Breaking Up Is Hard to Do: Psychological Entrapment and Women's Commitment to Violent Dating Relationships

Article excerpt

Psychological entrapment occurs when people continue investing in unfavorable situations after already devoting too much to lose. We predicted that women who already invested more time and resources into their relationships would exert effort to improve their relationships following partner violence. In turn, these efforts were expected to increase women's subjective investment in, and thus, commitment to violent relationships. Undergraduate women (N = 98) in heterosexual relationships reported on partner violence and relationship duration at Time 1 and relationship sacrifices, subjective investment, and commitment at Times 1 and 2. As expected, women with violent partners who were in longer term relationships sacrificed more 6 weeks later. Unexpectedly, in multivariate analyses, Time 2 sacrifices were not significantly associated with Time 2 subjective investment, although subjective investment was positively associated with concurrent commitment. These results provide preliminary evidence for women's entrapment in violent relationships.

Keywords: investment model; intimate partner violence; sacrifice; relationship duration; commitment

Intimate partner violence (IPV) involves many harmful behaviors, including physical assault, rape, and stalking. Based on the National Violence Against Women Survey (Tjaden & Thoennes, 2000), the most common form of IPV reported by women is the use of violence intended to inflict bodily harm. About 18.9% of the sample reported physical assault. The three most common types of violence were being pushed, grabbed, or shoved (82%); slapped or hit (78%); or beaten up (44%). Consequences of partner violence included fear of physical injury, actual injury (including broken bones, sprains, bruising), time lost from work, and increased need for both medical and mental health treatment (Miller, 2006; Tjaden & Thoennes, 2000).

Although many studies of IPV focus on married or cohabiting couples, physical violence may be even more common within dating couples. For example, the International Dating Violence Study (Straus, 2004b) documented that between 17% and 49% of college students at each of 31 sites worldwide reported perpetrating dating violence over the past year, with a 29% median rate. About one quarter of the assaults caused injury, with injury especially common in cases of men's violence against women. Dating partner violence also was associated with poorer mental health, including depression and suicidal ideation (Chan, Straus, Brownridge, Tiwari, & Leung, 2008). These findings converge with smaller studies from the United States. For example, Rhatigan and Street (2005) found that 28.7% of undergraduate women reported at least one act of physical violence from their male dating partner in the past year. Similarly, Banyard and Cross (2008) reported that dating violence was associated with depression and suicidal thoughts among adolescent girls. Clearly, many young women experience violence in dating relationships, with concomitant risk for physical and emotional harm.

Women in violent relationships also face social stigma. More specifically, victims of IPV are often judged by others as flawed, deviant, weak, or incompetent, especially if they stay with their partners (e.g., Ben-Ari, Winstok, & Eisikovits, 2003). Yet, the decision to leave a violent relationship is affected by many factors including external barriers (e.g., finances) and psychological characteristics of the relationship and victim (e.g., Barnett, 2001). Furthermore, because separating from a violent partner may increase risk for IPV (e.g., Brownridge, 2006), women are at risk for repeated victimization regardless of whether they choose to stay or leave.

Despite potential risks associated with leaving, in most cases, leaving a violent dating relationship is most likely to foster women's long-term physical and emotional well-being (Rhatigan, Street, & Axsom, 2006). However, because leaving is a complex process, research is needed to identify precursors of leaving, including factors that predict commitment to partners. …