Mental and Physical Stability in Abusive Relationships and its Affect on Continual Regression to Domestic Violence Partnerships

This paper was originally published as a report for psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Contents may not be replicated in part or full without consent of the original poster.


Every day, women all over the world are abused by their partners. In this study, which took place in the United States, we took an in-depth look at two general elements that tend to cause women to return to their relationships of domestic violence. After selecting a total of one hundred women from twenty different battered women’s shelters across the country, we measured each woman’s emotional and physical stability. Through administering self-report questionnaires and performing interviews, our findings indicated that women who had the lowest emotional stability and physical stability were the ones who most often returned to their former abusive relationships. Contrastingly, women who exhibited relatively high levels of emotional and physical stability only regressed back to their abusive relationships an average of two times. The importance of this kind of field research of abuse in relationships as it is occurring is also discussed in this paper.


The average battered woman leaves her abuser seven to eight times before permanently exiting the relationship. Often times, people find themselves asking the very apparent question of why the woman decides to stay. The thought process from an outside viewpoint is if she is in danger and undergoing domestic violence, why would she put herself back in that sort of situation? Many times, people assume there must be something “wrong” with the victim if she continues to return to her relationship of domestic violence. In this research study, our goal is to explain why it takes a woman so many times to leave her abuser permanently.

In order to better understand why women return to their abusive male partners, we are going to try to assess the responsibility the victim feels (both fiscally and emotionally) given specific situations. For this reason, this study will examine some of the main areas of concern that keep women from embracing their true relationships rights. These two main areas of concentration will be economics such as financial stability, and emotional stability, like symptoms of depression or levels of self-efficacy. The combination of both physical and emotional steadiness will help my colleagues and I to better determine how these two factors play a role in the regression of women to relationships of domestic violence. These ideas will all be addressed in the survey that participants will take.

When it comes to abuse, many different types of research studies have been executed. However, most of theses studies concentrate on child abuse and look at the implications of that abuse in the developmental process (Wolf, 1987). Some abuse studies take distinct approaches; analyzing the racial categories domestic violence affects the most and why a certain percentage falls higher under a specific demographic population in comparison to another (Fantuzzo, 1997). Other studies compare and contrast the difference in spouse abuse and abuse that is found amongst dating couples (DeKeseredy, 1988). Each research project has helped to address imperative elements in the abuse cycle and its effects, yet there are still some missing pieces.

The commonality between each of the studies listed above is that all of them put their research emphasis on the abuse process after it has already taken place. Studies that directly study abuse at the beginning or middle of the process are few and far between, and today there are only a handful that work to explain why the abuse occurs in the first place. This research proposal takes a different approach. Instead of looking at abuse and its effects as a direct relationship, my colleagues and I are working to examine some the elements that lead women to continually return to their abusers.

The most prevalent research in this field was by Dr. Tammy Orava in her analysis about the symptoms of an abusive relationship. Here, she studied factors like the “locus of control,” and personal power, as well as other psychological elements like anxiety, depression, and anger. Once again, her studied measured the after-effects of abuse, instead of measuring them as they were happening. One of my main concerns in performing a research study like this was how I would operationalize the abuse. Dr. Orava was very clever in that she was able to define the variable of abuse through the Conflict Tactics Scales (CTS). This 19-item questionnaire measures “three modes of behavior used in conflict between family members: reasoning, verbal aggression, and physical aggression” (Ovara et al. 1996). I plan to use the same scale, as I think it will act as a critical measure for the abuse that is taking place between the couples.

My hypothesis is that women who exhibit lower levels of both emotional and physical stability will be more likely to return to their abusive relationships due to the dependency they exhibit from one or both of these variables. Reversely, we predict that when women display high levels of emotional and physical stability, they will be far less likely to continually return to the abusive relationship. But first, what exactly do physical and emotional stability mean? When we are assessing physical stability, we are looking at the participant’s ability to take care of herself with the basic material needs. These include but are not limited to access to food, water, shelter, basic clothing, toiletries, and the like. We will assess a woman’s capability for physical stability by studying her level of employment and income amount. The researchers and I have defined emotional stability through two distinct measures: depression and self-esteem. For instance, a woman high in depression and low in self-esteem would be considered to have an overall low rating of emotional stability.


