Divorce and Intimate Partner Violence Essay

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Intimate partner violence (IPV) has consistently been shown to be a strong predictor of relationship dissolution. Research generally finds that a majority of victimized women leave their abusive partner within 2 years of marriage. One research group found that couples with a history of IPV were twice as likely as couples with no history of IPV to be separated after 2 years. Consistent with existing literature, this study also found that severe violence was more strongly related to relationship dissolution than was moderate violence. Similar to nonviolent divorces, the process of leaving a violent relationship may be characterized by self-doubt and a decision to return to the partner. The literature suggests that a majority of people who ultimately leave their violent partner will reunite with the aggressive partner at least once. Reasons victimized women give for returning to the relationship often relate to the perpetrator apologizing, expressing remorse, and promising to change.

In addition to being a determinant of relationship separation, IPV has also been found to be a consequence of or exacerbated by separation. Indeed, victimized women frequently endorse fear of retaliation and increased violence as major reasons for remaining in abusive relationships. This fear may be warranted; separation is predictive of continued violence and increases the frequency and severity of violence. Moreover, many nonviolent relationships become violent at the time of separation. At the extreme, separation has been identified as a risk factor for lethal violence, including being killed by an intimate partner. Recent estimates suggest that, compared to married women, separated women are five times more likely to be murdered.

Barriers To Leaving A Violent Relationship

In addition to the threat of continued violence, several other factors have been associated with the decision to stay in or leave a violent relationship. Women with more financial independence (e.g., personal income, employment) are more likely to leave a violent relationship than economically disadvantaged women. Additionally, women who are less invested in the relationship (e.g., in terms of resources, time, love for their partner) and who exhibit fewer positive feelings toward their violent partner are more likely to leave their abuser. The size and quality of women’s social support network is positively related to leaving and not returning to a violent relationship. The receipt of psychological abuse has also been implicated as a barrier to leaving a physically violent relationship. Psychologically abused partners may lose feelings of self-worth and assertiveness, possibly making it even more difficult for them to leave the relationship.

The decision to leave a violent relationship is considerably more complicated when children are involved. In addition to coping with the stressors of single parenthood (e.g., income, employment, child care), women separating in the context of victimization are at an increased risk of being revictimized during visitations and frequently worry about the safety of their children. Violent partners often use custody threats and threats to abduct or otherwise harm the children as a form of manipulation.

Based on the aforementioned difficulties with leaving a violent relationship and on the finding that women often separate from abusive partners, the focus should not be on why individuals stay in abusive relationships, but rather on what gives them the ability to leave.

Postseparation Psychological Well-Being

It is generally assumed that psychological distress improves after leaving a violent relationship. While mental health tends to improve over time, research suggests that problems such as depression, anxiety, and posttraumatic stress disorder persist for months after exiting a violent relationship. This is likely the result of a combination of the lingering effects of the erstwhile abuse, the continued threat of physical and psychological aggression, and the stressors associated with leaving any relationship, albeit a violent one. This has important implications for how mental health workers treat individuals who have left or are contemplating leaving an abusive relationship. Treatment should usually persist well after the violent relationship has ended. In addition to helping abused individuals process and cope with their erstwhile abusive relationship, mental health workers should also assist with newly acquired situational stressors (e.g., child care, finances).

Cultural Influences

A person’s decision to stay or leave a violent relationship is likely influenced by that person’s cultural and religious beliefs. For example, studies have shown that Hispanic women tend to more strictly interpret gender roles and have a strong belief in the sanctity of marriage, suggesting they may have less of an inclination to leave a violent relationship. In addition, Asian women and men may be less likely to seek help from community resources for fear of bringing shame to their family. Although religion can be an instrumental resource for women coping with IPV and divorce, there is some evidence that clergy, while not excusing the violence, may encourage victimized women to avoid divorce and remain in a violent relationship. Of course, religious and cultural influences vary across individuals, and thus the above findings should not be overgeneralized. An individualized, tailored assessment of these factors should be carefully undertaken for each person.

It should be noted that much of what is known about IPV and divorce is limited to studies of victimized women and studies of relationship separation (i.e., not divorce per se). Thus, additional research is needed on divorce and victimized men and on how relationship status (e.g., married, cohabiting) influences the dissolution of violent relationships.


  1. Anderson, D. K., & Saunders, D. G. (2003). Leaving an abusive partner: An empirical review of predictors, the process of leaving, and psychological well-being. Trauma, Violence, & Abuse, 4, 163–191.
  2. Bradbury, T., & Lawrence, E. (1999). Physical aggression and the longitudinal course of newlywed marriage.
  3. In X. Arriaga & S. Oskamp (Eds.), Violence in intimate relationships (pp. 181–202). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  4. Walker, R., Logan, T. K., Jordan, C. E., & Campbell, J. C. (2004). An integrative review of separation in the context of victimization: Consequences and implications for women. Trauma, Violence, & Abuse, 5, 143–193.

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