Violence in marriage - why do women stay?

Subadra Marharaj


This article draws on research information to examine "violence in marriage - why do women stay"? The first part of the article describes an overview of the problem and reasons why women remain in abusive situations. The author examines many explanations about this phenomenon and refutes that women stay in abusive relationships because of learned helplessness. Based on arguments in the literature, women stay in relationships for many plausible and pragmatic reasons.

The second part of the article deals with implications for social workers, particularly in the health settings. Health social workers can respond to the problem of violence against women by empowering female patients to make informed decisions if confronted with domestic violence. A program is proposed using the feminist and strengths perspectives. A fundamental belief of the feminist theories is that violence against women is about gender, power and control. Women are battered because of inequality of power in marriages and men’s tactics to control (Yllo, 1993). Therefore, the empowerment of women is one way for women to end abusive relationships.

1. An overview of the problem:

Before the 1970’s, very little was known about the prevalence of wife abuse in the U.S. as it was assumed that the marriage provided a safe haven for women (Browne, 1997). However, wife abuse existed in many forms-physically, emotionally, sexually, and economically. In the first National Survey of Family Violence in 1975, over 28 percent of married couples reported at least one physical assault (Strauss, et al. 1992). The National Crime Survey for 1980 indicated that women were more likely to sustain injury by their partner than from a stranger. The survey in 1985 revealed that nearly one out of eight husbands had physically assaulted their wives during the twelve months prior to the survey (Browne, 1997). These assaults included punching, kicking, beating, and threatening with the use of a knife or gun. According to this survey, over two million women were severely assaulted by male partners in an average of twelve months (Browne, 1997). The National Crime Survey of 1994 reported that two-third of violent victimization against women were committed by someone known to them: 28% were husbands or boyfriends (Browne, 1997). Almost six times more women were victimized by an intimate partner than a stranger. The survey also found that, compared to males, females experienced over ten times as many incidents of violence than men. In 1990, approximately 30 percent of 3,000 female murder victims were killed by their husbands or boyfriends (Browne, 1997). A study of females killed by intimate partners between 1980-1982 found that 57.7% of the women killed, were married (Stout, 1991).

According to Browne, 1997, although there is such a high rate of violence reported against women, the incidence of wife abuse is underreported for many reasons. National statistics on marital violence are based on self -reports through telephone surveys or in-person interviews. Therefore, they represent only those who are willing to participate. They also omit several people-the poor, institutionalized, and foreign speaking (Browne, 1997). However, the available statistics highlight the magnitude and seriousness of wife abuse in the U.S.

According to Ganley, 1995, wife abuse cuts across all racial and socio-economic barriers. It is prevalent in all racial, socio-economic, educational, occupational, and religious groups. However, minority women living in poverty and isolation were identified as being at greater risk (Ganley, 1995). The first National Family Violence Survey 1975 reported that among poorer African-American middle-class couples, it was found that those with stronger social support had less violence (Strauss et al. 1992). Little is known about violence among Asian-Americans. Among Native-Americans, violence against women "appears to be at frightening levels" (Browne, 1997). Pregnant women are also a high-risk group for domestic violence. 40% of assaults on women by their male partners begin during the first pregnancy, and pregnant women are at twice the risk of abuse (Browne, 1997).

Many women are subjected to various forms of abuse, yet many of them remain in the abusive situations. The question is often "why do they stay?"

2. Literature Review:

Research literature on this topic advance many reasons why women stay in abusive relationships. Some of the research adopts a ‘victim-blaming’ perspective by focusing on the woman’s behavior and attitudes. These arguments suggest that women remain in abusive relationships because they lack assertiveness, and might be pathological. Some research disagree that women passively remain in abusive situations. If they do remain, they do so for many pragmatic reasons.

The battered women syndrome (BWS) is used to explain why women stay in abusive relationships. Walker, 1992 explained that women who have been physically, sexually, and/or seriously psychologically abused by their partners exhibit BWS (Gelles and Loeske, 1993). BWS is a group of psychological symptoms similar to post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). According to this concept, women with BWS become pathological and experience depression, high avoidance, and disinterest in previously significant activities. Abused women with this syndrome develop ‘learned helplessness’. For the battered woman, this means the loss of belief that adopting a way out will bring about safety. Therefore, many women fail to try to get out of abusive relationships. According to Walker, 1992, if women do try to leave the relationship, ‘they choose options that have the highest predictability of safety" (Gelles and Loeske, 1993 pp. 135). However, the feminists’ argument that women will leave abusive relationships if safe options are provided seems more acceptable ( Gelles and Loeske, 1993).

