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Why Do Women Stay in Relationships With Violent Men?

19/06/2013 18:08 BST | Updated 18/08/2013 10:12 BST

In domestic violence, incidents of cruelty follow a well-defined circular dynamic. After a brutal confrontation the violent partner makes amends, may feel transiently guilty - a honeymoon period - but then a spiral of increasing tension and attempts to establish dominion by an over-controlling partner, leads back to the hostility.

Victims of domestic abuse frequently drop legal cases if the perpetrator promises to change, suggesting emotional attachment drives unhelpful decisions. As many as 80 percent of victims 'recant', meaning they drop the charges, or deny the crime occurred.

A unique study recently analysed live telephone conversations between domestic violence perpetrators and victims. This enabled an unparalleled insight into how and why victims so often 'recant' their charges, refusing prosecution efforts.

Published in the journal 'Social Science and Medicine', the study found direct threats were rarely used to influence victims, instead other sophisticated psychological strategies were deployed, namely, minimization of the crime, and the perpetrators' suffering. These strategies successfully triggered sadness, guilt and sympathy in their victim, which meant she then changed her story to protect him.

The study involved 25 heterosexual couples, where the male perpetrator was being held in a Detention Facility (in the U.S.) for felony-level domestic violence, making telephone calls to his female victim during the pre-prosecution period.

Consistently across couples, a victim's recanting was most influenced by the perpetrator's use of sophisticated manipulative psychology. This included appeals to the victim's sympathy through descriptions of his suffering from mental and physical problems, intolerable jail conditions, and life without her.

The perpetrator's psychological use of minimization of abuse included not allowing the victim to talk about the abuse; resisting responsibility, denying the credibility of the victim's story, and reminding her that she was to blame for the violence.

Entitled '"Meet me at the hill where we used to park": Interpersonal processes associated with victim recantation', the study analysed phone calls involving male perpetrators being held at a Detention Facility in Washington State for domestic violence offenses (assault, violation of a no contact order, unlawful imprisonment). Calls to victims which were routinely audio-recorded to increase jail safety.

All parties are aware they are being recorded through an automated message at the beginning of each call. The legality of audio-taping telephone calls made from Washington State detention facilities was upheld in a recent Washington State Supreme Court decision. The prosecution division released the audio-tapes from 25 couples involved in felony-level domestic violence for analysis. As the study involved public-record data, subjects were not required to provide informed consent.

Of all processes associated with the victim's intention to recant, the authors of the study, Amy Bonomia, Rashmi Gangamma, Chris Locke, Heather Katafiasz and David Martin, from The Ohio State University, Auburn University and King County Prosecuting Attorney, United States, found the most significant were the perpetrator's appeals to the victim's sympathy, through descriptions of his suffering.

Even victims who were "holding their own" at first against the perpetrator's resistance of responsibility, became particularly vulnerable to the perpetrator's accounts of personal suffering.

Victims who seemed intent on following through with prosecution efforts, began to change their stance, moving from anger and resistance to sadness, guilt and regret, finally attempting to soothe the perpetrator.

In describing suffering, perpetrators expressed depression and anxiety, which cleverly reversed the roles in the couple's relationship, with the perpetrator becoming a "victim" of his suffering and the abused becoming his caretaker. In one case, the victim initially refused to help the perpetrator and even threatened to talk to the police about previous incidents of violence. However, her stance softened when the perpetrator became increasingly anxious and threatened suicide.

The remaining conversations revolved around the victim trying to assuage the perpetrator's anxiety, and promising to do her best to help him get out of jail. Similar effects were observed when perpetrators described jail conditions as intolerable.

Manipulative psychological techniques that perpetrators used to get victims to drop charges included invoking images of life without each other in their conversations, reminding of life alone and bonding over love, dreams and memories, playing the couple's "theme song; ", invoking images of special places they used to meet to share romantic moments (e.g., "Meet me at the hill where we used to park"), using religious imagery to solidify their connection, believing that they shared a unique bond not understood by others.

Perpetrators specifically commanded the victim, controlling what they should say or do. For example, in one couple, the perpetrator instructed the victim to say she lied to police, so that she would serve jail time instead of him; he used a sympathy appeal by reminding the victim that she would only do a few days in jail whereas he faced 60-90 days "in the hole".

One victim in a phone call explained: "You basically socked me in my stomach a few times, you strangled me to the point I could not breathe and fell to the floor... You spit in my face three times and held me down... the lacerations on my neck and the broken finger and the fact that you socked me so damn hard that I could not breathe and I basically have pains in my chest and my ribs even today... I have been totally abused."

But the perpetrator responded by positioning himself as the "victim": "Do you realize that before anything happens, I just try to go and you don't allow that? I came in peace. I didn't say anything. You were drinking."

Studies on social influence indicate that appealing for pity is one of the best strategies if you want something. Children deploy this particularly well.

Since the latest research suggests adult attachment patterns develop from childhood, future domestic violence might be predicted by earliest signs of features such as controlling, possessiveness and jealousy.