Why Women Stay With Men Who Abuse Them

06Aug08

So, for the record, I have never actually talked openly with a woman who was beaten by her boyfriend or husband. I have, however, recently finished the book Demonic Males which had some interesting ideas in it.

Although it seems counterintuitive, the most obvious reason women stay with men who hit them is that they are afraid of them. In fact, I think a lot of counterintuitive female behavior around men can be explained by fear. The other day, my neighbor invited me into his apartment and we talked for a bit. He was extremely sexually forward with me, and I made up some excuse to leave but I did not tell him directly I was not interested in him, which I should have done. I didn’t tell him directly because I was afraid of him. If I let my neighbor think we might get together in the future, he probably wouldn’t get angry with me. But, if I told him I had no interest in him, he would lose some of his incentive to be civil with me since he would know there was no chance of sleeping with me anyway. My neighbor is probably a nice person who would have just politely said goodbye had I said I wasn’t interested, but I didn’t want to take the 0.5% chance that he wouldn’t be when I was alone in his apartment with him.

Similarly, women who are in abusive relationships are often afraid to get out. They know what being abused is like, and they have presumably survived so far. If they get caught trying to leave, they risk increased anger and abuse and so they feel it may be safer just to say. And, sadly enough, they’re actually right. More women get killed trying to leave abusive relationships than staying in them. This is particularly true if they have children who are not being abused since they don’t want to risk the lives of their children (incidentally, women nearly always do chose to leave if their children are being abused.)

Chimpanzees and bonobos are the most genetically similar primates to human beings. Male chimpanzees have actually been observed battering female chimpanzees. When the female chimpanzee tries to run off, the male will catch up with and abuse her more so that she learns the easiest path is just to stay with him. This is possible because chimpanzees live in relatively small groups (often just family units) and so there are no other chimpanzees. Bonobos, on the other hand, live in larger groups and the male bonobos don’t batter female bonobos. If one tries, all the other female bonobos living in the larger group will gang up against the abusive male. In captivity chimpanzees actually start behaving the same way. When larger groups of chimpanzees are forced to live together the female chimpanzees will start to gang up against the male ones and so battery is reduced.

In human societies, you will tend to find increased incidences of abuse among women with no support network (i.e. no female friends or family she can turn to for help). In fact, abusive boyfriends and husbands will often work to isolate their girlfriends and wives from their support networks. In these situations, a woman finds herself like an isolated female chimpanzee with no one to turn to. An isolated woman may feel that her best bet is just to appease the man she is with. This is why if you are a woman, your network of friends is extremely important to you. Dating someone who tries to cut you off from your friends can be an even bigger warning sign than someone who hits you.

In fact, I would go so far as to argue that the nuclear family setup that is standard in America is inherently sexist. It mimics a dynamic that allows for partner abuse in chimpanzees, whereas living in larger groups (like happens in other countries) mimics the living environment of the bonabos who have no such abuse. If you are a woman living with a man, increased isolation is more risky for you than it is for him.

There is one other reason why women sometimes stay with men who abuse them, but it’s a little unsavory. Simply stated, women can be turned on by men who abuse them. No one likes to be abused, but in the past it’s possible that women who mated with abusive men had an evolutionary advantage. If abusive men were able to have more offspring by coercing their wives to have more sex than non abusive men, then the women who were more easily coerced would also have more offspring.

In a world of birth control and artificial insemination, these advantages are vastly diminished. However, some women still find themselves confused by their attraction. They think they’re in love, or that somehow their feelings imply a significant connection beyond the violence. But, if getting beaten up is your thing you’re better off with a cat of nine tails and a safe-word. It’s okay to get turned on when your boyfriend hits you, but it’s not okay to stay with him.

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5 Responses to “Why Women Stay With Men Who Abuse Them”

  1. I have to say that when I saw the title of this post I was definitely apprehensive because (as you very importantly state early on) you don’t have direct experience with this.

    That being said, I think you treated the subject well and have some interesting insights.

    I do have to say that I find your over-attachment to your own ideas (and sometimes lack of imagination regarding alternative explanations for things) kind of scary. But it’s also good!

    Keep writing!

  2. When I look at the photo, the lady got a black mark on the tight it is really abuse. If the females chimpanzees can fight back why not the ladies of human beings.

  3. 3 Bry

    I would argue you missed something here.

    Some people actually define much of their worth by how their spouse sees them. I think a case could be made that women in particular have been encouraged (perhaps by the way they were raised, their religion, or other societal influences) to believe that their husband’s satisfaciton is a measure of their value as a wife or mother, and as a person.

    More “conservative” families or conservative religious traditions do promote ideas that could lead to such an evaluation of self worth. Personally I’ve seen lesser manifestations of this: a former coworker’s husband who was very “stern” with her for setting what he deemed was a poor table when me and another coworker came over for dinner. When I later asked her why she tolerated it, she went on some rant about how it was “her place” to please her husband and it was improper for me to think differently. To be fair, there are women who are truly afraid and will use her same justification to hide it, but in this case, she and her family were very involved in a “conservative” church, and I do truly think she believed her justification.

    Not every guy who abuses his wife comes home from work a drunk brute looking to get laid and beats (or verbally abuses) on her for the hell of it or until she “gives it up.” Some men looking for empowerment or to assert their dominance justify their aggression, physical or verbal, as an actual expression of displeasure in their wife…she came home late, put spinach (blech!) in the salad, wore the red dress instead of the black one he asked her to wear, couldn’t stay awake to help junior finish his homework, etc.

    As crazy as it may sound, there are women out there who have been conditioned or have come to believe they *deserve* to be abused, or have gotten to the point where instead of abuse they see an acceptable expression of displeasure in their own perceived failures.

    The psychological dynamics of abusive relationships is, in my limited experience, sometimes more complex than a physically intimidated woman who wants to get out fearing for her life or that of her children. I don’t mean to imply that some women remain relationships because they are mentally “weak,” just that life experiences play a large part in who we are, and sometimes those life experiences can unfortunately lead to an implicit acceptance or justification for never justifiable abuse.

    Just thought I’d add that perspective.

  4. 4 allie

    I found the last bit of that very offensive. This idea is a myth. Women do not stay in abusive relationships because they get ‘turned on’ by it. IF (and I dont think you are) you are referring to masochism, that is a sexual game and is ENTIRELY different than an abusive relationship. You should probably just google ‘myths of abuse’ and read a bit more.

    When people (especially women) promote these sorts of ideas it really disapoints me.

  5. Howdy! Do you use Twitter? I’d like to follow you if that would be ok. I’m undoubtedly enjoying your blog and look forward to new
    updates.


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