Motivation and emotion/Book/2018/Motivation to leave domestic abuse relationships

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Motivation to leave domestic abuse relationships:
How does domestic abuse affect motivation to leave the relationship?

Overview[edit | edit source]

Figure 1. Australian example of the increased risk faced by women of being victims of domestic violence according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2015

Domestic abuse is a highly sensitive and complex topic, with many finding it hard to understand how victims of domestic abuse would choose to stay with their abusers. In particular, this question has troubled police and government bodies who have been tasked with the difficult role of reducing the troubling high prevalence of domestic abuse. Within Australia, 1 in 6 women and 1 in 19 men have reported experiencing sexual or physical violence by a current or previous cohabiting partner (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 2018). Clearly, while this is an issue that affects both sexes, it is a particularly worrying problem for women.

Not only is it an issue for Australian women, but for women worldwide, with the World Health Organisation (2017) identifying that 30% of all women within their lifetime will report receiving some form of physical or sexual violence by a male intimate partner. Additionally, 38% of all global murders against women have been shown to be committed by a male intimate partner (World Health Organisation, 2017). Given these troubling statistics, it is clear why it is so important that those tasked with reducing the prevalence of domestic abuse understand what motivates a victim to stay in their relationship.

Therefore, the purpose of this chapter will be to discuss the key motivational theories that help explain why victims choose to stay with their abusers, as well as any other factors that may also influence a victim's decision to stay in the relationship. It is hoped that by understanding what motivates victims to stay with their abusers, more effective policies and procedures aimed at reducing rates of domestic violence can be developed.

Focus questions
  1. What is domestic violence?
  2. What are the key motivational theories that explain why victims stay with their abusers?
  3. What other factors affect victims' decision to stay with their abusers?

What is domestic abuse?[edit | edit source]

Figure 2. Example of a woman experiencing domestic violence

Domestic abuse, also commonly called intimate partner violence, is when an individual's intimate partner or family member uses controlling, coercive, threatening or violent behaviour towards them across either single or multiple incidents (Perryman & Appleton, 2016). Notably, under this definition, abuse can take the form of not just physical or sexual behaviours, but also psychological or financial pressures (Perryman & Appleton, 2016). This inclusion is important given society and the media’s tendency to mostly depict domestic abuse as involving physical violence, while ignoring psychological or financial harm as types of abuse. This poses a serious problem since victims have been shown to be less likely to seek help when only receiving psychological harm, given their perception that it does not count as abuse (Lammers, Ritchie, & Robertson, 2005). This perception is clearly unfounded, given psychological abuse involves controlling and demeaning an individual through means of isolation and repeated incidents’ of criticism, verbal aggression and domination (Raghavan, Swan, Snow, & Mazure, 2005).

While psychological abuse, also commonly referred to as emotional abuse, almost always accompanies physical abuse, it can appear as the only form of abuse within the relationship (Lammers et al., 2005). A critical aspect of psychological abuse is the use of coercive control over victims. This is the use of intimidation, isolation and threats of violence towards both the victim and their family members or children, with the intention to establish dominance and isolate them from their family, friends and sources of income (Dichter, Thomas, Crits-Christoph, Ogden, & Rhodes, 2018). Importantly, coercive control has been associated with more severe psychological, physical and sexual abuse (Kaukinen, 2004).

Domestic abuse can lastly be defined as either intimate terrorism or common couple violence. Intimate terrorism includes severe forms of abuse that escalate over time in order to isolate and increase the victim's dependence on their abuser (Kaukinen, 2004). Common couple violence, in contrast, includes less sever forms of abuse that occur infrequently and are enacted equally by both members of the relationship (Marcus, 2004).

Key motivational theories[edit | edit source]

[Provide more detail]

Learned helplessness[edit | edit source]

Figure 3. The three deficits resulting from learned helplessness

Motivational theories have been used to explain why victims of domestic abuse stay in the relationship. One motivational theory that has been proposed is learned helplessness. Learned helplessness was first documented in dogs who, after receiving a series of inescapable shocks, would fail to avoid such shocks even when escape was possible (Klein, Fencil-Morse, & Seligman, 1976). Klein et al. (1976) theorised that since these shocks were initially delivered independent of the dogs’ behaviour, they experienced decreased motivation to respond to the shocks since all previous attempts to escape them had been ineffective. Consequently, even when escape was possible their ability to learn that responding to these shocks would enable escape was affected, resulting in emotional deficits in the form of depression.

