Learned Helplessness

Abusers disempower their victims in any way they possibly can in order to gain the upper hand. This can result in what is known as Learned Helplessness, a theory Martin Seligman introduced based on research he conducted at Cornell University in 1967.

From Wikipedia:
“Learned Helplessness is a psychological condition in which a human being or animal has learned to believe that it is helpless in a particular situation. It has come to believe that it has no control over its situation and that whatever it does is futile. As a result, the human being or animal will stay passive in the face of an unpleasant, harmful, or damaging situation, even when it does actually have the power to change its circumstances. Learned helplessness theory is the view that depression results from a perceived lack of control over the events in one’s life, which may result from prior exposure to (actually or apparently) uncontrollable negative events.”

An abuser isn’t abusive 24/7. They usually demonstrate positive character traits most of the time. That’s what makes the abuse so confusing when it happens, and what makes leaving so much more difficult. In addition to this is the fact that the victims have been conditioned to believe that they are helpless to change their circumstances. An abuser relies on his or her target’s perception that they cannot affect change and reinforces their perception that they have no power in order to maintain control.

When you look at learned helplessness in domestic violence, you see victims who’ve been told by fathers, mothers, teachers, boyfriends, girlfriends, etc. that they can’t do anything right, that others’ problems are their fault, that they are not worth very much, etc. they start to believe it, and can look very passive in abusive relationships. On the other hand, a little girl is told by her parents, the church, and by relatives that her virginity is the only thing she really has of any worth, it’s her crowning glory and the most valuable thing she has that she can trade in for her future husband’s love, respect and devotion. But then an uncle sexually abuses her before she even hits puberty and she dies a little on the inside because she has lost that one thing that would have distinguished her from those other girls and made her the priced possession, and to top that, she is told by her abuser that she is to blame for the abuse, no one would believe her anyway, she is a bad girl and a temptress, all of these, in turn, influences her choice to stay silent and endure the abuse for however long it goes on for. “What the world does to you, if the world does it to you long enough and effectively enough, you begin to do to yourself.”

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