive relationship that breaks down the self-defensive reflexes of the battered person? How does that happen? What can we do to help that not happen/reverse it when it happens?"

You're asking a version of "What effects does torture have?" So a lot is known.

I want to keep complaining about this quote of Hirschman's:

"The current love affair with understanding stops feminists from calling victims on taking responsibility for their own well-being."

Without understanding, how are we supposed to answer the "terribly important" question? I know hilzoy already pointed out the non-interest Hirschman has in answering it, and I'm only here to "call" Hirschman on taking responsibility for her own rhetorical use of a question with no purpose other than to beat people who are already down.

Unless there is some other purpose, in which case, I'm all ears. Because I have a love affair with understanding.

Could there be something akin to Stockholm syndrome at work in these relationships?

A few points.

First of all, it's neither clear nor obvious to me that asking "why do the abused stay with their abusers" is a derogatory or sexist question, even when directed specifically at an individual rather than as a general question. It's a valid question, and understanding the answers (there are many) helps us help people avoid and escape abusive relationships.

Consider: when one asks this, in tones of disbelief or puzzlement, the implication is that one has a higher opinion of the abused than to think they would engage in self-destructive behavior--the self-destructive part here being the choice to stay with the abuser, rather than cut losses and leave. We think that smart, confident people make smart, confident choices, and when they turn out to be just as human as the rest of us, it shakes our assumptions.

This question is borne, I suspect, out of ignorance of the state of mind that occurs in the abused, not contempt for them. To me, the sexist, contemptuous thing to do would be to shrug off the choice to stay with an abuser as expected or typical.

Second, this:

I think ray is right: people who work with abused women are asked the former question, not the latter, because they're more likely to have the experience needed to answer the former than the experience needed to answer the latter.

Is truth. We engage the abused in dialogue and counseling, families and friends and communities come together in sympathy and compassion. The abused are rightly considered to be the victims, part of the community rather than apart from it, and so when we ask them questions about motivation, /of course/ the only motivation they can speak to from firsthand experience is their own.

Abusers, on the other hand, are shunned, at least relative to the abused. They are prosecuted. We don't ask them what their motivations were because their answers are likely to be self-serving, on the defensive--if they even acknowledge their actions as abuse at all.


Could there be something akin to Stockholm syndrome at work in these relationships?

Yes. Sometimes. But that's not the whole story, either. These things are rarely black and white.

Admittedly this topic is a little touchy for me, as I have both been in an abusive relationship on the receiving end of the abuse (emotional and physical), as well as railroaded through the criminal justice system on the strength of a spouse's ability to lie convincingly.

As far as I'm concerned, anything that helps bring light and understanding to this subject is helpful, and questions shouldn't be off-limits. You can't make a chronic abuser stop abusing; you can't force others to change their nature. What remains is giving the abused the knowledge and tools to make healthy decisions, because if they are not willing to choose to remove themselves from an unsafe situation, there's really nothing anyone else can do that isn't strictly reactive.

The risk of putting it this way is that ideologues of various stripes will seize on this as blaming the victim for their predicament. I find this argument tiresome. It's not blaming the victim--it's empowering them to understand that they are the only ones who can make the choice that will save them, and giving them the tools and information to make that choice.

Catsy, I think we all want to bring light and understanding to the subject, and it's only Hirschman who wants to use the question as a rhetorical riding crop. Actually going into that question - as hilzoy did in the previous post - betrays a "love affair with understanding" for which Hirschman has contempt.

The good-faith question of why they stay - totally not off-limits. And I'm happy to see you and others want to know the answer to why the other "they" abuses. All honest inquiry can only help. Remember when anyone who asked "why do they hate us?" about the terrorists, after 9/11, was branded an appeaser? Yeah. That sucked.

Seb: "Questions like that are useful."

I agree, though among people who work with battered women there's an analog of a phenomenon familiar on blogs: the newbie who asks a question that the regulars have rehashed a zillion times, and who is therefore jumped on.

What bothered me about Hirshman, though, was that she didn't seem interested in answering those questions. That would have been useful. Just asking them, less so.

I’m in kind of a weird spot on this, because I’ve never had first-hand experience dealing with this in a hetro relationship. No man I have ever known would do this to a woman (and if he would I would not “know” him), and while I have known women who subjected their husband to psychological abuse, I’m not sure it rises to the level of what we are discussing here.

