Possible Neurological and Psychological Reasons Why Women Stay in Domestically Violent Environments

Domestic violence is an “infection” slowly but steadily penetrating many homes in the world today. While this occurrence has been going on for decades now, it is rapidly increasing despite various recent anti-violence and gender equality movements. Global estimates published by WHO indicates that about 1 in 3 women worldwide has experienced either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence in their lifetime and one of the major causes is that these women who ought to speak up about their harsh experiences probably out of fear or intimidation choose to keep quiet.

Ongoing violence in a domestic environment can give rise to a large number of physical, mental, sexual, and reproductive health challenges and even fatal outcomes like homicide or suicide. It has been acclaimed that globally, as many as 38% of murders of women are committed by a male intimate partner.

There are certain risk factors or “open invitations” (in terms of attributes) to being domestically violated that is portrayed by most women who fall victim to unfortunate acts. Some of these factors include: low level of education which gives rise to low self-esteem and a woman without a good sense of worth easily falls prey, low level of women’s access to paid employment, early exposure to a domestically violent environment and a few others factors.

An interesting observation to note is that a lot of these women who are victims of domestic violence fail to see the need to be liberated from this terror. While these social factors are accurate determinants for domestic violence against women, one cannot ignore the fact that there might be some neurological explanations for which a lot of these women would rather stay than walk away.

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It all starts in the brain wherein lies the neural networks and circuitry formed through memories and experiences that govern our daily activities. Each human being has a unique neural circuit. Sufficient research also makes us understand that male and female brains differ in terms of size, chemicals, method of activation, etc. although having the same constituents.

A woman’s brain has been scientifically proven to be larger than that of a man, experiencing emotions and encoding memories in a completely different way than a man would that is under normal circumstances. All things being equal, women are more in tune with sensitive emotions like empathy, forgiveness, sympathy, compassion to mention a few. This is possibly the reason why women are perceived as “the weaker vessel” by the society and also why some studies suggest that they are twice as likely as men to experience clinical depression in their lifetimes. In a neuroscientific context, women who live in a domestically violent environment more often than not develop a strange resistance to freedom even when it is offered to them on a platter of gold or initially accept help to come out of such situations but eventually go back because most of these victims develop a neuropathological syndrome known as a trauma bond.

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A trauma bond is arguably the most dangerous type of bond that can be formed. In the simplest term, a trauma bond can be defined as a bond between an oppressor and the oppressed. It has also been observed as a bond that develops between a kidnaper and the victim over time when doesn’t come within a reasonable period. Women who are victims of this kind of bond in an abusive relationship mostly aren’t consciously aware that something is wrong. They just find themselves unable to break free, forgiving the abusive partner each time they apologize for their wrongdoings and unable to have an identity outside the intimate partner’s.

A trauma bond doesn’t happen all of a sudden, it is a step by step process, which the victim is completely oblivious to. It starts by slowly poisoning the victim’s self-esteem, breaking all her defenses until it hits rock bottom and they have little or no sense of self-worth. This could happen through continuous verbal and physical abuse, mental or public humiliation by the intimate partner in a bid to exercise dominance, and consistent efforts to restitute each time a fight leads to battering.  Once the victim’s defenses and self-esteem are down, it would be very easy for a trauma bond to start developing in that kind of environment which eventually becomes habitual, an endless cycle of seductive terrorism, a “sweet-sour” syndrome. During this experience, the body is going through turmoil, with high levels of the stress hormone cortisol, paired with dopamine when given affection as a reward.

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In a scientific sense, the bonds we develop originate from our “innocent” dependence on someone else for survival, usually our primary caregiver/parent. Survival is often the foundation of human attachment, so when safety is threatened, we naturally turn to someone seen as a caregiver in our lives, someone who provides safety, protection, and care. When this bonding occurs, oxytocin (known as the “love hormone”) is released in our brains, furthering comfort and attachment with the caregiver. In adult relationships, this “caregiver” is often our intimate partner.

The above illustrates how deep a trauma bond goes, when they experience this back and forth the body becomes addicted. But like every other addiction, it can be broken. The consistent and tireless work of government agencies and many reputable NGOs have greatly improved the situation globally, but there can be further improvements by educating and developing more sensitization over issues of domestic violence, empowering more women to be financially stable to boost their self-esteem and self-worth. In addition to this, more women should be encouraged to volunteer to NGOs to give them an insight into what fighting for women like them is all about. As a woman, self-esteem and a keen sense of self-worth is key and is the first and most important step in fighting and curbing domestic violence against women in the world today.

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