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Domestic Abuse

Domestic abuse can happen to anyone, at any age, no matter what race or religion they are, no matter what their level of education or economic background. It is a widespread social problem in America and around the world, which does not just affect the private family arena but also affects the wider public and the community as a whole.
Domestic abuse has come to be recognized as a serious social problem demanding the attention of the courts, police departments, and social-welfare agencies since the women’s movement of the 1970s,
Domestic abuse is the most serious criminal justice issue facing women today, occurring more frequently than any other crime in America.

Click on links below:
Defining Domestic Violence
Who commits domestic violence
When domestic violence occurs
The dynamics of domestic violence
Typical development of a domestic violent relationship
Obstacles preventing a victim from leaving
How the dynamics of domestic violence influence legal cases


Defining Domestic Violence

Various definitions of domestic violence are utilized nationwide, reflecting both legal definitions and descriptions relevant to specific disciplines of caregivers, including victim advocates, medical professionals, and criminal justice practitioners. While it is necessary for victim service providers to determine the legal definition of domestic violence in both civil and criminal law in their respective states, it is useful to start with a generic definition of domestic violence:

    Domestic violence is a pattern of coercive behavior designed to exert power and control over a person in an intimate relationship through the use of intimidating, threatening, harmful, or harassing behavior.

The following isolates elements of domestic violence: what it is, who commits it, and when, where, and why it typically occurs.


Domestic violence is coercive behavior through the use of intimidating, threatening, harmful, or harassing behavior. This definition validates that domestic violence includes multiple forms of abuse-physical, sexual, and emotional or psychological. Here are specific examples of these types of behavior:

Physical abuse. Physical abuse is usually recurrent and usually escalates both in frequency and severity. It may include the following:

  • Pushing, shoving, slapping, hitting, punching, kicking the victim.

  • Holding, tying down, or restraining the victim.

  • Inflicting bruises, welts, lacerations, punctures, fractures, burns, scratches.

  • Strangling the victim.

  • Pulling the victim's hair or dragging the victim by the victim's hair or body parts.

  • Assaulting the victim with a weapon.

  • Inflicting injury upon pets or animals.

Sexual abuse. Sexual abuse in violent relationships is often the most difficult aspect of abuse for women to discuss. It may include any form of forced sex or sexual degradation:

  • Trying to make or making the victim perform sexual acts against her will.

  • Pursuing sexual activity when the victim is not fully conscious, or is not asked, or is afraid to say no.

  • Physically hurting the victim during sex or assaulting her genitals, including the use of objects or weapons intravaginally, orally, or anally.

  • Coercing the victim to have sex without protection against pregnancy or sexually transmittable diseases.

  • Criticizing the victim and calling her sexually degrading names (AMA 1992b, 40-41).

  • Engaging in unwanted sexual contact that may result in torn, stained, or bloody underclothing; difficulty walking or sitting; pain, itching, bruising, or bleeding in genital areas; unexplained venereal disease or genital infections.

Emotional or psychological abuse. Emotional or psychological abuse may precede or accompany physical violence as a means of controlling through fear and degradation. It may include the following:

  • Threats of harm.

  • Physical and social isolation.

  • Extreme jealousy and possessiveness.

  • Deprivation of resources to meet basic needs.

  • Intimidation, degradation, and humiliation.

  • Name calling and constant criticizing, insulting, and belittling the victim.

  • False accusations, blaming the victim for everything.

  • Ignoring, dismissing, or ridiculing the victim's needs.

  • Lying, breaking promises, and destroying the victim's trust.

  • Driving fast and recklessly to frighten and intimidate the victim.

  • Leaving the victim in a dangerous place.

  • Refusing to help when the victim is sick or injured.

  • Threats or acts of violence/injury upon pets or animals.


Domestic violence is primarily perpetrated by men against women. Numerous studies repeatedly illustrate this finding, as shown in the statistics cited earlier. Yet, in recent years, some studies suggest women use violence in intimate relationships as frequently as men do. These studies are refuted by credible members of the domestic violence discipline, particularly batterers' treatment providers, who are concerned about flaws in such studies:

  1. Motivation for the use of violence. Most of the recent studies suggesting women and men equally engage in domestic violence fail to ask the survey respondent what motivated the use of violence in the intimate relationship. In studies that ask this question, the answer is consistent: Men use violence to establish or maintain power and control, and women use violence either in self-defense, in anticipation of violence, or in retaliation for violence perpetrated against them. In other words, if a woman is able to free herself from the abuser, she is very unlikely to continue to use violence. By contrast, most men engage in serial domestic violence: If he leaves or is left by one victim, he quickly becomes involved with another woman against whom he engages in domestic violence. If this question is factored into these studies, it becomes clear that women's use of violence is largely in response to the violence perpetrated against her.

