Last night while working at the crisis call center, I had a call from a woman who was trying to figure out how to handle her abusive marriage. She had a degree in psychology, was a practicing attorney, and just couldn’t fathom that she might be a victim of domestic violence. She said something along the lines of, “I know better than this, I’m smart enough to know the signs. Maybe this isn’t abuse, maybe it’s just me.”
She is not alone in this idea that educated, intelligent women are somehow able to, or should be able to, outsmart abuse. And this idea is harmful to her and every other victim of abuse who believes it.
Well-Educated Women are at Increased Risk for Domestic Violence
First, the terms “well-educated” and “intelligent” to describe separate classes of women are highly problematic for a number of reasons, but mainly because the terms are entirely subjective and therefore pretty pointless. I think for the purposes of the studies though, “well-educated women” refers to women who are formally educated through schools and universities, etc. For clarification purposes, I do not believe formal education is necessarily valid, nor is it the only way to receive a quality education.
With that said, one recent study has shown that women who are well-educated actually experience more incidents of domestic abuse and violence than those with lower levels of education:
Women who have a higher income or education than their partners are far more likely to suffer psychological abuse and domestic violence, [one] study has found. Women earning more than 67% of the total household income were seven times more likely to experience psychological and physical abuse compared to women who earn less than 33%, the study found.
Previous studies had found that higher education levels were correlated with less abuse for women, but new studies have found that that effect reaches a limit. If a woman is more educated, or makes more money than her male partner, her risk for violence increases.
“My study shows that high income or education works as protection against acts of violence only as far as the income and education does not exceed that of the partner. Perhaps the abuse in some cases has to do with an unconscious fear of losing a partner which is more attractive ‘on the market’ due to her socio-economic status.” — Bjelland, a PHD student at The Norwegian Police University College
In the anecdotal stories I’ve read where educated women were abused by their male partners, one of the themes I noticed is that abusers used the fact that their partners were well-educated as an excuse for committing violence against them.
As an example, actor Dennis Waterman, who was interviewed by Piers Morgan, admitted that he hit his ex-wife Rula Lenska because she was cleverer than him.
“The problem with strong, intelligent women is that they can argue well. And if there is a time where you can’t get a word in… and I… I lashed out. I couldn’t end the argument. If a woman is a bit of a power freak and determined to put you down, and if you’re not bright enough to do it with words, it [violence] can happen” (Source: Naomi McAuliffe, Dennis Waterman and the ‘problem with strong, intelligent women’).
The most telling quote from Waterman’s interview was, “it’s not difficult for a woman to make a man hit her.”
“She made me do it” is a common excuse for domestic abuse, but here an abuser is specifically talking about the fact that he hit his partner because she was a strong and clever woman, and he felt that she should have known that men like him resort to violence. It was her fault for being too smart and not shutting up.
Most men do not respond to clever women, or any women, with anger, hatred, or violence, but for those such as Waterman, their inadequacies often manifest themselves in this way. He was keeping her in her place. He couldn’t win intellectually so he won physically. Because of his views, her level of intelligence only served to harm her.
The assumption that educated women can defend against abuse is actively harmful because then it is also assumed that educated women do not get abused. As a result, educated women are less likely to notice the signs, less likely to report the abuse, and are more likely to experience serious physical violence.
In their study, Misreporting in Sensitive Health Behaviors and Its Impact on Treatment Effects: An Application to Intimate Partner Violence, Jorge Agüero and Veronica Frisancho wrote about the low percentages of educated women who report their abuse.
51% of more educated women, for example, had had their hair pulled by their partner. But only 17% of them reported that behavior in direct questioning, exposing a difference of around 34 percentage points between the real and reported prevalence rates.
Another plausible reason that well-educated women experience higher rates of abuse is because high achieving women are usually goal motivated and are therefore often convinced that they can fix or heal abuse and save the relationship.
“If someone strives to get where they want to be in life, they’ll probably start applying that logic elsewhere. Generally, you will transfer this understanding without even thinking about it — that chances are if you work hard on your relationships, they’re going to be good. Add that together with empathy and it can be really difficult because you start to tax yourself with trying to understand why he is the way he is.” — psychologist and executive coach, Perpetua Neo
Domestic abuse survivor Kristin Shaw explains in her article, I Used to Judge Women in Abusive Relationships — Until I Became One, just how easily intelligent women can fall into the trap of domestic violence.
I thought I knew all about abusive relationships before I found myself in the middle of one. I thought I was too smart to get involved with someone who would hurt me physically and mentally. I thought I knew what to look for and that it would be so obvious that I needed to walk away. I thought I didn’t fit into the “stereotypical” mold of what a domestic violence survivor looks like. I’m sure that once upon a time, I looked down on women who were in abusive relationships and found them weak.
Kristin goes on to say that people are often confused as to how “beautiful and intelligent” women could ever fall in lover with an abuser, but the truth is that it happens very gradually.
It begins with a sarcastic putdown, and is followed up quickly by an apology, it may escalate to a kick or a slap, with more apologies and promises that it will never happen again. By the time I realized that I was in a bad relationship, I had invested so much of myself and my self-esteem had been chipped away so drastically, I was terrified to be alone.
To echo previous sentiments, it is so easy to get trapped in relationships with abusive men, for so many reasons.
I know this from personal experience as well.
I, a Well-Educated Woman, and Certified Domestic Violence Victim Advocate, Fell for an Abusive Man
He was my classmate in law school, one of the most friendly and popular ones. The abuse started slow with gaslighting and emotional manipulation, and escalated to violence near me (on objects and his dog). He attempted to rape me. He withheld sex and affection. He attempted to get in control of my finances “for my sake.” He cheated on me and made sure I knew. I found myself repeatedly thinking “I wish things were like before.”
His mistake was that he moved too far too quickly and I snapped out of it. My advocacy training kicked in and I got the hell out of there.
But that was months after he started being abusive and controlling. It took me months to even notice one sign and put it together, and I am a trained domestic violence victim advocate. You are not alone if you too have fallen victim.
I’ll conclude with this quote from Sandra Horley, chief executive of the national domestic violence charity, Refuge:
The truth is no woman is immune to abuse — whether she is a member of the aristocracy or earning the minimum wage. Domestic violence affects women of all ages, classes and backgrounds — and abusive men are just as likely to be lawyers, accountants and judges as they are cleaners or unemployed.
Abuse is insidious and it does not discriminate.
Abuse cannot be outsmarted by anyone. Not even you, well-educated woman.