Why women stay in abusive relationships

We shouldn’t be so quick to judge women who stay in abusive relationships, as the cycle of violence can leave them powerless, says Suzanne Harrington

Why women stay in abusive relationships

A day after TMZ uploaded the video of American footballer Ray Rice punching his then fiancée Janay Palmer unconscious in a lift, before dragging her limp body to a casino hallway, Palmer posted a message on Instagram.

She blamed the media for the ensuing public outcry, saying it was awful “to make us relive a moment in our lives that we regret every day”. She ended her post vowing, “We will continue to grow and show the world what real love is.”

At a later press conference with Ray Rice, Palmer also apologised “for the role I played in the incident last night”. She then attacked her husband’s team for firing him (belatedly, and only after public opinion forced the issue) and the NFL for suspending him.

American broadcaster Callie Crossley called this “a textbook reaction from an abused woman living in denial and fear”. And what happened next? Reader, she married him. Two months after he knocked her unconscious.

If your reaction to a woman marrying the man who punched her out cold is somewhere along the ‘OMG WTF she must be insane’ trajectory, you are probably not alone. For those of us who have never been in an abusive relationship (beyond normal couple rows and arguments), the idea of staying with an abusive partner is unfathomable. Is she crazy? She should leave! Why would anyone want to stay with someone like that? Get out of there!

These reactions, while genuine and instinctive, show depressingly little understanding of what it is like to be abused by an intimate partner. By the one you love, who says they love you. But before you deconstruct the layers of intimacy, abuse and fear that keep women in violent relationships, have a look at how wider society, led by the media, perceives the abuser and the abused.

Why, asks the Daily Beast website, are we so quick to acquit abusers and revictimise survivors? Why is abuse “tacitly accepted as the norm”? A Fox News anchor actually made a joke about how the best way to avoid being abused in a lift was to take the stairs.

Another Fox News contributor added, “Let’s not all jump on the bandwagon of demonising this guy. He obviously has some real problems, and his wife obviously knows that, because she subsequently married him.”

Ray Rice’s employers dragged their heels in the aftermath of the assault, reluctantly firing him only when they were shamed into doing so. Nor are abusive partners automatically from deprived, uneducated backgrounds.

You don’t need to have low self-esteem, little education, or no money to be abused. Singer Rihanna was 20 when her then partner, 19-year-old Chris Brown attacked her so badly en route to an awards ceremony that she was unable to attend. Nigella Lawson hardly fits the bill either. That’s because there is no bill to fit — women of all incomes, backgrounds, and educational levels are abused by their partners. The only requirement is being female.

What the rest of us, no matter how well meaning, still don’t understand is why women stay with their abusive partners. Viv Albertine of The Slits, the feminist punk pioneer whose first band was with Sid Vicious, found herself briefly in an abusive relationship.

“What astounds me is, for a short while, I miss the psycho,” she writes in her autobiography Clothes Music Boys. “I’m deeply ashamed of myself, but now I have an insight into battered wives and why they go back. The cycle of abuse is hypnotising; the intensity of the love they pour over you, followed by violence, contrition, your forgiveness and embarrassment, and then they love you again.”

There is currently a major conversation online and in the media about why women stay, thanks to American writer Beverley Gooden, herself a domestic violence survivor. Gooden had stayed in a violent marriage before finding her way out, and started a hashtag #WhyIStayed, as she was watching the responses on Twitter to the Rice/Palmer story.

“People were asking ‘why did she marry him?’ and ‘why didn’t she leave him,’” she said. “When I saw those tweets, my first reaction was shame. The same shame that I felt back when I was in a violent marriage. It’s a sort of guilt that would make me crawl into a shell and remain silent. But today, for a reason I can’t explain, I’d had enough. I knew I had an answer to everyone’s question of why victims of violence stay.”

Gooden began sharing her experiences — “I stayed because my pastor said God hates divorce. It didn’t cross my mind that God might hate abuse too”— which was the start of a flood of tweets from other women who had also stayed. Here is a small selection: “Because I no longer knew who I was”; “I was told marriage was forever. I didn’t want to be a failure”; “Though I was the sole wage earner in my marriage, everything was in his name. I had no credit rating. Nobody would rent to me”.

In 2004 in the US, research showed that 50% of domestic abuse and intimate partner violence victims were too ashamed to talk about what was happening to them. Today, thanks to people like Beverley Gooden on social media, tens of thousands of ordinary women and men (although the vast majority are women, given that 90% of perpetrators are male) are coming forward to share their experiences.

#Why I Stayed has been followed by #Why I Left, lending an air of shared optimism to an otherwise horrific, yet horrifically commonplace, occurrence. Let’s hope that Mrs Janay Rice remains safe, given that her husband, whom she continues to defend, is now out of a job thanks to what he did to her in that Atlantic City lift.

Which leads to the biggest, most unasked question of all. Instead of asking why women stay, we need to ask this — why do men hit?

Women’s Aid National Freephone Helpline: 1800341 900. Open from 10am-10pm seven days a week.

What is domestic violence?

Coercion & Threats: threatens to hurt her, pressure to drop charges, to do illegal things, threatens to leave, commit suicide, report her to social welfare

Intimidation: makes her afraid; smashes things; displays weapons; destroys property; abuses pets.

Emotional abuse: puts her down; makes her feel guilty; calls her names; humiliates her; makes her think she’s crazy; plays mind games

Isolation: controls what she does, who she sees / talks to, what she reads, where she goes; limits outside involvement; uses jealousy to justify actions.

Denies, blames, minimises: makes light of abuse; doesn’t take her concerns seriously; denies abuse happening; shifts responsability to her.

Uses children: to relay messages; to induce guilt; to harass during visitation; threatens to remove them from her.

Male privilege: defines gender roles to suit himself; makes all decisions; treats her as a servant

Economic: prevents her from taking a job; makes her ask him for money / gives her an allowance; blocks her access to family income; takes her income from her.

(Adapted from US Domestic Intervention Project)

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