Why Some Women Choose to Stay?
By Aakriti Pasricha
Rihanna goes back to Chris Brown after he beats her up. Not just her, given the chance to escape their abusers, many women – at least one study reports 50 percent – return to their abusers after a shelter stay. Why?
Relationship abuse is a pattern of abusive and coercive behaviors used to maintain power and control over a former or current intimate partner. An abusive relationship means more than being hit by the person who claims to love and care. Abuse can be emotional, financial, sexual or physical and can include threats, isolation, and intimidation.
You may rightfully then ask, ‘Why does the topic delimit itself to women?’ Men are abused too. I agree. In fact in my eyes, anyone abusing anyone, be it humans or animals, is totally unacceptable, regardless of the gender. Nonetheless, the social reality is that most victims of abuse are women.
Remaining in an abusive relationship without taking any action can cause the abuse to increase in frequency and severity, and the victim may experience something similar to Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. In such a relationship, she may begin to identify with the aggressor, become brainwashed, may cling to her husband or lover and behave in irrational ways. The long-term psychological effects of such a relationship include a profound sense of betrayal of trust, depression, suicidal ideation, guilt, shame and feelings of inferiority. Women who have been beaten and abused are also more likely to attempt suicide. Since the consequences of abuse are so impactful and long lasting for the people involved as well as the society as a whole, it is important that the very important question is answered- why stay, even after years of tormenting nightmares and their constant fear, still choose to stay? Do they wait for worse to happen? Or is it really not in their hands
A mechanism that works at the beginnings of an abusive relationship may be denial and disbelief from the side of the woman towards the fact that anyone she loves and trusts could want to hurt her. The psychological abuse which accompanies physical abuse lowers self esteem and increases feelings of guilt, shame, loneliness, pessimism and penetrating fear. The aftermath of attacks evoke confusing and ambivalent feelings which make it difficult for her to decide to leave. This is especially true when the abuser expresses regret and vows to change.
Next, women habituated to abuse are frequently unable to step back and take a look at the bigger picture. The trauma impacts upon cognition and they tend to employ short-term coping strategies, such as fleeing when violence erupts, only to return during an interval when things are quiet and he has said sorry.
The next mechanism that keeps a woman stay in an abusive relationship is intermittent reinforcement of rewards in the abusive relationship. The offset of abuse is likely to be characterized by the onset of positive behaviors, described by Walker (1979) as the “contrition phase” of the abuse cycle, and comprised of promises to change, promises to not be abusive again, proclamations of love, etc.
This means that once the abuser starts behaving badly and the she starts to consider leaving, the abuser may throw in rewards to make her stay. These may include flowers, sincere apologies, promises to seek counseling, etc right after a big fight. These reinforcements often encourage the victim to stay, hoping that the abuser will permanently change to the nicer mode.
In some other cases, the abuser may have brainwashed the woman into believing many things like no one else can love her, that if the case is taken to court then he is more likely to win the custody battle for the children, and that he can even murder her if she decides to leave. These ideas, when presented to her repeatedly, may eventually cause her to believe them, making it impossible to figure a way out. Jealousy, over possessiveness, intrusiveness of the batterer, and isolation of the woman, all combine to strip her of any dignity and self worth, helping her to feel as of if she can’t do any better than the abuser.
Many women are isolated from friends and family by their partners. This lack of social support makes it difficult for them to have the necessary guidance and driving forces to help them look at the bigger picture more clearly and to figure out the steps that need to be taken to get out of the relationship. Many a times, family and friends may convince the woman to hold on to the relationship and to try to modify her own behavior to make things work.
A type of observational learning may also be at work in some cases of abuse wherein the women come from abusive backgrounds and have seen as well as experienced similar behaviors while growing up. These experiences may have caused them to believe that such behaviors are tolerable and that this is just how things work. For them, the partner doing this is acceptable as the models in their lives showed that this was acceptable.
Last but not the least we focus on attachment styles. In situations of extreme power imbalance, where a person of high power (dominator) is intermittently punitive, subjugated persons might adopt the dominator’s assumed perspective of them, and internalize or redirect aggression toward others similar to themselves. As the power imbalance magnifies, the subjugated person feels more negative in their self-appraisal, more incapable offending for themselves, and is, thus, increasingly more in need of the dominator. This cycle of relationship-produced dependency and lowered self-esteem is repeated, eventually creating a strong affective bond from the low to high power person. Concomitantly, the person in the high power position develops an inflated sense of their own power (just as the low power person develops an exaggerated sense of their own powerlessness) which masks the extent to which they are dependent on the low power person to maintain their feeling of (Fromm, 1973).
Once the above are realized, it is necessary for the society to work along with the victim to help them break out of such unhealthy thought processes and seek intervention. It is high time that the victim is not blamed (by herself or the society) for what she goes through, and that fingers are rightly pointed at the perpetrator.