Journeys: Resilience and Growth for Survivors of Intimate Partner Abuse

Journeys: Resilience and Growth for Survivors of Intimate Partner Abuse

by Susan L. Miller

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More than one in three women in the United States has experienced rape, physical violence, or stalking by an intimate partner in their lifetime. Luckily, many are able to escape this life—but what happens to them after? Journeys focuses on the desperately understudied topic of the resiliency of long-term (over 5 years) survivors of intimate partner violence and abuse. Drawing on participant observation research and interviews with women years after the end of their abusive relationships, author Susan L. Miller shares these women’s trials and tribulations, and expounds on the factors that facilitated these women’s success in gaining inner strength, personal efficacy, and transformation.  
Written for researchers, practitioners, students, and policy makers in criminal justice, sociology, and social services, Journeys shares stories that hope to inspire other victims and survivors while illuminating the different paths to resiliency and growth.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520286108
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 04/20/2018
Series: Gender and Justice , #5
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 835,220
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Susan L. Miller is Professor of Sociology and Criminal Justice at the University of Delaware. She is the author of After the Crime: The Power of Restorative Justice Dialogues Between Victims and Violent Offenders, and Victims as Offenders: The Paradox of Women's Violence in Relationships. 

Read an Excerpt


Framing the Issues

In 2002, fourteen-year-old Elizabeth Smart of Salt Lake City, Utah, was kidnapped from her bedroom by a religious fanatic and kept chained, raped repeatedly, and threatened that her family would be murdered if she tried to escape (Smart 2013). Today she is an activist and president of the Elizabeth Smart Foundation, which works to promote awareness about abduction; she has also worked with the Department of Justice and other recovered young adults in creating a survivors' guide, You're Not Alone: The Journey from Abduction to Empowerment, to encourage children who have gone through similar experiences to not give up and to know that there is life after tragic events. Her foundation has merged with Operation Underground Railroad to combine efforts in the fight against human trafficking (see

In the beginning of his freshman year at Rutgers University, Tyler Clementi's roommate filmed an intimate act with Tyler and another man through a webcam set up to spy on him. The roommate uploaded the video online, and Tyler discovered through his roommate's Twitter feed that he was widely ridiculed and that his roommate was planning a second filming. Tyler committed suicide several days later, a victim of cyber bullying. Tyler's parents cofounded the Tyler Clementi Foundation to promote safe, inclusive, and respectful social environments in homes, schools, campuses, churches, and the digital world for vulnerable youth, LGBT youth, and their allies; to honor their son and brother; and to address the needs of vulnerable populations, especially LGBT people and other victims of hostile social environments (see

On December 14, 2012, a disturbed twenty-year-old man opened fire on children and teachers at Newtown, Connecticut's Sandy Hook Elementary School, killing twenty first graders and six educators and community members. In response, several family members established a foundation called Sandy Hook Promise that supports solutions to protect children and prevent gun violence with the intent to honor all victims of gun violence by turning their personal tragedy into a moment of transformation (, and other Sandy Hook parents founded an organization devoted to educating and empowering school communities to improve school safety (

What do these people have in common? How could they emerge from such suffering to lead profoundly courageous lives of hope, resistance, and transformation? What comes to mind is the word resilience, which suggests that, despite violence or pain or suffering, something internal or external sustains and gives hope to people who experience trauma. The literature offers little insight on how resilience develops over time — if we tap into it in times of need and how a resilient spirit or coping strategies or support from others may assist in survivorship. The social psychological literature tends to approach this issue more individually, whereas the victimology literature in sociology and criminology generally adopts a more structural analysis. Overall, however, not enough sociological attention has been paid to the resilience and long-term survivorship of women who have experienced IPV/A and have ended their abusive relationships (for some exceptions, see Anderson, Renner, and Danis 2012; Crann and Barata 2016).

This book explores resilience by focusing on women who have experienced intimate partner abuse of all sorts, and the ways in which they have been able to regain a sense of mastery or control over their lives, reclaiming themselves and forging new paths over many years following the end of the relationship. While many of the chapters analyze the themes and issues that emerged from interviews with the victims/survivors, this chapter first addresses the cultural and political milieus in which the battered women's movement and the women's narratives are embedded.


In 1992, Tamar Lewin, writing in the New York Times, cautioned scholars and activists about overemphasizing the "victim" label for battered women. Specifically, she wondered if women became "victims of their victim status." During the infancy of the movement, use of the term battered woman was necessary to evoke sympathy and to better explain why women stay in abusive relationships or have such a difficult time leaving. But although the term is well intended, it perpetuates stereotypes of women who have experienced IPV/A as helpless, passive victims — a strategy that backfires when women diverge from these scripts, perhaps by fighting back in self-defense. The feminist legal scholar Elizabeth Schneider explains, "Women don't identify with the term 'battered woman,' even if they arrive bleeding at a shelter, because no one feels that her totality is being a victim" (quoted in Lewin 1992).

