Domestic Violence and Theory of Learned Helplessness

Learned helplessness is a state of an individual in which a person does not attempt to improve his condition, although he has such an opportunity. It is characterized by passivity, depression, depression, refusal to act. This phenomenon occurs when a person makes several unsuccessful attempts to deal with a problem. This phenomenon was discovered by the American psychologist Martin Seligman in 1967. But in fact, learned helplessness is not even a syndrome but simply a character trait (situational or permanent) that a person acquires after several unsuccessful attempts to change the situation for the better. A person starts to believe that he/she will not succeed anyway and only looks passively at what is happening.

Abusers frequently utilize a variety of “electric shocks” (that is, kinds of abuse to which they expose their victims) to neutralize victims of assault and educate them that they have no power or influence in a variety of cases of abuse and domestic violence. The offenders maintain complete control, and the victims recognize their helplessness in their situation. It’s simple to see how abuse can result in learned helplessness, which can lead to a lack of willingness to aid the victim in such situations. Domestic violence and abuse victims learn that regardless of what they can do, they will always be weak and subject to the abuser’s control.

From the perspective of learned helplessness theory, Martin Seligman illustrated his vision of why abused women continue to live with abusers for many years. Seligman’s constructions were based on experiments conducted by him in the early sixties of the twentieth century at the University of Pennsylvania on dogs according to the classically conditioned reflex scheme in order to detect the presence of an “escape instinct” in humans (Atiyat, 2020). One of the experiments was as follows. The dog was placed in a cage in which an electric current was supplied to the right half but not to the left. When the dog received an electric shock while standing on the right half of the cage, it quickly learned to be only on the left half.

Further, the supply of current to the right side of the cage was turned off, and to the left, on the contrary, was supplied. The dog was again retrained to be where there was no current impact, that is, to the right. In the next stage – the current was brought to the entire bottom of the cage. Now the animal received electric shocks from time to time anywhere. As a result, the dog first fell into a panic and then resigned to what was happening – the dog lay down and suffered electric shocks, not trying to avoid them anymore. At the final stage, the cage door was opened. However, despite the opportunity to leave, the dog did not even think to leave its place, laying and suffering electric shocks. The conclusion from experience: a living creature that has survived violence tends to adapt to it in such a way that when the violence stops, the healthy escape instinct is weakened, and the creature voluntarily remains in captivity.

Seligman tried to study the nature of helplessness empirically. He suggested that in the course of the experiment, dogs, having no physical ability to avoid electric shock, get used to its inevitability and “learn” helplessness. Thus, a living creature becomes helpless if it gets used to the fact that nothing depends on its active actions, that troubles occur by themselves and cannot be influenced in any way.

The mechanism described above also works in a situation of violence in the relationship between spouses. Among the reasons for the helplessness of victims of spousal violence are the following: deprivation, the monotony of consequences, asynchrony. A woman, being a victim, in a situation of violence by a partner has a subordinate status in comparison with a male abuser; that is, a woman does not have equal access to social benefits with him, and her rights as a person are violated (Ali et al., 2020). Thus, it is difficult for her to be an adaptive and optimistic person. A woman loses guidelines for managing her activity if any of her actions lead to the same consequences. For example, a failed lunch and gala dinner, indifferent silence, and sympathetic questions can equally cause anger and irritation in a man. That is, helplessness occurs when a wife does not see any relationship between her actions and how her spouse reacts to them, and no one comes to her aid to elucidate this relationship.

Another example is when the reason for helplessness may also lie in the fact that a very long time passes between the actions and the consequences to which they lead. So it is impossible to connect the offender’s reactions with any of his own actions. As a result, in a situation of spousal violence, a woman’s assessments may fluctuate from feeling that she has become an innocent victim to fully acquitting the abuser and blaming herself for what happened. Moreover, modern research often sees helplessness as a consequence of early socialization experiences. In particular, the harshness and negativism prevailing in the system of family education is another example that can negatively affect the development of the competence of overcoming difficulties and solving problems in a child. People who were abused and neglected during childhood and adolescence are more likely to show signs of learned helplessness.

It is worth noting that along with cruelty and negativism, overprotectiveness on the part of parents and indulgence of the child’s needs can also form learned helplessness. By overprotecting and caring for the child, parents can be a disservice. A child may experience a feeling of inferiority, a decrease in self-confidence, he may lack the experience of living through failures and the ability to make volitional efforts to achieve a goal. Often, overprotected children and adolescents can use the demonstration of helplessness as a means of manipulating others.

In conclusion, let us outline a significant moment for understanding the behavior of a woman subjected to domestic violence: it must be remembered that in the whole range of marital relationships, violence was only one aspect. Some of the components of living together with a spouse still have positive aspects for a woman – she wants to end the violence, but she also wants to preserve the positive aspects of the relationship with her partner. These two tasks may not always be compatible, but it always takes time for the victim to figure it out. Also, learned helplessness can arise not only as a result of domestic violence but also as a result of a harsh social environment in the early childhood of a child. In addition, learned helplessness can be a consequence of parental overprotection, making children feel helpless.


Atiyat, R. (2020). Into the Darkest Corner: The Importance of Addressing Factor-Based Particularity in Relation to Domestic Violence Experiences in Post-Modern Literary Theory. International Journal of Applied Linguistics and English Literature, 9(1), 30-39.

Ali, P., McGarry, J., & Bradbury-Jones, C. (2020). Domestic violence and abuse: Theoretical explanation and perspectives. In Domestic violence in health contexts: A guide for healthcare professions (pp. 17-33). Springer, Cham.

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