Today’s episode is twice the challenge: we’re dealing with the difficult subject of abuse in marriage but we’re also talking about when to leave a marriage too, which, under normal circumstances, is contrary to our personal values and our mission to help save marriages. So read carefully and thoughtfully as we navigate this very difficult topic.
Today we’re going to be guiding you through this subject of when to leave or stay in an abusive marriage.
If you missed last weeks’ post we discussed trajectories of healing and recovery for abusive marriages. You’ll definitely want to check that out for some background to today’s episode if this is the first time you’re listening in Also, make sure you hit the subscribe button so you don’t miss any upcoming shows from us.
Let’s get into this topic by starting with our values and then going to some really interesting research.
I think the most important thing we need to keep in front of us and for our readers to bear in mind is the context in which we are writing. We are sitting here in Florida writing this from our travel trailer. But when we publish this episode it will be available in over 100 countries and will be downloaded thousands and thousands of times. We have people of all faith backgrounds that read our posts. And even when most of our readers are evangelical Christians we have a spectrum of opinions on the subjects of separation, divorce and remarriage.
Rather than going into a huge sidebar on that I’m just going to say this. Our mission is to save marriages — we want to reach and influence as many marriages as possible. We hope your marriages never comes under this kind of strain and believe that no marriage is beyond recovery. We have written previously about certain exceptions to this and whether genuine ultimatums are ever justifiable in marriage, and while we still believe that separation is not the ideal from a Christian standpoint, when we talk about abusive marriages we are dealing with a whole different ball game.
You may well have your own opinions on whether divorce is ever acceptable. I would just ask that if you are not in an abusive marriage and if you have never been close to someone who is on the victim side of that relationship, that you suspend judgment until you hear some of their stories and experiences.
On the other end of the spectrum we will have women listening to this who are facing another beating today. In this very moment they are afraid — possibly even for their lives. So we have this wide audience reading but we really want to speak to those of you who are in an abusive marriage and are trying to figure out what your next step is and are maybe even afraid for your life, certainly for your wellbeing and possibly that of your children also.
Should I Leave My Abusive Marriage?
Let’s start with a very interesting study from 2007[i] where the researchers collected data from over 400 women who were seeking help due to being in a violent relationship. They interviewed these women every 3 months for the next year.
These women had four patterns of relationship that the researchers identified
- Completely apart: the women remained uninvolved with their partner from the second interview to the end of the study
- Together then apart: women who were “in” the relationship with this partner for at least one time point [during the first 6 months of the study] but were “out” of the relationship [during] the last 6 months of the study
- Fluid – Women who were involved with their partner for at least one time point [during]…the last 6 months of the study, but were “out” of the relationship for at least one time point between the second interview and the end of the study.
- Completely together – women who remained involved with their partner for the entire study
Where this study is helpful is it showed how women fare in an abusive relationship based on their decisions to stay, leave or live out some combination of the two.
Women who left an abusive relationship and did not come back at any point showed “marginally significant higher quality of life score” than women who stayed or went back and forth. That’s interesting. Leaving may not be your ticket to happiness. It may be your ticket to safety and survival, which is important! But in terms of happiness and quality of life the decision to leave an abusive marriage might not be as beneficial as you’d imagine. Let’s keep going…
When it came to experiences of violence: women who remained completely apart experienced the least amount of violence. Women who remained completely together experienced the second least amount of violence, followed by women who were together and then apart, and women who were fluid in their relationship status over time
Conclusion: decisiveness in decision making appears to be helpful. Coming and going due to indecisiveness appears to expose you to greater levels of violence. In a way this makes sense– this constant back and forth of breaking up and returning would create a very unstable relationship where tempers run high whereas staying in the marriages at least creates some stability.
Additionally, women who remained completely apart from their abusive partner also “reported the lowest rates… of psychological abuse and stalking at the final interview.”
Women who remained completely together with their partner experienced the second lowest rates of psychological abuse and stalking. They experienced significantly more psychological abuse than those who completely left their marriages but the differences in physical abuse and stalking were not found to be significant.
In other words, although women who remained with their partner did experience more physical abuse, psychological abuse, and stalking than women completely left their partner, in most cases this difference was small and not significant. It was only a significant difference when it came to psychological abuse.
When it came to all three forms of violence – physical, psychological, and stalking –“fluid women fared the worst of the four groups…suggesting that women who leave and then return experience more abuse than women who never leave at all.”
