Women's Understanding of the Effects of Domestic Abuse: The Impact on Their Identity, Sense of Self and Resilience. A Grounded Theory Approach

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Abstract (4)

Research on women who have experienced domestic abuse indicates that they feel marginalized; stigma, shame and fear about the response of services stop women from seeking the support they need. The current study aimed to explore the unique perspectives of women who have experienced domestic abuse in order to gain an understanding of their experiences, their perceived identity, sense of self and resilience. Interviews were conducted with eight women who had experienced domestic abuse and transcripts were analysed using grounded theory methodology. Findings indicated that domestic abuse had a significant impact on the women interviewed. In particular, the ongoing relationship the women had with their abusive partner, due to contact with the children, served to perpetuate their identity as an abused woman. The study also found, however, that the women were able to utilise resources that increased their resilience. They were striving for a normal life, prioritising their role as a mother and attempting to reconstruct their own identity through the assumption of new roles.

Keywords: Domestic abuse, women, identity, resilience, grounded theory

Background Information

Domestic Abuse is perpetrated by partners or ex-partners and can include physical abuse, sexual abuse and mental and emotional abuse. It is difficult to establish the precise figures on numbers of women who experience domestic abuse due to underreporting. Estimates state that between 18 and 30% of women experience domestic abuse during their lifetime (Department of Health, 2002), with this figure rising to 50% to 60% for mental health service users (Kelly, 1996; Doll, 2002). Domestic abuse has been described as one of the most widespread human rights abuses and public health problems in the world today (Velzeboer, & Novick, 2000). There is a wealth of evidence that indicates that the consequences of domestic abuse are often devastating and long-term, affecting women's physical health (Robinson, 2003) and mental well-being (Humphries & Thiara, 2003).

Resilience has been defined as the ability to succeed in the face of adversity (Werner-Wilson, Zimmerman & Whalen, 2000). It has been suggested that resilience results from a person's ability to make meaning out of a stressful situation and to activate internal resources to resolve stress-laden issues (Christopher, 2000). Research has suggested that protective characteristics within women, such as a sense of hope, their relationships with others and social support, can buffer the adverse effects of domestic abuse (Carlson, McNutt, Choi & Rose, 2002, Davis, 2002). Given the complex nature of domestic abuse, and the multitude of factors that influence the type and degree of it, researchers often hold disparate views. Some researchers have emphasised the importance of environmental factors, for example employment, suggesting that they directly decrease distress or increase resilience (Tan, Basta, Sullivan, & Davidson, 1995). Other researchers, however, have emphasised the importance of psychological factors, including learned helplessness and low self esteem, serve to further decrease resilience and maintain the abusive relationship (Robinson, 2003; Tilley & Brackley, 2004). Others have argued for an integrated viewpoint and advocated an ecological perspective that accounts for the direct and indirect influence of social and psychological factors (Dutton, 1996; Heise, Ellsberg & Gottemoeller, 1999). They suggest that the onset and maintenance of an abusive relationship has multiple causes influenced by social, economic, psychological, legal, cultural and biological factors. It has been suggested that these influences are mediated by the women's personal, institutional and tangible resources, as well as level of social support and presence of additional life stressors (Davis, 2002; Tilley & Brackley, 2004).

Few & Rosen (2005) proposed a conceptual vulnerability model that attempted to contextualise women's decisions to stay in an abusive relationship. …