My experience does not define who I am

14 December 2009

Adele MaraisTalk it out: PhD candidate Adele Marais.

Young adults want to tell someone about their experiences and understandings of intimate relationships and intimate partner violence. PhD candidate Adele Marais found that in doing so young women and men use the dialogue as an opportunity to define who they are, and how they want to be understood.

For her doctoral study, Marais, a clinical psychologist and senior lecturer in the Department of Psychiatry and Mental Health, recruited 24 UCT students aged between 19 and 24 years to talk through their "meaning-making and knowledges" of intimate partner violence. Some had first- and second-hand experiences of intimate-partner violence, while others were interested in - and concerned about - the issue.

"My attention was directed at how participants actively imparted meaning to themselves and others, and how they negotiated, constructed and performed their identities through the situated interaction of the research interview," says Marais.

What she found was that, at least among her subjects, both women (19 of them) and men (five) take their intimate relationships very seriously, and that the nature, intensity and timing of these relationships have significant implications for their ongoing identity work.

"Young adults are in danger of becoming involved and isolated in intense and abusive relationships at a time of transition, growth and change," explains Marais. "Therefore, a violent relationship at this stage of their lives can have critical implications for how young adults experience and construct their sense of self."

In the study, the participants all had clear self-presentation goals. The women both rejected and emphasised their victimisation at different points in their narratives in order to prove their insight, personal power, resistance and agency. "Young women are very concerned about how their story of partner violence can undermine how they prefer to present themselves to others," says Marais, "as well as how they choose to be perceived and judged by others."

In turn, the men constructed themselves as non-domineering, caring and moderate men. In their interviews, the young men actively grappled with issues of gender, power and culture as they tried to define their masculinity and competence in relationships.

There's much for researchers and practitioners to learn from the study, Marais believes. The results show that young people make meaning of their experiences of intimate partner violence through dynamic and complex discursive processes. "Importantly," she says, "we as listeners must support young women and men to tell their stories in ways that will enable them to explore, revise and sustain their preferred narratives of self."

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