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Spousal Abuse: Why does she keep going back?

February 7, 2011

Today’s blog will move away from theories of addiction. Instead, today’s entry will discuss the topic of spousal abuse. Specifically, I will discuss the factors leading some women to either return, or remain, in an abusive relationship. The final component of the bio-psycho-social-spiritual integrative model for understanding addictions will be discussed in an upcoming entry.

Cycle of Violence

Dr. Lenore Walker first identified the cycle of violence in the early 1970’s. This cycle was initially created to explain “Battered-Woman’s Syndrome,” or why women either return or remain in abusive relationships.

The first event (Tension Build-Up) is defined by a noticeable feeling of tension in the relationship. Women will describe this phase as “walking on egg shells.” She knows that something serious will soon occur, however, she is unsure of what will set it off. In the second event (Explosion), the violent act occurs (e.g., slap, punch, kick, or sexualized abuse). This is when an actual crime is committed. After the explosive incident, the abuser starts to show remorse for their actions. This is the Honeymoon stage. At this part of the cycle, the abuser apologizes, makes excuses for their behaviour, and promises change. More importantly, the Honeymoon period is defined by relative calm; it is the absence of abuse. According to Dr. Walker, it is also here when women are at their most vulnerable and decide to remain in the relationship.

Battered-Women Syndrome: Principles of Learning

Using principles of learning (positive and negative reinforcement, learned helplessness), it is the Honeymoon phase where the victim is most vulnerable to ideas and false hopes of an abuse-free relationship. Positive Reinforcement refers to the application or introduction of something pleasurable. This occurs when the perpetrator rewards the victim with pleasurable gifts and actions. Negative Reinforcement is defined by the removal – the cessation – of a stimulus that inflicts pain or discomfort. When the abuser stops abusing, there is a period of calm. This period of calm – the cessation of pain and abuse – greatly influences the decision to stay. The woman also learns that there is nothing she can do to stop the abuse. This is known as learned helplessness: she learns that regardless of what she does, he will still abuse her. As you might guess, learned helplessness is positively correlated with depression. As such, most women in abusive relationships also suffer from depression.

If the woman decides to leave, here are some of the obstacles she must face:

  1. She will have to relocate to an area far from the abuser, forcing her children to leave their school and friends.
  2. She will have to confront the difficult feelings of loneliness, guilt, failure (“I have let down my children and family”), and confront these feelings often in isolation.
  3. Experience serious financial hardships. Most abusers control the home’s finances, leaving the victim without the financial resources needed to uproot and start a new life.
  4. Deal with escalating threats to her and her children’s safety from the abuser, and sometimes his family.

When confronted with these obstacles, victims of abuse will begin to question their decision and start rationalizing for a return to the relationship.  They must now decide between life in the Honeymoon stage versus a life confronted by some of the obstacles listed above. In future entries, I will identify some strategies for helping women living with abuse.

Hoping this entry provides you, or someone you know, with knowledge for growing forward.

Dr. Richard Amaral

Online references:

Working with battered women: A handbook for health professionals.


  1. Arlene permalink

    Thank you very much, Dr. Richard …very interesting insight on why women return to abusive spouses.

  2. Hi, Richard. This is a very good article. I would like to know if I could link this particular blog on spousal abuse to my blog which I have just published today. I just want your approval first. Thanks!

    • Hi Amy,

      Sure! I just visited your site and enjoyed reading some of your articles on love. I really appreciate the current references from the field of psychology and philosophy as they relate to the topics you discuss. Looking forward to reading more!


  3. Richard, I have linked your spousal abuse article to my newest article, Making Love Last. If you go to the word “abuse” under the sub-heading, “Accept Each Other”, you will see how I linked your website to that word.

    • Thank you, Dr. Chaves. I have hyperlinked your article above. Learning about the qualities that sustain healthy, abuse-free relationships benefits us all.


  4. nice article thanks.

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