  2. Impact of violence on the intimate other--the fear factor. Recent studies suggesting women and men equally engage in domestic violence generally fail to ask what the impact of the domestic violence is on the victim. When this question is asked, women report greater numbers of injuries, greater severity of injuries, and greater risk of harm. Men report few or no injuries, unless the woman uses a weapon, in particular a gun. The issue most of these studies fail to examine is "who is afraid of whom?" Women report tremendous fear of violence-and injury-by the intimate other. Men largely report they are unafraid of the woman's use of violence, often finding it annoying or even amusing, unless the woman uses a weapon. Women generally only use a weapon in an effort to make him stop being violent.

  3. Credibility of response. Recent studies that suggest women and men equally engage in domestic violence fail to factor in the credibility of the survey respondent. There are several issues to consider:

    • First, those who work with batterers know that men who batter deny, minimize, and blame their use of violence on others. Thus, if these men are asked if they use violence in a relationship, there is a high probability they will say they do not. By comparison, a female victim of abuse is likely to feel responsible for the abuse and thus say she does use violence, even when in self-defense, in anticipation of violence or in retaliation for abuse against her.

    • Second, it is crucial to know just how a study defines "abuse" and what questions the survey respondents were asked before accepting their findings. National studies show that men do not define many forms of violence as abuse. For example, if a couple in which domestic violence is perpetrated by the man against the woman is asked whether they have ever used violence, there is high probability the man will say he has not done so, because he does not define his behavior (including shoving, kicking, striking, hitting, punching, etc.) as abusive. Rather, he justifies his behavior as being provoked, triggered, and/or in response to something she did or did not do; and therefore, in his belief system, his behavior is notabusive because she is responsible for his actions. The woman, by contrast, will admit she has struck back or even initiated violence in response to his violence.

    • Finally, if the study asks an open-ended question about abuse, rather than asking whether the person has engaged in specific forms of abuse, women are far more likely to include in their definition of abuse such behavior as shoving, pushing, slapping, or restraining the other person in addition to other more overt forms of violence. Men often do not include what they perceive to be "minor" forms of abuse in their definitions.

    • The bottom line: Unless the survey asks questions about specific types of behavior, there is no way to assess what the survey respondent meant when she or he did or did not acknowledge the use of violence against his or her intimate other.

Although domestic violence is perpetrated by both genders, it is crucial to note and understand the above-described gender differences in the use of violence by men and women. This chapter refers to victims of domestic violence generally as females-this is not to exclude the genuine existence of male victims of domestic violence, but rather to acknowledge the reality that the vast majority of domestic violence victims are women.


Domestic violence occurs as a pattern of abuse, not as a single isolated incident. When dealing with victims of domestic abuse, it is important to ask whether the types of behavior described above or described in the power and control wheel (see Appendix A) are occurring or have occurred at any time in the past. Domestic violence can be distinguished from one-time situational violence, which can and does occur in many intimate relationships, such as the individual who shoves or slaps his spouse when learning she is having an affair or filing for a divorce. While this means of conflict resolution is not acceptable-and may result in an arrest and prosecution-it is not domestic violence because it is not a pattern of abuse. The role of the victim advocate is to ask questions to ascertain whether a pattern of physical, sexual, and/or emotional and psychological abuse is or has occurred.


Domestic violence occurs in intimate relationships. These relationships include current or former spouses, partners, and significant others, including boyfriend/girlfriends, gays, lesbians, transgendered persons, inter-sex persons, and bisexuals; family members, both by blood or by familial ties, such as in-laws, step-family members and foster family members; those who currently or formerly reside together, such as roommates and household members; those who have or share a child in common, or created a child in common; and those who provide services to a dependent person, such as attendants or caregivers for an elderly person or for a physically, cognitively, or mentally disabled person.


A person engages in domestic violence because he or she wishes to gain and/or maintain power and control over an intimate other, and believes he or she is entitled to do so.

Power and control wheels. The power and control wheel demonstrates the pattern of coercive behavior in a domestic violence relationship (see a sample in Appendix A following this chapter). At the heart of the wheel is power and control. This is the motivation behind the abuse--the answer to the question: Why does a person engage in domestic violence? The abuser has a need to ensure that he gains/maintains control of how the partner thinks, feels, and behaves. The outside of the wheel contains the cement of the abusive relationship: the threat of or actual use of physical and sexual violence. Physical and sexual abuse is the behavior most people think of as "the problem." It is the abuse most easily recognized or identified and often the only behavior that is illegal. However, the abuser may not need to use physical forms of abuse against the victim to maintain control because the victim attempts to do all she can to avoid the physical and sexual attacks. A victim need only be threatened or harmed once to know the abuser is willing and able to use physical and/or sexual abuse against her.

Inside the wheel are a variety of behaviors, known as tactics, which the abuser uses to gain and maintain control. Not all of these tactics are used in every relationship, and the tactics may be changed as the victim's response changes. The abuser will switch tactics when the victim learns to respond to one type of tactic or attack. When the struggle to challenge the abuser becomes too exhausting or too dangerous, the victim begins to modify her behavior-slowly giving up control of pieces of her life in order to avoid further abuse or to survive.

