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Home / Articles / Escaping Violence / How Social Stigma Silences Domestic Violence Victims

How Social Stigma Silences Domestic Violence Victims

Why many domestic violence victims are reluctant to report

How Social Stigma Silences Domestic Violence Victims

Many domestic violence victims suffer in silence. Enduring a steady pattern of abuse and humiliation at home, they bravely attempt to present a solid exterior in public. Sometimes they pull it off; usually, they do not. We notice the signs. Whether physical or emotional, red flags are flying.  

In such cases, some people wonder why victims continue to deny the abuse, which is often visibly manifest to those around them. The answer has to do with the way domestic violence victims fear they will be treated. 

Reluctant to Report: Silenced by Stigma

Many victims of domestic abuse remain under the radar because they are ashamed that they have chosen to remain in a relationship with an abusive partner. Both culturally and socially, victims are sensitive to the judgment they fear from others, whether they are suffering physical abuse, emotional abuse or both. Reporting the perpetrator´s behavior would involve revealing embarrassing and humiliating details they would rather never discuss—especially if they have been enduring this treatment for years.

Victims with children fear being labeled a “bad parent” for staying with a violent partner. It is easier for some victims in this situation to rationalize they are living with a bad spouse, but a good parent. This argument breaks down if abuse is occurring in front of the children, which could create a child endangerment scenario—a separate crime.

Logically, we acknowledge that we cannot subjectively understand the reasons a victim stays with an abusive partner from our perspective on the outside looking in. Yet when it comes to assessing perceptions of domestic abuse, research indicates observers might nonetheless be ready to assign levels of blame depending not only on the actions of the abuser but also of the victim.  

Unfairly Judging Victims of Domestic Abuse

Yamawaki et al. (2012) conducted a study titled “Perceptions of Domestic Violence,” to examine attitudes toward domestic violence victims and perpetrators. They found that study participants attributed more blame to a victim who returned to the abuser, as compared with a victim about whom they had no such information.  

They also found that participants who held domestic violence myths attributed more blame to the victim and that men blamed the victim and minimized the incident more than women did.

The study also addressed some of the reasons victims remain in relationships with abusive partners. Regarding the reasons women do not leave, Yamawaki et al. cite prior research indicating a variety of reasons, including a cost-benefit analysis weighing relational benefits against the costs of separation. We could argue that male victims no doubt engage in the same type of relational balancing test.

Victims also stay in relationships with abusive partners for fear of how they will be treated by others who learn about the abuse. This fear stems from the way victims are often treated differently, both personally and professionally, after details of their victimization come to light.  

Light Duty for Victims: Protective Bias  

Some victims of domestic violence finally muster the courage to break the silence and report the abuse, only to find themselves treated differently as a result of their disclosure. Of course, family, friends, neighbors and colleagues are all relieved the victim finally came forward. Even the most well-meaning supporters, however, are prone to viewing and treating the victim differently.  

Treating the victim differently, in a misguided attempt to be helpful, can have a particularly negative impact in the workplace. After reporting the abuse, a victim may have to take time off of work for doctor´s visits, meetings with law enforcement and prosecutors, and testimony in court. Employers routinely profess support and understanding of the need to miss work under such circumstances.  In some cases, however, this support can translate into disparate treatment.

Some victims of domestic violence return to their job only to find their workload reduced, assignments altered to “light duty,” or face other job modifications as a result of reporting their victimization. Some employers honestly think they are helping victims by reducing their workload or changing their job assignments to give them time “to recover.”  

Good intentions aside, for many victims, returning to a job that has been compromised as a result of finding the courage to report the abuse is a form of re-victimization. Consequently, for some victims, even the potential of facing adverse job consequences is a reason not to come forward. This reluctance facilitates the continuing pattern of abuse. 

Encouragement and Empowerment

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Continuing education and community awareness of the dynamics of domestic abuse can reduce the perceptions of the stigma that cause many victims to suffer in silence. Encouraging reporting through support and empowerment, coupled with assurances of job stability, will help victims break the cycle of abuse and embark on the road to recovery. 

Editor’s Note: Wendy L. Patrick, Ph.D., is a career trial attorney, author of Red Flags: Frenemies, Underminers, and Ruthless People, and co-author of Reading People. This article originally appeared on Psychology Today. It is reprinted with permission.