Dr. Seth Meyers, Clinical Psychologist

Dr. Seth Meyers, Clinical Psychologist

Wednesday, March 4, 2009


Why Do Victims of Domestic Abuse Return to Their Abusers?

There isn't a simple answer to this question. The issue of domestic violence is an emotionally evocative topic. First, it is important to note that domestic abuse victims can be male or female. We may automatically think of females as the victims, but men are also victims of abuse--both in heterosexual and homosexual relationships.

And if media coverage is an indicator, the public can't stop talking about the alleged assault of Rhianna by Chris Brown. The recently leaked police photo of Rhianna has only added fuel to public discourse and reactions of shock, disgust, sadness, and anger among others. Domestic violence is an emotionally loaded topic for many reasons. In part because we often have a difficult time understanding why victims of domestic violence return to their abusers. Of course every relationship is unique but there are some common themes.

Frequently, the victim believes that the abuse will stop. They want to believe that the abuse was an isolated event. Victims may not recognize the connection between physical abuse and other types of emotional and verbal abuse. Victims frequently mistake controlling for caring and are unable to distinguish between them. Sometimes victims may believe that they did something to "deserve it." The abuser may even overtly blame them for causing the abuse. People in abusive relationships may have been exposed to unhealthy relationships in their childhood, which contributes to their skewed perception. Abusive relationships may seem "normal" because they are familiar.

Other reasons that victims of domestic abuse stay with abusers include financial and or emotional dependence. Also, it is not unusual for the victim to fear for his or her life. Despite the abuse there are usually compelling pros to the relationship, which keep the couple together. Sometimes children are involved in the situation and this becomes another connection between romantic partners. And remember, the abuser can appear remorseful and at times be affectionate and charming.

Although it can be difficult to understand the complex forces that contribute to victims sustaining abusive relationships, it is important to develop empathy for them. It is very sad for the victim to believe (either consciously or unconsciously) that holding onto the relationship is worth the personal cost. Staying in an abusive relationship negatively affects a person's self-esteem, which in turn affects all aspects of their life. If a victim doesn't feel that they truly deserve a healthy relationship then they are unlikely to seek it. It then becomes increasingly difficult for the victim to break free from the abusive relationship.

It is unpopular to argue that we develop some empathy for the abuser, but I feel that is important as well. People who abuse others are wholly responsible for their actions--don't get me wrong--but it is important to consider how they learned to use this kind of violence against others. How deeply powerless and out-of-control must someone feel to lash out against those they love? It is totally inexcusable but also tragic.

Both partners in an abusive relationship are participating in a dynamic that needs professional intervention. Abuse victims are not at fault and do not deserve to be abused, but they should reflect on their motivations for sustaining the relationship. Discussing their situation with a therapist is a step in the right direction. It reinforces the healthy part of them, which recognizes that they deserve to be heard and that their feelings are valid.

1 comment:

Chris said...


You know I share your love of celebrity gossip and I think we can both agree that we'd rather not have gossip about these types of situations, celebrity or otherwise. We have had reports of Chris Brown's childhood experiences witnessing domestic violence. It has me wondering about Rihanna's relationship history. Is this her first abusive relationship?