A victim advocate needs to be aware of three issues when dealing with a victim of domestic violence. First, most victims report they experience far greater shame and lasting effects as the result of psychological and emotional abuse than as the result of physical abuse. Victims report they feel less able to explain "crazy-making behavior" to others; they are more often disbelieved when they report forms of psychological and emotional abuse; and they do not have any visible injury to substantiate their allegations. Victims often report that the physical injuries heal and are forgotten-the psychological and emotional injuries repeatedly haunt their minds.

Second, while all abusive tactics are harmful to victims, the use of isolation may have the most severe impact on victims of domestic abuse. Once the abuser has succeeded in isolating the victim, she has no one with whom to reality check, making it more likely she will believe the abuser's perceptions of reality-including the abuser telling her she is responsible for the abuse. This means she has no one to whom she can describe the psychological and emotional abuse, which leads her to feeling more desperate and alone. Continued isolation also means she has fewer options and resources. This means women in isolated communities, such as rural farms or suburban homes with large lawns, are already physically isolated, possibly putting them at higher risk of injury and nonreporting.

A third issue to consider when dealing with victims of domestic violence is that the use of power and control tactics varies according to the abuser and the victim. The original Power and Control Wheel, developed by the Domestic Violence Intervention Project of Duluth, Minnesota, reflects theexperience of those first victims who sought services from a domestic violence program or shelter: relatively young, able-bodied, white women. Because it is now known that domestic violence is perpetrated against women in all cultures, of all conditions, and all ages, additional power and control wheels have been created to reflect the tactics reported as experienced by these victims. It is useful for victim advocates to share with victims the power and control wheel(s) most appropriate to their situation. For example, domestic violence against the elderly has often been ignored, misunderstood, or misnamed as caregiver stress. A power and control wheel depicting domestic violence in later life illustrates power and control tactics that may not be used against a younger victim. At the other end of the life cycle, statistics indicate teen violence is the most rapidly growing form of domestic violence in the country. Again, the tactics used against a teen victim of domestic violence may be very different from those used against an older victim.

Victim advocates need to recognize that domestic violence can and does occur against all women, regardless of age, socioeconomic status, culture, race, etc. The sample Power and Control Wheel in Appendix A illustrates some of the tactics used by batterers. The Equality Wheel, also in Appendix A, depicts male/female interactions in a healthy relationship.

The Dynamics of Domestic Violence

The underlying reason for the abuser's behavior and the victim's response to his behavior are known as the dynamics of domestic violence. To understand why an abuser behaves as he does and why the victim responds to his behavior as she does, the victim advocate needs to be familiar with the abuser's and the victim's thinking patterns.

The best indicator of whether a man will abuse his spouse/intimate other is whether he has experienced or witnessed violence in his family of origin. Yet, not all men from violent homes abuse their spouse/intimate other. What makes the difference? The answer is simple--his thinking pattern.

A thinking pattern can be described as the thoughts one has that lead to behavior, all underscored by one's belief system. The specific steps in a thinking pattern follow:

  • First. A person is presented with a stimulus (a situation, a conversation, an interaction).

  • Second. The person has an intellectual reaction to the stimulus, known as a thought.

  • Third. The person has an emotional reaction to the thought, known as a feeling.

  • Fourth. The person engages in behavior as a result of the feelings the person is experiencing.

  • Fifth. The person experiences consequences--negative and/or positive--as a result of the person's behavior.

  • Underlying this process is a belief system that makes it possible for the person to choose his/her thoughts and engage in certain behavior.

  • In summary: A person's thoughts create a feeling, upon which the person acts, that results in a particular outcome all based on the person's belief system.

A typical scenario involving a thinking pattern in terms of the dynamics between an abuser and the victim is as follows:

  • First, a stimulus. The abuser sees his wife talking to another man at a party.
  • Second, a thought. The abuser thinks any or all of these thoughts to himself: "She is interested in that man. Look at how she is flirting with him. She is coming on to him. They are probably making plans to go off and sleep together. She is planning to leave me."
  • Third, a feeling. Angry; upset; scared of being left by the victim for another man.
  • Fourth, a behavior. The abuser will do something to exert power and control over the victim. This could include any/all of these, or other actions: He will give her "the look," signaling his displeasure with her for talking to another man. He will remove her from the situation either forcibly or by intervening in the conversation. He will yell at her for not paying attention to him and for paying attention to someone else. Dependent on how severe his thoughts are--and thus how upset he has made himself--his tactics will escalate to the use of physical and sexual violence. In addition, if he does not get the reaction he wants from the victim, he will change his tactics and escalate in his reactions.
  • Fifth, consequences. A positive consequence, from the abuser's perspective, is that his wife will discontinue her behavior and quit talking to the other man. Another positive consequence may be that she will apologize for her behavior, which allows the man to believe she is doing something wrong and his fears are founded. Another positive consequence may be that he bolsters his sense of self-esteem by letting those around him know he has control over his wife-he is the "man in charge." An additional positive consequence may be that he makes her cry, which means she is not enjoying herself or appearing attractive to other men at this party.

