Bonnie Support Services

Bonnie Support Services

Why has this happened to me?

Those of us working in the field of domestic and family violence frequently hear survivors ask self-blaming questions such as: “Why did he do this to me?” and “Why does this keep happening to me?”.

Helping survivors make sense of their experiences is part of the work we do. The most important point is that violence is NEVER a victim’s fault. Causes of domestic and family violence are frequently complex and are reinforced by community attitudes and institutions that hold the male gender as superior to the female gender.

Blaming a woman’s karma, sins, clothing, words, hair style, facial expressions or any other behaviour or actions, for violence perpetrated against her or her children, takes away from the fact that the person being violent, controlling and abusive makes a CHOICE to be violent.

Whether it be using verbal put-downs against a woman, controlling her finances, damaging property to intimidate her, using child contact as a means to hurt or manipulate her, telling her who she can and can’t socialise with, pushing, shoving or raising a fist, it is never a woman’s fault.

When a woman has experienced a number of relationships where domestic/family violence has featured, we also emphasise that this pattern and the violence is not her fault. It is not uncommon for these women to have had abusive relationships modelled to them from a young age, so the violence can feel very familiar, while still being unwanted.

Psychologist Ursula Benstead, has created a helpful “Shark Cage” metaphor to empower women who find themselves in repeated relationships with domestic/family violence perpetrators.

According to Benstead, the world is a big beautiful ocean filled with lots of harmless friendly fish, as well as dangerous predators. To survive in this ocean, you need a good Shark Cage. People aren’t born with Shark Cages – we build them with the help of the people around us when we are young – our caregivers and everyone we come into contact with during childhood contribute to the quality of our Shark Cage.

If we are taught through words and actions that it’s not acceptable for people to shout at us or call us names, that’s one bar in the Shark Cage. If we are taught it’s not acceptable for people to hit us, that’s another bar. If we are taught it’s not acceptable for people to touch us in ways that make us uncomfortable that’s another bar. When all the bars are in place, sharks bang up against them and find it hard to get close enough to bite.

Many women who experience repeated domestic violence relationships have incomplete Shark Cages. Many work extremely hard, often for very long periods of time, to try to save their relationships, by rescuing and protecting the perpetrators of violence, and minimising or denying the violence against them, believing on some level that if they just try hard enough and love the perpetrator enough, then the violence and abuse against them will stop.

Most victims have also internalised messages of shame and blame, not only from the perpetrators, but also from our society.

What can be very helpful for women wishing to address patterns of violence in their relationships, is remembering that they cannot control their abusive partner’s choices and tactics, but they can focus on the physical, emotional and psychological safety of themselves and their children.

With professional help to process past traumas, and the courage and willingness to do so, coupled with a healthy support network of safe people, and societal messages reinforcing that victims are never to blame, survivors of domestic and family violence can not only survive but thrive.

It is every human being’s right to live a life filled with ample experiences of happiness, safety and joy. Recognising that violence is a never the fault of its survivors, regardless of what society or perpetrators may tell them, is a powerful step on the pathway to freedom.

Written by Catherine

You can access Ursula Benstead’s Shark Cage paper here.

The Duluth power and control wheel (below left) is a useful summary of forms of domestic/family violence.

The healthy relationships wheel (below right) can be a helpful model of what a non-violent, healthy relationship can look like, providing an aspirational framework of equality, for a person who may, as a result of years of abuse, have forgotten what she is entitled to.


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