People often wonder why women stay in violent relationships. Physically violent relationships are often accompanied by sexual and psychological abuse. Because these forms of abuse erode self-esteem, women lose sight of their own needs over the course of the relationship. However, through various mechanisms (e.g., social support, media that raised awareness, their own children) some abused women come to realize that the violence is not their fault and they do not deserve to be abused. Women find the strength to leave when they are able to love themselves and put themselves first.
Studies have revealed that the reasons women terminate an abusive relationship include concerns of safety for themselves and their children; personal growth, which often involves a cognitive change or turning point; and reaching a personal limit. Friends, family, counselors, and shelters have been named by women as most helpful in ending violent relationships. Many women reported that multiple types of resources were needed before they were finally able to end the relationship.
The women in these studies clearly conveyed that the decision to stay or leave the violent relationship was a highly rational choice that carefully and accurately considered the pros and cons of the situation, particularly the potentially lethal consequences of leaving. Study responses to why women stay in violent relationships clustered into two broad categories: positive and hopeful reasons on the one hand, and negative ones on the other. Positive reasons for staying included love for their partners, commitment to their wedding vows, desire to provide a two-parent home, and hope that their partners could and would change. Negative reasons for staying included lack of financial resources, housing, or childcare; emotional dependence on the abuser; fear of the repercussions of leaving, derived from the abuser’s threats to take the children or kill her or the children; and feeling trapped, ashamed, or without hope of any alternatives.
The distinction between the two types of reasons cited above is critical to understanding how women come to assess their readiness to take action. “Why I stay” is a qualitatively different stage of readiness for change than “why I cannot leave.” Each has implications for possible interventions.
Women often described the decision to leave the violence as “reaching a breaking point.” Their responses depicted a sudden shift in how they saw their partners and themselves. Some mentioned an especially violent incident resulting in severe injuries such as a ruptured eardrum or head injuries. Reevaluating their circumstances, loving themselves, and considering their own needs were mentioned often as important precursors to ending the violence and were points of view that were previously unfamiliar to many of them.
Women also reported the realization that the violence was not going to end or that the violence was going to escalate to a point of lethality as an important decisive factor in their taking action. Finally, children were a powerful motivator for leaving as well, particularly as women became increasingly concerned that their children were being affected by witnessing the violence, mimicking it, or being abused themselves.
Women left the abusive relationship when they resolved the issues that had previously kept them feeling trapped in the relationship or when they reached the “breaking point” noted above. Additionally, the women conveyed that their leaving was greatly assisted when their friends or relatives were available to help them both logistically and emotionally.
Women indicated there were more barriers to than supports for leaving violent relationships. They noted actual criticism or fear of criticism from family and friends, withdrawal of support, violence in the family of origin that led to perceptions of intimate partner violence as the norm, weak laws, unsupportive or punitive legal personnel, and religious teachings as barriers to leaving. Lawyers, police officers, and judges were often cited as unsympathetic and harmful to women trying to leave. African American women mentioned not trusting female friends to help. Rural Caucasian women mentioned the abuser’s family as supporting the violence through denial, rationalization, or active encouragement.
African American women were much more inclined to seek support from their church or family, and for them, the role of prayer and religion was especially important. They never mentioned medical care or social service providers as helpful. They had limited or negative experiences with social institutions such as shelters. White women used the legal system much more frequently. They also mentioned shelters, counseling, and legal personnel as supportive of calls for assistance in leaving the abusive relationship. They noted that shelters also share other types of information, for example, the importance of checking a potential partner’s police record, the types of legal charges that can be brought, and warning signs to look for in future partners. The range of services offered by shelters seems helpful in women’s decisions to leave abusive relationships, and later in helping them rebuild their lives.
Understanding the factors influencing a woman’s decision to leave an abusive partner, and the barriers she faces in actually leaving, can provide important guidelines for developing social supports and facilitators for helping women leave abusive relationships.
- Horton, A. L., & Johnson, B. L. (1993). Profile and strategies of women who have ended abuse. Families in Society: The Journal of Contemporary Human Services, 74, 481–492.
- Moss, V. A., Pitula, C. R., Campbell, J. C., & Halstead, L. (1997). The experience of terminating an abusive relationship from an Anglo and African American perspective: A qualitative descriptive study. Issues in Mental Health Nursing, 18, 433–454.
- Short, L. M., McMahon, P. M., Chervin, D. D., Shelley, G. A., Lezin, N., Sloop, K. S., et al. (2000). Survivors’ identification of protective factors and early warning signs in intimate partner violence. Violence Against Women, 6(3), 273–287.
- Ulrich, Y. C. (1991). Women’s reasons for leaving abusive spouses. Health Care for Women International, 12, 465–473.
- Wolf, M. E., Ly, U., Hobart, M. A., & Kernie, M. A. (2003). Barriers to seeking police help for intimate partner violence. Journal of Family Violence, 18(2), 121–129.
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