    The negative consequence may be that he is now in a bad mood. Another negative consequence may be that he no longer enjoys the party. An additional negative consequence may be that his wife begins to distance herself from him and he does not feel connected to her. If he engages in violent behavior, a final negative consequence may be an arrest, charge, and criminal justice intervention.

  • Finally, the belief system. Underlying this thought pattern is his belief system. Any or all of these beliefs are likely: "She doesn't really love me." "If I don't treat her like a man and keep her in her place, she will go off with some other guy." "If she really knew me, she wouldn't like me, so I better not let her get away from me." "Women will sleep around if you give them the chance." "She is responsible for taking care of all my needs." "I have a right to expect her to act like my woman."

Now let's examine the other half of the dynamics--the victim's response to this scenario:

  • First, a stimulus. The wife sees her husband watching her as she talks to another man at a party.
  • Second, a thought. The wife thinks any or all of these thoughts: "Uh oh. My husband is looking unhappy that I am talking to some other guy. I don't want to upset him so I think I will go over and stand by him." "Sometimes this gets so tiring--being watched all the time. But I know he will become angry if I keep talking to this guy, so I'd better keep the peace and go stand by my husband." "I am really enjoying this conversation--it's been a long time since someone just talked to me. But I know my husband. If I am having a good time, he thinks it means I am interested in the person I'm talking with. I better not break the rules or I will pay a price." "I can't understand why my husband thinks I would want to be with this guy--he's no match for my husband! I can sense he is getting agitated. I need to reassure him I love him."
  • Third, a feeling. Scared; apprehensive; uneasy; wary; guilty; contrite; resentful; angry.
  • Fourth, a behavior. The victim's behavior is in response to the abuser's action(s). She will take her cues from her husband as to her behavior choices. If the abuser gives her a look, she will walk away from the other man at the party and come and stand by the abuser. Knowing that he is having an emotional response to her conversation with another man, she may take any of a variety of actions. She may simply try to talk to her husband. She may try to appease him by doing things like asking if he needs anything, criticizing the man with whom she just had a conversation, or assuring him that there is nothing going on between her and the other guy. Most victims will try at this juncture to smooth the situation over to avoid more of an emotional response from him. However, a victim is all too human and may not always make choices to best protect herself from escalation of his tactics: she may be tired, a little or very intoxicated, or so excited about getting positive attention from someone else that she is moody with her husband or rebuffs him when he begins to accuse her. This will likely result in his escalating the use of tactics to include such behavior as the silent treatment, leaving the party, accusing her of wrongdoing, threats, and the use of violence. In response to his escalated tactics, the victim will continue to assess whether she wishes to appease him or try to reason with him. Regardless of her efforts to appease him (using such behaviors as trying to explain herself, assuring him of her fidelity, or admitting to wrongdoing by talking to the other man), if the abuser has engaged in a lot of negative thinking, he will likely hear all of her words as an admission of fault and excuses for her unacceptable behavior. He will escalate his tactics dependent on the level of his negative thinking and her response to him. In most situations, the victim will try to keep him calm. However, there is never a guarantee that her behavior will result in his being rational because she has no control over his choice of thoughts.
  • Fifth, consequences. A positive consequence, from the wife's perspective, is that her husband is once again calmed down, and the peace is restored. Another positive consequence may be that she feels flattered because he is expressing his fear of losing her. An additional positive consequence may be that she is pleased with herself for not incurring punishment from him even though she believes she "broke the rules"--rules he imposed upon her. From her viewpoint, a positive consequence may be that she perceives others as viewing her husband as a real macho man.

    The negative consequence may be that she is now in an apprehensive mood, and she may no longer enjoy the party. Another negative consequence may be that she feels wary so she begins to distance herself from him and she does not feel connected to him. If he engages in violent behavior, she will view arrest, charge, and criminal justice intervention as a negative consequence because she feels responsible for making him mad, and she believes she has broken the rules he told her to follow. Further, she believes and/or knows he will subject her to higher levels of abuse if he is arrested, charged, or prosecuted. She believes his involvement in the criminal justice system is due to her failure to act like a good wife.

  • Finally, the belief system. Underlying this thought pattern is her belief system. Any or all of these beliefs are likely: "My role as a wife is to make this marriage work." "If I didn't break the rules, he wouldn't get upset. I must be a bad person because I keep breaking the rules." "I know he really loves me or he wouldn't act so jealous. That's just how men express their love." "He will go back to being the wonderful man I fell in love with once I quit upsetting him." "I don't know what I would do without him. He's the only man who'd ever want me."


Most victims describe the beginning of their relationship as being wonderful and intense. He pays a lot of attention to her; he wants to be with her all the time; he wants to be with her when she is with her friends and family members; he takes an active interest in where she goes, what she does, and how she spends her time; he suggests they spend most of their time doing things they both enjoy doing, rather than doing things on their own, so they can be together; he begins to make decisions for her, explaining he is happy to help her out; he is extremely attentive in public places, huddling over her, monitoring who she interacts with and letting other guys know she is with him. Simultaneously, he flatters her, confides in her, and reveals that he really wants to make a life with her. Sometimes he admits he does not know how to live without her. Then he begins to pout or express concerns about her interest in him if she does things independently of him. He may also explain how glad he is that she is not like his former spouse/partner, who was really difficult and even forced him to leave or doesn't let him see his kids. He explains his former spouse/partner did not understand him and turned everyone against him.

