What Keeps Women in Abusive Relationships?

  • Economic and financial dependence. Who will support her and the children? She may have no financial resources, access to resources in general, or any job skills. If she has children, it becomes more difficult to leave without having the ability to get affordable housing, transportation, childcare, etc. She may even fear that her house or car may be taken away.
  • Parenting, needing a partner for the kids. “A crazy partner is still better than no partner at all.” Many people in our society today consider single parenting to be “unattractive,” and this can hold battered women back from leaving.
  • Religious and extended family pressure to keep the family together. If she leaves or divorces her partner, her religious community may ostracize her or maybe no one will even believe her.
  • Fear of being alone, on her own, or afraid she can’t cope with home and children by herself. Fears of losing the children altogether are common. Many abusers make threats about taking the children.
  • Loyalty. “My partner is sick; if they had a broken leg or cancer, I would stay with them. This is no different.” A long history with a person can create incredibly strong bonds, good and bad. Not wanting to break promises.
  • Pity. Partner is worse off than she is; she feels sorry for her partner. Pity can often be brought on by the “Mr. Nice Guy” image that is popular among batterers. A batterer’s apologies, promises and tears can keep a woman in a relationship for a long time.
  • Wanting to help. “If I stay, I can help my partner get better.”
  • Fear that the partner will commit suicide. Many batterers make threats of suicide in order to further manipulate the victim into staying.
  • Denial. “It’s really not that bad. Other people have it worse.” Many battered women are familiar with the abuse cycle and really don’t see anything wrong with the abuse they are suffering.
  • Love. Often, the partner is quite loving and lovable when he is not being abusive. Many times a woman does not want the relationship to end, she doesn’t want to look for someone else, enjoys the physical intimacy (however infrequent/frequent it may be), and she loves her partner… she just wants the violence to end.
  • Duty. “I swore to stay married until death do us part.”
  • Guilt. She believes – and her partner and other significant others are quick to agree – that their problems are her fault, or that eventually he’ll change and the situation will get better. Numerous battered women have low self-esteem because of the abuse they suffer/have suffered, which can lead to an unhealthy self-perception and feelings of worthlessness.
  • Responsibility. It is up to her to work things out and save the relationship. Women have been socialized to believe that the emotional side of the relationship is the woman’s responsibility.
  • Fear of shame, humiliation, or harassment from the community. Being left out of social functions or moving to the bottom of the social ladder can cause great fear in women. An abuser who has a powerful family, or he who is powerful himself (economically, socially, etc.) can also be terrorizing.
  • Security. Fear of being alone in the world, belief in the “American dream” of growing up and living happily ever after. Afraid to bear the many tasks involved in maintaining a household, the financial responsibilities and needs.
  • Identity. Women have been socialized to feel they need a partner – even an abusive one, in order to be complete.
  • Unfounded optimism. Things will get better, despite all evidence to the contrary.
  • Internalization of abuser’s words. “I deserve this treatment.” Perhaps the battered woman was brought up to consider abuse as a justified and normal part of life. Maybe she doesn’t even realize that she is being abused.
  • Survival. Fears that partner will follow her and kill her if she leaves, often based on real threats by the partner. Many times her partner has told her that if she leaves, her partner will hunt her down and kill her and the children. When a woman makes a decision to leave an abusive relationship, her chances of being seriously physically hurt or killed increase 75 percent.
  • Learned helplessness. Trying every possible method to change something in our environment, with no success, we eventually expect to fail. Feeling helpless is a logical response to constant resistance to our efforts. We see this with prisoners of war, people taken hostage, people living in poverty who cannot get work, and so on. Many battered women aren’t aware that it’s OK to leave.
  • No one to turn to, nowhere to go. Unfortunately, a number of battered women don’t have a support system or a place of refuge. This would be difficult for even the strongest person to endure.

We encourage each woman to decide when it is an appropriate time to leave, and how to carry out that decision. To leave an abusive situation can be incredibly challenging. However, it is equally important to remember that in many communities, there are extensive support networks for battered women. If you are currently in an abusive situation, be active in your liberation… seek help.

* Source: Humboldt Women for Shelter, Eureka, California (handout), with revisions by EWAR 1991. Alexandra House Advocate Training manual, Alexandra House, a Shelter for Battered Women and their Children, Blaine, Minnesota.

Revised by: Safe Haven Shelter for Battered Women, Duluth, Minnesota, 2003.