Fight or Flight: Wives in Crisis in Sleeping with the Enemy
By: Jessica Farb and Felice Cherry

Love hurts. Joseph Rubin’s motion picture, Sleeping With the Enemy, journeys into a terrifying domestic abuse experience. The main characters, Laura Burney and her husband Martin, reside in a private Cape Cod estate. Laura, a housewife in her early twenties, endures an abusive and controlling relationship with Martin. Is she crazy? Why would any sane woman choose such a miserable existence? Using Laura as a case study and supporting the movie’s evidence with research, we explore the psychological and structural variables that influence a woman's decision to leave an abusive marriage. Although Sleeping with the Enemy unrealistically dramatizes domestic abuse and flight, Laura accurately exhibits the symptoms of a battered woman’s helplessness.

Partners such as Laura and Martin may accept an abusive lifestyle because they share a general attitude, usually existing before marriage, that men should have more power and control than women (Avni, 1991; Eiskovits, 1999). Although the audience knows little about the couple’s past, their relationship’s controlling nature supports this theory’s credibility. Avni maintains that men control women by providing economic resources to their wives, who believe that they have nothing to return but subordination and obedience (pp. 232-239). Whenever this patriarchal attitude exists, the man’s lack of self-control may threaten his ego and cause him to attempt to control his immediate environment and domestic situation (Avni, pp. 232-239; Umberson & Anderson, 1998, p. 445).

To compensate for Martin’s lack of self-control, he abuses and controls Laura. Researchers utilize survey data to examine the relationship between domestic violence and personal control (Umberson & Anderson, pp. 442-453). Also known as ‘self-efficacy’ and ‘mastery,’ personal control refers to a person’s perception that one's power can influence one's surroundings (pp. 443). Social aspects like finances, relationships, and child-care (Gelles, 1976, 660) may positively or negatively alter personal control levels and consequently, affect a partner’s physical and mental well-being (Umberson & Anderson, p. 443). Thus, personal control links the individual’s social environment to his internal psychological conditions (pp. 442-453). This study concludes that domestic violence occurs when a batterer attempts to reclaim his own sense of personal control by controlling someone close to him, usually his wife (Umberson & Anderson, p. 445). Survey responses have shown that when a husband thinks he can control his wife by perpetrating domestic violence, his 

sense of personal control increases (p. 443). For example, when Martin notices three towels hanging unevenly in the bathroom, he leaves the room, returns with Laura, and asks her whether everything looks acceptable. She quickly restores his sense of order and control by adjusting the towels. Also, Laura keeps the cabinet cans in perfect order. Martin exemplifies these results because alone, he cannot control his obsession with neatness and order, thus he abuses Laura.

Once a batterer initiates violence, it escalates whenever he feels his authority threatened or his delicate sense of perceived personal control and masculinity weakened (p. 445). The resulting victimization that a woman experiences in these abusive relationships inversely affects her sense of control (p. 443). Furthermore, an abused woman, such as Laura, experiences such a dramatic decrease in real and perceived personal control that she ultimately feels unable to leave the relationship (p. 443).

Laura lacks the resources, courage, and opportunity to leave Martin as examined in Choice and Lamke’s (1997) decision-making model, which combines four theories: the investment model, learned helplessness, reasoned action and/or planned behavior, and psychological entrapment (pp. 290-315). These four theories often intertwine and comprise two main questions that an abused woman may ask herself: "will I be better off?" and "can I [leave]?" When the woman asks, "will I be better off?" she must decide her current satisfaction level with the relationship. Assuming a woman decides that the costs of remaining in the abusive relationship outweigh the satisfying benefits, she then asks herself the second question, "can I [leave]?"

First, the investment model displays an abused woman’s commitment to the relationship that results from direct and indirect investments. Her commitment binds her to an abusive partner, alters her perception of personal satisfaction, and makes alternatives seem daunting (p. 291). The investment model defines satisfaction as the benefits of a relationship outweighing the costs incurred through involvement (pp. 294-295). These benefits may include trust, love, respect, sexual gratification, and happiness (pp. 294-295). Martin displays some of these benefits to Laura when he talks lovingly to her, caressing her hair and face. The couple interacts in warm exchanges in several scenes, swaying Laura’s feelings of satisfaction. For example, when Martin presents a new, red dress to Laura after a fight earlier in the day, she questions her satisfaction. After receiving the gift she questions the dissatisfaction she felt when Martin struck her down, yet later realizes that his loving acts do not compensate for the abuse.

Second, the theory of learned helplessness suggests that an abused woman lacks a sense of self-efficacy and an ability to control her situation. A woman becomes incapable of changing her abusive situation as a result of a cycle. First, the abused woman realizes her efforts to end the violence do not affect her outcomes so she stops trying to ameliorate the situation. Eventually, her discouragement prevents her search for new avenues of available escape. Finally, the woman accepts the situation as something beyond her control, which intensifies the motivational deficit and continues the cycle (Choice & Lamke, p. 291-292). Also, she may no longer try to improve her circumstances because her efforts have already proved futile (p. 294).

