The social sanctioning of partner abuse: perpetuating the message that partner abuse is acceptable in New Zealand.

Author:Giles, Janice R.


The pace of cultural change is slow, and informal social sanctions that support the abuse of women by male partners continue to undermine the effectiveness of legislation and policy. The perceptions of New Zealand women in a grounded theory study identified "blaming the victim" and inadequate enforcement of existing sanctions against abusers as social constraints to victim disclosure and recovery. From very early in the relationship women learn to fear punishment for disclosure when friends, community and social service providers respond by blaming the woman for causing the abuse, or blaming her for staying in the relationship. Women's recovery from experiencing abuse by a male partner is a slow process and requires clarification of the attribution of blame, and resolution of the unfairness of their experience. Recovery can be impeded by social responses that blame women, or discount women's experiences of abuse. Processes of personal identity development are relevant to participants' experience and, despite constraints to maintaining separation, women who recover achieve considerable personal growth.


The abuse of women by their male partners is a significant social problem affecting New Zealand women of all ages, cultures and socio-economic backgrounds. Social and legal sanctions against abuse have not reduced the size of the problem, and abused women and children continue to need assistance in large numbers. This paper discusses a study (Giles 2004) identifying social and cultural factors that undermine policies and legislation designed as formal sanctions against abuse. The existence of well-intentioned policies within people-helping settings does not guarantee policy effectiveness, and service provision may reflect social attitudes that support abuse. Findings suggest a need to refocus on training in social service provision, and the requirement for a sustained public awareness campaign addressing entrenched attitudes that blame women for their experiences of abuse.


The findings of this study were derived from interviews taped in 2003 with a small group of women whose variation in age and life experience reflect a range of circumstances and attitudes within current New Zealand society. Theory was developed using grounded theory methods, where

data collection and analysis were alternated in a process of constant comparison, and theory was refined with open-ended theoretical questions (Glaser and Strauss 1967). Participant variation was deliberately sought and data collection was continued until no new properties, or relationships between categories, emerged from new data. Participants were sourced from a tertiary institution, a community support agency, and through counsellor referrals. They lived in the Auckland region at the time of the study.

Participants were 10 New Zealand women who had experienced abuse from a male partner and self-assessed as having made some recovery from their experience. Participant age at interview ranged from 27 to 74 years. Duration of stay within the relationship ranged from two to 21 years, and time since separation ranged from two to 48 years. One participant identified as Maori, one as Samoan, and the other eight participants were Pakeha. Participants were recruited from secular sources, although the majority of participants in this study volunteered that they were Christian, and many had been active churchgoers. (2) Women who did not self-assess as having made some recovery were not included, and although this study shows the potential for recovery from partner abuse, this does not mean all women recover.


When a woman seeks help, the responses of others can support disclosure, or blame and punish her for disclosing abuse. Findings discussed here focus on participants' experience of community response and formal contact with agencies. Quotations are from participants in this study. The representativeness of these findings is limited by the small number of participants. However, the findings are consistent with international studies and other New Zealand studies (Glover 1995, Hand et al. 2002, Kearney 2001, Merritt-Gray and Wuest 1995).

Reasons for Seeking Help Changed During the Course of the Relationship

This study found that these 10 women sought help for different reasons over the course of the relationship, and that the response of others influenced subsequent help-seeking, separation, and eventual recovery from abuse. Women in this study, as in others (Lempert 1997, Towns and Adams 2000, Woods 1999), held unexamined beliefs in traditional gendered roles and took full responsibility for making the relationship a success. When women with abusive partners sought help early in the relationship, the initial focus was on trying to find information and support to help their partner (e.g. to manage his stress) or to make the relationship work (e.g. to be a "better" partner). Social interactions created meaning for the victim's experience, and blaming the woman for the "difficulties" inhibited further disclosure. As the situation deteriorated, women sought help to survive emotionally, physically or both, so they could stay in the relationship. Figure 1 shows this shifting focus.


Traditional gender-role ideals require a woman to persevere with a relationship and solve the problems within it. Without an alternative way to make sense of her situation, this moral imperative remains the only choice. The decision to separate requires both giving up hope of change and a shift in perspective, facilitated by increased awareness of other contexts and priorities, such as the wellbeing of her children. This study showed that when a woman's focus shifted from the survival of the relationship to the survival of herself and her children, and she believed that post-separation survival was possible, she sought help to separate. After separation, she sought help to survive, and to maintain safety and resist reconciliation. This post-separation process was usually lengthy and sometimes involved several reconciliations.

Social Responses Influence Women's Experience

Social factors influence the likelihood of a woman remaining in a relationship with an abusive man. Gendered expectations, in combination with a lack of encouragement for women to question idealised beliefs and values prior to commitment to a relationship, may reduce a woman's awareness of other possibilities. This is not problematic in relationships that allow women's continued development, usually after family routines have settled. However, as found by Glover (1995) in New Zealand and others internationally (such as Landenberger 1998), abusive men commonly limit their partners' social contact and exploration outside the relationship, thus constraining opportunities for growth.

Many studies, such as Towns and Adams's (2000) study of New Zealand women and Kearney's (2001) synthesis of 13 qualitative studies, found that women who commit to a relationship based on traditional values tend to take responsibility for the relationship. Campbell et al. (1998) and Eisikovits (1999) are among the many researchers who found that such women try hard to make the relationship work by using coping strategies of compliance and subordination to keep the peace. However, this does not stop abuse (Curnow 1997, Eisikovits et al. 1998).

Almost all the study participants described upsetting and confusing experiences of being blamed for the abuse when they sought help. When others responded with comments such as: "What on earth did you do to cause him to say that?" the perception was that something she was doing justified the abuse. If she resisted abuse, or tried to change her partner's behaviour, conflict escalated and she then felt responsible for "creating" it and was afraid that, if others knew, "I'm going to be blamed". A Samoan participant told of the difficulty exposing abuse within her church community:

"If you have a big black eye like that you don't go to church, you stay home, because they all point the finger at the woman."

Blaming themselves and being ashamed for failing in their role, abused women learn "to keep it quiet", and social isolation increases (Glover 1995, Kearney 2001). The abusive partners also blame them and, without access to alternative perspectives (Andrews and Brewin 1990), the women increasingly lose confidence in themselves and are ashamed to ask for help for fear of further blame or disbelief (Hand et al. 2002).

Researchers such as Campbell et al. (1998) and Curnow (1997) found that, as the relationships deteriorated, abused women tried to spend time away from their partners to preserve their sanity and avoid conflict, or risked seeking help again. Participants in this study reported that participation in activities outside the relationship escalated abuse and these were frequently kept secret.

Social connections may provide a context or information that creates a change in perspective on the relationship that allows separation to be considered. Separation may be catalysed if escalating conflict results in police intervention. In such situations, sudden exposure as a victim of abuse and acute shame and fear of blame is added to the shock of recent violence or abuse (Eisikovits et al. 1998). Participants said getting a protection order required "humiliating" disclosure, and the future effectiveness of orders was compromised when they feared repeating interview processes. Participants who feared for their sanity or were suicidal became desperate enough to seek help from medical services, but with mixed results. An appropriate response from her doctor enabled one participant to make changes in her situation, while two other participants were naively handed back into the care of abusive husbands.

Realising that separation is necessary is different from believing it is possible (Ulrich 1991) and, while some women leave suddenly (Glover 1995), most...

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