Why Is It…?

“Why Is It…?” was designed by Dr. Steiner to address readers’ questions about human behavior from a social psychological perspective in order to inform and stimulate dialogue about the ways in which our thoughts, feelings and behaviors are influenced by the presence of other people. Dr. Steiner holds a Ph.D. in Applied Social Psychology. In addition to working as a university professor over the last 15 years, she conducts individual and group consultations in matters of social relationships and behavior. Readers are invited to submit their questions anonymously in one paragraph or less to Dr. Steiner at [email protected].

Q: Why is it that women stay in abusive relationships?

I have a friend that is currently in what I would think is an abusive relationship. Her husband is constantly calling her names, yelling at her and sometimes he gets a little physical. I’m not really sure what I can do to help her and I really don’t understand why she stays with a man that treats her so badly. Please help me understand.

A: If your friend is with a partner that shouts at her, insults her, and becomes physical at times, she is definitely in an abusive relationship. Sadly, abusive relationships are pervasive. It is estimated that one out of three women will be abused in her lifetime. In fact, 50 percent of all women murdered in the U.S. are slain by their male partners; therefore, any instance of abuse should be taken seriously. Many believe that abusive relationships only involve physical assaults; however, repeated verbal/emotional attacks constitute abuse as well, and are typically warning signs that accompany or precede acts of physical violence.

While it is true that abuse can occur in any type of relationship (homosexual, parental, etc.), most instances occur in the context of heterosexual relationships with male perpetrators and female victims. And while the reasons why some men become abusive is better left to another column, suffice it to say that males are raised with the traditional social expectation that they be powerful, dominant, and in control. In contrast, females, labeled as the “weaker sex,” are taught to be submissive, nurturing and self-sacrificial, setting up a recipe for disaster when combined with issues of low self-esteem and/or prior experiences as victims of, or witnesses to, abuse in the home as children.

The question at hand concerns why women stay in abusive relationships and can be addressed by examining the cycles of abuse, perceptions of shame, and practical obstacles preventing escape.

Most abusive males tend to follow a similar behavioral pattern that has been identified as the “cycle of abuse,” with three distinct stages. Stage one involves tension building, where the abuser becomes increasingly tense, irritable and volatile. He may appear edgy, impatient, and easily angered. This dynamic escalates until the smallest detail sets him off (dinner was not on the table at precisely 6:00 pm, for example). Just like a pressure cooker, the lid blows and a violent outburst occurs, resulting in physical, emotional, or sexual aggression. This second stage in the cycle is represented by an explosion of abusive behavior that may include verbal/emotional attacks, damage to property (smashing things), and/or physical violence and harm. This stage of abuse constitutes a very real threat to the well being and safety of the women and children involved. It is a dire and terrifying experience that leaves a wake of devastating physical and emotional destruction.

Following the violent outburst, most abusers enter into the third stage in the cycle that is typified by a stark realization of what has occurred and triggers an outpouring of profuse apologies and promises for redemption and change. Comments such as, “It will never happen again” or “I promise to get help” are commonly expressed. Abusers may sob profusely, fain illness, or beg and plead for forgiveness. Following the abuse, they frequently do a “180” and treat their partners like queens – complete with compliments, gifts, and other pampering, ingratiating acts of kindness. This third stage has been labeled the “honeymoon stage” and is often the point where many women are drawn back into “giving him another chance” based on the conviction that “he will change.” It can not be over-emphasized that the “honeymoon stage,” while offering comfort and hope to the victim, eventually comes full circle back to the tension building phase – where the vicious cycle repeats time and time again.

Most women engaged in abusive relationships endure deep perceptions of shame and guilt. Abusers often blame their victims for the violent outbursts with statements such as, “if you weren’t such a nag (or whatever), I wouldn’t have to do this!” Women with lower self-esteem internalize these criticisms and convince themselves that it is, indeed, their fault. They may hide their pain and injuries from family, friends and co-workers – falling deeper into an abyss of silent desperation and isolation from others who can offer them support. Many abusers also engage in intimidating threats of harm, promising violent punishment and retribution if the woman attempts to disclose the abuse or seek help. Violent threats to children or family members are not uncommon to coerce her continued silence. And because 50 percent of women killed are victims of their male partners, these threats are quite substantial.

Even in cases where women desperately want to leave, there are numerous barriers to doing so. Economic dependence, lack of employable skills and harassment on the job by the abuser (visits, telephone calls, etc.) can combine to make escape difficult if not impossible. In cases where women are gainfully employed, their job security is threatened by harassment and excessive time off due to physical/emotional trauma. And due to the isolation tactics of abusers, many women find themselves devoid of close friends who could provide a network of shelter and support. Vestiges of sexism in legal/law enforcement institutions also constitute hard and fast barriers to the woman seeking escape.

For those with friends or family in abusive relationships, it is important to stay in touch and not succumb to the isolation tactics described above. Realize that victims of abuse are imprisoned by their abusers (emotionally and physically). Do not dismiss a lack of communication as voluntary distancing, but rather a response to fear, injury, intimidation and damaged self-esteem. If you believe you are in an abusive relationship, don’t be ashamed or hesitate to seek help from friends, family, and agencies of professionals trained to assist you through this very delicate but necessary transition to freedom.