Why Do People Return to Domestic Abusers?

By Kristance Harlow 07/25/17

Research on adult survivors of trauma shows alarming levels of re-enactments and re-experiencing of the traumatic event.

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Responses to abuse are complex and varied.

It never fails. Whenever a high-profile relationship goes public with domestic violence accusations, the internet will buzz with people who withhold sympathy for the alleged victim because they stayed in the relationship. If the accusations come after a long relationship comes to an end, the victim will be met with incredulous skeptics who don’t believe such a thing could be kept secret for so long. The judgmental victim-blaming criticisms ramp up exponentially if it is revealed that the victim returned to their abuser multiple times.

Leaving an abusive partner is difficult for so many reasons. An emotional bond, like that in an intimate relationship, creates an attachment that is as physical as it is emotional. A report by the American Psychological Association found that emotional attachment is positively correlated with a likelihood to return to a domestic batterer. Some abusive relationships involve control over finances and property. In an estimated 98 percent of relationships where domestic violence is present, economic abuse is also there. Children may be involved, creating conflicts of custody and childcare. Abused people often blame themselves. They may leave a relationship with strong feelings of anger, frustration, and fear. As time passes, they may return when those feelings recede and are replaced with shame, guilt, and denial.

Taking such a step puts the leaving partner at risk of being killed by their abuser. It is the most dangerous moment in the cycle of abuse. Intimate relationships make up 72 percent of all murder-suicides in the United States, and 94 percent of those murdered are women. Worldwide, half of all women murdered in 2012 were killed by either an intimate partner or a family member. Domestic violence-related homicides occur most often when the victim is leaving their abuser; a woman leaving an abuser is at a 70x higher risk of being murdered than at any other point in the relationship. This is an epidemic we perpetuate when we stigmatize survivors.

To combat victim blaming it is important we spread an understanding of not just the situational factors that play into patterns of domestic abuse, but also the psychological and cultural aspects. Some individuals will need to process their trauma in order to move past it and they are just as psychologically healthy as others who choose to not talk through the trauma. Both kinds of survivor may have “subclinical symptoms” that do not rise to the level of mental disorder. Most reactions to trauma are normal responses to extraordinary circumstances.

Mixed up in the myriad of reasons why survivors return to their abusive partners is a particular kind of response to trauma: the compulsion to relive and repeat traumatic experiences. Trauma can destroy what the person once believed to be fundamental truths on safety and about who they are in relation to the world at large. When your understanding of life is challenged so severely, it makes sense that you would seek to reconcile the dramatic discrepancy.

Risk taking behavior is commonly linked to post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). War veterans with PTSD have a lower life expectancy than their comrades who do not have a trauma disorder, in part because they are more impulsive. People with PTSD often have difficulty regulating their emotions. Acting on impulses, as opposed to thinking through consequences and making a measured decision, is part of that.

Impulsivity can manifest as a compulsive drive to recreate the emotional conditions of the unresolved trauma. Some people “reenact past traumas to master them.” Sometimes that means returning to an abuser, or getting into further relationships that mimic the prior abuse. Even though this link has been part of psychological theory for decades it is not commonly highlighted in stories about domestic violence.

Returning to an abuser doesn’t change the abuser and does not save the abused. They try and try again because there is a deep and insatiable urge to fix the past and the conflict. The abused is helpless and is not in control, so to solve the problem would be to gain back control. The psychologist and trauma expert Judith Herman writes that “repetitive reliving of the traumatic experience must represent a spontaneous, unsuccessful attempt at healing.”

Research on adult survivors of trauma shows alarming levels of re-enactments and re-experiencing. Re-enactments are when a survivor engages in behavior where they act out being the victim or the perpetrator. This may be an attempt by the brain to change the traumatic experience into one that is more aligned with a person’s original worldview. The psychoanalyst Paul Russell speculated that it is not the brain’s need for a cognitive reconciliation that drives repetitive compulsions. Instead, Russell said it is an attempt to create “what the person needs in order to repair the injury.”

Flashbacks and nightmares are a couple of the ways your brain may try and replay the game, but it can also happen in your conscious waking life. Sometimes these re-enactments are impulsive and even compulsive. In all cases, they feel involuntary. Herman explains that “most survivors do not consciously seek or welcome the opportunity. Rather, they dread and fear it. Reliving a traumatic experience…carries with it the emotional intensity of the original event.”

Domestic abuse is trauma that can take many forms, the defining characteristic of which is an intimate relationship in which one partner engages in abusive behavior to control and dominate another partner. Responses to trauma are extremely complex and anyone who assumes they know what should or shouldn’t occur in the face of domestic violence is out of their lane.

It is critical to understand that domestic violence can happen to anyone, and anyone can become a victim of domestic abuse who returns to their abuser. It is an issue of control and is a global, cross-cultural problem that transcends social and economic status and occurs in relationships of all sexualities and genders. Understanding the psychological experience and the subconscious impulse can help challenge the stigma of domestic violence and combat the fabrications that are conjured up by outsiders when someone returns to an abuser time and time again.

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Kristance Harlow is a freelance writer and mental illness advocate. She fights stigma and writes about uncomfortable experiences. She lives in a foreign land with her husband and rescue pupster. Find Kristance on Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, or her blog.