So I think there are three take-aways to put this all together:
- It appears that leaving appears to be the most effective in preventing re-abuse (1 year later) when it occurs relatively soon after a given incident of violence and is sustained for an extended period of time[ii]
- The authors concluded that “How women leave an abusive relationship is more important than whether they leave”[iii]. The reason for this conclusion was the small difference in outcomes for women who completely stayed and women who completely left compared to the more negative outcomes for women who were back and forth in their decision making.
- It appears that it is more helpful to have certainty about your decision– definitively leaving or staying produce the best outcomes but going back and forth between the two only makes things worse[iv]. Obviously choosing whether to stay in an abusive marriage is a huge decision and some level of doubt and uncertainty is completely understandable. But the research shows that you should avoid acting until you’re totally sure what you want to do, and then stick to that decision.
Once again we’ve created a bonus guide on safety planning. It outlines the steps you need to take if you have not yet left the relationship but you believe you may need to in order to be safe. It also includes steps to take if you have already left and are still concerned for your safety.
Again: normally this bonus content is only available to our supporters but this time it is free. We wanted to make it freely available because we realize that this is a very important issue and for some of you, you may not have the financial freedom to make a purchase like this. We want to make sure you have a copy of this.
So conclusively leaving or staying in your abusive marriage are both better than moving from one to the other. Now let’s look at some reasons for and against leaving.
Deciding to Leave
When reviewing the literature, Koepsell and Kernick (2006)[v] list the following as reasons why women stated they chose to leave an abusive relationship (these aren’t qualified as marriage relationships…they may be common law or other forms of cohabitation):
- A low commitment to the relationship
- Financial independence apart from the husband
- A greater frequency and severity of abuse
- The presence of children and potential for children to be abused.
So these are factors that women consider. The first two points show that if you just aren’t all that invested or committed to your relationship and it becomes abusive then leaving seems the obvious choice. But I think the most significant factors are the safety issues. And as you consider your situation, we have to ask: could your husband’s abuse toward you turn lethal? Is your life in danger? Are you at risk for severe bodily harm? What about your children?
It’s hard to know the answer to these questions sometimes. So I want to bring in a study here from 2014[vi] that looked at risk factors for lethal violence. Again, keep in mind that for women in this situation it is often very disorientating so I hope that these factors help you gain some perspective on the relative severity of your position.
- You experience and increased level of fear towards your spouse. If you fear your spouse, you are at greater risk of lethal violence. The fear itself affects your ability to change your situation and increases your risk for lethal violence[vii]. If you feel fear — that may be an indication it’s time to begin safety planning.
- You have been using drugs or alcohol to cope with the abuse. A greater proportion of women in the high risk category for lethal violence use drugs or alcohol. So if it’s gotten bad enough that you’re finding yourself resorting to these coping mechanisms, that’s another signal that you may be in a severe situation
- You have been diagnosed with depression or PTSD. There’s another correlation here.
- You have sought out domestic violence resources. Now: this isn’t saying that you should notseek out these resources. It’s just saying that if you have sought them out this is another indicator that you may be in a high risk situation. Here’s a direct quote from these researchers: “In comparison to the low-risk-for-lethal-violence group, a higher proportion of women in the high-risk group reported using domestic violence resources[viii]” And “Women who reported using resources such as restraining orders or other legal assistance to deal with their abusive partners were more likely to be at high risk for violence[ix]”.
So if you fear for your safety or that of your children then this can be a good indicator that leaving is the best course of action. This is especially true if you recognize any of the points above in relation to being at risk of lethal violence. So those are some reasons around deciding to leave. Now let’s look at the opposite.
Deciding to Stay
Again, based on a review of the literature, Bell and Naugle (2005)[x] listed the following as reasons why women stated they chose to stay in and abusive relationship:
- Commitment to the relationship
- An emotional attachment to the abuser and a desire to “save” the relationship
- Lack of financial and housing resources
- Lack of child care
- Few relationship alternatives
- Lack of employment or education
- Batterer’s promises to change
- Fear of batterer retaliation
- Social pressure
I think we can simplify these factors into three main ideas:
- Investment in the relationship— your desire to improve things. Remember that in last week’s post we saw that an abuse victim’s own predictions of whether their situation would get better were often correct.
- Lack of alternatives— if leaving puts you in a precarious situation in terms of a lack of financial support, housing and future prospects then this would make deciding to leave that much harder.
