Advocates Against Family Violence

Learned Helplessness Among Abused Women

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Learned Helplessness Definition:  Once we believe that we have no control over what happens to us, it is difficult to believe we can ever again have that control. This concept is important in understanding why battered women don't attempt to free themselves from a battering relationship.  She becomes passive, compliant, and submissive.  She does not realize she has the right not to be abused. She begins to accept that this is the way things are as each previous attempt to end the relationship or to get out has always gotten her into even more trouble with him. She begins to believe that perhaps things really are all her fault.

Below is a list of things that happen along a person's life that contribute to this type of learned behavior. There is a larger list of how violence in the home affects children on this website (click here). The very short list found below is a small summary of a just few of those issues.


  • Witnessing or experiencing battering in the home gives the children a sense that if they go to someone else for help. They will only be hurt worse later at home when that person is no longer around.
  • Sexual abuse or molestation as a child or teenager teaches them that this is the norm of how a relationship is supposed to be; as that is all that they have ever seen and experienced.
  • Critical periods during which the child experienced non-contingent control  (Factors such as: early parent loss, alcoholism of a parent, frequent moves, or shameful stigmatizing situations). During key periods in the child's mental development where healthy parental guidance is needed the most; that input is not there and the child is forced to learn the unhealthy behaviors instead.
  • Stereotyped male/female-role socialization supporting rigid traditionally. This teaches children that there are Men's jobs and Women's jobs and that it is not okay for anything to follow outside those lines.
  • Health problems or chronic illness. It is a proven fact that stress and frustration can affect how your body reacts to certain things. Tummy aches, headaches, inability to eat properly and lack of needed sleep to help the body and brain develop appropriately.


  • A pattern of violence, with its three phases of tension building, the battering incident, and the loving (absence of tension) phase.  They all contribute to making the victim feel as if they need to walk on eggshells to avoid the next battering incident. They think that there may be a change if they simply avoid the type of things that caused the last incident.
  • Sexual abuse of the woman teaches them that the most personal and private gifts that they have to give another is easily taken from them just as any other free choices that they would normally be able to make such as living abuse free and happy.
  • Jealousy, over-possessiveness, intrusiveness of the batter, and isolation of the women all combine to strip her of any dignity and self-worth. Helping her to feel as if she can't do any better than the abuser.
  • Threats to hurt or kill the woman. Making sure that she stays in a state of perpetual terror so that she is forever frozen and unable to break away from the relationship.
  • Alcohol or drug abuse by the man or woman. If she is addicted then she will perceive that she needs to stay there to ensure she can get her next fix. If he is addicted than she may feel that he only does these things because of the substance he is addicted to and therefore not his fault.

Educate yourself on the warning signs of "abusive" behavior.
Contact AAFV at (509) 544-9400
Domestic Violence is a HUMAN problem not a gender problem.