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The Belief in a Just World harms women who are abused and controlled

by Clare Murphy PhD on July 30 2010

in Belief in a Just World

Most people want to believe the World is Just and Fair. Melvin Lerner, a social psychologist who in 1980 wrote The Belief in a Just World: A Fundamental Delusion, says that the Belief in a Just World influences our assumptions about how to judge perpetrators who do harm and how to judge victims who are harmed.

If you read any novel, Christian doctrine, watch any movie, or listen to people around you, you will consistently see and hear assumptions based on the Belief in a Just World – that good people get rewarded and bad people get punished. That if you develop self-less, hardworking, kind, caring, compassionate, giving, loyal qualities and behaviours then you will benefit – there will only be positive outcomes . . . . Good people get what they deserve!

And a Belief in a Just World assumes that if you are selfish, lazy, denigrate others, manipulate or con them, lie, break commitments, promises and marriage vows then negative consequences will follow . . . . Bad people get what they deserve!

But the world is not always Just nor Fair

When a man engages in a long-term pattern of controlling, undermining, enslaving, belittling, restricting and entrapping his female partner – this is neither Just nor Fair.

The world is not Just when the woman’s protests and attempts to stop the abuse fall on deaf ears. The world is not Just when the man responds by denying he’s doing harm, minimising the harm, or blaming the woman. The world is not Just when family, friends, colleagues, neighbours, legal and human service professionals condone the man’s ongoing systematic campaign to control his partner. Many male perpetrators of intimate partner abuse do not get what they deserve. Many female victims do not get the justice they deserve.

It is detrimental for female victims to Believe in a Just World

Many women try to make sense of their male partner’s behaviours by assuming he must only be acting in Just and Fair ways. So, if she feels harmed by something he says or does she will let him know, discuss it with him, seek change on his part. But if he says he did nothing wrong, that it’s all in her head, that she provoked it, or that it is her behaviours that are the problem, then she will go away and contemplate what it was in her own character or behaviour that caused him to harm her.

Over time she will develop the belief that there’s something wrong with her, that she’s not good enough, that she’s not worthy. If she believes in a Just World she will find it extremely difficult to believe her partner is as horrible as his behaviours seem. So she will blame herself and double her efforts to be the good wife he is wanting. After all most women I’ve ever met who experience being manipulated and controlled by their male partners spend years attempting to be good – knowing that being good is supposed to result in positive outcomes. So, she will put aside her suspicions that he’s actually intentionally harming her.

Women make sense of abuse and control based on the Belief in a Just World

If you experience confusion about how to behave in response to ongoing subtle abuse and control, and confusion about how you feel and the cause of those feelings this is so often linked with the Belief in a Just World. If you are a good girl, always wanting to be there for others you’ll probably assume others have the same goal – that they want to be nice and caring to you. So you will be consistently shocked every time your partner (who is supposed to care about you) abuses, manipulates or controls you. And shocked when others abuse you.

Be honest with yourself – listen to your gut instinct

Set aside the idea that everyone acts in Just and Fair ways, then you will have a clearer view that all your partner’s small, trivial, covert, subtle harmful behaviours over months and years create a pattern. You may admit a number of things to yourself – perhaps the pattern is harming you, perhaps you did not “let” it happen, but that you probably made multiple attempts to get him to take responsibility for his behaviours, perhaps you might remember that he has said things like “there’s something wrong with you”, that “you’re not good enough” and that “you are so unworthy you’re lucky you have him as no one else would have you”. If you’re honest with yourself you would admit such statements by the man who is supposed to love you are not the hallmark of a Just World.

Drop the Belief in a Just World

Admit to the reality that injustice and unfairness lurk around every corner. Then you will not be surprised when someone attempts to psychologically control you – whether that’s your partner, someone at work or school, a friend or family member. Watch for warning signs. Start being wonderfully surprised every time someone is good, kind, caring, honest, trustworthy and respectful – don’t automatically assume everyone is going to be so nice and trustworthy. Admit to yourself if you feel suspicious about someone – listen to your gut instincts. Tell yourself the truth and stop making excuses for someone who is potentially attempting to abuse and control you. Be honest with yourself – do you feel psychologically safe with your partner, or anyone else in your life, or with any new person you meet?

Not everyone is trustworthy or safe – even people who are supposed to love you

Until you can be 100% honest with yourself that you feel completely free and safe to be yourself – your kind, giving, trusting self with someone – then do what it takes to protect yourself – set your boundaries and remember – it is delusional to believe that a Just World exists everywhere. Not everyone is all bad or all good. Just because an abusive and controlling person also has many weaknesses, insecurities and vulnerabilities – this does not mean you should ignore what is harmful about them. Don’t give your trust to everyone – not everyone deserves it!

Be discerning – you can have compassion for someone’s humanity and vulnerabilities – whilst at the same time protecting yourself from abuse and one-sided power and control.

Reference:

Lerner, Melvin (1980). The Belief in a Just World: A Fundamental Delusion (Critical Issues in Social Justice)

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

1 Catherine July 14, 2011 at 9:47 pm

Absolutely spot on

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