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.