An outsider’s perspective on domestic violence is very simple. When someone is hurting you, logic states that the solution is to leave them. That seems so much easier than it actually is. In reality there are countless obstacles, some psychological and some social, that prevent a domestic abuse victim from escaping his or her situation. In the case of abused women in heterosexual relationships, a significant factor is societal gender expectations.
Some say that we are living in a post-feminist society and that with all the progress women have made, gender expectations are no longer harmful, but the remnants of a world where women were viewed as property and subservient to their husbands remain, and are introduced to women at a very young age. While things are changing, most games and media targeted at young girls still emphasize domesticity while those targeted at boys often emphasize strength and heroism. Many religions also preach to some extent that a woman should be subservient to her husband.
These values are often embodied subconsciously by all sorts of people, and certain people can interpret the idea of male dominance, consciously or otherwise, to mean that aggression and control towards a female partner is acceptable. Even women who know logically that the action itself is abusive often have trouble applying that ideology to their own situation, because once she has become the submissive party in her relationship, it feels more natural to allow aggression to continue rather than to become dominant.
While men have always been encouraged to pursue careers and success, it has only been in the past few decades that women were encouraged to have any other aspirations than to raise a family. While there is nothing wrong with wanting to raise a family, the societal pressure to do so can encourage women to seek a man’s partnership at all costs in order to fulfill this aspiration. When having a family is your definitive goal in life, ending a relationship can often seem like a failure, and many women stay in a relationship because they refuse to feel that they had failed.
Of course, though these ideas may more often result in women remaining in abused relationships statistically speaking, gender expectations can result in men remaining in abusive relationships as well. Domestic violence does not only happen in straight relationships, and when it does men are not always the perpetrator. Men can be victims, both of other men and and of women. In these cases, gender expectations may be opposite in their message, but have the exact same effect. While a woman may refuse to escape an abusive relationship to avoid feeling like a failure as a caretaker, a man may stay in an abusive relationship to avoid looking weak or submissive. Opposite gender expectations can truly have the same exact detrimental effect, and expectations based on gender can be harmful to all genders.
Another issue when it comes to domestic abuse of men is that because society expects men to be more physically and emotionally strong than women, a man often has trouble finding support from family, friends, or even many organizations in place to stop domestic violence. This can be extremely problematic and in many cases lead to a man staying in an abusive relationship.
All in all, gender expectations can be harmful to anyone just as domestic abuse can effect anyone. It is important to be aware of the problems with gender expectations and recognize them when they are being used to exploit or abuse an individual. It is also important to remember that these ideas are often deeply ingrained, not necessarily believed in logically, and we must be sensitive to how these societal values effect domestic violence victims. While leaving an abusive relationships is certainly necessary and may seem like a simple goal, patriarchal values are only one of the many huge psychological roadblocks in that process and must be considered when faced with a person who is experiencing or has experienced domestic abuse.
For more information on domestic abuse, refer to our complete resource on Intimate Partner Violence.