For many victims, they mistake these behaviors as devotion to a relationship--rather than recognizing these behaviors as red flags that indicate an abusive personality. These red flags include his insistence on obtaining information about her whereabouts at all times. Other red flags include the rapidness with which he establishes himself in her life, including making decisions for her, stating his inability to live without her, and insisting on a commitment to a relationship. His discussion about his former spouse/partner is a red flag as he does not take responsibility for the problems he experienced with that person. Big red flags include saying things like "she had him arrested" or she slapped a restraining order on him. He is already displaying abuser characteristics: signs of obsessive and controlling behavior. He is acting on his belief system which says he is to be in charge, make the rules, and can expect her to follow him and attend to his needs.

As the relationship continues, she is drawn to the positive side of his actions: his attentiveness and his interest in her activities and the people in her life. She may enjoy feeling doted upon and may be flattered by his initial bouts of jealousy. She makes a commitment to him--usually under pressure from him very early in their relationship--and is happy to be with someone who cares so much about her life. As time passes, she becomes aware of feeling discomfort around some of his behavior, such as his reactions when she discusses doing things with others, but dismisses these feelings due to her desire to make the relationship work. Like any person in a new relationship, she figures it will take time for them to develop a trusting relationship.

Domestic violence generally begins with forms of control through psychological and emotional abuse. He begins to suggest she ought not to do certain things or ought to do things a certain way if she loves him. He begins to subtly suggest she may wish to wear or not wear certain items of clothing. He tells her she may wish to change her hairstyle to look a certain way. He tells her he would prefer her to act or not act in certain ways, such as how she talks, walks, or smiles. Generally these statements begin in a subtle manner by suggesting the changes he would like her to make, but the implication is that her appearance or behavior is not good enough. She also begins to experience his anger if she does something he does not like. He begins to demand that she never do that again, or if she does not make the suggested changes, he asks her if she does not love him or thinks she is too good for him. He believes any action she takes that draws positive attention from others, especially attention from other men, is a threat to him. Again, just as any person in a new relationship is apt to do, she tends to attribute his reactions to their not yet knowing each other very well. She believes she will earn his trust.

When confronted with the first incident of physical abuse, the victim will typically view the response as an aberration--a behavior that is not typical of this person and will not occur again. It is normal, then, for the victim to excuse or explain the behavior--to "forgive" the behavior. This is a normal response for anyone in a new relationship experiencing a new situation. The abuser's telling her that he is sorry and it will never happen again reinforces this response. She has no reason to think it will ever happen again, so she will, understandably, accept his apologies and/or explanation. Further, she is likely to question what caused this behavior and wonder what she did to prompt this behavior, since he has never acted in this manner before.

If an unacceptable form of psychological or physical abuse occurs again, the victim will respond as most persons do: They will likely ask why the person is repeating such behavior. In an abusive relationship, the abuser will quickly shift the focus from his behavior to her behavior--stating that his actions are "provoked," "triggered," and/or "caused" by something she did or did not do. This form of blaming can be quite subtle or very overt. He makes it clear that she is responsible "for setting him off" and it won't happen again if she just changes her behavior. She wants their relationship to return to the way things used to be, so she is likely to accept his statements, thinking she can easily change whatever behavior he now claims caused him to act as he did. This process, repeated over and over again, begins to erode her sense of confidence and self-esteem. In addition, she begins to internalize the blame.

Simultaneously, he is beginning the isolation process. He questions whom she spends time with, suggests family and friends are interfering with their relationship, and either asks or forbids her from seeing them again. Even if he does not prevent her from such contacts, he makes it very difficult either before or after (or both) she spends time with others by engaging in such behavior as questioning exactly what they did, where they went, and what they talked about. He acts in a suspicious manner and becomes uncomfortable if she describes doing anything that suggests she had a good time without him. After awhile, it is easier for her to simply quit seeing the people of whom he disapproves rather than face the consequences. She tries to figure out what will set him off so she can avoid those situations. It takes her a long time to realize nothing she does can please him or stop his constant barrage of criticism. As she becomes more isolated, she has fewer people with whom to reality check.

Additionally, she experiences a lot of emotional conflict. She is confused about what is happening to her, but she also feels responsible, resulting in feelings of shame, embarrassment, and humiliation. She does not want to believe she could be "one of those women" so she works to justify why he behaved in an abusive fashion, further reinforcing her sense of blame. She is grieving the loss of the person she has come to love and the life they intended to create, so she keeps struggling to change her behavior so he has no reason to become upset and act badly. She keeps trying to control him by changing her behavior to conform to his ever-growing list of complaints. All the while, he is engaged in the thinking pattern of denying he is doing anything unreasonable in making such demands, blaming his actions on her and believing she is responsible for the conflicts they experience. They become enmeshed in a pattern that stops only when she learns she is not responsible for his behavior and when he is held accountable for his behavior.