While the initial studies on learned helplessness involved animals, the same results have also been demonstrated in various human studies where participants were exposed to inescapable shocks, inescapable noises or unsolvable discrimination problems (Klein et al., 1976). However, Miller and Norman (1979) have argued that, based on their examination of human learned helplessness studies, these studies do not adequately represent or explain learned helplessness. This is due to the studies focusing on the environmental conditions that cause learned helplessness, and not the cognitive components that the theory emphasises as being the most influential in causing learned helplessness. It is worth noting that since the study is quite dated, this may not still apply to more modern research but it is still worth using caution when applying the theory to humans.

Nevertheless, more recent research has demonstrated that learned helplessness does explain how and why victims choose to stay with their abusive partners. In a review, Rhodes and McKenzie (1998) describe how learned helplessness is relevant to victims of domestic abuse. They believe that often victims initially do try to stop the abuse, however, once it becomes clear to them that their behaviour makes no difference, or may even worsen the abuse, learned helplessness can occur causing them to believe they are powerless to escape the abusive relationship. Additionally, Bargai, Ben-Shakhar and Shalev (2007) used self-report questionnaires on Israeli women living in shelters for abused women to further explore the effects of how learned helplessness contributed to these women’s decisions to stay in their abusive relationships as long as they did. The survey results demonstrated that these abused women reported feelings of helplessness due to their expectations of recurrent violence, having an internal attribution style where they believed it was their fault for receiving the abuse, as well as having an external locus of control, where they believed that ending the abuse would be outside of their control. This finding of learned helplessness in abused women has since been recognised in Battered Woman Syndrome, a subcategory of post-traumatic stress disorder, which acknowledges how learned helplessness contributes to the extreme psychological impact domestic abuse can have on victims (Bargai et al., 2007). Therefore, while there were initially concerns over early human learned helplessness studies, it appears that learned helplessness does help explain why victims of domestic abuse choose to stay in their relationships.

Case study 1

Sally has been with her husband, Tom, for five years now. While Sally and Tom’s relationship started out perfectly, slowly she noticed Tom becoming increasingly angry. At such times Tom would regularly shout at and beat her. At first, Sally would try to make Tom's aggressive behaviour stop by promising him to never again do the thing that had made him angry at her, and by promising to make it up to him. Eventually, however, Sally realised that no matter how much she tried, it was never enough to stop Tom's aggression towards her. Slowly, Sally started believing that she was to blame for Tom's aggression and realised that since the abuse was never going to stop there was nothing she could do to escape it.

Sally has developed learned helplessness.

Cognitive dissonance[edit | edit source]

Figure 4. Example of the cognitive dissonance process a victim of domestic abuse may go through

Cognitive dissonance was first theorised by Festinger (1957) who proposed that dissonance occurs in any individual with conflicting cognitions. In his theory, cognition was defined as all knowledge, opinions and beliefs held by an individual. According to Festinger (1957), all dissonance results in psychological discomfort, causing an individual to become motivated to reduce the dissonance by modifying their cognitions so they are no longer conflicting.

This theory of cognitive dissonance has been applied to explaining why victims of domestic abuse stay with their abusers given the mismatch between the obvious knowledge that abuse is bad and victims apparent acceptance of being the victims of domestic abuse. Specifically, based on the data from 50 heterosexual dating couples’ relationship experiences, Perry and Fromuth (2005) identified that while some of the couples reported receiving varying forms of abusive behaviours, many of them did not identify these behaviours as being abusive. Therefore, Perry and Fromuth (2005), proposed that these victims must have been experiencing conflicting thoughts regarding their knowledge that any form of abusive behaviour within a relationship is unacceptable, and their reality of being in an abusive relationship. Subsequently, these victims then reduced this dissonance by modifying their cognitions in order to justify and accept the abusive behaviour. A similar study was also conducted by Miller (2011) who used a cross-sectional design to survey 1,530 American undergraduate college students on their relationship experiences. Similar results were observed, with many of those who reported being subjected to abusive behaviours failing to acknowledge the existence of abuse in the relationship. While Miller (2011) attributed this finding to victims' denial and lack of awareness of what constitutes abuse, it is likely that cognitive dissonance was also to blame. One way that cognitive dissonance has been achieved by victims is through the use of defensive storytelling. The involves a victim twisting their partners use of abuse as a fault, and instead viewing it as a virtue, such as them just demonstrating how much they love them (Haeseler, 2013).

