Why women stay in abusive relationships is the wrong question. The questions we should be asking are:
Why do men terrorize their partners?
Why does the community allow battering to continue?
How can we be helpful to women in the process of leaving?
A common mistake in understanding domestic violence is to scrutinize the survivor and avoid looking at the perpetrator. People believe that if battered women REALLY wanted to leave they could just get up and go. Many people overlook the environmental barriers that prevent women from leaving and too often focus on psychological "characteristics" of women instead. Although men’s violence is the crucial question, many people wonder why women stay – and advocates of battered women have made the following suggestions.
Some battered women are held prisoner in their own homes. Assailants use psychological terrorism and abuse to break down the victims' will to resist and bring them under control. A worthwhile model is the "Stockholm Syndrome", which describes how those who are taken hostage begin to identify with, become attached to, and take the side of their captors as survival reactions to life-threatening situations. Batterers employ knowledge gained in an intimate relationship to attack the woman's spirit, her sense of self worth and thus her ability to resist. Sexual abuse and domination are particularly degrading to the spirit and weaken the capacity to resist. Torture and murder of pets - particularly those special to the woman - is also not unusual.
Some battered women stay because they believe that therapy will help their batterers stop being violent. Having the assailant enter counseling bolsters the woman's hope about the relationship: if he can be cured, she reasons (and her reasoning is supported by the therapist who is doing the counseling, who she sees as the expert), then the violence will end and their relationship can resume. All women want the violence to end; many do not want the relationship to end.
Some battered women are forced to stay because they can't afford justice. Getting a personal protection or restraining order may require getting a lawyer -- which usually requires money. Legal aid offices may not necessarily handle divorce, and many do not have the resources to handle divorce and custody cases when domestic violence is involved. Major cuts to legal services have hindered the limited options for legal redress. The assailant may have told her that he will use his income to hire a more skilled attorney who will take her children.
Battered women sometimes stay for their children, so their abusive partner will not get custody. Some survivors reason that they will sacrifice themselves so their children can have a father, good schools, a safe neighborhood or have financial security.
Some battered women stay because there is no place for them to go. Shelters do not exist everywhere or are full. Their funding is in constant danger, vulnerable to attacks from groups believing they are "destroying the family" or are "anti-male." Women face discrimination in the rental market and landlords are often reluctant to rent to formerly battered women, believing that their assailant will show up and cause property damage or physical harm. The assailant often deliberately sabotages his partner's credit rating (or prevents her from establishing one at all).
Some battered women stay because they are not given accurate information about battering. They are told by professionals, family, friends and the batterer that alcohol or drugs causes battering. They are told that they are codependent or enable his behavior – if they would change, then their assailants would. Women then endlessly attempt to modify their behavior only to watch the violence worsen and find themselves blamed for not trying hard enough.
Some battered women stay because they believe what most people in our society think about battered women: they imagine or exaggerate the violence; they provoke or are to blame for the violence; they all come from poor, uneducated, or minority backgrounds; their partner just has a problem controlling his anger or stress or; unemployment problems have caused the battering. If the woman goes for help to family, friends or professionals who believe these myths, they will suggest ideas that will not work and make it harder for her to escape.
Some battered women stay because their assailants deliberately and systematically isolate them from support. People who are in trouble need the aid of family, friends, co workers and professionals to weather the crisis and make the best decisions for themselves. Many assailants are extremely jealous and possessive; they constantly accuse their partners of affairs, demand that their partner speak to no one, and accuse them of infidelity every time they do so. Assailants force their partner to account for every minute of their time. One assailant marked the tires of his girlfriend's car to monitor her use of it. Another nailed the windows shut and put a lock on the outside of the door. Many take car keys, disable cars, and unplug or break telephones. Assailants methodically drive friends and family away.
Some battered women stay because they believe in love and they still love their partners. This is hard for people who have not been battered to understand. However, many people have been in difficult relationships (or jobs) they that knew they should leave, but couldn't, or needed time to be able to depart. Love is glorified in our culture. Popular songs and movies reinforce the idea that love is the most important thing in life and people (especially women) should do anything for it. Women may love their partners, and at the same time hate their violent and abusive actions. Battered women need to be reminded that she does not have to stop loving her assailant in order to leave. Some women may be troubled about making it on their own and being lonely. Leaving a batterer may mean enduring feelings of grief and loss from abandoning a circle of friends, family, a neighborhood and a community.
Some battered women stay because they believe what their assailant is telling them:
· "You're crazy and stupid. No one will believe you." Or, "You're the one that's sick. You need help. You're hysterical."
· "I know the judge; he won't put me in jail." Or, "The police will never arrest me."
· "If you leave, I'll get custody because you'll have abandoned me and the kids."
· "If you leave, I'll find you and kill you. I'll kill your family, your kids, and your pets. You'll never escape me."
Assailants deliberately supply their partners with false information about the civil or criminal justice system. At the same time, assailants often play on their partners concern for their well being through threats of suicide or exaggerating the devastating effects of prison. (In fact, convictions are rare, and usually for misdemeanors that carry a sentence of counseling). Assailants may tell their partners that shelters are lesbian recruiting stations, staffed by lesbians, and a place where she will be attacked by lesbians or become one.
Some battered women stay because they are addicted and their addiction prevents them from taking action. Their assailant encourages or coerces them into using alcohol or drugs, and/or sabotages recovery by preventing her from going to meetings. Some women consume alcohol or other drugs to numb the psychic, emotional or physical pain caused by the violence. Doctors may prescribe tranquilizers for a battered woman's "nerves". Few women know or are told that minor tranquilizers can be seriously and quickly addictive. It makes the woman less able to act on her own behalf and it gives the assailant a handy tool for discrediting and blaming her.
Some battered women are trapped in battering relationships because of sexism. Barbara Hart states: "The most likely predictor of whether a battered woman will permanently separate from her abuser is whether she has the economic resources to survive without him." Women do not have economic resources equal to or approaching men. Nearly one half of all female headed households with children live in poverty, as compared with only 8% of male headed households. The majority of African American and Latina female headed households live at or below the poverty level. Many battered women cannot find a job and assailants can damage her employment record by harassing her at work causing excessive lateness and absenteeism.
Further, many battered women do leave. Almost all battered women try to leave at some point. For battered women who leave, the violence may just be beginning. Batterers escalate their violence when a woman tries to leave or show signs of independence. They may try to coerce her into reconciliation or retaliate for the battered women's perceived rejection or abandonment of the batterer. Men who believe they "own" their female partners view her departure as an ultimate betrayal which justifies retaliation. Because leaving may be dangerous does not mean that battered women should stay. Cohabiting with the batterer is highly dangerous both as violence usually increases in frequency and severity over time, and as a batterer may engage in preemptive strikes, fearing abandonment or anticipating separation. Although leaving may pose additional hazards, at least in the short run, the research data and the experience of advocates for battered women demonstrate that ultimately a battered woman can best achieve safety and freedom apart from the batterer. Leaving will require strategic planning and legal intervention to avert separation violence and to safeguard survivors and their children.
Excerpted from an article of the same title by Susan G. S. McGee, available through