Third, the reasoned action/planned behavior approach uses the rational concept that an abused woman’s motivation to escape completely depends on her sense of control over her outcomes (Choice & Lamke, p. 292). This theory suggests that women, like Laura, may also face structural barriers such as money, support, child-care, employment, education, and residency (p. 293). Although the couple does not have any children, Laura depends on her wealthy husband’s financial support. Martin only allows Laura to work a part-time job as a librarian in an effort to maintain their social isolation. Therefore, with structural barriers blocking her path to freedom, Laura cannot control her own life.

Limiting her opportunities to reach out for support, Martin does not allow Laura much contact with the outside world. One day on the dock, Martin meets a young, handsome doctor named John Fleischmann who mentions that Laura sometimes stares out the kitchen window. Enraged at her apparent curiosity, Martin confronts Laura about her fascination with the doctor. She starts visibly shaking while attempting to smile and calmly offers an explanation. Martin backslaps Laura down to the floor, kicks her, and asks her if she enjoys embarrassing him [click here to view this scene]. By controlling Laura’s daily interactions, Martin restrains her opportunities and easily brainwashes Laura to believe that love and abuse are interchangeable. Finally, the theory of psychological entrapment explains that a woman may sustain an abusive relationship because she believes that more effort will produce a loving, nonviolent relationship (Choice & Lamke, p. 291-292). This theory maintains that a dissatisfied woman may remain in a relationship because her investments bind her or she lacks options (p. 292), like Laura who has no job, family members, or opportunities.With no visible alternatives, she complies with his exhausting demands and routines, accepting his social, psychological, and physical abuse.

As a result of abuse, a woman like Laura may overcome the theory of learned helplessness and gain the confidence to attempt an escape. While her motives are possibly realistic, Laura’s actual escape plan is not. One night, Martin accepts a neighbor’s invitation to go sailing despite Laura’s fear of water due to a traumatic childhood experience. Throughout the ride, Laura nervously sits in a corner of the sailboat, tightly clutching the rails as Martin and the neighbor idly chat. Unexpectedly, the calm night turns stormy. Heavy rain and strong winds blow a sail off the boat and Martin and the neighbor scramble to replace it. Since both men divert their attention from Laura, she seizes the opportunity to escape. She says later, "I knew there would be a moment when he wasn’t looking." When Martin turns his back, Laura jumps out of the boat and with the help of secret swim lessons at the YWCA, swims to freedom.

The circumstances that allow Laura to make her theatrical getaway seem very unrealistic. Once she reaches the shore, Laura runs inside their beach-front house and quickly disguises herself: she cuts her long hair, puts on a short wig, and wears shades. She grabs a small, pre-packed bag containing clothes, toiletries, money, and a bus ticket. Finally, she flushes her wedding ring down the toilet and flees on a bus. Laura leaves behind these pieces of her life with Martin to symbolize the beginning of a new identity, free from abuse with "no strings attached." According to the theory of learned helplessness, this evidence shows that Laura has more control than she displays to the audience. She gains enough control to secretly form escape plans while pretending like she still feels helpless. She begins a new life by finding her own place, a good job, and a new relationship. Her sudden display of courage would not happen in everyday abusive relationships.

Critics agree that director Joseph Rubin lacks logical reasoning for plot decisions like Laura’s dramatic escape (Ebert, 1991; Johnson, 1991; Novak, 1991). The fact that Martin has his back turned from her and the evidence that Laura leaves behind are unrealistic. In real life cases, many women eventually return to their husbands. Laura’s definitive escape grossly misrepresents victims’ actions. Her immediate success in establishing a new life showed the improbable plot in relation to real life. Since the latter half of the movie continues on this path, this analysis excludes it from the resolution. Rubin’s inaccuracy demoralizes women’s struggle to overcome spousal abuse (Kempley, 1991).

Although Rubin’s Sleeping with the Enemy uses the Hollywood stereotype of a beautiful heroine escaping an evil villain in an exaggerated dramatization of the domestic abuse experience, Laura’s character accurately displays factors that influence a woman’s decision to leave her abusive husband. Battered women often feel entrapped and helpless, thus maintaining no sense of personal control in their relationships (Choice & Lamke, pp. 290-315; Umberson & Anderson, pp. 442-453). With more studies on spousal abuse and increased attention drawn from mass media sources like Sleeping with the Enemy, psychologists and health care workers will hopefully develop new abuse prevention methods and victim assistance programs in the future.

Annotated References

Avni, N. (1991). Battered wives: Characteristics of their courtship days. Journal of  Interpersonal Violence, 6 (2), 232-239.