In this longitudinal study, we will follow 100 women who are first-time residents in a battered women’s shelter. We will interview them about the previous relationship abuse, and then monitor these women for the duration of their abusive relationship, whether it is six months or ten years. Over time, we will continually give them three questionnaires; one to assess the conditions of the abusive relationship and two to assess mental health. We will also be tracking their job status and income levels as time progresses through a quiz the women will take. Once the abusive relationship ends permanently and a considerable amount of time has passed to ensure that the participants do not in fact return to the abuser, we will compile our results. These will include their mental and physical stability, how it changes or stabilizes over time, and the number of times the women returned to their abusers.

My colleagues and I decided to assemble our participants from 20 different battered women’s shelters in South Carolina, California, Texas, Michigan, and New Hampshire. We chose four shelters from each state so that we would get a random distribution in size and quality. The reason we picked these five specific states was because we wanted to encompass participants from very different geographic backgrounds. Some of the shelters were located in urban centers, while others were found in rural parts of the state. Five women were surveyed and chosen from each shelter, making our participants total 100. For clarification, each woman in our study was in a heterosexual relationship and the male was the abuser in each case.

Once the shelters were chosen, all members of the laboratory were required to undergo domestic violence training, as not to further upset the shelter residents. Our “cover story” was created by one of the lab interns, and we simply told the women that we were working with a grant funder and were collecting information about the cycle of domestic violence from those with first-hand experience. We informed the women that participation was voluntary, and that their confidentiality was of the utmost importance to us. When the women discovered that the research we were conducting could help to slow the abuse cycle in the future, they very willingly agreed to take part in our research. We also included a $500 stipend for each participant for her time and effort during the process. The age of our participants varied from 18-45 years old as shown in Figure 1.1.

While this is a very big gap, our research team felt as though this would encompass the most stages of abuse. Race was not a factor taken into consideration in this study. (Various suspicion checks were performed throughout the study so as not to skew the results). Once confidentiality and agreement forms were signed, I was able to sit in on the first counseling sessions of each woman with the shelter advocate. Through these counseling sessions, information could be gathered about if the participant had previously returned to the former abuser. Women also had the option to opt-out of the study at any time if they ever felt uncomfortable in any given task or situation.

Because this research investigation is on abuse, we needed to ensure that our participants were truly undergoing this form of domestic violence. For this reason, we interviewed the women with the Conflict Tactics Scale (CTS); so that we could more easily measure and define the kinds of abuse these women were experiencing. During this interview with CTS, women would be asked questions like how often she and her partner had discussed an issue calmly, or if the partner had ever threatened her and if so, how many times. Once this has taken place, we will look at the abuse as a cumulative action, whether the specific type was verbal, physical, emotional, spiritual, etc. Through the CTS, we will have an evidential indication that there was indeed domestic violence taking place between the woman and her abuser. The goal is that as the study continues and as women begin to leave their abusers, there will be little to no abuse indicated by the CTS.

In order to measure the emotional stability of each female participant, we used two questionnaires. The first was the Beck Depression Inventory, which is a self-report questionnaire that contains twenty-one multiple-choice questions. Each question has four options, with a score of zero, one, two, or three. Once the test is taken, the numbers should be added together, and if the participant has a score of 17 or higher, it means she should seek treatment for her depression, meaning that the level of depression is quite severe. These questions can range from phrases like “I don’t feel disappointed in myself” to “I hate myself.” The other questionnaire used was the Self Esteem Scale. This is a simple, 10 question self assessment, where the participant strongly agrees, agrees, disagrees, or strongly disagrees with the statement. One of the questions found on this assessment would be “On the whole, I am satisfied with myself.” I would then score each Self-Esteem Scale as some questions are reverse scored, and participants with low scores would indicate low self-esteem, while participants with high scores would generally indicate high self-esteem.