The theory of cognitive dissonance could help explain why Pape and Arias (2000), upon interviewing women at a battered women’s shelter, observed that those women who chose to remain with their abusers reported perceiving little to no change in the amount of love and affection they received from their partners, as well as perceiving their relationships to be not as bad as it could be. A study conducted by Marcus (2004) also reported that women living in chronic violent relationships, compared to those living in non-violent relationships, tended to have more positive and optimistic views regarding their relationships and be more likely to believe that their differences could be solved.

Additionally, cognitive dissonance could help explain why the way an individual defines abuse has an impact on whether or not they self-identify as being the victims of abuse. A study by Miller (2011) found that if an individual’s definition of abusive behaviours differed at all from the generally accepted terms of abuse, they were less likely to self-identify as being in an abusive relationship. While this could have been due to a lack of awareness of what abuse is, it is also possible that changing the definition of abuse may have been a deliberate attempt by such individuals to reduce any dissonant thoughts regarding abuse. The way an individual defines abuse has important implications, however, given that it has been suggested to impact on both whether an individual will seek out any help, as well as the types of help and interventions they may seek (Beyers, Leonard, Mays, & Rosen, 2000).

Clearly then, cognitive dissonance can have a large impact on why victims of domestic abuse may choose to stay with their abusers. Unfortunately, however, there is a major limitation of the studies which have investigated the use of cognitive dissonance in domestic abuse victims. That is, given cognitive dissonance is largely an unconscious process, victims would not be able to recognise their engagement in such processes and so cognitive dissonance is only able to be inferred by researchers.

Case study 2

John has been dating Mary for two years and they just recently moved in together. Since moving in together, however, John has started noticing that Mary has become very controlling of how he spends his time, who he talks to, and where he goes. In order to stop fighting with Mary, John has slowly stopped spending time with his friends and family. These days John spends all of his time either at work or at home with Mary, and rarely talks to his friends and family. Although John knows he should be able to spend his time however he wants, he realises that Mary only has his best interests at heart. Besides, John knows it would only count as abuse if Mary was beating him.

John is experiencing cognitive dissonance.

Traumatic bonding[edit | edit source]

Figure 5. Process of traumatic bonding

Traumatic bonding is another theory that has been used to help explain why victims of domestic abuse choose to stay with their abusive partners. Traumatic bonding explains how intermittent reinforcement and power imbalances commonly present in abusive relationships contribute to the strong attachment’s victims form with their abusers, subsequently making it harder for them to leave (Rhodes & McKenzie, 1998). According to this view, abusers often hold disproportionate levels of power over their victim’s, resulting in the victim feeling increasingly powerless and therefore dependent on their abuser (Rhodes & McKenzie, 1998). Additionally, abuse tends to be administered intermittently so that periods of abuse are offset with periods of positive behaviours, such as promises to change and increased displays of love and affection, resulting in the reinforcement of abusive behaviours (Rhodes & McKenzie, 1998).

Much of the research investigating the role of traumatic bonding on domestic abuse victims’ decisions to stay has been conducted by Dutton and Painter (1993). In one such study women who had recently left their abusive relationships were interviewed. Dutton and Painter (1993) observed that even though these women had left their abusers, many reported significantly increased feelings of attachment towards their abusers in the following six months after leaving, and subsequently still had some form of contact with their abusers. Given that many of these women reported their abuse being intermittent, as well experiencing strong feelings of powerlessness during the relationship, traumatic bonding is likely to account for these increased feelings of attachment.

This finding that traumatic bonding causes victims to form strong attachments with their abusers likely explains why victims are often unsuccessful at permanently leaving their abusers. This is supported by research conducted by Griffing, Ragin, Sage, Madry, Bingham and Primm (2002) who interviewed female residents of a residential facility for victims of domestic violence. It was observed that 67% of participants had reported at least one prior unsuccessful attempt to leave the abusive relationship. When asked what had made them decide to return to the relationship, the top two reasons cited included expressions of remorse from their abusers, as well as the continued emotional attachment they felt towards their abuser (Griffing et al., 2002).