I have had first-hand experience with it – but it was two women. I offered that helping hand, let them stay with us, and brought them into my home… Every Friday night like clockwork one got drunk and beat the hell out of the other one. There was police and ambulances and all kinds of fun crap. No amount of talking did anything.

And this is in no way to insinuate anything about gays – it is just my only first-hand experience with this crap. And crap is the best I can come up with…

God, OCS, that sounds awful. Good for you for trying.

Not having read her piece, I think that Hirschman is relying on us to automatically think that 'questions are good, not questioning is bad' without reference to whether the questions asked are framed in such a way or intended to produce answers.

When people are talking about intellectual matters, particularly philosophy, they sometimes forget that the purpose of inquiry is to find answers. When I was studying as an undergrad that sort of complacent 'it's act of questioning that matters, not the answer' was one of the first things that the faculty had to beat out of us Freshman. But if that sort of attitude hasn't been critically examined and hopefully discarded it's easy to forget that asking a question invites an answer, and that people that go around asking questions all day but never even attempting to answer them probably aren't the best intellectual guides.

And so perhaps it's easy to ignore that asking questions about other's motivations but not even attempting to answer them is not an attempt to understand, but a judgment, or at least an accusation. After all, questions are good in and of themselves, right?

Case in point, really:


Coming late to the thread, the thing that most impresses me is that the contributors are all talking about both the victim and the abuser as people.

I grew up in an abusive home, I have worked helping abused women, and I have been in a relationship with elements of abuse on both sides. One of the things that most frustrates me when I read or talk about these issues is that so much of the DV response & treatment community casts the abusive partner merely as a thing to be outmanuevered. A means only, not an end in himself.

Brief digression: for obvious reasons, this bias tends to come across as (and perhaps sometimes becomes) anti-male bias. This may explain some of the strong emotions in the previous thread, when both men and women seemed to me to respond to more than anybody here actually said.

Anyway, the reason for this very pervasive bias is clear enough - the goal of the DV system is to help victims, not to coddle perps. Most of the victims desparately need to detach. The thing they need to STOP thinking is, "why is he doing this?" Any hint that they are responsible is liable to confirm their worst fears about themselves and send them right back home to more beatings. Treating the abuser simply as the Other is a good, sound emergent care approach for the victim.

Unfortunately, it's a lousy paradigm for any other goal. Such as prevention, early intervention, or long-term behavior change(for either side). The Jekyll/Hyde, Romeo/Stalker stereotype is not a lot more accurate in any individual case than Madonna/Whore, and it doesn't tell anything about the interior experience, or how to change it.

Also, and here is where I think Hirschman comes close to a worthwhile point, dehumanizing the abuser, or treating the behavior as independent from the relationship also makes it too easy to deny that the victim can have any responsibility for the pattern.

Like Hilzoy, and unlike Hirschman, I am not at all interested in 'calling' the victim even in the abstract, on being too passive or having poor judgment in staying too long. Most people could have made better choices and avoided grief in their lives. I, ferinstance, should not be hanging out on a blog right now, and I'll probably pay for that mistake tomorrow. It is usually far more important to figure out what stands in the way than to assign that blame.

But...like other commentors here, I have seen and/or heard from the victim about cases where the victim reciprocates abuse, or gets off in some strange way on provoking it. There seems to be a lot of resistance to recognizing the (to me) obvious fact that this happens sometimes. Similarly, I am not nearly as sure as many of my colleagues that all of those men were lying when they said they had never done this before or that it had not happened in their other relationships.

As hilzoy says, there is material out there about the abuser's experience of the world. But a lot of it is very shallow and dismissive analysis, DV "treatment" or "training" which seems far more concerned with racking up confessions (there is doubtless therapeutic value in getting past denial, but it shouldn't be the metric of success), and so forth. If we seriously want to reduce the number of repeat offenders (and repeat victims), we need to do better than that.

One of the reasons why that Hirshman excerpt seems pretty reasonable to me is that it doesn't explicitly bring up blame. It leaves the "Why?" question ambiguous between a request for explanation and a request for justification. (And then it's a further question whether this is the kind of issue where you're blameworthy for acting in an unjustified way.)

Until I read your previous post, I didn't have a good answer to the simple explanatory question. So it seemed reasonable to me to keep asking the question even when people told me not to. What I wanted was an answer, and now that I've got it, I don't need to ask the question any more.