We then decided the best way to examine physical stability would be to look at the woman’s financial stability. We used an adapted fiscal quiz in order to measure where each woman ranked. Each woman had to answer questions that included, but were not limited to if she was currently employed and if so, part-time or full-time, the highest level of education she had obtained, her annual income, if she had a car and if so, its value, how she claimed herself for tax purposes, the cost of her rent or mortgage, etc. This self-quiz helped the researchers and I to operationalize each woman’s physical stability.

The CTS interview and these three tests were administered when the women first entered the study, six months later, one year later, and five years later. For some specific individuals who continued to return to their abuser after the five-year period, the same three tests and interview were then administered ten years later. Because the test was administered over long time intervals, I felt that using the same three tests and interview would not in any way jeopardize the validity of the research findings. Amazingly, all 100 women completed this study, as the $500 incentive was not distributed until the five-year benchmark.


Our results were accumulated over the course of ten years. Monitoring 100 women over such a long period of time was very difficult, as email addresses and housing addresses, as well as telephone numbers often changed. Especially in a situation like this where confidentiality was key, we had to be very clever in how we addressed each piece of mail we sent or telephone call we made. Each of the one hundred women had pseudonyms, and the envelopes never mentioned “Abuse Case Study,” but instead we had a codename of “Strengthening Your Leaves,” which to an onlooker would appear to be an effort to conserve more trees in the area. To make our findings more presentable, we divided the women into four categories: A, B, C, and D based on their high or low levels of physical and emotional stability.

After we compiled our results, we found that Group A women, who had low levels of both physical and emotional stability were the most likely to return to their abusive partner, and on average they returned 12.5 times before permanently exiting the relationship, although seven of the women participants never did fully leave the relationship at the end of the ten year study. These women started with very low levels of self-esteem, and exhibited very high levels of depression. They were not financially responsible, and throughout the study, these women wavered between unemployment and entry-level jobs. As the study progressed, these women were not able to improve either of the factors, and for this reason, they became stuck in the habitual action of returning to the abuser.

In our Group B, we found that women who exhibited high levels of emotional stability and low levels of physical stability returned on average about seven times, while women with low levels of emotional stability and high levels of physical stability only returned six times. When we presented our findings, we had many questions about why Group B and C were so similar, even though the emotional and physical elements were completely reversed. My colleagues and I reasoned that those in Group B developed such a strong economical need for their abuser, that they felt like they had nowhere else to turn for shelter, clothing, and food, but their previous relationship of domestic violence. The women in Group C appeared to be economically sound, but emotionally, they had developed a greater mental need for the abuser, even though financially they could support themselves. This caused them to regress multiple times to the abuser, and it was only when we saw improved scores in self-esteem, and lower scores in depression that they were able to permanently exit the relationship.

Finally, our Group D women were those that exhibited both high levels in emotional and physical stability. On average, these women only returned to their abuser twice. The reasoning behind the low return rate was that overall, in these two major aspects, the women were able to support and take care of themselves. They neither depended on the abuser for financial help nor emotional needs. For this reason, once they realized the abuse was taking place and came to terms with it, they were quickly able to leave the relationship. These were our participants that finished the study within six months, but who still took the one-year and five-year survey to ensure they did in fact stay away from their former abusers.


A limitation to this study was the various layers that it contains. Abuse has so many factors that need to be taken into consideration. Because we were studying the main reasons women returned to abusive relationships, my team and I tried to focus on the two most prevalent, general ones, which we found to be mental and physical stability. Generally, these two elements are the main ingredients for dependency, which is why women feel the need to return to their abusers.

