Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Family Studies

The Impact of Subsequent Violence of Returning to an Abusive Partner*

Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Family Studies

The Impact of Subsequent Violence of Returning to an Abusive Partner*

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION

In 1998, American women suffered 876,340 incidents of violent crime at the hands of their current or former spouses or boyfriends; this amounts to one instance of intimate violence every 36 seconds (Rennison and Welchans, 2000). Even more striking is that over 1,200 of these women - more than three women per day - were killed by intimates (Rennison and Welchans, 2000). Such statistics may raise the question as to why victims of domestic violence do not leave their abusers. Implicit in this question, however, are two assumptions. First is the assumption that violence ends after the victim exits the relationship. On the contrary, many women suffer increased violence once they leave: in the United States, separated or divorced women are about 10 times more likely than married women to be victims of violence by a spouse or ex-spouse (Rennison and Welchans, 2000).1 Nearly three quarters of emergency room visits by battered women occur after separation (Stark and Flitcraft, 1998), and of abused women who are killed, approximately 75 percent lose their lives after separation (Horn, 1992).

The second implicit assumption is that, if a victim leaves the relationship, then she will never return. Again, this is not the case. Often a victim leaves her partner temporarily on multiple occasions before completely severing ties (Sullivan et al., 1992a). In one sample of women recruited from a battered women's shelter in the Midwest, 79% of the women had temporarily left their partners at least once prior to the current attempt, and 19% reported having left at least 10 times (Sullivan et al., 1992b). One can imagine two reasons why victims might return to abusive relationships. First, a woman may briefly leave, intending to return, to make "credible" a threat that she will not tolerate such violent behavior. If the abuser believes this signal, he will reduce his abuse in order to keep the relationship intact (Farmer and Tiefenthaler, 1996; 1997). Second, perhaps the victim intends to leave permanently, but opportunities outside the relationship are less than expected, forcing her to return. For example, an overcrowded shelter may not have room for her; there may be no one to take care of her children while she searches for a job; or the victim's partner may threaten to kill her if she does not return.

This paper challenges the above assumptions - that violence ends when the victim leaves and that the victim never returns to the abusive relationship - by addressing the following important question: what are the consequences, measured by subsequent violence, of returning to a previously abusive relationship? Two stage least squares estimation is used to control for the effect of prior violence on the probability of leaving, thus isolating the independent effect of leaving on later violence. The theoretically expected result is ambiguous: On the one hand, if aggressors view the attempt to leave as disobedience, then violence should increase upon return. If, instead, aggressors believe the temporary leave indicates that the victim will leave permanently (because she is unwilling to tolerate further abuse), then violence should decrease. Using data from the 1985 Physical Violence in American Families survey, the results show that victims who temporarily leave their abusers suffer increased violence relative to those who never leave.

Two additional questions are touched upon in this paper: who are the victims who temporarily leave (but eventually return to) an abusive relationship, and why do they return? The answers to these three questions have important policy implications. If victims return to abusive relationships for economic reasons, then increased funding for battered women's shelters - which could in turn provide low cost housing, job search assistance, and child care - would help more victims to leave permanently. If victims return because they face increased violence when they leave, then criminal laws could be strengthened, for example, increasing arrests and the severity of abusers' punishments, to protect victims who try to escape. …

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