Understanding Learned Helplessness and Domestic Violence

Understanding Learned Helplessness and Domestic Violence

“Why does she stay?”

It’s something victims of domestic abuse hear often. But the emotional and mental impacts of abuse and trauma are complex and long-lasting. One such impact, learned helplessness, can leave victims feeling hopeless, without any options or motivation for change.

Read on to learn more about how learned helplessness and domestic violence coexist, the symptoms of learned helplessness, and how survivors can break out of the cycle. Overcoming learned helplessness isn’t easy, but it is possible.

What is Learned Helplessness?

Learned helplessness is the theory that people subjected to repeated stressors or trauma eventually believe they have no control over the situation. Victims of domestic violence may often experience learned helplessness, feeling they cannot stop the abuse or leave the abuser. As a result, victims lose hope and fail to seek a solution.

The theory of learned helplessness arose in the 1960s after scientists conducted a series of experiments giving dogs mild electrical shocks. The animals who repeatedly received the shocks eventually stopped trying to stop the shock, even when an escape route was introduced.

The study suggested that those with learned helplessness—like some victims of domestic abuse—may react in a similar way. That is, the person believes they cannot change or fix the negative situation, so they give up trying, even if they have the means and opportunity to do so.

Learned Helplessness and Domestic Violence

Unfortunately, learned helplessness and domestic violence often go hand in hand. Those living in abusive situations commonly normalize the abuse. They might blame themselves and/or get trapped in the abuse cycle, believing the abuser will change their patterns. Abusers depend on a power imbalance, making their victims feel like they have little control over life’s decisions and outcomes. It’s also common for survivors to become emotionally attached to their abusers, a phenomenon known as trauma bonding

Over time, the abuse takes a toll on the victim’s mental health. She might begin to feel hopeless, believing that life will never get better. Often, she feels like the abuse is somehow her fault and therefore does not deserve a better life or will have the same result with another partner. Perhaps she considers the potential consequences of leaving her abuser and decides there is no other option but to stay.

All trauma victims can experience learned helplessness, and domestic violence victims are no exception. Repeated abuse leads the victim to believe that nothing she does will change the outcome; there is no possibility of escape or improvement. 

Symptoms of Learned Helplessness

It’s not always easy to spot those living with learned helplessness. Often, abuse survivors put on a “brave face” for everyone around them, especially if they have already accepted the abuse as inevitable and inescapable.

However, we can spot symptoms of learned helplessness if we look hard enough. If you are in an abusive situation or have experienced trauma, you may even recognize these symptoms in yourself:

  • Low self-esteem
  • Lack of motivation to change negative situations
  • Negative outlook on life and relationships
  • Neglecting personal needs or feelings
  • Feeling helpless or hopeless to change the situation
  • Belief that life outside the abuse will be just as bad
  • Avoiding conflict, especially with the abuser
  • Inability to make decisions
  • Increased depression or anxiety

Overcoming Learned Helplessness

Learned helplessness can leave abuse victims feeling stuck, with no hope for a healthy life outside the abusive relationship. But overcoming learned helplessness is possible. 

The same researchers who coined the term “learned helplessness” later published therapy methods for “learned optimism.” That is, just as trauma and abuse cause victims to turn inward and give up hope, victims can also unlearn those unhealthy habits through therapy and positive affirmations.

Overcoming learned helplessness doesn’t happen overnight. Many survivors have deep-seated trauma that creates lifelong emotional and mental scars. Even if a victim finds the courage to leave her abuser, she may experience the effects of learned helplessness long into the future.

Gradually, with enough therapy, self-affirmation, and time, survivors can rebuild their self-esteem and learn to take control of their thoughts, emotions, and actions. 


If you are in an abusive relationship or need to talk to someone about learned helplessness, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at https://www.thehotline.org/ or 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). 

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