But no matter who is caught in the complicated and misunderstood cycle of relationship violence, outsiders wonder about both sides. First, why would anyone hurt someone they love? And even more puzzling, why would anyone go back to a partner who hurts them? Friends and family shake their heads, bite their nails, and throw up their hands. “Get out now,” we say. “You don’t deserve this.” “Why don’t you just leave?”
If only it were as simple as “just leave.”
This week, we’ll look at the complicated reasons people go back to their violent partners and dive into the nitty gritty of how abusers manipulate their victims, even to the point of convincing them to recant criminal charges.
So let’s start with the big brush strokes. It used to be thought that people went back to abusive relationships simply out of fear—they were too intimidated to leave, they were financially dependent, or the partner threatened them into staying. These are all legit—fear is a huge factor, but it’s not the only force at play. Aside from fear, let’s look at four additional reasons partners stay.
4 Reasons Victims Go Back to Their Abusers
- Unequal Power.
Let’s explore each in more detail.
Reason #1: Unequal Power.
This is number one for a reason. An abusive relationship is fundamentally about power and control. It’s about breaking down the victim’s self-worth and agency in order to control them.
Power is taken and reinforced by making victims ask for money, controlling where they go or who they talk to, making all the decisions for the couple, and more. Abusers want to ensure that leaving isn’t an option by fostering a victim’s belief that this is all they deserve, or that no one else would want them.
Reason #2: Manipulation.
Abusers are often smart, charming, and magnetic, all traits that feed into master manipulation. They know how to pull people in, both the victim and those around them. As we’ll see later, this manipulation includes tactics like saying the abuse wasn’t that bad, denying it ever happened, saying the victim started it, or discrediting the victim as crazy, emotional, or otherwise not credible. A victim might start to wonder if they’re wrong or making a big deal about nothing, all of which makes it harder to walk away.
Reason #3: Hope.
This is another big one. We humans instinctively hope for brighter days ahead. Victims perpetually hope that things will get better.
The reality, of course, is that victims can’t stop the abuse—only an abuser can decide to stop. But in a relationship where victims may pride themselves on having the magic touch—being the only one who understands or can calm the abuser down—there exists an illusion of control. And within this illusion, giving up hope for a better future would mean that they failed.
In this culture, we’re told never to quit, to hang in there, that anything can be accomplished if we set our mind to it. And that’s a tough dream to reject. Leaving the relationship means acknowledging that things will never change. It means giving up hope.
Reason #4: Love.
Love is complicated. Relationships have good times and bad, and the good times can be a powerful glue. Love is the ultimate connection, solidified by months or years of time spent and energy invested.
It’s absolutely possible to be in love without being safe. And in a society that tells us “love is all you need” and “love conquers all,” it can be hard to walk away from a life you’ve built together, even one that’s not safe or healthy.
All in all, love and hope, especially when paired with power and manipulation, are tough to push against. Even when victims find within themselves the courage to leave, press charges, or otherwise stand up for themselves, it’s common to get pulled back in.
But how exactly does this happen? How does a victim go from vowing to leave to defending the abuser, even in extreme cases?
A team of researchers at The Ohio State University wanted to find out. Few cases of relationship violence ever reach the court system, but when they do, up to 80% of victims later recant their allegations. But why?
To find out, the researchers listened to recorded phone calls made from prison where a male perpetrator was being held for felony-level domestic violence against a female partner—crimes like assault, violation of a no-contact order, or unlawful imprisonment. The researchers listened to hours and hours of phone calls between 25 different couples and discovered a framework. There emerged a distinct pattern consisting of five steps.
How Abusers Manipulate their Victims in 5 Steps
Step One: Standing Up for Herself.
The first call or two usually began with an argument where they each blamed each other for what happened, but the victim stands up for herself. Here, at the beginning of the cycle, she is strong and resolved. She resists him.
Step Two: Minimizing Abuse and Shifting the Blame.
But as calls go on, her strength and resolve start to wear away.
This happens with three techniques. First, he minimizes the abuse through outright denial, or convincing her it didn’t happen like she remembers, like, “I didn’t push you like you think I pushed you.” In one couple, the victim says, “They think my cheek is broken,” and he replies, “I’m really sorry, but I didn’t even do anything.”
In the next tactic, he shifts the blame—he tells her that she was actually at fault and that he is the true victim. For instance, one abuser noted, “Do you realize that before anything happens, I just try to go and you don’t allow that? I came in peace. I didn’t say anything. You were drinking.”
Finally, the abuser portrays himself as a victim of the justice system. In one case, where the abuser suffocated his partner and bit her face, he kept reminding her that he was being charged with felony assault and insisting he didn’t deserve such a serious charge.
Step Three: Appealing to Sympathy.
This, the researchers found, was the key. Victims were vulnerable when abusers spoke of their own suffering. Perpetrators threatened suicide, broke down about the horrors of being in jail, talked about missing the victim or their children, and talked about how much they are hurting without the love of the victim.
This is where the victims moved from anger and resolve to guilt, regret, and attempts to soothe and take care of the perpetrator. In a key pivot, the victim becomes the caretaker.
Step Four: United Together Against the World.
Next, the couples talk about what binds them together—how they need to keep their family together, how to maintain their relationship. They remind each other of the good times, and what a future would look like with one partner in prison.
To solidify their partnership, couples talked about how it was them against the system, or them against their families—that no one else understood their love. One couple played a Dave Matthews Band song over the phone and reminisced. Another agreed to get matching tattoos.
Step Five: Instructions to Recant.
Finally, the abuser asks or instructs the victim to recant. When she agrees, they develop a plan to change their stories. They work together, united as a team. The stories grow vague, turning into, “No one really knows what happened anyway, it was all kind of a blur.” One victim decides to say, “A no contact order is totally not fair because we didn’t want it… we want to be together and have a family, we have children.”In one case, the abuser even asks the victim to do five to ten days in jail for lying to police. He says, “You can’t do five days for me? Would you rather me sit in here for sixty to ninety?”
Regardless of how the recantation comes about, where there was once anger, blame, and resolve, now there is love, excitement, and hope. It’s an addictive mix.
This might be a window into the most egregious examples of manipulation, but it shines a light on why people go back to their abusers in less extreme cases as well.
All in all, it’s both simple and extremely complicated. It’s simple because everyone deserves to be safe in a relationship. It’s complicated because we need love so vitally that some of us find it at the expense of our own safety and security, and others mistake it for power and control.
If today’s episode resonated with you, resources include:
- The National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233
- Love is Respect.org
- LGBT National Help Center Hotline at 1-800-246-PRIDE
- LGBTQ Domestic Violence Project at 1-800-832-1901
Image of a woman trapped in abusive relationship © Shutterstock
All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.