One explanation for the effects of traumatic bonding has been provided by Long and McNamara (1989) in what they labelled ‘paradoxical punishment’ which used reinforcement contingencies to explain why victim’s stay with their abusers. According to this theory, given the often intermittent nature of domestic abuse, this abuse towards the victim becomes a form of punishment that is reinforced through the absence of tension and fear during the periods between abuse (i.e. negative reinforcement), as well as the increased love and affection the abuser will often show towards the victim during these periods (i.e. positive reinforcement). Therefore, this reinforcement of abuse likely explains why victims so often struggle to leave their abusers for good, given it results in victims forming strong emotional attachments to their abusers, as well as feelings of powerless to change.

Case study 3

Lisa is currently residing in a women’s shelter after recently leaving her abusive boyfriend Ben. Unfortunately, this is not the first time Lisa has tried to leave. The last time she decided to go back to him was because she could not bring herself to cut all contact with him as she still missed him too much. Through this contact Ben was able to eventually convince her to return due to his promises to change and frequent declarations of love for her. Once again, Lisa thinks she will likely return to him since she has been missing him too much and knows that while he is abusive, he can also be incredibly loving and attentive.

Lisa is likely experiencing traumatic bonding.

Other factors that may influence why a victim stays[edit | edit source]

There are many other factors that also influence why an individual may choose to stay with their abusive partners. Some of the key influential factors include:

Severity of abuse: victims who see no changes in the frequency and severity of abuse are more likely to stay in the relationship (Marcus, 2004). Compared with women uncommitted to leaving their abusive relationships, those identified as having greater commitments to leave their abusive relationships for good reported experiencing greater increases of violence over time, as well as having a greater fear for their safety (Pape & Arias, 2000).

Dependence: another common reason that victims may not feel like they are able to leave the relationship is because they have become very dependent on their romantic partner to support them. Some of the reason’s victims may feel dependent on their partner include: obligations to stay together due to children; obligations to stay together due to religious views; a lack of social network to provide support upon leaving the relationship; and being financially dependent on them (Eckstein, 2011). Kaukinen (2004) suggests that women in particular are less able to leave an abusive relationship given they tend to have a greater reliance on their partner providing financial support, as well as feeling a disproportionate responsibility to stay for their children. Just as victims feel they can not leave the abusive relationship because of children, those with pets can also feel the same way. Abuse towards a victims beloved pet, as well as concerns for what will happen to the animal once they leave given most women's shelters do not allow pets, can also result in victim's feeling they cannot leave the relationship (Allen, Gallagher, & Jones, 2006).

Impression management: individuals may choose to stay in the relationship in order to maintain how other's see themselves and their relationship (Eckstein, 2011). Women with strongly traditional views on marriage may be motivated to stay quiet in order to maintain the image of the dutiful wife, while men may be motivated due to societal views that men should be strong and dominant (Eckstein, 2011). Men in particular have reported greater reluctance to seek help due to the tendency for society to stigmatise male victims of domestic abuse (Perryman & Appleton, 2016).

Test yourself[edit | edit source]

1 An individual who experiences emotional harm only, and not any physical violence is not a victim of domestic abuse.


2 An individual fails to acknowledge that the demeaning and controlling way their partner is treating them is abuse. This is likely explained by which motivational theory?

Cognitive dissonance
Learned helplessness
Traumatic bonding

3 Reinforcement contingencies of abusive behaviours have been used to explain which motivational theory?

Traumatic bonding
Cognitive dissonance
Learned helplessness
None of the above

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

Figure 6. An American initiative to bring awareness to domestic violence

Overall, it is clear that leaving an abusive relationship is not as clear cut as it may first appear. It is likely that a combination of factors contribute to a victim's decision to stay with their abusive partners. Three of the most influential theories that explain how being the victim of abuse can impact on their motivation to leave the relationship include learned helplessness, cognitive dissonance and traumatic bonding. While for some individuals only one of these theories may apply, for others it may be that all three theories could help explain the multiple reasons they choose to stay. Additionally, other factors such as the severity of aggression, the victims financial status, and whether or not children and pets are involved can also impact on a victim's decision to stay or not.

No known research has applied all three theories to attempts to explain domestic abuse victims’ motivations to either stay in, or return to, abusive relationships. Therefore, it cannot be determined which of the three theories are most influential in explaining victims' behaviours, or in what situations they are likely to be more influential. Additionally, given that the majority of research relies heavily on questioning victims after they have left their abusers, these theories might not fully apply to those who never end up leaving their abusers. Of those studies that do question victims while they are still in their abusive relationships, there is the strong possibility that participants are not answering honestly, whether due to deliberate image maintenance attempts or because of a lack of awareness.