On understanding: John Major once said of criminals that we should "condemn a little more and understand a little less". He may have been referring to understanding in the sense of sympathising rather than knowing, though the distinction is a little subtle for public discourse in the UK, where asking how something really works can be an unwelcome distraction from proper enthusiasm for the approved point of view. This slogan did lasting damage to my view of him as an essentially decent man at the mercy of his party.

Readers of this blog may be interested in such response as I could cram into 500 words at Slate. http://www.slate.com/blogs/blogs/xxfactor/archive/2009/04/14/sheltering-women-linda-hirshman-responds-to-hilzoy.aspx

I will probably return to the subject soon, as the flood of information has stimulated all kinds of additional thoughts. But for those of you, like Hilzoy, concerned with a bad faith motivation for the inquiry, I will add that my interest is political. A minimal care for one's own physical safety from other humans is the foundation of western, representative government and the whole social contract tradition. So these victims' indifference/inability/difficulty in performing this minimal, foundational task raises fascinating and important political questions about rationality, self-governance, political participation, and citizenship. It is particularly of interest to me because of my history of thinking and writing about women as citizens over the last thirty years. It may sound cold-blooded, next to the self-revelation and psychologizing that dominate the discussion when women are the subject, but I have spent my life assuming that they are just as worthy of citizenship as the men that Hobbes and Locke had in mind. Which is the furthest thing from naturalizing women's subordination I can think of.

It may sound cold-blooded, next to the self-revelation and psychologizing that dominate the discussion when women are the subject, but I have spent my life assuming that they are just as worthy of citizenship as the men that Hobbes and Locke had in mind.

But I thought these types of abusive relationships occurred in both gender directions, and that the psychological effects and tendency to "stay" is prevalent regardless of the gender of the abused.

Thus, both genders are just as worthy, and abuse has certain effects on the human psyche that, if overlooked, can lead to a lack of understanding of the applicable victim's plight.

Abusers, on the other hand, are shunned, at least relative to the abused.

When discovered, and outed, possibly. I went to high school with a fellow that was (at least among his fellow students) widely known to have abused his girlfriend on numerous occasions. One of which I was eyewitness to. He wound up being a judge in family court.

No, I'm not kidding.

"He wound up being a judge in family court."


Fortunately, Sebastian, he is no longer a judge of any kind, and is now prohibited from holding any judicial office in his current state of residence.

Linda -

What makes a political approach more appropriate than the "self-revelation and psychologizing that dominate the discussion"?

You make the assumption (in the original article) that "calling victims on taking responsibility" is a better approach than understanding. Do you have evidence that "calling" victims on their responsibilities will actually help to solve the problem?

Neither of your articles look at this question. Also, your response to hilzoy doesn't address the question of your apparent lack of curiosity about the actual "why do they stay?" question. Do you believe that the answer to this question is itself political? If so, how?


"A minimal care for one's own physical safety from other humans is the foundation of western, representative government and the whole social contract tradition."

Besides being a questionable premise, this ignores the fact that women often stay (at least partially) out of concern for their own and their children's safety. It points out, too, how a political perspective can distort our understanding.

Also, you misrepresent hilzoy's positions. For example you impute that she "suggests that being attacked by a lover is so shocking it deprives you of your capacity for judgment". This is incorrect. You say that hilzoy "tries to explain why I should not be asking (and implying) that women should leave their abusers". This is incorrect, too. Since she very clearly rejects both of the positions you've attributed to her, you're either not reading well or deliberately misrepresenting her positions. Neither reflects well on you or your argument.

Also, I think it was disrespectful to take the liberties you did with hilzoy's identity. As it wasn't important to the argument at hand, it seemed childish and petulant. And she wouldn't have done the same to you.

I have only been friends with physically abused women, but was sexually abused for over 5 years of my life. In this way there are certain things that the readers seem COMPLETELY oblivious of in terms of the relationship between an abuser and the abused.
Primarily, there is mental abuse is almost always playing a major role. AN ABUSER IS ALWAYS A MASTER MANIPULATOR! He or she knows exactly how to 'push the buttons'/'play' the abused. These enable the dynamics of the relationship to play out.
It is not until the abused somehow finds a way to get out of the 'spell' of the abuser that the abuse can end. I have so often seen women leave the abuser but years later still remain under his spell...
So if you want to know why women who ought to be able to leave 'can't', please try to understand that it may not yet be psychologically possible.
It's a somewhat similar phenomenon to a child finally learning to stand up to their parent - everyone should go through that stage but not everyone does. This is due to the fact that the parent inevitable knows 'just what to say' to make the child feel guilty/sorry and acquiesce to the parent.

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