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Why Do Some Battered Women Stay?

Staying in abusive relationships.

Carlin Flora has in her earlier post written about the puzzle of domestic violence. Given the enormous health and somatic costs of spousal abuse, the question of why many battered women stay with their abusive husbands or boyfriends is a puzzling one. While most battered women eventually leave their abusers, a substantial minority (estimates range from a quarter to a third) remain in their abusive relationships. The problem is doubly puzzling from an evolutionary psychological perspective, because it emphasizes the importance of life, survival, and individual welfare. Why do so many battered women stay in their abusive relationships?

What adds to the mystery is that most of the women are themselves mystified by their own choice. When pressed, however, many respond by saying “Because I love him”; emotional attachment to the abuser is one of the primary reasons battered women give for why they choose to stay. From an evolutionary psychological perspective, love and other emotions are proximate mechanisms that compel organisms to engage in behavior that, in the context of the ancestral environment, would have increased their inclusive fitness. The fact that women themselves are mystified by their own choice when they follow their emotions and stay with their violent partners seems to suggest the possible operation of evolutionary logic to which the women do not have complete conscious access. But what possible reproductive benefits can staying with violent mates have, when such women are often severely injured, sometimes killed?

From the Dawkinsian (or, more properly, Hamiltonian) gene-centric view of life, there is one thing more important than life itself, and that is reproductive success. Life is important, survival is important, only because you can’t get laid if you are dead. Life is merely a means to reproduction. Organisms (like humans) are only vehicles for their genes, and it is the genes, not the organisms, that are in the driver’s seat. It would therefore underscore the power of the gene-centric view of life, if staying with an abusive partner has some benefit to the victims’ genes, while it incurs tremendous costs to the victims themselves.

One possible such benefit is that, both in the United States and the United Kingdom, women mated to abusive partners have more sons. In the British sample, women who are mated to abusive husbands on average have one-eleventh more son than those who aren’t (.7912 vs. .7007). The difference increases to one-eighth of a son (.1324) in a multiple regression analysis which includes proper statistical controls for potential confounds. However, abused women have no more daughters than nonabused women (.6787 vs. .6836). And the tendency toward violence, which is largely a function of men’s baseline testosterone levels, is highly heritable. In other words, violent fathers tend to beget violent sons.

Violent men tend not to do well in civilized postindustrial societies like ours; they tend to be overrepresented in prison populations. However, our brain doesn’t know that. The human brain, including all of its evolved psychological mechanisms, are designed for and adapted to the conditions of our ancestral environment. In our ancestral environment, violent men probably did very well in their intrasexual competition for status, and thus for mating opportunities. The most prolific father in recorded history, Moulay Ismail the Bloodthirsty, who had at least 1,042 (but probably closer to 1,400) children in his lifetime, was also reputed to have killed 30,000 people by his own hands. Aggressive, violent, and ruthless men often made the best warriors and political leaders throughout human evolutionary history, until very recently.

In species characterized by high male parental investment (such as humans), males in higher dominance ranks on average make better fathers because of their greater ability to protect and invest in their offspring than men in lower dominance ranks. Children of such men of higher dominance ranks are therefore better off than those of men of lower dominance ranks. Further, if the battered woman already has children with the batterer, she may not be able to find a superior alternative mate and father for her children, because stepfathers represent probably the greatest physical danger to children. Infants and children who do not live with two biological parents face 40 to 100 times as great a chance of being injured or killed within the family as those who live with both biological parents. Thus, as terrible as living with a batterer might be for the physical welfare of the mother, the alternative (leaving him and living with another man who is not the genetic father of her children) might even be worse for the physical and reproductive welfare of her children (and thus her genes). It is therefore not entirely unreasonable to posit that women may have been selected to tolerate a certain level of nonlethal violence in their mates in order simultaneously to protect her children and to produce intrasexually competitive (if also wife-beating) sons.

I am emphatically not suggesting that women have a preference to mate with violent abusers instead of gentle, kind, and resourceful millionaires. Given the choice, any sane woman would prefer the latter to the former. However, the process of mating is far from random or unrestricted; no woman (or man) has an entire range of potential mates to choose from. Due to the highly socially structured and constrained nature of meeting people, which results in assortative (nonrandom) mating, the choice that some women unfortunately face is often between unemployed, uneducated, unintelligent, unmotivated, alcoholic men who are violent, and unemployed, uneducated, unintelligent, unmotivated, alcoholic men who are not. My suggestion is merely that, under some circumstances, women may have been selected to prefer the former to the latter. Some (present-day) losers may be better than others, especially in the context of the ancestral environment. There is even some evidence from field experiments from four American cities that employed men are more likely to batter their wives than unemployed men.

The difference in the mean number of sons between abused and nonabused wives (about one-eleventh to one-eighth of a son) is admittedly very small. However, evolutionary biological models show that even a 1% advantage in reproductive success is sufficient for the trait to spread in the population within a relatively short period of time. So even a small advantage of having a fraction of a son carrying his father’s violent genes and thus outcompeting his male rivals in intrasexual competition for status and mates might be sufficient for the tendency for women to stay with their abusive husbands to evolve.

The tendency for battered women to have more sons than other women do can potentially explain the otherwise puzzling phenomenon of why some battered women stay in their abusive relationships. This explanation, if at least partially true, underscores the power of evolutionary psychology and its gene-centric view of life. Sometimes organisms sacrifice their welfare and life in order to increase their reproductive success.

About the Author
Satoshi Kanazawa

Satoshi Kanazawa is an evolutionary psychologist at LSE and the coauthor (with the late Alan S. Miller) of Why Beautiful People Have More Daughters.

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