Also, because we were trying to peel away some of the layers, we looked at overall abuse. We did not test specifically for verbal abuse, versus physical abuse, versus emotional abuse, and the different effects each one might have had on the victim. Instead, abuse was viewed as an overall harm to the individual. Once again, the average battered woman leaves her abuser seven to eight times before permanently exiting the relationship. It would have been interesting to see what the results would have been had we studied the amount of times victims of verbal abuse returned in contrast to physical and emotional abuse as well. I believe that categorizing the abuse and studying it specifically could lead to greater breakthroughs in this type of research, and I see this as a future direction of abuse studies in this field.

Another factor that could be taken into account could be whether or not the women had children. From a motherly perspective, children could be a very compelling reason for a woman to stay in that sort of situation. Mothers (generally) put their children first, and they would rather see their sons and daughters with an angry father with roofs over their heads and food in their mouths as opposed to homeless on the street. Also, it is the case that many times the father is not abusive towards the children, and he could only direct the harm towards the mother. When this happens, mothers are often willing to sacrifice their happiness and security for that of their children. Whether or not the female participant was a mother could greatly influence the results of a study like this.

However, each research investigation can only tackle so many points, and focusing on the physical and emotional aspects were very good foundations to start. Our findings concluded that when women have higher levels of emotional and physical stability, they are less likely to return to their abuser. Battered women’s shelters, government agencies, and nongovernmental organizations that advocate for women can use these findings to better enhance their programs.

Women would then be able to tackle their depression through counseling sessions and therapy. They could also raise their self-esteem through partaking in activities like setting goals and achieving them and trying new things. This research could also act as the basis for the above-mentioned venues to get greater funding that would allow them to offer more resources. Financial stability often times caused women to return to their abusers, because they were dependent on them for basic needs such as shelter. If more organizations offered transitional housing or job training, our findings indicate this could greatly decrease the number of times women return, if any times at all.

Financial Stability Test

The Financial Stability Test:

1. How old are you? A) 18-21 B) 22-28 C) 29-35 D) 36-45

2. Are you currently employed? A) Yes, full time. B) Yes, but only part time. C) No, but I’m actively seeking employment. D) No, I collect disability. E) No, I have no job prospects, and I have food stamps. F) No, I’m a student.

3. What is the highest level of education you have attained? A) Middle school B) Partial High School C) High School D) Associates Degree E) Bachelor’s Degree F) Master’s Degree G) Doctorate Degree

4. What is your current level of annual income? A) None, I am unemployed. B) $1,000- $12,000 C) $12,001- $25,000 D) $25,001- $45,000 E) $45,001- $70,000 F) $70,001- $99,999 G) Greater than $100,000

5. Do you claim yourself as a dependent for tax purposes? A) No. B) Yes. C) I do not know what this means.

6. If you hear someone say it is a “bear market,” what does this usually mean? A) Stock prices will rise. B) Stock prices will fluctuate unexpectedly. C) Stock prices will fall. D) Stock prices will stay the same. E) I am not sure what this means.

7. Do you have any credit cards? A) No, I am not eligible for them. B) No, I don’t think credit cards are safe to use. C) Yes, I have one. D) Yes, I have two to four. E) Yes, I have more than four.

8. Do you have an debt? A) No, none whatsoever. B) Yes, and I make regular payments. C) Yes, and I can’t afford to keep up with payments. D) Yes, and I will have to declare bankruptcy.

9. Do you feel in control of your financial situation? A) Yes, completely. B) For the most part. C) I don’t like control. D) I am not in control of my financial situation. E) Someone else controls my finances.

10. Do you currently have health insurance? A) Yes. B) No. C) I am in the process of acquiring health insurance.

11. Typically, what do you do with the paycheck you earn? A. I do not have a paycheck. B. I immediately put it into the bank. C. I immediately use it to pay bills and buy food. D. I spend half and save half. E. I spend it all in a matter of hours.

12. Do you currently own a car or a house? A. Yes, both. B. I own a car. C. I own a house. D. I own neither a car nor a house.

13. Do you stick to a budget? A. Yes, I always keep my budget in mind when making purchases. B. I have one, and I consult it sometimes. C. I do not have a budget. D. My partner handles the money and budget, not me.

Psychology | Relationships

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