The “Why-I-Stayed” Twitter hashtag has gone viral, and domestic violence is headlining late night TV and talk shows, as Americans try to fathom how it could be that Janay Palmer stayed with Ray Rice after he knocked her unconscious in an Atlantic City hotel elevator.
Only Ms. Palmer can say why she stuck with, and in fact married, Mr. Rice after the videotaped knockout punch that has now led to the suspension of his NFL career. But after watching the violence that headlined Tuesday night’s “Nightline” on ABC, many wonder how a relationship with that level of abuse could continue.
The possible reasons are many, say experts. Love and fear usually drive these decisions, says Deborah Cohan, assistant professor of sociology at the University of South Carolina Beaufort. Women are socialized to forge and nurture relationships, so asking why they don’t leave emotionally fraught situations typically goes against their deepest impulses. But there are many other reasons, she says.
“Children, finances, health or disability of their partner, themselves, or their children, immigration status, isolation, religious upbringing, threats that the abuser may have made regarding killing her or himself, racial loyalty,” are some of the obstacles to exiting a bad relationship, she says. There may also be hesitation if religious or medical institutions are not responsive, she notes.
In lower-income families, leaving home might mean taking the kids to the uncertain safety of a shelter, and disappearing might mean giving up a much-needed job.
Women also face societal pressures that make it harder to tackle abuse, says Theresa Severance, sociology professor at Eastern Connecticut State University in Willimantic. Our culture places a high value on family and marriage, she notes.
According to the 2010 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, 32 percent of women are physically assaulted by a partner in their lifetime.
Nonetheless, women may feel pressure from family, friends, and clergy to "hang in there" at all costs, especially if there are children, Professor Severance says via e-mail.
“Maybe she really loves him and just wants him to stop,” she says. Maybe she thinks it was an isolated incident and things will get better, or maybe she thinks she can change or ‘fix’ him,” she says.
“Maybe compared to other women she might know who suffer abuse, she thinks she's relatively better off,” she says, adding that typically it’s not a single reason, “but a confluence of multiple factors.”
One myth that needs to be dispelled, however, is the notion that women don’t ever leave abusive relationships, says Kris Macomber, adjunct professor of sociology at Meredith College, an all-women’s school in Raleigh, N.C.
“In fact, survivors of domestic violence often leave many, many times before they are able to stay away and live violence-free lives,” she says.
Women often stay in an attempt to keep themselves safe, she notes.
“You might ask yourself, how can that be? Here’s how. Many women who are killed by their intimate partners are killed when they have left, or once they have threatened to leave,” she says, adding that sometimes the choice to stay is a way to keep themselves or their children safe and alive.
“It’s important not to assume that the decision to stay is a sign of weakness or passivity,” she adds.
In fact, statistics show that more than 70 percent of domestic violence murders happen after the victim has left the relationship.
“Both men and women sometimes stay in relationships in which they are battered or abused by their partner,” says Robert Epstein, senior research psychologist at the nonprofit American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology in Vista, Calif. Worse, adds Mr. Epstein, both men and women will stay in relationships in which they abuse or batter each other.
“The reasons vary, but the main factor is self-esteem,” he adds via e-mail.
While both men and women in abusive relationships may suffer from lack of self esteem, the relationships are often addictive, points out psychologist Sherrie Campbell, author of “Loving Yourself: The Mastery of Being Your Own Person.”
“They cannot live with each other and they cannot live without each other,” she says via e-mail.
Men who are narcissists have a grandiose attitude about life, themselves, and their sense of entitlement, she adds. When you add fame and high-stakes careers with millions on the line to a narcissistic personality, she says, “you get someone who will show psychopathic tendencies.”
Since the battered women’s movement formed in the 1970s, victim advocates and activists say they face more questions about women’s behavior than the men, says Professor Macomber.
It isn't fair to only question the victim’s behavior or put the responsibility of maintaining an abusive relationship on them, advocates say.
“It’s equally important to ask questions that direct focus and attention towards men’s use of violence in the first place,” Macomber says.
These would include asking: Why do so many men abuse their female partners and why is men’s use of violence so commonplace and far-reaching, she says.
“It’s 2014, and we’re still asking the same question,” says Macomber. “For no other type of crime do we place as much responsibility for the crime on the victim than we do for victims of domestic violence.”