Adding to the complexity of this pattern is his increasing use of threats and force. This creates a new reaction--fear--which often keeps the woman trapped in the relationship. If she confronts him, he escalates his use of threats and force. If she states her intention to leave if he does not change his behavior, he engages in more severe forms of abuse, telling her that he will kill her if she tries to leave the relationship. She may find it takes less energy to stay and appease him than to try to leave. She may also come to realize it is safer to stay in the relationship than to leave.


The victim of abuse fears that when she tries to leave, she cannot make it on her own, for a variety of reasons such as lack of finances, lack of resources (i.e., housing), inability to care for the children without assistance, fear of what he will do when he finds the children and her, his pleas and promises that he will change if she just gives him one more chance, her desire to have a lasting marriage/relationship and father for her children, and her all-too-human desire to be with someone who loves her. Interspersed with his abusive behavior are his pronouncements of his love for her, his promise that he will change, and his statements that only she can help him change.

The reality is that most people in nonabusive relationships do not immediately leave even when they believe there is a problem with the relationship. Most people leave more than once before they finally sever the relationship. Victims of domestic violence act just like everyone else: they waiver; they return; and they give it another chance. Rather than saying victims of domestic violence do not leave, it is more accurate to describe their pattern as coming and going from the relationship. Most victims of domestic violence repeatedly attempt to leave the relationship, but return when they cannot overcome the obstacles of getting away from the abuser. They will make a final separation if they are able to find a combination of resources to attend to the needs of their children and themselves, and to do so safely.

The question is not: "Why does a victim stay?" But rather, "What are the obstacles that prevent a victim from leaving?" A victim may face any/or all of these, or other obstacles:

  1. Economic dependence on the abuser.
  2. Fear for her safety and the safety of her children and/or other family members.
  3. Isolation. She has no support system or others with whom to reality check.
  4. Low self-esteem, especially after years of being told by the abuser how worthless she is and how she is to blame for all the violence that occurs.
  5. Beliefs about family. She may believe that a family is not to air its dirty laundry and that all families encounter hard times. These beliefs are often reinforced by family, church members, and the legal system.
  6. Beliefs about marriage. She may believe she must stay married forever, that it is "God's will."
  7. Belief that she is the only person who can stop the abuser which is reinforced by the abuser who says that she is the only one who ever understood him.
  8. Belief that he will find her no matter what she does to try to leave. This belief is based in reality if the abuser has hurt the victim when she attempted to leave.
  9. Lack of options and resources. She does not have the money or the resources to support herself and her children.
  10. Fear of being seriously hurt or killed if she attempts to leave. This fear is reinforced by the abuser who tells her that he will kill her if she ever tries to leave. Victims know these are not idle threats as they have feared for their lives before.
  11. Threats against others if the victim leaves. The abuser frequently threatens to hurt all those whom the victim knows and loves--including children, family members, friends, and co-workers.
  12. Health concerns. A victim of family violence may experience her own health issues in later life that make it difficult for her to leave, or she may feel that she must stay to take care of the abusive partner because of his health issues.
  13. Society's ageist responses to elder victims. When elder victims of domestic violence report abuse, those to whom the abuse is reported often presume the abuse is the result of the victim's age, not the result of abuse. For example, people may blame the bruises on the victim's frail condition rather than on abuse. People may interpret the victim's silence around financial and other issues as senility and lack of ability rather than fear to speak up in the presence of the abusive person.


Those who work with victims of domestic violence often put their emphasis on pushing the victim to leave the relationship. This approach may, in fact, put her at higher risk of danger. An appropriate response is to help her determine what her risks are and help her to problem-solve how to minimize those risks. In some cases, staying within the relationship may be the safest response.

  • Statistics indicate that women are at a greater risk of becoming victims of domestic homicide when they attempt to leave the relationship. In fact, women who leave their batterers are at a 75 percent greater risk of being killed by their batterer than those who stay (Wilson and Daly 1993).

  • Victims who attempt to leave are often hunted down--stalked, harassed, threatened, and pursued across county and state lines. Because abusers believe they are entitled to control the behavior of their partners, they may continue this behavior even after the petition for divorce is filed or granted. This is so common it is known as "separation violence."

  • The rate of attack against women separated from their husbands is about three times higher than that of divorced women and 25 times higher than that of married women.


Once victim service providers working within the legal system understand the dynamics of domestic violence, they know to expect and prepare for these types of victim behavior:

  • Repeated filing and dropping of a case.

  • Changing her story once the seriousness of abuse is disclosed.

  • Minimizing the abuse once it is discovered.

  • Changing her mind about what is wanted in the settlement or a willingness to give up important legal rights.

  • Denying anything ever happened or explaining away all the documented abuse.