Avni’s study shows that patriarchal attitudes existing before a marriage determine the likelihood of a man abusing his wife rather than any pre-marital physical violence. She conducted interviews in Israel with 32 diverse, battered wives and her results reveal that only 4 of the women endure abuse by their fiancés before marriage. Instead, the husbands employ a patriarchal attitude that accepts male dominance, power, authority, and control. Women and men inherit this attitude early in life, mostly from their fathers and brothers. Avni develops reasons why women tolerate this abuse and do not fight back: they have parental dating restrictions, marry young, have a weak self-image, become committed when their future husbands take their virginity, need a new home, and/or their controlling boyfriends limit their social interactions. Avni also admits that some men have good intentions and only want to provide care for their fiancées through patriarchy. However, other men take advantage, providing resources to their fiancées who have nothing to return but subordination and obedience.
Campbell, J. (1998). Voices of strength and resistance. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 13 (6), 743-763.
Campbell’s study reveals battered women’s decision-making processes in coping with abusive intimate relationships. The study uses participants from various backgrounds and interviews them frequently over a long time span. First the researchers questioned the women’s history of abuse. Women reporting one or more violent episodes receive the battered label. Based on a woman’s responses, Campbell also determines the amount of coercive control her abuser has over her. Over the course of the study, most women reported a relationship status change after a turning point, during which they alter views of themselves or the relationship. However, some merely employ tactics to end the violence rather than the actual relationship. Using these examples, Campbell emphasizes that not all battered women automatically leave an abusive relationship, and people should not categorize their apparent passive behavior as weakness because staying and finding ways to reduce the violence may actually reduce their potential danger until she can disengage herself from the relationship. Campbell justifies women’s entrapment: emotional, sexual, legal, and financial complexities present difficulties as a woman attempts to end the relationship. Even when a woman physically leaves, she may still feel connected to the abuser.
Choice, P., & Lamke, L.K. (1997). A conceptual approach to understanding abused women’s stay/leave decisions. Journal of Family Issues, 18 (3), 290-315.
Choice and Lamke examine women's stay/leave decision-making processes using an illustration of a decision-making model which combines four theoretical approaches: (1) the learned helplessness theory, (2) psychological entrapment, (3) the investment model, and (4) the reasoned action and/or planned behavior theory. These theories interrelate since they all address an abused woman’s stay/leave reasoning. She must evaluate if the relationship currently satisfies her and decide whether its benefits outweigh its costs. If she decides that the relationship’s costs outweigh its benefits, the woman must then determine whether or not she has the resources to escape. If a woman remains involved despite her dissatisfaction, her investments or inadequacies cause her to feel entrapped in the relationship. She may lack control, feel helpless, or face structural barriers like finances, support, child-care, employment, education, and a residence. Choice and Lamke acknowledge that a woman’s will ultimately determines her capability to leave the abusive relationship.
Ebert, R. (1991). Sleeping with the enemy. Ebert Reviews [Online], (2).
Ebert praises Sleeping With the Enemy’s early scenes, but gradually criticizes it more as it progresses. He acknowledges that the film initially shows an unfortunate, battered wife. However, as the plot progresses the audience encounters a horror movie containing unnatural surprise elements. As far as character development, Ebert explains how Martin uses psychological and physical abuse to possess and dominate Laura. He explains that Martin displays Laura at social events, but abuses her at home, which accurately portrays abuse. Ebert notes that the early beach scenes dramatically symbolize Martin’s obsessive character and Laura’s dependent character. However, the movie loses Ebert’s respect as the predictable plot unfolds.
Eiskovits, Z. (1999). Talking control metaphors used by battered women. Violence Against Women, 5 (8), 845-869.
Eiskovits’ study data deciphers the metaphors battered women use when describing the domestic abuse experience. Eiskovits defines metaphors as linguistic tools that reveal unspoken internal feelings. Each woman’s metaphor usage during the interviews reveals what she perceives as causing the domestic violence. Some women used volcanoes when describing their husbands’ unpredictable tempers. Eiskovits claims that using this volcanic imagery exposes the women’s attempt to view their husbands’ violent explosions as an affliction over which the husbands have absolutely no control. The women also described husbands’ emergence as strangers during violent episodes. A woman separates the husband who loves her from the monster who hurts her. She can then rationalize the pain he causes her, which she cannot do if she simply acknowledges her lover as her abuser. The man’s natural inability to control his temper prevails throughout the women’s metaphor use. Most women believe their actions and words provoke their husbands’ reactions.
Gelles, R. J. (1976). Abused wives: Why do they stay. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 38, 659-668.