Women who remain in abusive relationships are often labeled as masochistic and co-dependent (Ganley, 1995). This means that some of them consciously seek out abusive partners, and may even enjoy abusive relationships. These women are viewed as provoking or precipitating the abuse and therefore, choose to remain with their abusive partners.

Women stay in abusive relationships because they experience a form of captivity and oppression (Herman, 1992). Herman, 1992 argues that women in abusive relationships ‘surrender to the coercive control of their perpetrator’. Browne, 1997 explains that because of a pattern of violence in marriage, some women are entrapped. Physical aggression is often preceded by non-violent tactics as intrusion, isolation, jealousy, possessiveness, anger, and verbal abuse (Browne, 1997). Very often after episodes of abuse, there is contrition and remorse (Browne, 1997). Ferraro, 1997 explained that women’s response and survival strategies occur in stages-ardor, accommodation, ambivalence, terror, and homicide. In the first stage of ardor, although a woman may view her husband’s non-violent tactics as a violation of trust and intimacy, she may not assess it as justification to leave the relationship. In this honeymoon stage of the relationship, women overlook "negative characteristics and forewarnings of danger" (Ferraro, 1997). Most women report no experience of physical violence during the first six months of marriage. In the second stage of ‘accommodation’, women do not leave after the first incident of violence. They protect their commitment through rationalization, denial, and self-blaming. By the third stage of ‘ambivalence’, a woman remains in the relationship for many socio-economic reasons. In the ‘terror’ stage, if the woman attempts to leave, the perpetrator uses violent threats. Ferraro, 1997 argues that many women may stay in abusive relationships because violence is gradual and progressively lethal.

These explanations imply that for mainly psychological reasons, some women stay in abusive relationships. However, other researchers have shown that women leave abusive relationships, and those who remain or return, do so for rational reasons. A study by Campbell et al. 1994, found that over 43% of battered women had left their abusers, and two thirds were living in non-violent situations (Browne, 1997). Among middle class couples, 22% ended in divorce because of violence. Thousands of women seek refuge in shelters for battered women. Some women even resort to homicide to end the abuse. Bass, 1992 found that over 90% of women incarcerated for male homicide, were battered by those men (General Fact About Domestic Violence).

The most pragmatic reason for many women choosing to remain in abusive relationships is because of their children’s safety (Ganley, 1995). Many abused women try to preserve their children’s stability especially when they lack adequate safety options. It was found that perpetrators intensify violence if they suspect that the women plan to leave with the children (Sulllivan, 1997). Perpetrators also threaten to take custody of children and withhold child support payments. Ptacek, 1997, cited victims’ testimonies of their husband’s threats to kill them if they take away their children. Perpetrators use threat or attempt to kill or injure when women try to leave abusive relationships. Sullivan, 1997, found that the legal system colludes with the batterer in granting custody of children by not taking into consideration wife abuse.

Women stay or return to abusive relationships for fear of their own safety. Many women are often threatened with more serious abuse, and in more danger if they attempt to leave (Browne, 1997). Research also found that perpetrators develop an obsession when the victims try to leave. They intensify physical violence and threats of homicide and suicide (Ganley, 1995). Stark and Filcraft, 1988 found that battered women seek medical attention more often after separation; about 75% of the visits to emergency rooms occur after separation, and 75% of telephone calls to the police were for domestic violence after separation. When some women leave, the perpetrator use stalking in the workplace as a strategy to further intimidate them. Perpetrators may stalk the women until they loose their jobs (Ptacek, 1997).

Economics is a major consideration for many women to remain in abusive relationships. Johnson, 1992 in a study of 426 battered women found that income and employment were more important considerations than psychological characteristics as self-esteem (General Facts About Domestic Violence). Women who lack job skills and are financially dependent on their spouses face the choice of living in poverty. The poverty rate for 1995 showed that female-headed families made up 32.4% of the poor in the U.S. Their earnings were less than $15,000 per annum (Karger and Stoesz, 1997). Welfare Reform in 1996 is a further prohibition for women to remain single. The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 stipulates that recipients of Temporary Assistance to Needy Families must be working within two years. For many women, this would mean occupying low-paying jobs; lacking resources to find suitable homes, and meet their other financial commitments.

