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November 1999
ABUSIVE RELATIONSHIPS; WHY WOMEN STAY
By Joyce Parker, Ph.D.

The question of why women stay in abusive relationships has been studied from many perspectives including the impact of the abuse on the women, the severity of the abuse on the decision to leave, and the types of coping used by women in abusive relationships. Some women leave or request help after an initial incident while others experience repeated beatings before involving social institutions or leaving the relationship. Some never leave, rarely reveal the incidents and don't involve social institutions. One prominent researcher in the field found that the more severe the abuse, the more likely were the women to seek some form of intervention with divorce or separation being the most likely result as opposed to police intervention or going to an agency. Women who were hit more frequently were more likely to call police. Women who were hit less often but more severely were more likely to leave.

Battering is seen as a victimization of the woman and her responses often parallel those of victims of violent crimes. However, abused women are different from other victims of violent crimes in that the assailant is an intimate and previously trusted partner. The psychological repercussions include a loss of sense of trust and safety and intense feelings of helplessness. There is confusion as the woman attempts to absorb the impact of being hurt by someone who was thought to be caring and protective. High anxiety, passivity and/or apathy often characterize the woman's response. The women who are more likely to remain in the relationship are believed to engage in a process of rationalization which denies the reality of the situation, the options available, the truth about the victimizer and the victimization, and the causes of the violence.

If the woman remains in the situation without taking any action, the abuse is likely to increase in frequency and severity. She may experience something similar to post traumatic stress syndrome. She begins to identify with the aggressor, becomes brainwashed, may cling to her husband or lover and behave in irrational ways. The long-term psychological effects include a profound sense of betrayal of trust, depression, suicidal ideation, guilt, shame and feelings of inferiority. The woman may be extremely afraid for her personal safety. The psychological consequences of battering are, therefore, profound. They cluster around physical symptoms and mixed anxiety/depressive symptoms. Women who have been beaten and abused are also more likely to attempt suicide.

Women in an abusive relationship use self-blame which imposes meaning on the situation and gives them some semblance of perceived control. Battered women ask the question, "Why now?" They blame themselves for causing the husband to act violently in order to feel as if they have some control over what has happened. But as the violence continues, they begin to blame themselves more for not being able to modify it or for tolerating such behavior.

All of these reactions to the victimization impact the woman's ability to cope with her situation. In several studies, battered women were found to use avoidance and dependent coping strategies and passive appraisal. They believed there was little they could do. They tried to avoid doing things that might anger their partner. They described themselves as walking on eggshells to avoid outbursts. These strategies are ineffective as compared to more active forms of coping such as leaving, pressing charges or enlisting the help of professionals, friends and family. The more severe the abuse and the more avoidance coping women used, the more severe was the depression they experienced. Avoidance coping also led to low self-esteem and feelings of helplessness and hopelessness.

Thus the psychological career of the abuse victim involves several factors which keep her in the relationship. At first there is the denial and disbelief that anyone they love and trust could want to hurt them. The psychological abuse which accompanies physical abuse lowers self esteem and increases feelings of guilt, shame, loneliness, pessimism and penetrating fear. The aftermath of attacks evoke confusing and ambivalent feelings which make it difficult to decide to leave. This is especially true when the abuser expresses regret and vows to change.

In order to leave then, new coping responses must be activated. These include acquiring social support. Many women are isolated from friends and family by their partners. The woman must overcome the shame and humiliation she may feel, in order to activate others to help. She must understand that the abuse is not her fault. She may seek spiritual help from her religious community. She should activate whatever help is available from the community. Some women leave when the children become involved in the violence. Others women leave only when their injuries are so severe that their denial can no longer be maintained.

Women usually ask for help from mental health professionals, lawyers, clergy, battered wives shelters and the police. The legal system has often failed battered women because of the ambiguity in the law when parties involved in violence are married or live together. Police, district attorneys and judges hesitate to interfere when the victim and perpetrator are married. Police rarely arrest batterers and do not protect women from further assaults should they press charges. Women are often not eligible for legal aid because their husband's income is added into the equation for eligibility. Battered women's shelters are often overcrowded and have a waiting list. They don't provide the economic resources necessary to allow a woman to leave an abusive situation. Mental health services may provide supportive treatment, but cannot protect women from dangerous men. Nor can they require the abuser to come for help. When mental health professionals encourage women to leave abusive situations without the proper protection, and without the social and economic resources needed to develop independence; they may be doing more harm than good. On the other hand, if the institutional response is effective, women may still choose to remain due to vulnerability factors, cognitive sets or reactions to the victimization.

Statistics indicate that women are more likely to be assaulted by people they love than by strangers. Our society needs to protect individuals from this form of violence more effectively. We must educate women not to tolerate any form of abuse from individuals that are supposed to love and cherish them. In one study, a random sample of women was asked whether beatings by husbands and lovers were justified under certain conditions. Of the 400 respondents, 19 percent agreed to at least one of the circumstances present in the questionnaire as justifying a man's beating of his wife. Men agree with violence against loved ones in even higher percentages. These attitudes perpetuate the cycle of violence in families. They allow our police and judicial system to continue to endanger women by not institutionalizing protection against spousal abuse. Women and men must be educated to be intolerant of all forms of violence in intimate relationships.

Dr. Parker is a psychotherapist in practice in Torrance. She is a member of the Independent Psychotherapy Network.

The author of this article, and founder of the Therapyinla.com website, Joyce Parker, passed away in 2011. To honor her we are keeping her articles posted at this website.

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