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Why Do Domestic Violence Victims Return to Abusers?

The dangerous dynamics of dysfunctional relationships

Key points

  • Many victims return to abusive relationships because they are driven by the basic necessities of life.
  • Victims who experience secondary victimization as a result of the negative attitudes of others are more likely to blame themselves as well.
  • Some victims return to abusers because they believe that despite the mistreatment, the rewards outweigh the costs of separation.

There are many reasons women in abusive relationships don’t “just leave.” In fact, even women who have the financial means to separate often don´t. The reasons are complicated. There are children, pets, possessions, financial and co-parenting obligations, among many other considerations. And when victims do leave, they often return. Why?

Image by Jose Antonio Alba from Pixabay
Source: Image by Jose Antonio Alba from Pixabay

Returning to an Abuser

Many victims return to abusive relationships because they are driven by the basic necessities of life. They are not financially secure, don’t have anywhere to go, and do not want to live in a shelter. It is surreal to watch a woman with a swollen face and black eye describe the comforts of (an abusive) home, yet I have observed it many times over in the course of prosecuting domestic violence. Other victims return because they miss their children, pets, or the social circle they share with the abuser.

Many women actually do live on their own for a period of time as their injuries heal, only to miss the routine of family life, even with the abuse. They may compartmentalize the violence as only one facet of the relationship, and decide to return. Research explains the dynamics behind these difficult decisions.

Why Victims Return

Leaving an abuser is a very significant decision in the life of a domestic violence victim, particularly when she is deciding to leave a relationship of many years, often with children and extended family involved. Having bravely made the decision to leave, the question of whether she will return is often dependent on the support of others.

Many victims return to abusers because of the negative way they are treated. Niwako Yamawaki et al. (2012) examined the perceptions other people have of domestic violence victims,[i] finding participants more likely to blame a victim who returned to her abuser than a victim about whom they did not have that information. Victims who experience secondary victimization as a result of negative attitudes and treatment are more likely to blame themselves as well, making recovery more difficult, and increasing the chances of returning to the abuse.

Yamawaki et al. explain that even when women are motivated to leave, many factors complicate this decision, making a return to the abuser more likely. They cite prior research identifying one reason for return as the perception that although the relationship is abusive, its rewards outweigh the costs of separation. They note that other research has determined that a woman is likely to return to an abusive relationship when she is unemployed, has a high combined family income, or holds a negative self-perception. Other reasons they cite for returning to an abuser include inadequate assistance from formal support systems or law enforcement, child custody and legal issues, as well as human factors such as difficulty breaking the emotional bond with the abuser, or disrupting social networks.

Empowered to Make a Fresh Start

Securing help for victims involves compassion and empathy, as well as material assistance. Physical, emotional, and financial support for victims who have bravely fled abusive relationships are essential components of a road to recovery.

References

[i] Yamawaki, Niwako, Ochoa-Shipp, Monica, Pulsipher, Craig, Harlos, Andrew, & Swindler, Scott. (2012). Perceptions of Domestic Violence. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 27(16), 3195–3212. https://doi.org/10.1177/0886260512441253.

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