Homelessness is a real alternative confronting many battered women. In a study of 777 homeless parents (mainly mothers), 22% were victims of domestic violence (NCH Fact Sheet # 8, 1999). Women without adequate informal support through their family and friends may have no alternative accommodation when they leave abusive relationships. In the U.S., there are approximately 2000 temporary shelters for battered women. Most times, they are filled to capacity so many women and children are denied shelters. In 1998, over 32% of requests for shelters were denied because of limited capacity (U.S. Conference of Mayors, 1998-General Facts about Domestic Violence). After women leave shelters, they have to find accommodation for themselves and their children. Finding low income or affordable housing is another issue.

Community response has been a major deterrent for many women to leave abusive relationships. According to Sullivan, 1997, many social institutions colluded with male perpetrators. Prior to 1976, women had no where to go for refuge if they did not have a strong informal network. Domestic shelters were only introduced in the 1970’s when the feminist movement started. The first battered women’s shelter in the U. S., Women’s Advocates was opened in St. Paul, Minnesota in the 1970’s. Schneider, 1990 found that there were 3800 animal shelters in the U.S. in comparison to 1,500 shelters for battered women (General Facts about Domestic Violence). The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence estimates that three out of four women are turned away from shelters for lack of space (Smith, 1993). There are fewer shelters in rural areas, and most of them struggle to stay open because of limited funds. There is also need for more shelters for women younger than age 18, older than 60, minorities, and working class women (General Facts about Domestic Violence).

Many women stay in abusive relationships because of their religious beliefs and culture. Sullivan, 1997 found that the clergy was not supportive of women leaving abusive marriages. Many religions as Hinduism and Christianity promote that marriage should be an unbreakable contract. Women who remain in abusive relationships try to honor their vows ‘until death do us part’ or ’for better or for worse’. They do not regard some forms of abuse as justification to end the marriage ( Schechter & Gary, 1985). A survey conducted by Schechter and Gary, 1985 on the Protestant clergy, found that 21% of the participants felt that no amount of abuse would ever justify a wife’s leaving her husband; 26 % agreed that a wife should submit to her husband and depend on God to endure the abuse. They also found that many women have looked first to the church for support but these institutions seldom responded by condemning the abuse. Instead the women are treated as part of the problem (Schechter and Gary, 1985).

The protective and legal systems have been largely responsible for women to remain in abusive situations. Before the 1970’s, women received little legal protection for domestic assaults and were revictimized by the judicial system. Police did not make arrests unless they actually witnessed an incident. A wife could not apply for an order of protection until she filed for a divorce. Civil suits for damages and injuries were denied as married couples were viewed as a ‘single entity’ (Sullivan, 1997). However, legal reforms began in the 1970’s. The case of Tracy Thurman vs. The City of Torrington (1984) further influenced policy changes. Tracy Thurman from Torrington, Connecticut several times sought and did not obtain police protection against the violent attacks of her estranged husband. Eventually in June 1983, Tracy was critically assaulted in the presence of the police who stood by and did nothing (Hampton, 1999, pp. 186). She subsequently won a civil suit against the police for $1.9 million dollars. As an outcome, a policy was made for mandatory arrests in cases of family violence. In 1994, The Violence Against Women Act was instituted, thereby recognizing that domestic violence, by any measure, constitutes a social problem and a crime (Hampton, 1999). Changes were also made in the judicial system. The previously held belief about the ‘single entity’ was no longer observed. Courts could now issue temporary restriction and protection pending divorce. Even though there have been significant changes in the protective and legal systems, there is a lack of supportive services to follow through with the protection of women. The U.S. Department of Justice found a significant amount of women re-victimized within six months of the initial incident that resulted in criminal justice. Legal fees and accessing legal aid are other restrictions for many women.

From the literature research, there are many reasons why some women choose to remain, or return to their abusive spouses. It seems rare that it is for a lack of exploring other options. The lack of a viable and safe option seems to be the primary reason why women may reconsider leaving their abusive relationships. According to Cardarelli 1997, there is need for more comprehensive approaches to provide adequate options for women. There is need for measures to restore safety in the home and the socio-economic well being of battered women. This would require more Federal Government initiatives to address structural issues and stressors that impact families. From a feminist perspective, there is need to restore the balance of power in marriages as a strategy to reduce violence in marriage. Empowering women to become self-reliant and equipping them to make informed decisions might help women terminate abusive relationships.

