By Vera E. Mouradian, Ph.D.
From the Fall/Winter 2004 Research & Action Report
The question most frequently asked of advocates and professionals who work with battered women is: “Why do women stay with men who abuse them?” The short answer is that they don’t: most women who are abused by an intimate partner do not stay with their abusers permanently. Most leave eventually, although the process of leaving may take months or years, with many starts and stops. Unfortunately, the end of the relationship does not necessarily mean the end of the abuse. For these reasons, a more fruitful question to ask is: “What goes into the decision to stay or leave?”
Women who delay ending an abusive relationship are faced with many of the same complex emotional issues and social obstacles that face any of us when we contemplate leaving a partner. We are attracted to partners for reasons beyond the physical, for the good aspects of the person and the happy or comforting moments spent with them. When things are not going well in the relationship, these positive qualities and experiences provide incentives for working out problems. Reinforcing the effects of these incentives is the fact that we are socialized to expect to maintain a serious, committed relationship through good times and bad.
Many women who are considering ending a relationship, whether abusive or not, worry about negative reaction from, or even rejection by, family and friends, and the potential loss of a shared social network. Some women may be troubled about going against messages from religious leaders that marriages must be kept together at all cost. Mothers are concerned about how the breakup will affect the children, how child-custody decisions will be made, and how much access there will be to the children. Doubts about the ability to manage financially loom large, especially for women with limited education and work experience. Mothers may struggle with their own belief—and the belief of others—that a two-parent household is always best for children.
One of the complicating factors for victims of intimate partner violence (IPV) is that often, in the beginning, the relationship does not include any physical abuse. It may not be until well into the relationship, after some form of commitment has been made, that abuse starts. It is more difficult to break off a relationship once milestones such as engagement, marriage, household establishment, or first pregnancy have passed. Even when abuse begins much earlier, it often starts with “minor” acts that do not cause injury and can be easy to dismiss, particularly if the victim comes from a subculture in which poking, pinching, shaking, and slapping are viewed as excusable under certain conditions. This “minor” violence coupled with its start after a violence-free courtship period, can make it difficult to render the judgment that one’s partner may be dangerous.
Many men who batter are at first charming and romantic, and these positive interpersonal behaviors, which attracted his victim to him initially, may reappear between abusive episodes, particularly in the early months and years of the relationship. In most cases the coexistence of the batterers’ positive traits with his abusive behavior keeps his partner hoping the abusive side can be eliminated. Many batterers can appear to be remorseful and are full of promises that the abuse will not happen again.
Batterers are often quite charming to those outside of the home, confining their abuse to the private sphere. When this is the case, people often are loath to believe that the charming man they think they know could be capable of the things he does to his partner. Not only may they not be willing to help the victim, but they also may inadvertently contribute to her abuse, or to the dangerousness of her situation by the way they respond to her complaints or requests for help.
Victims often go through a period of blaming themselves for their partners’ violence. In reality, we are each responsible for our own behavior. In their efforts to avoid responsibility for their actions, batterers can be quite adept at deflecting blame onto the victim, telling her and others how things she did or failed to do “made” him do it. Unfortunately, there are some traditional cultural ideas that support his reasoning and that are still embraced by some members of our society. That such notions exist in the culture at large, makes it easier for the victim to internalize blame and harder to fight the deflection of responsibility, especially when other people echo the batterer’s excuse-making. Besides being illogical and profoundly unfair, victim blaming traps the victim in a cycle in which she keeps trying (and failing) to avoid abuse by satisfying, and even anticipating, the abuser’s every whim and mood. She fails, of course, because only he is responsible for his behavior.
Shame makes many victims reluctant to seek help. They may fear being blamed and judged negatively. They also may be concerned that they will be pressured to make decisions that they are not ready to make or that may not result in a circumstance any safer than the one they already face.
