Dangerous liaisons

What makes some women vulnerable to abusive relationships? To find out, April Few and Karen Rosen at the Department of Human Development at Virginia Tech., conducted 120 hours worth of interviews with 28 women (average age 22 years; 21 Caucasians and 7 African-Americans) who had been in an abusive relationship lasting from three months to nine years. According to Few and Rosen, violence occurs within 30 per cent of dating relationships, 50 per cent of which remain intact, thus leading to chronic abuse.

Analysis of the interviews pointed to two dimensions of vulnerability – ‘relational vulnerability’ and ‘situational vulnerability’, offset by protective factors like high self-esteem. Relational vulnerability refers to things like whether a woman was exposed to family violence in her childhood, and whether she has developed a ‘caretaker identity’ that stems from growing up too fast – what the authors call being ‘adultified in childhood’ – causing her to feel a responsibility to rescue and protect her violent partner. Situational vulnerability refers to a woman’s current life circumstances, like being lonely after moving away from family; or feeling the need to be in a serious relationship, or to to lose her virginity after reaching a certain age.

There were also cultural vulnerability factors unique to the African-American participants. They cited the scarcity of eligible Black men, and their concern for protecting the wider perception of Black dating relationships in the community. One woman said “the public often sees Black relationships as dysfunctional; I didn’t want to be a statistic”.

The study authors said their findings have clinical implications: “…the Vulnerability Conceptual Model may be useful in helping survivors engage in self-reflexive exercises to determine their own relational and situational vulnerabilities”. They also recommended “narrative therapy” that “provides options for the telling and retelling of preferred stories of people’s lives (their solutions) while deconstructing problems through the techniques of externalisation (separating the person from the problem)”.

This research is important, Few and Rosen said, because “Identifying women’s vulnerabilities can enlighten those who might want to help women become, as one participant put it, ‘abuse proof'”.

Few, A.L. & Rosen, K.H. (2005). Victims of chronic dating violence: how women’s vulnerabilities link to their decisions to stay. Family Relations, 54, 265-279.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.