Why People Stay in Abusive Marriages

Very often people who know someone in an abusive marriage wonder, “Why doe she stay? Why doesn’t she just leave him?” Family and friends struggle to understand what holds someone in a relationship that causes emotional and physical pain. Although it is puzzling and hard to imagine, there are reasons, reasons that all seem compelling to the victim of abuse.

Domestic violence takes several forms and plagues many marriages and relationships. “Domestic violence is abuse or violent action that occurs between two individuals in a close relationship. Physical abuse includes acts of violence in which one partner physically hurts the other by kicking, hitting or using other methods of physical force. Sexual abuse occurs when a partner is forced to have sexual contact without his or her consent. Emotional abuse includes acts such as controlling finances or outside relationships with friends and family, making verbal threats, or routinely making comments that damage a partner’s sense of autonomy and self-worth,” according to the Center For Disease Control.

Of course, there is a difference between domestic abuse and healthy marital conflict. Healthy marital conflict challenges the spouses even as it presents an opportunity for growth. In any marriage forming and maintaining an intimate bond challenges even devoted couples. “Marriages wax and wane,” says Dr. Linda Waite of the University of Chicago.

Couples who overcome these challenges become better partners, lovers and companions. Difficulties include disagreements about parenting, differing ideas about money management, health issues and differing sex appetites, different ideas about household chores and questions of trust. Healthy couples manage these issues as they arrive without hitting, screaming, blaming and belittling each other. They experience healthy marital conflict, and they work through conflict and do not avoid it in the interest of domestic tranquility.

Why spouses stay in abusive relationships puzzles people who care about them, and remains more of a puzzle, however.

A study suggests that many who live with chronic psychological abuse still see certain positive traits in their abusers – such as dependability and being affectionate. “We wanted to see whether survey information from women who were not currently seeking treatment or counseling for relationship abuse could be a reliable source for identifying specific types of male abusers,” says Patricia O’Campo, a social epidemiologist and director of the Centre for Research on Inner City Health at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto.

Dr. O’Campo adds that past research underscored abused women’s personal evaluations of their intimate relationships – specifically, their commitment to the relationships and positive feelings about the abuser or the relationship – as critical in their decisions to continue or terminate relationships. “We wanted to learn more,” says Dr. O’Campo, who co-authored the study with researchers from Adelphi University.

Using survey data from a project funded by the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health, the researchers explored the experiences of 611 urban-dwelling, low-income American women. Here are the results:

  • Overall, 42.8 percent said their intimate male partners in the year preceding the survey had abused them.
  • Psychological abuse was significantly more of an ongoing problem than physical abuse, while sexual abuse was reported as least common.
  • A relatively small number of women (2.3 percent) perceived their partners as extremely controlling, while 1.2 percent reported that their partners engaged in extreme generally violent behaviors.

However, the women felt their abusive male partners still possessed some good qualities: 54 percent saw their partners as highly dependable, while 21 percent felt the men in their lives possessed significant positive traits such as being affectionate.

Based on the survey findings, the researchers divided the male abusers into three groups:

  • Dependable, yet abusive” men (44 percent) had the lowest scores for controlling and generally violent behaviors, and the highest scores for dependability and positive traits.
  • Positive and controlling” men (38 percent) had moderately high scores for violence and also for dependability and positive traits. However, they were more controlling than men in the first group, displaying significantly higher levels of generally violent behaviors.
  • Dangerously abusive” men (18 percent) had the highest scores for violence, controlling behavior and legal problems and the lowest scores for dependability and positive traits.

The researchers say their findings suggest there is value in studying the problem of male violence through the perceptions of abused women, including those who are currently “outside” the social services and legal systems designed to help them. “The importance of listening to women’s voices cannot be highlighted enough and needs further exploration,” says O’Campo. “This is just one step toward potentially increasing our understanding of how to find additional ways to improve women’s safety.”

Abusive marriages may trap the victim into a feedback loop of reinforcing behavior, where women stay for one or all of a number of reasons including:

  • Love: In most abusive marriages, violence doesn’t happen daily. There are days or weeks, even months between episodes of violence. During those peaceful times, the abuser may be a very loving and kind person. These peaceful times give the victim of abuse hope that the abuse won’t happen again. The love and affection the victim receives during this time only ties them more deeply to the abuser. Unbelievably, it’s hard the walk away from someone you love. Especially when there is hope for change…no matter how irrational that hope is.
  • Money: A person may feel that, if they leave they will have no way to support themselves and their children. For instance, a stay at home mom may be completely dependent on the financial support of her husband. An abusive marriage can be more attractive than the idea of leaving with no where to go and no money to take with you.
  • Religion: Some victims feel that divorce goes against their religious beliefs. Some may feel divorce is to be avoided at all expense, even their own safety. Christian scripture, for example, tells women to submit to their husbands. There are those who skew the true meaning behind such scripture and feel they are duty bound to stay in the marriage.
  • Low self-esteem: The self-esteem of some victims is so low they feel they deserve the violence. They may fear they will not be able to find someone else if they leave. They may not have enough faith in themselves to survive if they leave. These beliefs about themselves are only reinforced by the actions of the abuser.
  • Fear: The abuser may threaten to kill the victim, take their children away, and stalk them or any number of things to cause the victim to fear leaving. Fear for your life can be all the motivation a person needs to stay in an abusive relationship.
  • Shame: The victim may feel responsible for the abuse and may feel he/she has failed in some way. Shame can keep the victim from reaching out and asking for help or telling others what is happening in their marriage.
  • Isolation: The abuser’s threats and need for control can cause the victim to become cut off from communicating with friends and family. The abuser becomes the victim’s only support system, not only their abuser.

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