Physical safety is a grave concern for many women considering ending an abusive relationship. Claims by the abuser that he will find his partner no matter where she tries to hide, intimidate many victims. Given the efforts that some abusive men expend on surveillance of their wives or girlfriends while the relationship is intact, it is not irrational for battered women to be fearful that their partners can keep this type of promise. Concerns over physical safety are supported by threats that if she ever tries to leave him he will beat her harder than ever before, kill her, or harm or kill the children, family members or friends, anyone who tries to help her, and/or himself. He also may threaten to kidnap the children or deny her access to them through a custody fight, or he may threaten to harm or kill companion animals. Many batterers issue one or more of these threats in an effort to coerce the victim not to leave or to come back. Given the behavior of the batterer during the relationship, there is no reason for a battered woman to doubt that he at least will try to make good on these promises. Unfortunately, as crime and hospital statistics attest, and as can be observed in news headlines, some abusive men succeed.
Some batterers limit their victim’s access to the telephone and computer and use modern technology to monitor all internet activity and telephone calls to or from the home. They also may prevent their partners from working or interfere with their employment so that the women lose their jobs. Batterers may limit their partner’s access to money and/or prevent them from having or driving an automobile. They often actively try to interfere with the maintenance of relationships with family and friends and with the formation of new friendships. To the degree that the abuser is successful, these strategies of social isolation and financial control weaken or remove the social supports on which an IPV victim can rely, making it more difficult to obtain help or plan an escape. For women with limited financial resources and no social supports, leaving a batterer may mean homelessness for some period of time. Homelessness brings with it the potential for other dangers, including, ironically, an increased risk of assault by acquaintances or strangers.
The response of many police departments, courts, medical-emergency personnel, and various other sources of intervention for IPV have improved over the past two decades and can be effective and helpful. However, many battered women still face prejudice and neglect when they seek legal, social, physical, psychological, and economic aid. When victims’ concerns are dismissed and they are treated with disrespect and contempt, they may be discouraged, at least temporarily, from seeking help elsewhere which may delay efforts to leave their abusers. When part of the social system that should protect victims fails them, they can come to believe they are alone in their plight and that the task in front of them is too great to accomplish alone (especially when it may involve attaining safety from a determined and dangerous person). Battered-women’s shelters can be a temporary safe haven, but, due to limited resources, the closest shelter may be full when needed. Staff does work to place women elsewhere when this is the case, but “elsewhere” can be farther away from work, children’s schools, and supportive family and friends than a victim feels she should go. Some women, for whom communal living arrangements are foreign, may find a shelter stay intimidating.
This fairly comprehensive, though not exhaustive, overview of the concerns and difficulties victims of IPV face when trying to find solutions to their plight is meant to convey how complex this social problem is. It is important to understand that victims of IPV have many of the same concerns as other people who are considering leaving a relationship. It is also important to realize that the choices battered women make are part of a gradual and rational response to complicated, emotionally charged, and dangerous circumstances.
Instead of asking why battered women stay with their abusers, more important and relevant questions for us all to address include: under what circumstances can IPV victims leave safely? What can be done to make the process of leaving safer and more supportive? Given that many victims want the abuse to end, but not the relationship, what alternatives are there for stopping the abuse? What can be done to help the batterer change his ways and to protect his victims and others from him in the meantime?
For more information on this subject, see Vera Mouradian’s working paper Women’s Stay-Leave Decisions in Relationships Involving Intimate Partner Violence. Information on ordering this publication can be found on page 38 of this issue.
Vera E. Mouradian, Ph.D., was a research scientist at the Wellesley Centers for Women working on family violence.
The following resources are for those who wish to obtain assistance for themselves or someone close to them or who want to become involved in the effort to eliminate IPV.
National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799- SAFE (crisis hotline, local referrals, and information). Their web site is www.ndvh.org.
Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network (RAINN): 1-800-656-HOPE (crisis hotline, local referrals, and information). Their web site is www.rainn.org.
The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV) offers a list of state coalitions against domestic violence at www.ncadv.org.
The telephone numbers of local shelters and crisis hotlines often can be found in the white pages of your local telephone book, along with other important service numbers.