A Cry For Justice

Awakening the Evangelical Church to Domestic Violence and Abuse in its Midst

Thursday Thought — Learned Helplessness, a misapplied concept

Some theorists have mistakenly applied the concept of “learned helplessness” to the situation of battered women and other chronically traumatized people.  Such concepts tend to portray the victim as simply defeated or apathetic, whereas in fact a much livelier and more complex inner struggle is usually taking place.  In most cases the victim has not given up.  But she has learned that every action will be watched, that most actions will be thwarted, and that she will pay dearly for failure.  To the extent that the perpetrator has succeeded in enforcing his demand for total submission, she will perceive any exercise of her own initiative as insubordination.  Before undertaking any action, she will scan the environment, expecting retaliation.

[from Judith Herman’s Trauma and Recovery: The aftermath of violence —  from domestic abuse to political terror*, pp90-1]


*Amazon affiliate link — ACFJ gets a small percentage if you purchase via this link.


  1. Herjourney

    The abusers goal is to watch from a distance and ( most possibly he stalks his victim through his close friends and the victims family.
    The main goal is to destroy the integrity and established foundation he left behind. His trophy wife and her place of dwelling is a prize to be sought after. He knows her worth is far above rubies. This in his twisted thinking is his enemy. This is how the enemy works. . Eph 6:12
    Financial abuse is one factor the abuser will use to watch her fall. Wicked!
    Insubordination in the church’s twisted theology is not submitting to her abuser. Thus …
    In the eyes of “The Church that Abuses”
    She is not in the will of God.
    My life feels like I am in enemy territory. My main stance is
    “On guard”.
    Alone in the good fight.
    God is my shield and helper now.
    He was there when it all came falling down.
    To be continued .
    It gets more interesting every day.

  2. Jeff Crippen

    Thus life in such an environment is much like being a soldier at war, on patrol, constantly scanning for the next attack which is imminent at all times. Soldiers end up with PTSD. Why would anyone think abuse victims don’t also?

    • My marriage was like having to walk on eggs … a soldier on constant alert. There were land mines to be concerned of in my daily life. One had to watch for traps in conversations. Adrenaline racing through my venes causing anxieties. And all I wanted was “peace.”

  3. Finally Free

    I always had to be “on”. I had to be “on” to anticipate the next “foul” he would call when there was no “foul” and learn to discern anything he might interpret as a “foul”…so I could work to prevent them as much as possible. I had to carefully measure and weigh requests of any personal nature because the price I would pay to merely ask could very well not be worth it. I had to be willing to live with consequences to set a boundary…even “I can’t help put up the storm windows today because I just had a miscarriage this morning”. It was not learned helplessness. It was learned surveillance and covert survival. It may have looked passive to an outsider, but it was quietly yet loudly alive. I survived. I am free…finally.

    • Hi Finally Free
      if it’s safe to do so, can you please email me? barbara@notunderbondage.com
      I just want to ask a quick question about your screen name.

    • It was not learned helplessness. It was learned surveillance and covert survival. It may have looked passive to an outsider, but it was quietly yet loudly alive.

      Amen! “learned helplessness” is so derogatory of victims.

      Learned surveillance and covert survival are great terms. Another term is resistance — and resistance can be covert, it doesn’t have to be overt. All victims resist the abuse. Most bystanders fail to see or honour the ways victims resist the abuse.

  4. Anonymous

    One of the things that helped me wake up to what was going on was when I suddenly wondered what it would be like to have a husband who was on my side. Up until that point I hadn’t even realized that I was my husband’s enemy (in his mind).

  5. KayE

    And retaliation does happen. You often hear of abusers destroying things of value to their victim. As soon as my ex got the chance, and for no material gain, he had the entire house smashed down. What some saw as my inaction or irrational anxiety, was really my acute awareness of what this abuser was capable of.

    • I have a vivid memory of one of my abusers trapping me in the hallway and yelling “I have to terrify you!” into my face and kicking the walls on either side of me and scanning with his eyes what other things nearby he could hit or damage. His eyes scanned in a microsecond through the door of a nearby room, he saw his ornaments (jugs, vases etc) on the shelves in there and he chose not to smash them. He chose instead to pull my bag off my shoulder which had my laptop in it and throw it hard across the room.

      I instinctively knew that he was making the choice not to damage his stuff but only my stuff – the stuff that was most valuable to me. And what could be more valuable to a writer than her laptop?

    • the entire house smashed down
      Oh boy!
      your fear was very well founded!

      • KayE

        It was a valuable, good, solid house too and difficult to knock down, according to a witness.

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