The ‘Shark Cage’ Metaphor in Abusive Relationships

Shark Cage Metaphor for PTSD

‘The Shark Cage’ metaphor was conceptualised by Ursula Benstead (psychologist). It is a helpful and practical way for women (or anyone) in abusive relationships to understand and prevent re-victimization.

In therapy, women who have experienced abusive relationships often wonder what it is about them, or what they are doing wrong to warrant abusive treatment.  The answer to this question is complex and multifactorial, and it is also an important part of the work of therapy.  Research tells us that women who have a history of abuse in childhood are more likely to be victimised in adolescence and adulthood.  Skillful conversations about re-victimisation involve understanding this nuance and complexity, and the Shark Cage metaphor provides a useful way of discussing these ideas and the concept of boundaries, whilst reducing the risk of re-victimisation.  

The concept of the Shark Cage begins with the idea that the world is like an ocean, filled with fish of all colors and sizes, and there are also predatory sharks which are dangerous.  In the ocean, the woman needs a ‘shark cage’ to protect her from predators, but allow friendly fish to pass through. 

We aren’t born with our shark cages, our caregivers and others we come into contact with support the construction of our shark cage.  Each bar of the cage represents a boundary or a basic human right, such as the right to not be touched, not to be shouted at or called names.  Once the bars are in place, the cage provides a protective barrier making it difficult for sharks to get close enough to take a bite. 

However, not everyone has had caregivers who knew how to help their child build a sturdy cage, and many women have shark cages with missing bars or a weak alarm system that needs some work. Importantly, the metaphor emphasises that it is not the person who is deficient, but it is their cage.  It follows then that the skill of maintaining a robust cage (boundaries) is something that can be learned and refined.  

The good news is that all shark cages can be strengthened, by learning what bars to put in place to ensure emotional, physical, and sexual safety.  By learning when a bar has sustained a hit, and by learning how to respond to an attempted shark cage breach.  It is also possible to learn to recognise sharks and evaluate current and potential new partners. 

If you are interested in learning more about the Shark Cage Metaphor, the link for this article is included below, and please, request this topic get put on your agenda with your clinician if you are in need of support in this area.

The Shark Cage Metaphor (pdf)

At the Centre for Clinical Psychology we are skilled in the treatment of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). If you think you may have PTSD and you are interested in treatment you can also book an appointment with a psychologist at our service by calling (03) 9077 0122.