Assumptions of what a "real" victim looks like perpetuate the problem in research, the criminal justice system's response, and social service provision and programming. Presenting IPV/A as a problem that is widely shared (i.e., promoting messages like "Battering affects every woman" and "It could happen to anyone") is important, but it blurs the differences between individual women's experiences and presenting one kind of victim — typically the most readily sympathetic — as emblematic of all victims. In doing so, it tends to portray all battered women as blameless "good women" who are passive, nonviolent, and visibly afraid of the abuser (Berns 2004; Lamb 1999a; Loseke 1992). This lays the foundation for viewing women as "bad victims" or even "offenders" when their actions and/or situations deviate from this characterization (Creek and Dunn 2011; Dunn 2004, 2008). As early IPV/A researchers Walker and Browne (1985) found, women who violate feminine norms of passivity, submissiveness, politeness, and helpfulness are more vulnerable to victimization's social penalties. Consequently this strategy of advocacy has repercussions for social service providers' assistance and the criminal justice system's actions. It also ignores the structural issues that complicate women's positions, such as the special liabilities and challenges of poor women of color, who are "most likely to be in both dangerous intimate relationships and dangerous social positions" (Richie 2000, 1136).

Advocacy groups' stories and photos of the iconic battered woman represent only the most extreme, dramatic, and sensational images and narratives. Lost are the "in-betweens" and nuances of the complex and varied context of IPV/A. This is claims-making in action. In leaving little room for victims who do not fit the stereotype, it can backfire against victims. For example, when battered women actively fight back, they can no longer be characterized as passive docile feminine victims (Chesney-Lind 2002, 2004; Chesney-Lind and Eliason 2006; Chesney-Lind and Irwin 2008; Davidson and Chesney-Lind 2009; Irwin and Chesney-Lind 2008; Lamb 1999a) and they increasingly are arrested for using violence against their abusers (Larance and Miller 2016; S. Miller 2005). Also, parading an image of a black-and-blue bruised battered woman negates or hides other more insidious abuses — sexual, emotional, and financial — and more covert elements of coercive control that are present in IPV/A. The sociologist Evan Stark (2007, 228–29) describes coercion as entailing "the use of force or threats to compel or dispel a particular response" but points out that "in addition to causing immediate pain, injury, fear, or death, coercion can have long-term physical, behavioral, or psychological consequences. ... Control is comprised of structural forms of deprivation, exploitation, and command that compel obedience indirectly by monopolizing vital resources, dictating preferred choices, microregulating a partner's behavior, limiting her options, and depriving her of supports needed to exercise independent judgment." And recent work by Crossman, Hardesty, and Raffaelli (2016) reveals that women who experience nonphysical abuse feel as afraid during their marriage as women who experience physical abuse, and even more afraid after separation.

The battered women's movement in the 1970s and 1980s achieved some early success in shifting from a pathological focus on women's personality traits (such as masochism) to a focus on the constraints that explain why women stay in abusive relationships (Walker 1979; Goodmark 2012). Expert witnesses could deploy the concepts of "battered women' syndrome" and "learned helplessness" in court to counter the assertion that abused women could leave whenever they chose or to explain why some women, failing other options, were justified in killing their abusers (Walker 1984). But today these notions, and their incorporation of the cycle-of-violence theory (cyclical phases of tension building, violent episode, and remorse/honeymoon that trap women in the relationship psychologically), have lost their cultural currency. They are critiqued for reinforcing pervasive sexist stereotypes of meek, passive, and disempowered women and for creating "little more than a more compassionate and gender sensitive version of the traditional psychiatric view of women as 'irrational' or even 'insane,' except that this version incorporates a recognition that the women's alleged 'irrationality' or psychological incapacity results from the infliction of abuse upon her by a male intimate" (Randall 2004, 124). Yet the dissonance between an assumption of passivity in victims and stories of victims' aggression against their abuser continues to complicate the message to the general public (Goodmark 2012); my own work in this area with ninety-five women arrested for use of force against an intimate partner or ex-partner revealed that 95 percent of these women used violence in reaction to a partner's violence, to protect themselves or their children, or to prevent an imminent attack (S. Miller 2005).

Nicola Gavey's (1999) work on rape similarly explores how the politically important strategy of defining a "common experience" to raise awareness ultimately backfires when a particular kind of rape case or rape victim is universalized. Gavey also notes that society's definitions of certain acts in a legal sense do not always align with how victims experience them: how should we respond to a woman who describes an incident of forced, unwanted sexual intercourse but says she was not raped? Being defined as a rape victim means taking on the "negative social value" and the "obligations" of the victim role (see early work by Burt and Estep 1981). The feminist movement succeeded in expanding the continuum of sexual victimization to include forms of coercion from unwanted kissing and touching to rape. However, some women who have experienced unwanted sexual victimization do not view themselves as victims and reject legal and scholarly definitions; instead they tell stories of empowerment and triumph in which they thwart rape or limit the scale of a sexual assault (Gavey 1999, 72). Gavey even states that "not all women are traumatized by rape," while adding that this does not trivialize rape or its brutality. She contends that "it may be possible to experience rape and suffer no lasting devastating psychological effects" but that such a possibility is "less often articulated than is the discourse of harm" (70). Of course, this view does not come without complications: we do not want victims who do not fight back (because of fear, being overpowered, or other reasons) to internalize any self-blame.

