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Why Do Victims Return to Abusive Relationships?

We like to write about “fun” studies here at S of R, but it’s important to tackle more serious issues from time to time. One of the more “darker” aspects of relationships is when they turn violent. Clearly, we’d like to enable the victims of abuse to break free from their relationships. Surprisingly, however, the abused often return to their violent partners. When they are on the verge of getting out, why do victims of violence return to abusive relationships?

In past articles, we’ve discussed the Investment Model of commitment. To summarize, commitment to a relationship is a function of three factors: your satisfaction to the relationship, the alternatives you have, and the investments that are tied to the relationship. Typically, we think about commitment as a good thing in relationships: committed partners are less likely to cheat, use more constructive ways of dealing with conflict in their relationships, are willing to do things to help their partners, and ultimately are less likely to break up.1

Unfortunately, commitment has a dark side as well. Some relationships should break up, especially those characterized by violence and physical and/or psychological abuse, and people who feel committed to such toxic relationships might stay even when it’s not in their best interests. The Investment Model works well at explaining why people stay in and return to violent relationships. This application is perhaps best demonstrated by a classic study by Caryl Rusbult and John Martz, who studied 100 victims of abuse taking refuge in a shelter for battered women.2

A lot of the research on the Investment Model relies on questionnaires to measure satisfaction, alternatives, investments, and commitment. However, “real-life” markers of these factors can also be identified. For example, Rusbult and Martz used women’s intentions to separate from their partners after leaving the shelter as their measure of relationship commitment. Likewise, education and income, employment status, and availability of transportation were used to assess alternatives (i.e., the ability to be independent); number of children, marital status, and length of the relationship indicated the level of investments in the relationship. Finally, satisfaction was assessed by a combination of factors such as the severity of the abuse and attributions of responsibility for the violence (e.g., “it’s my fault he was angry”).

Following their time at the shelter, the women were tracked for the next year: approximately one-third of the women did not return to their abusive relationships, another one-third returned immediately after leaving the shelter, and the final one-third returned eventually. Women with high satisfaction, low alternatives, and high investments had the highest relationship commitment and were most likely to return to their abusive relationships. 

One notable finding in the study is that alternatives were an especially important factor in understanding why women returned to abusive relationships. Women with the means to be independent (e.g., money and transportation) were the most likely to escape from their violent partners whereas those without alternatives tended to return to their abusive relationships. It’s possible that enabling victims of violence by providing them with resources and opportunities can help them escape their abusive relationships.

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1Rusbult, C. E., Drigotas, S. M., & Verette, J. (1994). The investment model: An interdependence analysis of commitment processes and relationship maintenance phenomena. In D. J. Canary & L. Stafford (Eds.), Communication and relational maintenance (pp. 115-139). San Diego: Academic Press.

2Rusbult, C. E., & Martz, J. M. (1995). Remaining in an abusive relationship: An investment analysis of nonvoluntary dependence. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 21, 558-571.

Dr. Benjamin Le - Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Le's research focuses on commitment, including the factors associated with commitment and its role in promoting maintenance. He has published on the topics of breakup, geographic separation, infidelity, social networks, cognition, and need fulfillment and emotions in relationships.

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