Even though there are some validity concerns regarding such research, the findings do demonstrate that no one explanation is likely to fully explain why individuals choose to stay with their abusers. Given this, it is important that policies and programs designed to help individuals leave their abusive relationships consider a variety of motivational reasons victim may have for either staying in, or returning to their abuser.

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

Allen, M., Gallagher, B., & Jones, B. (2006). Domestic violence and the abuse of pets: Researching the link and its implications in Ireland. Practice, 18, 167–181.

Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. (2018). Domestic violence. Retrieved from Australian Institute of Health and Welfare website:

Bargai, N., Ben-Shakhar, G., & Shalev, A. (2007). Posttraumatic stress disorder and depression in battered women: The mediating role of learned helplessness. Journal of Family Violence, 22, 267-275.

Beyers, J. M., Leonard, J. M., Mays, V. K., & Rosen, L. A. (2000). Gender differences in the perception of courtship abuse. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 15, 451–466.

Dichter, M. E., Thomas, K. A., Crits-Christoph, P., Ogden, S. N., & Rhodes, K. V. (2018). Coercive control in intimate partner violence: Relationship with women’s experience of violence, use of violence, and danger. Psychology of Violence, 8, 596-604.

Dutton, D. G., & Painter, S. (1993). The battered woman syndrome: Effects of severity and intermittency of abuse. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 63, 614–622.

Eckstein, J. (2011). Reasons for staying in intimately violent relationships: Comparisons of men and women and messages communicated to self and others. Journal of Family Violence, 26, 21-30.

Festinger, L. (1957). A theory of cognitive dissonance. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press

Griffing, S., Ragin, D., Sage, R., Madry, L., Bingham, L., & Primm, B. (2002). Domestic violence survivors’ self-identified reasons for returning to abusive relationships. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 17, 306–319.

Haeseler, L. (2013). Women’s coping experiences in the spectrum of domestic violence abuse. Journal of Evidence-Based Social Work, 10, 33–43.

Kaukinen, C. (2004). Status compatibility, physical violence, and emotional abuse in intimate relationships. Journal of Marriage and Family, 66, 452-471.

Klein, D. C., Fencil-Morse, E., & Seligman, M. E. (1976). Learned helplessness, depression, and the attribution of failure. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 33, 508-516.

Lammers, M., Ritchie, J., & Robertson, N. (2005). Women’s experience of emotional abuse in intimate relationships: A qualitative study. Journal of Emotional Abuse, 5, 29-64.

Long, G. M., & Mcnamara, J. R. (1989). Paradoxical punishment as it relates to the battered woman syndrome. Behavior Modification, 13, 192-205.

Marcus, R. F. (2004). Dating partners’ responses to simulated dating conflict: Violence chronicity, expectations, and emotional quality of relationship. Genetic, Social & General Psychology Monographs, 130, 163-188.

Miller, L. M. (2011). Physical abuse in a college setting: A study of perceptions and participation in abusive dating relationships. Journal of Family Violence, 26, 71-80.

Miller, I. W., & Norman, W. H. (1979). Learned helplessness in humans: A review and attribution-theory model. Psychological Bulletin, 86(1), 93–118.

Pape, K. T., & Arias, I. (2000). The role of perceptions and attributions in battered women's intentions to permanently end their violent relationships. Cognitive Therapy & Research, 24, 201-214.

Perry, A., & Fromuth, M. (2005). Courtship violence using couple data: Characteristics and perceptions. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 20, 1078–1095.

Perryman, S., & Appleton, J. (2016). Male victims of domestic abuse: Implications for health visiting practice. Journal of Research in Nursing, 21, 386–414.

Raghavan, C., Swan, S. C., Snow, D. L., & Mazure, C. M. (2005). The mediational role of relationship efficacy and resource utilization in the link between physical and psychological abuse and relationship termination. Violence Against Women, 11, 65-88.

Rhodes, N., & Mckenzie, E. (1998). Why do battered women stay?: Three decades of research. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 3, 391–406.

World Health Organization. (2017). Violence against women. Retrieved from World Health Organization webstie:

External links[edit | edit source]