  • Taking responsibility for the abuse by either saying she provoked or deserved it or by explaining its occurrence by saying she fell down or ran into a wall.

It is crucial for members of the legal system to view these behaviors as the victim's effort to be safe and stay alive.

  • The victim will do whatever it takes to feel safe. If it feels safe to start an action, she will do so. If she assesses she is in more danger by continuing her involvement with the criminal justice system, she will back away.
  • A victim is at great risk once she takes steps or indicates her intent to leave. The abuser will likely increase the tactics used to control her. The victim will now either receive a lot of positive or negative attention from the abuser, which may result in her not wanting to continue with the action such as the protective order, divorce, or prosecution.
  • Working with victims can be a frustrating experience. The victim service provider, including the attorney, wants the best legal outcome. The victim's goal is to stay alive or get out of the relationship safely. These goals may conflict.
  • Each person has a separate role in the system. The prosecutor's role is to hold the batterer accountable for his behavior. The advocate's role is to help the victim understand the system, to provide accurate and complete information about her options and resources and to support the choices she makes. The victim's role is to stay safe. All members of the system need to support her efforts to stay safe and alive.

When a prosecutor is involved in a case with a reluctant witness (which is likely to be most cases, because the dynamics of domestic abuse teach us that the victim will not testify if she believes it will subject her or her children to further violence), the prosecutor needs to educate the jury as to her behavior. If the prosecutor uses an expert witness, the witness is being asked to describe the "battered woman's syndrome." The battered woman's syndrome explains her behavior via the cycle of violence and the theory of learned helplessness. What follows is an examination of these concepts and their drawbacks. Nationally, prosecutors report they are more successful in cases with reluctant witnesses when they provide this explanation, rather than rely on an expert.

The Cycle of Violence. In 1979, Dr. Lenore Walker--in the landmark book The Battered Woman--identified three distinct phases that comprise the "cycle of violence." Dr. Walker determined that the phases vary in duration and intensity; as such, it is difficult to predict how long a batterer and victim will remain in any one phase or in the length of individual cycles.

Phase One is described as the tension building phase in which the abuser becomes more and more prone to react to any stimulus negatively. The victim responds to the escalation in tension by trying to nurture or appease him--or to stay out of his way. In this phase, the abuser becomes fearful that the victim may leave him, which is reinforced as she avoids him in the hope of not triggering the impending explosion. He becomes more oppressive, jealous, threatening, and possessive. Victims often describe this phase as "walking on eggshells."

Phase Two is the battering incident. Phase two is the shortest phase, usually lasting from minutes to a few hours. When the acute attack is over, it is usually followed by initial shock, denial, and disbelief that it really happened. Both the batterer and the victim find ways of rationalizing the seriousness of such attacks. Many victims report reactions similar to those of disaster victims. Victims of catastrophe usually suffer emotional collapse twenty-four to forty-eight hours after the disaster. Symptoms include listlessness, depression, and feelings of helplessness. Similarly, battered women often do not experience the full emotional impact of an attack until twenty-four to forty-eight hours after it has occurred.

Phase Three is described as the "honeymoon phase." Just as phase two is characterized by brutality, phase three is characterized by the extremely kind, loving, and contrite behavior of the abuser. He knows he has gone too far and tries to make it up to his victim. It is a phase welcomed by both parties, but ironically it is the phase during which the woman's victimization becomes complete. In this phase, the batterer constantly behaves in a charming and loving manner. He is usually sorry for his actions in the previous phase. He conveys his remorse to the victim, promises that he will never do it again, and begs her forgiveness. He is like a child caught with his hand in the cookie jar. The batterer truly believes that he will never again hurt the woman he loves, and that he will be able to control himself from now on. He also believes that he has taught his partner such a lesson that she will never again behave in a way that tempts him to physically assault her. He is quite sincere and can easily convince anyone involved that his behavior will change.

The batterer frequently begins an intense campaign to win forgiveness and to prevent his victim from separating herself from him permanently. It is common for an abuser in phase three to shower his victim with elaborate gifts and to attempt to "romance" her into forgiveness. He may enlist the aid of significant others—family, friends, clergy, even counselors—to persuade her that breaking up the relationship is a bad decision. Often everyone involved believes the rationalizations—that he is sorry and will change, that his workload or his drinking is to blame, that the children need a father, that the abuser needs the help of the victim—and somehow the victim begins to assume responsibility for his behavior. She sees herself as the one who must stand by her man while he gets the help he so desperately needs. In reality, it is very unlikely that the abuser will ever seriously seek professional help to change his violent behavior as long as the victim stays with him. Most often, the abuser will seek help only after his victim has left him and if he thinks seeking counseling will convince her to return. The battered woman chooses to believe that the behavior she sees during phase three is what her spouse/partner is really like. She chooses to believe that the contrite behavior is more indicative of the real person than the battering behavior.