- Fear of the consequences— fear that the abusive partner would retaliate or that you would face being ostracized socially if you left.
Staying For the Right Reasons
I hope that as we go through this it becomes clear that I don’t have a strong agenda for staying or leaving. I do have a strong agenda for you all to stay safe. That’s important. But this is your decision. It’s your life. You will live with the consequences, not me. And I’m not going to be the next dominating male in your life telling you what to do. You have the wisdom and the resources you need to do make the choice that is best for you. I’m just here to help you make an informed decision.
Remember that we saw earlier that women who decide to stay actually fare better than women who come and go. It is a perfectly valid decision to stay until you have a definite plan and know you need to leave.
Also remember that abuse often continues after separation[xi]. So separation is not a slam dunk to ending abuse. And, remember too, that some men do join batterer programs and that some marriages do improve (link back to yesterday’s episode).
So staying is a legitimate option and one that we can speak to. First, if you decide to stay, you can choose to sustain and focus on the relationships positive attributes while finding a way to stop or lessen the abuse[xii]. We saw this in last week’s episode, where some men became non-violent at the end of a 6 month to one year period.
Secondly, if you choose to stay I would like to challenge you to find a way to stay where you make that choice out of your free will and not out of your inability to leave. This shifts your presence in the marriage from a place of “weak and easy prey to a strong and competent survivor whose decisions are to be respected[xiii]”. Keep in mind that your expression of this decision may take time and that you are the best person to evaluate the safety of taking a stance like this.
If your husband’s perception is that you are trapped he is also likely to think that his violence does not threaten the existence of the relationship. But when you show that you have autonomy and the ability to choose, he has to begin to evaluate the risks associated with his behavior. Again: we don’t know how that will go in your marriage. It may work in some and not in others. But I think if you can find your calm place and really pray and consider these options you will get a sense of what will work and what will not.
So I hope this has provided some clarity. Remember that your safety is paramount. If there’s a possibility of yourself or a child being in danger you do need to come up with a safety plan. On the other hand if lethal violence is not an issue then hopefully I’ve given you enough information to begin making a decision that is going to help you move forward in this situation.
Again, even if you’re not ready to reach out to someone for help yet remember that there are many good books available on this topic now. Both at your local library, online and on Amazon. Also in every geographical center there are toll-free help lines that you can call. Just Google them, like “New York abuse hotline” or “Chicago domestic violence help” and you will be able to find help. These are free resources and they can give you advice, advise you of your rights, even give legal advice if you’re concerned about custody, etc. But do reach out. Start by talking to someone who can help and provide useful information and perspective. You don’t have to go through this alone. It’s not your fault. You can choose to find help, to start the process of recovering and rebuilding respect for yourself and for your safety and for your personal needs.
Every human being is worthy of respect and dignity in all circumstances. Just remember that.
[i] Margret E. Bell, Lisa A. Goodman, and Mary Ann Dutton, ‘The Dynamics of Staying and Leaving: Implications for Battered Women’s Emotional Well-Being and Experiences of Violence at the End of a Year’, Journal of Family Violence, 22.6 (2007), 413–28 <https://doi.org/http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s10896-007-9096-9>.
[ii] Bell, Goodman, and Dutton.
[iii] Bell, Goodman, and Dutton.
[iv] Bell, Goodman, and Dutton.
[v] Jennifer K. Koepsell, Mary A. Kernic, and Victoria L. Holt, ‘Factors That Influence Battered Women to Leave Their Abusive Relationships’, Violence and Victims, 21.2 (2006), 131–47.
[vi] Bushra Sabri and others, ‘Factors Associated With Increased Risk for Lethal Violence in Intimate Partner Relationships Among Ethnically Diverse Black Women’, Violence and Victims, 29.5 (2014), 719–41.
[vii] Sabri and others.
[viii] Sabri and others.
[ix] Sabri and others.
[x] Kathryn M. Bell and Amy E. Naugle, ‘Understanding Stay/Leave Decisions in Violent Relationships: A Behavior Analytic Approach’, Behavior and Social Issues, 14.1 (2005), 21–45.
[xi] Einat Peled and others, ‘Choice and Empowerment for Battered Women Who Stay: Toward a Constructivist Model’, Social Work, 45.1 (2000), 9–25.
[xii] Peled and others.
[xiii] Peled and others.