Love and Commitment . . . and Intimate Partner Violence
Why do women remain in abusive relationships? In the Broadway musical, “Oliver!”, character Nancy is in love with scoundrel and criminal Bill Sikes, who is violently abusive toward her. She sings a song, “As Long As He Needs Me,” proclaiming her undying love while acknowledging his shortcomings. She knows that nobody else could understand how and why she feels the way she does, and in the end Bill beats her to death for defying him. Women in abusive relationships often fall victim to their own beliefs of romantic love and commitment—our society perpetuates and reinforces this type of belief through popular songs, movies, and ideals surrounding love and marriage. The battered woman needs to learn to value and love herself, and to recognize that violence is not love.
An abused woman may view her partner’s jealousy and related controlling behavior as a sign of love. In early stages of a relationship, a partner’s expression of jealousy may be perceived by a woman as an elevation of her value and boost her self-esteem in the relationship. These women often have preconceived ideas of romantic love, and the contingency of their self-worth relative to their relationship may explain why some women will remain in a violent relationship. O.J. Simpson was quoted as saying, in defense of the accusation that he murdered his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson: “Even if I did do this, it would have been because I loved her very much, right?”
Similar to the emotional connection of victims in hostage situations, victims of intimate partner violence (IPV) may develop emotional dependence on their abusers that is akin to love, solely out of a struggle to survive. It is the obvious power differential between abuser and victim, coupled with an abuser’s practice of alternating between threats and kindness, that creates this situation. Similarly, the abusive relationship that is characterized by a cyclical pattern of rewarded behavior and sporadic violence can create the same type of emotional dependence or traumatic bonding.
Cycle of Abuse
An abused woman may stay in an abusive relationship because, between violent episodes, her abusive partner exhibits the loving and attentive traits that first attracted her to him. Women give their power over to a man for many reasons, but the abusive partner uses power to gain control over his partner. The Cycle of Abuse, also known as the Cycle of Violence, reflects a common pattern evident in abusive relationships. The relationship begins in the Honeymoon stage, where at first the victim is attracted by the partner’s charm, wit, intelligence, likeability, and attentiveness. However, over time tension builds within the relationship—possibly fueled by jealousy, stress, annoyance, or substance abuse—eventually leading to the Explosion stage and abusive behavior. The abusive partner feels remorseful afterward, begs forgiveness, sends flowers, and the couple makes up, thereby drawing the victim back into the cycle. Eventually, the honeymoon stage is bypassed and the cycle is reduced to periods of tension and abuse, growing in frequency and severity.
The main challenge for the therapist or clinician treating a current victim of IPV is helping them to understand and acknowledge the importance of their safety, and then educating them in the availability and accessibility of social supports. Solution-focused strategies can help the therapist guide the IPV victim to an awareness of the pitfalls to leaving her abuser so that she will be prepared when she is doubtful, lonely, or is tempted to reconcile. She needs to know that guilt and grief are normal emotional responses, but that she can survive. Helping her to recognize and celebrate her individual strengths will assist her in the process of leaving so that she will be able to get a job, care for her children, and become and remain independent.