Why women stay with abusers

A new book argues abusers employ the same type of "coercive control" used on kidnap victims and slaves.


Carol Lloyd
June 12, 2007 2:01AM (UTC)

Why do women hang around when they know their husband or boyfriend might injure or even kill them? It's always something I've had trouble grokking. When someone beats you up on the street, you run away, right? What makes things different in a home? And if you're not stuck in a rural village in India or a suburb of Tehran, Iran, or some other place where the law won't protect you, you don't have much excuse.

Yeah, yeah, I know -- it's obvious neither I nor a close friend or relative has ever experienced the reality of domestic violence -- but why women stay in violent relationships has been a question that has confounded even domestic violence experts. Today's excerpt from a new book (via University of Oxford's blog) by researcher and advocate Evan Stark offers a fascinating new look at how the very question of "why women stay" has been wrongheaded from the start.

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It's not that Stark, founder of one of the first shelters for abused women in the U.S., hasn't known the frustration of watching women return to violent relationships -- he mentions one college student who "beat her boyfriend with his own construction hammer during one of his dozens of assaults, leaving him partially paralyzed," only to turn around and marry the man, "apparently in response to pressure from his sister, because he promised not to testify if she did so, and because she felt guilt that he would no longer be able to earn a living."

But as Stark argues, the focus on women's psychological limitations has got the problem backassward. Battered women have been accused of everything from being masochists (who secretly enjoy getting threatened and beaten) to bringing on the abuse through personality flaws by being "masculine," "frigid," "overemotional," with "weakened ties to reality." Stark says that over the years, such theories have been discredited: "Researchers have failed to discover any psychological or background traits that predispose any substantial group of women to enter or remain in abusive relationships." In fact, he says, research showed that women in abusive relationships actually had "a better sense of reality ... compared to nonbattered women," "exhibited greater ego strength, and employed a greater range of strategies to change their situation than nonbattered women in distressed relationships."

So what keeps battered women returning to violent relationships? The answer, says Stark, lies in understanding not the psychology of the women but the actual power of the abusers. Stark identifies domestic abusers' subjugation of their victims, comparing it with what is visited upon kidnap victims and indentured slaves. He calls it "coercive control."

Isn't that just another way of saying these women are too scared and naive to leave? Not exactly. Stark suggests that battered women take real risks by attempting to leave violent relationships: "The risk of severe or fatal injury increases with separation. Almost half the males on death row for domestic homicide killed in retaliation for a wife or lover leaving them. As we've also seen, a majority of partner assaults occur while partners are separated."

What's more, battered women often understand these risks better than the experts offering to help them. "Abused women are much less likely than the professionals whose help they seek to regard decisions about physical proximity as means to end abuse and much more likely to regard separation as a tactical maneuver that carries a calculated risk within the orbit circumscribed by assault or coercive control."

In other words, the idea that it's the victims who are to blame eclipses an ugly reality: Ending a violent relationship is dangerous, and sometimes women (realistically or not) don't think they could survive it.

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Carol Lloyd

Carol Lloyd is currently at work on a book about the gentrification wars in San Francisco's Mission District.

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