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Published November 18, 2011, 12:00 AM

Val Farmer: Understanding victims of abuse, breaking cycle

Why do abuse victims go back to abusive relationships? In order to understand this, one has to recognize the nature of the bond that has developed between the abusive partner and the victim.

Why do abuse victims go back to abusive relationships? In order to understand this, one has to recognize the nature of the bond that has developed between the abusive partner and the victim.

Understanding the dynamics of abuse and bonding gives both victims and those who want to help them a framework for stopping the cycle of abuse.

These bonds develop when the following four conditions are present.

- Isolation from perspectives other than those of the abuser.

- A perceived threat to survival and the belief that the abuser is willing to carry out that threat.

- A perceived inability to escape.

- The victim’s perception of some small kindness from the abuser within a context of terror.

Anything that friends, family or society can do to combat these conditions will help weaken the bond between the abuser and the victim. Let’s look at these four factors one by one.

Stopping the isolation. An abuser isolates his victim from friends, family and other sources of support. This increases his power over her.

The victim can gain understanding about the dynamics of abuse by going for counseling, participating in group therapy or joining a self-help group. They can read materials about abusive relationships. Friends, family members, counselors and support group members can give her the emotional support and validation necessary to develop the personal strength necessary to act for herself.

This can be a frustrating role because of the victim’s willingness to stay in a destructive relationship. The process of breaking free may involve false starts before she is able to decisively leave.

Labeling and defining violence and abuse. A victim’s minimization of violence is a survival strategy to cope with her perception of danger. She needs assistance in labeling and identifying abusive aspects of her relationship with the abuser.

She needs to learn to emotionally detach and label what is happening to her while it is happening. The pace of reducing denial shouldn’t be so overwhelming so as to

break the relationship the victim has with her newly found sources of help.

A victim

can also gain strength to deal with the abuse by keeping a journal or a diary, developing assertive communication skills, identifying and expressing her anger (not to the abuser) about the abuse, and working through the potential loss of the relationship to her abusive partner.

If there are children involved, a mother may experience ambivalence about the loss of income, housing, and worry about depriving the children of a relationship with their father. Threats about custody may paralyze her willingness to take decisive action.

Mothers need to learn how much harm is done by exposing their children to domestic violence. Children may feel disgust that she is unable to protect herself – or them. Because children can’t defend or protect their mother, they feel powerless, guilty, depressed and afraid. They hang back. In their confusion and anger, they can’t fully identify with an aggressive, violent father or the passive and helpless mother.

Finding avenues of escape. Because of high anxiety, a victim may not appreciate her alternatives for escaping violence. The laws, attitudes and consequences regarding women in violent relationships have become more protective and effective.

Resources such as crisis hotlines, shelters, restraining orders, and legal assistance have been developed to provide ways of escape. A well-thought-out plan can be put into effect when she is ready to act. This also gives her hope in believing she really can escape.

Finding genuine kindness. Small acts of kindness or promises from an abuser convince a victim that her abusive partner may change. Terror is followed by signals that the abuser is no longer angry and, in fact, cares for and loves her.

This is in direct contrast to the violence. The relief and hope following abuse have addictive qualities. The kindnesses expressed during the makeup period in the aftermath of abuse are the source of the bond between the abuser and the abused.

To survive, the victim has had to focus on the needs of the abuser at the expense of her own thoughts, needs and feelings. The abuser’s occasional love and attention fill this void, however sporadically they are given. The bond she feels with her abusive partner gives her a sense of identity that isn’t able to develop normally under conditions of terror.

To have credibility, helpers

of abuse victims need to acknowledge the role of kindness and caring in the bonding process between abusers and their victims. The victim needs to be able to understand and integrate the good side of abuser’s behavior with the bad. Then she will be able to see and accept her victim role more clearly. She begins to understand how remorse, apologies, loving actions, promises of reform are a part of the cycle of abuse.

By turning to resources like family, friends, hotlines and crisis centers, the victim gains the emotional support she needs. She does need kindness, but not from the abuser.


Val Farmer is a clinical psychologist specializing in family business consultation and mediation with farm families. He lives in Wildwood, Mo., and can be contacted through his website.

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