3. Adopting a Feminist Approach in Health Care Settings:

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 1991 found that more than one million women seek medical assistance for injuries caused by domestic violence each year (Domestic Violence Statistics -Health). According to Mehta and Dandrea, 1988, abused women are more likely to seek help from their physicians than from lawyers or police officers (Domestic Violence Statistics-Health). However, many of them go unnoticed as only a small percentage are identified as being abused (Kurz, 1990). Kurz, 1990 highlights the need for health professionals, mainly practitioners to be educated and trained to identify physical and behavioral characteristics of battered women, and to intervene on their behalf. She suggested that health care systems should design appropriate intervention programs for battered women. Warshaw, 1989 in a study of Cook County and Michael Reese Hospitals in Chicago discusses the limitations of the medical model in the care of battered women. She argued that a large number of women present symptoms of abuse in these health settings, however, many times they are not detected. This author agrees that health care professionals need to be more vigilant in detecting abuse against women. It is also important for them, not only to become involved in intervention strategies, but initiate preventive measures. Social workers in particular, can play a pivotal role in violence prevention, and equip women with appropriate tools to handle the challenges of domestic violence. To achieve this, they can adopt a feminist empowerment approach. This approach advocates for political, social, and economic equality of the sexes as gender and power are key elements of domestic violence (Gelles & Loeske, 1993 pp.47). Yllo, 1988, describes violence in marriage "as husband’s means of maintaining dominance within patriarchal marriage" (Gelles & Loeske, 1993 pp.49). Dobash & Dobash, 1979 analyzed male violence as a means of social control (Gelles & Loeske, 1993). Accepting the feminist power and control theory on domestic violence, an empowerment approach may help women regain her sense of power and control (Kirst-Ashman, K & Hull, G.H. Jr. pp. 433).

According to Kirst-Ashman et al., 1993, the imbalance of power is created in marriages because women are generally poorer than men. Feminism, therefore, seeks to restore the balance of power through the empowerment of women, by advocating for their legal and socio-economic equality. Feminism also proposes to educate them about women issues, thereby enabling them to identify things that are contrary to their values. Through knowledge, women can then take action to remedy their situation. Empowerment requires advocating on behalf of women- to aggressively pursue what may benefit them (Kirst- Ashman et al., 1993). Feminism also promotes the utilization of the individuals strengths and qualities in empowerment.

4. Implications for Social Work Practice at Fantus Health Center:

Fantus Health Center (FHC) at 621 S. Winchester, Chicago is an ambulatory care facility that provides primary and specialist care to over 2000 indigent people per day. The social work department provides ancillary services in each clinic area. Social workers interface with hundreds of women per day. On March 30, 2000, the department hosted a seminar on ‘Family Violence Prevention’ for health care professionals. This was a positive step to at least generate interest in the need for strategies to prevent various forms of family violence. Unfortunately, there is no ongoing program by the social work department to address domestic violence. It is not the general practice of social workers to even screen female patients for abuse unless she confides this information. Patients who disclose abuse are then referred to the Hospital Crisis Intervention Project (HCIP) at Cook County Hospital for their intervention. There is need for social workers at FHC to become proactively involved in domestic violence prevention.

A proposal is suggested for social workers at FHC, especially those who interface with female patients on a regular basis to initiate some form of domestic violence awareness and education programs. Using the feminist empowerment framework, these programs can target all female patients whether abused or not, and sensitize them on the dynamics of domestic violence. Social workers can educate women on their rights and options in the event of domestic violence- how to seek help; access resources; expand their options; enhance their self-esteem, and develop socio-economic independence. Social workers can also become involved in brokering for required services to assist with practical needs, and overall, to help women break away from the cycle of abuse. This will require monetary investment for the expansion of the social services. There might be need to recruit more social workers; organize a lecture room to conduct group sessions; purchase equipment for audio and visual aids; and other setting up and operation requirements. However, this might be very cost effective in the long run.

5. Program Proposal:

Based on the above rationale, a domestic violence awareness program is proposed using the feminist empowerment framework (Kirst-Ashman, K. & Hull, G. H. Jr., 1993; Schechter, S. & Gary, L.T., 1985)

Name of the Program: FHC Domestic Violence Empowerment Program.

Purpose of the Program: The main aim of this program is to educate women about domestic violence issues; provide them with tools to make informed decisions and choices in abusive relationships, and control their quality of life.


