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Section 6
Learned Helplessness in Domestic Violence Survivors

Question 6 | Test | Table of Contents

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In the previous section, we discussed specific interventions to assist your battered client in unraveling her feelings of guilt.

Now let's take a look at how your battered client's learned helplessness creates failure expectancy. I have found, most probably like you, that the social-learning theory model of learned helplessness helps to explain the process of battered women victimization. Do you agree?

Maryann, a 37-year-old house wife stated, "My husband nearly beat me to death in my own living room." Here is a brief review of the framework of Maryann's thoughts. Think of ways in which the following three components of Maryann's learned helplessness applies to your Maryann.

3 Components of Learned Helplessness Attachment

♦ Component #1: Stimulus, Response, Outcome Connections
As you are aware, according to the principle of "reinforcement," battered women change or adapt the way they respond to the batterer. They adapt as each violent episode increases in intensity. Their adaptation is an attempt to try to change the outcome. Thus, Maryann would script a predetermined response in order to change the outcome of Matt's battering. Her predetermined response provided her with a sense of self-control. If Maryann feared that a situation would result in a certain outcome, she would change her response, thus thinking she would produce a different outcome. For example, Maryann believed that her husband, Matt, was especially violent when first getting home from work.

She stated, "In the beginning, I would be sitting on the couch watching TV when Matt first came home from work. He would yell and throw things at me, saying I was lazy and living off of his working himself to death in the factory. So I thought that if I was up on my feet and making dinner or cleaning the house when he came home that maybe he would actually smile and kiss me." Once Maryann made the stimulus, response, connection, she hoped her response would change the outcome. How is your Maryann making this connection?

♦ Component #2: Realization of Loss of Control
Over time, once Maryann's sense of self-control was shattered, she became devastated, despondent and had suicidal ideations. Eventually Maryann began to realize that no matter what she did or didn't do, sooner or later, Matt would get angry, explode, and strike out at her.

After making the stimulus response outcome connection just mentioned, Maryann experienced a realization of her loss of control. Maryann began to further distance herself from family and friends. She didn't want them to know how out of control her life was. She felt guilty for not being, as she put it, "the wife Matt wanted her to be." Maryann knew her family would encourage her to leave. She stated, "I just cut myself off. I didn't feel that I deserved their pity about how I have totally lost control of my life."

♦ Component #3: Learning to be Helpless Attachment
Learned Helplessness attachment leads to living a helpless life. Have you found, like I, that there are different levels of learned helplessness that women, in general, learn from their interactions as a traditional female? How do these learned helplessness role stereotypical behaviors enter into the thinking of a current battered client you are treating? I have found that once a battered woman believes she is helpless that belief becomes her reality. She does indeed become passive, submissive and helpless. Maryann stated, "All of the things I did around the house didn't matter to Matt. He would still slap or sock me in the arm whenever he felt like it. But, I figured I deserved it; I can't do anything right!"

After making the stimulus response outcome connection, and realizing her loss of control, Maryann reached the third component of learning to be helpless, and the Powerhouse Three of helplessness took over. What are the Powerhouse Three that occur once learned helplessness is firmly entrenched? They are Acquiring, Thinking, and Behaving, and will be discussed in the next section.
Reviewed 2023

Peer-Reviewed Journal Article References:
River, L. M., Borelli, J. L., Vazquez, L. C., & Smiley, P. A. (2018). Learning helplessness in the family: Maternal agency and the intergenerational transmission of depressive symptoms. Journal of Family Psychology, 32(8), 1109–1119.

Salcioglu, E., Urhan, S., Pirinccioglu, T., & Aydin, S. (2017). Anticipatory fear and helplessness predict PTSD and depression in domestic violence survivors. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 9(1), 117–125.

Slepian, M. L., Kirby, J. N., & Kalokerinos, E. K. (2020). Shame, guilt, and secrets on the mind. Emotion, 20(2), 323–328.

Smagur, K. E., Bogat, G. A., & Levendosky, A. A. (2018). Attachment insecurity mediates the effects of intimate partner violence and childhood maltreatment on depressive symptoms in adult women. Psychology of Violence, 8(4), 460–469.

What are three components of Learned Helplessness a battered woman may experience? To select and enter your answer go to Test.

Section 7
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