How cultural perspectives impact how we understand domestic violence

Culture can seem like such a broad and nuanced concept. The Merriam Webster dictionary defines culture as the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group or the characteristic features of everyday existence (such as diversions or a way of life) shared by people in a place or time. Culture can also be considered the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution or organization.

Culture then makes us as human beings such a diverse species, varying in the ways we dress, speak, eat, and navigate life according to the different social groups we identify with. Edward T. Hall (1989) conceptualized culture as an iceberg, sharing that just like an iceberg, there are visible aspects of culture above the water, and a very prominent part of culture, the not so visible aspects of one’s culture, below the surface. With that understanding of culture, you might reflect on some of the visible aspects of your own culture, maybe depending on your location, reflected in what you wear, how you speak, and even what you eat. But you may also notice some less visible aspects of your culture reflected in something like your communication style. Is touch when speaking to someone else appropriate or inappropriate? How important is your body language or eye contact? What are your approaches to religion, relationships, and child rearing based on the social groups you identify with?

With that understanding of culture, it can make sense that how we think about relationships, and therefore, domestic violence can also be shaped by our own cultural context. Basically, how you and I understand domestic violence may vary to different degrees. And this can very much impact how we approach and respond to survivors or victims of domestic violence.

Understanding the role culture plays in how we view domestic violence can allow us to have compassion and empathy for survivors, gaining insight into their experiences. Additionally, understanding underlying cultural components in a domestic violence dynamic can inform best practices when working with survivors of domestic violence.

Often, what counselors who work with domestic violence survivors hear from clients is that they may not have spoken out about the abuse because they feared judgment or a lack of understanding from family or friends. And it is not uncommon to hear people make statements such as “why didn’t she leave?” or “She chose him, and she is choosing to stay”. What these kinds of words lack is awareness of the cultural nuances behind each victim’s life experiences. It may be that my cultural background, be it my religious group or my racial background’s values, may not say anything about divorce or separation, but for one specific victim, religious beliefs or cultural values in their racial/ethnic group may strongly oppose divorce or separation. So, while it may be easy for me to think of how I would leave an abusive relationship, it may be a decision that carries a lot more weight for someone whose cultural identities differ from mine. Understanding the complexities of cultural differences allows us space to practice empathy and compassion for victims and survivors of domestic violence.

Awareness of cultural values and differences is also of utmost importance when we think of the systems that interact with victims of domestic violence. Taking the time to understand a survivor’s cultural values may inform how police, counselors, case workers, judges, and other providers approach a victim. Positive experiences in which survivors feel understood, validated, and free of judgment may be the difference between a victim who does or does not access services to increase her safety.

Finally, taking the time to understand our own cultural values and that of others can be so essential in healing. Especially for people who have experienced abuse themselves. It is not uncommon for survivors to carry guilt for being in an abusive relationship and blaming themselves for the consequences of their abuser’s actions. However, analyzing the different cultural messages they could have received throughout their lives can facilitate healing in understanding how their cultural backgrounds and values can sometimes pose challenges in making decisions regarding their relationships and families. Working through these challenges can underline that abuse is never the victim’s fault. Often times, thinking about our culture may mean weeding out unhealthy beliefs and strengthening positive aspects of our cultural identity that highlight healthy relationships.

Hall, E. (1989). Beyond culture (Anchor Books ed.). New York: Anchor Books.

Written by Amanda Matos, MA, Licensed Professional Counselor Intern, Bilingual Women & Children’s Therapist at Genesis Women’s Shelter & Support.