Victims and advocates for domestic violence victims identify several drawbacks to the use of the cycle of violence. First, not all victims experience these stages. Some abusers simply batter without any indication they are about to do so--there is no tension building phase. Many victims report they never experience a honeymoon phase--he shows no remorse or contrition in spite of the severity of abuse. Most victims report if they ever experienced a honeymoon phase, it disappears over time. Victims report their experience of violence is not a cycle: they may experience none of these phases or they may experience the phases in random order.

A second problem with the use of the cycle of violence is the tendency of the legal system to use it to try to "explain" why violence occurs. In fact, it does not answer the key question the legal system needs to address: Why does the batterer engage in violence? The power and control wheel is the current tool used to explain both the why (to exert power and control) and the how (tactics used to exert power and control) of domestic violence.

Another problem with the cycle of violence is its description of the third phase, in which the abuser is said to show remorse in an attempt to prevent her from leaving. In reality, since there have been concerted efforts to arrest abusers and hold them accountable through the criminal justice system, many victims report abusers as likely to use negative efforts to keep her in the relationship or to encourage her to drop the charges. For example, after an arrest he may act in a loving, begging, contrite manner or he may become more agitated and threatening, blaming her for the consequences of his behavior. He is just as likely to threaten harm to her if she attempts to leave as he is to beg her to stay. The honeymoon phase might more accurately be described as a coercion phase, the coercion may be through the use of positive and/or negative tactics.

Finally, the cycle of violence fails to address the thinking patterns of the abuser and the victim. Rather, it tends to be explained in terms of their pathology--his sense of desperation and her response based on her low self-esteem. While this may be true, it also shifts the focus from the abuser's violence and makes the issue a "couple's problem," rather than focusing on his choice to use violence and other controlling behaviors to accomplish his goal of control.

In spite of its limitations, the cycle of violence is commonly referred to in the criminal justice system because it is a component of what is known as the battered woman's syndrome. An attorney may use the battered woman's syndrome to explain why the victim's behavior in the incident under scrutiny is reasonable in light of this woman's circumstances. For example, a prosecutor might introduce the battered woman's syndrome to explain why the victim recants, while a defense attorney might use it to explain the victim's belief that she had to use the amount of force or violence she did that resulted in her abuser's death. The battered woman's syndrome, however, does not consider the thinking patterns of the abuser and the victim.

The battered woman's syndrome requires the attorney to explain both the cycle of violence and the theory of learned helplessness and show how they apply to the victim in the legal case. The theory of learned helplessness can be even more troubling than the cycle of violence for victims of domestic violence.

The Psychosocial Theory of Learned Helplessness. As detailed in Domestic Violence: A Guide for Health Care Providers, published by the Colorado Domestic Violence Coalition and Colorado Department of Health in 1994, "learned helplessness" is a psychological theory that describes what happens when a person loses the ability to predict what actions will produce a particular outcome. Because the battered woman tries to protect herself and her family as best she can, those with learned helplessness choose only those actions that have a high probability of being successful.

As the battering and isolation increase, a shift in the survivor's comprehension of the situation occurs. She increasingly perceives escape as impossible. While she may continue to work at her paid job, eat, clean house, take care of the children, laugh with coworkers and appear self-confident and independent, surviving the battering relationship becomes the focus of her life.

In the survivor's eyes, the batterer becomes more and more powerful. She sees police and other agencies as less and less able to help (Walker 1979). She feels trapped and alone. She will likely develop a variety of coping mechanisms that may include withdrawal, asking permission to do even trivial things, manipulation, substance abuse, and asking that criminal charges be dropped.

The problem with the use of the theory of learned helplessness is it suggests/implies/requires a passive victim. In reality, victims often do shift their survival mechanisms from very assertive and community-based options to simply trying to keep the abuse and its impact quiet. This may not be a sign of passivity, as the theory of learned helplessness suggests, but rather a sign of her recognition that a more quiet response to his violence will provide the best safety for her and her children. A jury has a hard time buying into the theory of learned helplessness when presented with a victim who has used violence to kill her abuser.

Recent studies on the battered woman's syndrome suggest the theory of learned helplessness has limited usefulness in the legal system. Rather, a jury can far better understand why a victim makes the choices she does when the jury is given an accurate and complete description of the batterers' abusive tactics. This information alone--without trying to fit her into a cycle of violence which may not apply to her experiences or to paint her as exhibiting learned helplessness--may be enough to allow the jury to understand she is acting in a reasonable manner in light of her experiences.

Prior to making a choice to use the battered woman's syndrome, a prosecutor needs to clearly understand the pros and cons of this decision. This information can be obtained from the National Clearinghouse on the Defense of Battered Women. The Clearinghouse has a number of treatises on this issue which examine under what conditions the battered woman's syndrome may be helpful but also outline the serious drawbacks to its use. The Clearinghouse also provides information as to how to explain to a jury the victim's actions by presenting her life to the jury through the use of witnesses and police testimony. The Clearinghouse can be reached at 800-903-0111, ext. 3.




Resourceful Sites:

Domestic Violence Resources and telephone numbers in your area
Self Defense Tips, Tricks and Advice for Women!
Womens only work out self defense. Building the power within