Understanding family violence
2.42Visibility of family violence, most particularly intimate partner violence, and the legal protection of victims is relatively recent and still evolving.
“Battered woman syndrome”
2.43In the 1970s, a literature developed on the psychological, social and economic aspects of family violence. Key to this was Dr Lenore Walker’s work on “battered woman syndrome”, which applied the cycle of violence and learned helplessness theories to battered women.
2.44Unifying Dr Walker’s theory, which has been criticised on various grounds, including that it defines women by reference to victimisation, is the proposition that “women stay with abusive men because they are rendered helpless and dependent by violence”. Like other conceptions of “battering”, it is incident focused, emphasising the type and number of assaults (or other coercive acts).
2.45The language of “battering” is still in use and popularly understood, albeit battered woman syndrome (now sometimes called battered person syndrome) is problematic and has been discredited.
A focus on “coercion and control”Top
2.46A more recent understanding, explored in-depth by American researcher Evan Stark and by others, is that family violence – particularly by men against women – often involves “coercive control”. Coercive control includes non-physical harm, behaviours intended to isolate and frighten victims and cumulative, not just discrete, effects. Not all family violence can be explained this way, but coercive and controlling behaviours are “prototypical” in IPV cases and help explain why victims stay in abusive relationships. Further, while coercive control has been applied and discussed principally in connection with IPV, non-intimate family relationships may also involve behaviours of coercion and control.
2.47Stark has said that women with whom he has worked “[insist] that ‘violence isn’t the worst part’ of the abuse they experience”. We discuss below how family violence is more than physical assaults and isolates and entraps victims.