Gelles conducted detailed interviews with 41 families and his results explain why abused women remain with their husbands. Gelles finds that a woman most likely stays with an abusive husband when she experiences less severe and random violence, if she was physically abused as a child, or if she has fewer financial resources and power. He emphasizes that a woman’s decision to remain with her husband does not rely primarily on the assault severity. Rather, more independent women most commonly seek assistance. Gelles includes a chart combining the resulting variables. A woman with a high family violence level is less likely to seek intervention, divorce, separation, or visit an agency. She most likely calls the police if she has a job, a higher education, or if she has children, especially many or older ones. Gelles study presents an unrepresentative, small sample, so he admits that his article does not completely answer his initial question or fully solve domestic abuse.
Johnson, B. D. (1991, February 18). Sleeping with the enemy. [Review of the movie Sleeping with the enemy]. Maclean’s, p.51.
Johnson gives Sleeping With the Enemy’s ridiculous plot a ‘C’. Patrick Bergin plays an unoriginal and predictable villain as Martin, the abusive husband. Johnson says Julia Roberts performs well as Laura, the abused housewife. However, her supposed terror does not convince an intelligent audience. Furthermore, ominous music accompanies suspenseful scenes that eventually disappoint the viewer. We agree with Johnson who believes that the plot depreciates domestic violence, claiming that Laura’s flight appears too simple and she does not exhibit the crippling entrapment that most battered wives experience. Johnson feels sympathetic towards Julia Roberts, having the lead role in this terrible film, rather than for her character Laura who endures Martin’s abuse.
Kempley, R. (1991, February). Sleeping with the enemy. The Washington Post [Online], (1).
Sleeping With the Enemy’s stereotypical and ineffective presentation disappoints Kempley. She explains that the director, Joseph Ruben, mechanically displays Martin’s sexual obsession. She also criticizes Ruben’s stereotypical characters. Kempley claims Ruben simply follows the Hollywood model, using stereotypes to gain an audience. He directs this thriller about a battered wife who never actually controls her womanhood. Kempley summarizes the plot while emphasizing the wealthy husband’s abuse toward Laura, her escape, altered identity, and new boyfriend. Kempley explains that Laura’s new boyfriend shows Ruben’s inaccurate idea that most women like sensitive men. She concludes that Julia Roberts represents a static character who does not convey the intended new, strong woman.
Lehr, R. F., & Fitzsimmons, G. (1991). Adaptability and cohesion: Implications for understanding the violence-prone system. Journal of Family Violence, 6 (3), 255-265.
Lehr and Fitzsimmons conducted a study focusing on the adaptability and cohesion of violent relationships rather than the individuals. Past reports indicate that violent relationships have both an inadaptable and greatly involved system. This study shows that violent relationships are inadaptable but have less involvement and communication between partners. Lehr and Fitzsimmons surveyed couples who admitted to having abusive relationships. Using individual questionnaires, they measured their evidence against the accepted Circumplex Model of marital and family systems called FACES III. This model considers cohesion, family members’ connection with one another; adaptability, the likelihood that a marital system can alter its structure and inner-relationships; and communication, which encompasses both cohesion and adaptability. The scoring system categorizes reason, verbal aggression, and violence. Since Lehr and Fitzsimmons emphasized the relationship rather than the individuals, the two scores’ average determines the total violence score. From this innovative study, Lehr and Fitzsimmons encourage more experiments to help psychologists diagnose and treat patients perpetrating and suffering from abuse.
Novak, R. (1991, February 18). Sleeping with the enemy. [Review of the movie Sleeping with the enemy]. People Weekly, p.17.
Novak claims that the film Sleeping With the Enemy poorly adapts the Nancy Price novel because of Joseph Ruben’s inadequate direction, a predictable plot, and unconvincing characters. Novak criticizes Laura’s fake death stunt as an unbelievable escape. He also questions why Laura and Martin have no children despite a four-year marriage. Novak points out that Laura’s declines consulting the authorities only because she thinks they will not help her. Also, the movie does not effectively explain Laura’s marital entrapment.
Ruben, J. (1991) Sleeping with the Enemy. Julia Roberts and Patrick Bergin. 20th Century Fox.

Umberson, D., Anderson, K., et al. (1998). Domestic violence, personal control, and gender. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 60 (2), 442-453.

Umberson and Anderson use survey data to examine the relationship between domestic violence and personal control, which concerns the perception of power influencing one’s surroundings and links social environments to psychological conditions. Social aspects like economic status, relationships, and child-care influence personal control and affect a partner’s physical and mental well-being. A poor household’s father may lack personal control because he cannot improve his family’s conditions, causing him psychological frustration. Umberson and Anderson cite theories which conclude that domestic violence demonstrates a batterer’s attempt to reclaim personal control by controlling those around him, i.e. his wife. The violence crescendos when the batterer notices his authority threatened. Violence severity and the batterer’s personal control needs vary directly. The resulting victimization women experience adversely affects their sense of control. Abused women experience a real and perceived personal control reduction, rendering them helpless to leave their relationships.

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