Learned Helplessness

Learned helplessness is a condition that occurs when someone has no control over a situation and believes he is helpless, and that nothing he does will make a difference. He will then remain passive and not try to do anything to change the situation, no matter how dangerous or harmful that may be. 

Martin Seligman conducted the first study about learned helplessness in 1965. He described the conditioned response of dogs who are restrained and shocked at the sound of a bell. When a dog is no longer restrained, he does not try to escape the shock. Instead, he is passive and apparently had lost the ability to act in his own best interest. This observation provided an explanation for the hopelessness associated with depression and later with domestic violence  victims who choose to remain with partners who abuse them.     

Learned helplessness is an explanatory theory, describing what may happen when someone does not believe he has control over events in his life. If apparently uncontrollable negative events have occurred in the past, the person may not try to escape present uncontrollable negative events. In Seligman's experiment, he found that a dog was unable to learn a new pattern of behavior once conditioned in this way.

Key factors to learned helplessness are the random nature of the events, the uncontrollability of the events, and the sense of helplessness the victim experiences. The concept of learned helplessness relates to victim response in all forms of abuse.

If you are the mother of a sexually abused child and also a victim of domestic violence in your home, you will have difficulty protecting your child. If you do not think that you have any power or control in your relationship or marriage, and your partner is the abuser, you will not be able to support or protect her while remaining in the home.

Reporting the abuse to the authorities and getting a restraining order is a first step. You may need to move temporarily to a safe house. Gathering as much support from friends, family, and community agencies will help you get through the crisis.    

See Stockholm Syndrome for further explanation of learned helplessness.

Also see Betrayal Bond to understand the relationship that occurs between victim and abuser. This dynamic may be present in your relationship with abuser if her is your spouse or partner. 


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