We can extend this perspective on rape to think about IPV/A. The portrait of a "battered woman" was crafted as a political tool by the battered women's movement in the 1970s to heighten awareness of a pervasive hidden problem. In this way, it served its purpose. But there are many different narratives of victimization (Gavey 1999). One such narrative is the refusal to see oneself as a victim or battered woman or to label the experience as one of victimization, even though the descriptions of the abuse endured meet normative understandings of IPV/A. As one of my participants, Jazzy, described her abuse, "It just was. That was life. Nothing to be done about it."

Jazzy's experience is complicated by her social location — she experienced her initial relationship violence in her first marriage, about forty years ago. Though the term battered women was politicized around the same time (the 1970s), the language of white, upper-middle-class activists was little known in her working-class African American milieu. Her community accepted "hitting" in relationships, and she herself talked about the normalcy of it. She described her retaliatory violence as restoring her dignity and commented that she egged on her husband in order to have some degree of control over when he hit her, since she knew the violence was inevitable and did not want it to interfere with her ability to get to work.

Gavey (1999, 76) suggests that in the arena of attempted sexual assaults women can be seen as fighters and survivors, warriors and heroes. The same imagery can apply to battered women who resist in ways that may be subtle and invisible to outsiders yet succeed in salvaging some self-esteem and self-efficacy. This is not to suggest that the framework that has been so successful in politicizing IPV/A be abandoned; the issue is that there is room for alternative ways of thinking about victimization and space for those who have other legitimate stories to tell (see also Waldrop and Resick's 2004 work for a way to examine coping strategies of battered women using a psychological lens).


The emerging focus on trauma-informed, gender-responsive practice (Bloom, Owen, and Covington 2004) acknowledges survivorship histories in ways useful for practitioners and researchers. When practices are trauma informed, there is an acknowledgment of how a traumatic incident can lead to behaviors related to the pain and lack of power over the incident. Practitioners must take into account these effects and ensure the safety of the individuals, have transparency in their connections with professionals, provide support, and assist survivors in finding their voice and becoming empowered to choose what they want. This approach is very appealing because it validates how early childhood or adolescent trauma can have a long-lasting impact and helps us understand why adults may have frightening flashbacks and fears. A trauma framework can also embrace many forms of violence, which helps in drawing parallels with and connections between those forms. Gender-responsive practices create "an environment ... that reflects an understanding of the realities of women's lives and addresses the issues of the women" (Bloom and Covington 2000, 11). Most gender-responsive practices incorporate the understanding of other differences too, such as race/ethnicity, social class, (dis)ability, and sexuality.

In counseling, women are often open to using a trauma framework for understanding their pain and suffering and some of the frightening aftereffects of victimization (flashbacks, nightmares). It is more empowering for women who have experienced intimate partner violence or sexual violence to have a scientifically sound explanation that recognizes they did not bring it on themselves than to receive the earlier victim-blaming alternative explanations offered by traditional psychoanalytical perspectives (Gilfus 1999). Finally, trauma research has facilitated treatment interventions that offer relief from symptoms and are very helpful for victims because of this compassionate and holistic approach and the efforts made to keep from retraumatizing victims/survivors. Victims can get insurance coverage for treatment, but being labeled a trauma victim can also stigmatize them or even be used against them by abusers in court decisions over custody issues (for instance, see Saunders, Faller, and Tolman 2012 on how women and perceptions of their mental health are interpreted by court professionals in IPV/A custody cases).

Despite its popularity, the trauma framework is not without critics and has its limitations. If trauma is understood as an individual psychological response, it can conflate cause and effect and be seen as a "psychological condition caused by exposure to violence/extreme stress, leading to the assumption that all types of traumatic events are precursors of psychological symptomatology, unless the victim is exceptionally resilient" (Gilfus 1999, 1241). It can be used to frame IPV/A as a crime arising only from individual-level pathology; to ignore the victim's agency; and to excuse men's violence if they themselves have experienced trauma (Gilfus 1999). If we focus too much on childhood traumatic experiences, we risk ignoring structural factors, including racism, poverty, and other forms of oppression that can be just as traumatic. By focusing on the trauma victim, we also ignore the offender. A trauma framework risks our losing sight of the social and political context and the gendered nature of the inequalities of power within which IPV/A occurs (Larance and Miller 2015).


Excerpted from "Journeys"
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments xi

Preface xiii

1 Framing the Issues 1

2 Situating the Research Project 25

3 "Leaving the horrible for the Not-So-Horrible" 51

4 Meaning Making and Post-Traumatic Growth 93

5 Support Networks and Structural Challenges 131

6 Paths to Survivorship and Suggestions for Policy 173

Notes 207

References 213

Index 239

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