  1. For all female patients to be aware of the dynamics of domestic violence.
  2. To provide female patients with safe options and alternatives in the event of domestic violence.
  3. To increase their knowledge about resources to end abusive relationships.
  4. For women to understand how to access resources in the event of domestic violence.
Target Population: This program will endeavor to target all female patients who attend out-patient clinics at FHC. At least 10 women will be selected for each group.

Fees: No fees will be charged.

Location: Lecture room at FHC, 621 S. Winchester, Chicago

No. of sessions: There will be six sessions per group. Each group will meet once per week for six weeks. Six groups will be conducted each year to target an average of 60 females per annum.

Duration of sessions: 1 hour per session from 10 am to 12 noon every Wednesday for six weeks for each group.

Recruitment of participants: Self-referrals and referrals from the ER and out-patient clinics by health care professionals. Advertisement will be done through pamphlets in strategic places.

Provision for participants: Child care provision for women with children while they attend sessions; tokens for traveling expenses, and light refreshments.

Coordinator and Facilitator: A social worker will be responsible to coordinate and facilitate the group sessions. However, as needed, other professionals and experts will be invited as guest speakers.

Nature of group sessions: To maximize participation and sustain interest, there will be brief lectures, interactive discussions, questions and answers, role- plays, and audio and visual aids.

Interpretation services will be provided for foreign speaking women.

Literature: Relevant literature through ‘easy to read brochures’ will be provided for each session.


Week 1:

Week 2: A lecture/ discussion on the nature of domestic violence to provide the participants with a general understanding of domestic violence. The following areas will be discussed: unevenly distributed. threatening, etc. Week 3: Societal response to domestic violence before and after 1970. The initial ‘victim blaming’ attitude; the response of: the judicial and legal systems; religious institutions, the federal and state governments, and provision and availability of resources.

Week 4: Discussion of reasons why women stay in abusive relationships - psychological as BWS, learned helplessness, oppression, powerlessness, and co-dependency; socio-economic factors as financial restrictions, homelessness, inadequate social support, and limited resources.

Week 5:

Discussions about: Week 6: This will be a review and evaluation session. Each participant will be required to fill out an evaluation form and a simple posttest questionnaire. The Cook County Hospital ‘Screening Questions For Possible Victims of Domestic Violence’ will be administered to assess at risk participants. If necessary, referrals will be made for required resources and services.

6. Evaluation Plan:

Process and outcome evaluation will be conducted to determine the effectiveness of the program. Process evaluation is essentially to measure the success of the program from the beginning to the end, and the client satisfaction. The outcome evaluation is to measure whether the program achieved its stated goals and objectives. To measure the process and outcome, an evaluation form, and a pretest-posttest questionnaire will be administered. At the end of the last session, each participant will be required to fill out an evaluation form to elicit the following information:

Whether the schedule was ideal?

Was the accommodation adequate and comfortable?

Was the duration of the sessions too much or adequate?

Were the topics and activities meaningful?

Were the speakers (if any) able to sustain their interest?

How useful was the information?

Whether they will be confident to end abusive relationships?

Can they access resources if they want to leave an abuser?

A Likert scale will be used to score the result. This scale will consist of a series of statements followed by four response alternatives, and numbers from 1-4 will be assigned to tally the score. For example:

How useful were the hand-outs?

Not useful (1), Of some use (2), Useful (3), Very useful (4).

A pretest-posttest will be administered to test the outcome of the program. At the beginning of the group, each participant will be required to take a simple pretest. This will be a questionnaire designed to test the client’s general knowledge about domestic violence, available resources, and how to access resources. Questions might be ‘what is the domestic violence hot line number? Where can you get an order of protection? Points will be given to score the result. The posttest which is the same questionnaire, will again be administered to the participants after the group sessions. The scores will elucidate whether the group intervention was successful or not. Higher scores will indicate a higher level of success and conversely, lower scores may suggest that the program did not attain its stated goals. Other aspects as attendance and participation level will also be evaluated.

Summary: Violence against women is a serious societal and health problem. Many women are subjected to abuse of some sort by their spouse. For a number of psychosocial reasons, many of them endure and remain in abusive relationships. Many of them attempt to leave but are unable to do so because of various constraints. Many of them do leave but return because of socio-economic challenges to establish independence. Few of them successfully end abusive relationships through various strategies as divorce, and even homicide. The magnitude of this phenomenon elucidates the need for greater government and private initiatives. Although there have been favorable responses to address the problem by these sectors, there is still greater need for viable and safe alternatives for women to end abusive relationships.

Subadra Maharaj


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