Why Do Abuse Victims Stay with Their Abusers?

A man reaches out to his abused partnerWhen video surfaced of Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice dragging his unconscious fiancée, Janay Palmer, from an elevator, football fans and victims advocates were outraged that the NFL only suspended him for two games. Earlier this week, TMZ released new video footage showing Rice beating Palmer in the head, causing the NFL to indefinitely suspend the player. Many observers were shocked to learn that Palmer married the man who allegedly beat her unconscious, just a day after he was indicted.

Palmer’s reasons for staying with Rice are her own, and she’s under no obligation to explain her decision to anyone else. Her behavior—which has included, at one point, seeming to accept blame for the abuse—has left many people confused about why Palmer stayed. It’s common for victims of abuse to stay with their abusers, though, and Palmer’s story is just one very public example of a story that plays out in the lives of thousands of people every day.

The Role of Fear

Domestic violence is a serious, life-threatening problem. The horrifying video of Rice dragging Palmer out of the elevator shows a woman knocked completely unconscious for several minutes, suggesting a concussion or other serious brain injury. Many people stay with their abusers because they’re afraid to leave. Every day, three women die because of domestic violence, and the most dangerous period occurs immediately after leaving the abuser. Women are more likely to be killed when they leave their abusers or report the abuse. Victims of abuse may make a rational calculation and decide that being hit is better than being killed. 

Victim-Blaming and an Unsupportive Culture

Despite years of work by victim’s advocates, our culture still has a long way to go. The NFL’s initial decision to keep Rice was widely criticized as a sign that the organization does not take domestic violence seriously, but this problem extends far beyond the NFL. A quick perusal of social media yields dozens of comments blaming Palmer for her abuse. Even Palmer herself seemed to accept blame in her public statement about the incident. One study found that 1 in 10 men believe it’s ok to hit a woman if she does something wrong, creating a culture in which hitting women is normalized and—at least to some people—justifiable. Women who leave abusive partners need immense support to remain safe and to stay strong enough to stay gone. In a culture that frequently blames the victim, this support may not be available, causing abuse victims to stick around. 

Love for the Abuser

People form strong attachments in their romantic relationships, as anyone who’s ever gone through a painful breakup can attest. Abusive relationships are no different, and people abused by their partners may genuinely love those partners. Deb Hirschorn, PhD, a GoodTherapy.org relationship Topic Expert, explains, “Janay Palmer may be staying with him because she believes he has a good heart. Victims of domestic abuse are not deluded into seeing what is not there. What they are is far more tolerant than they should be. They are generally kind-hearted people who truly see the good in others. They therefore want to overlook the bad. Unfortunately, focusing so much on the good puts them at risk for physical and emotional hurt.” 

Abuse and Self-Esteem

Abuse isn’t an accident. It’s something abusers deliberately inflict on their victims to steadily erode their sense of self-worth and gain more control. Joshua Nash, LPC-S, a GoodTherapy.org anger Topic Expert, says, “In an abusive relationship, the person receiving the constant anger from the abuser internalizes that anger as proof of their wrong-doing. All of their energy is spent attempting to appease the abuser, believing that they are in fact to blame for the abuser’s anger. The abuser of course reinforces this belief by saying just that. Consciously or not, the abused person strives to ‘be better,’ never quite defining what that means. Their chronic sense of shame and low self-worth perpetuates this dynamic.” 

Financial Concerns

Many abusers work steadily and deliberately to foster dependence in their victims. When the choice is between homelessness or poverty and staying with an abuser, many people choose to remain with the abuser, particularly if they have children or want to pursue higher education. Even when abuse victims work to save money to leave, abusers may take their money or undermine their attempts at independence.

As media outlets try to understand Palmer’s decision to stay with Rice, it’s easy to lose sight of the real question, which is why and how Rice learned that it’s acceptable to attack a partner. The reasons for staying in an abusive relationship are complicated and unique to each individual. To read the stories of some people who were abused by their partners, check out the Twitter hash tag #whyIstayed.

If you or someone you know may be experiencing domestic violence, help is available. Always call 911 in an emergency.

  • National Coalition Against Domestic Violence: ncadv.org
  • National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-7233(SAFE)
  • Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network: https://www.rainn.org/
  • National Sexual Assault Hotline: 1-800-656-HOPE (4673)

If you’d like to make a donation in support of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV) through GoodTherapy.org’s GoodCause, click here.


  1. Domestic violence: Statistics & facts. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.safehorizon.org/page/domestic-violence-statistics–facts-52.html
  2. Each day, 3 women die because of domestic violence. (n.d.). Retrieved from http%3A%2F%2Fnnedv.org%2Fgetinvolved%2Fdvam%2F1307-dvam-blog-series-1.html
  3. One in ten men say it’s OK to hit a woman if she makes him angry: Alberta survey. (2012, March 13). Retrieved from http://news.nationalpost.com/2012/03/13/1-in-10-men-says-its-ok-to-hit-a-woman-if-she-makes-him-angry-alberta-survey/

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  • JC

    September 10th, 2014 at 2:14 PM

    There is a unhealthy relationship psychological trade off in abusive relationships, both often unconsciously need or think they need each other for the outsourcing of there unresolved hurts of the past and unmet needs. Check out “Projective identification” which explains a lot about how the victims are affected and respond to abuse, it gives a wholistic explanation rather than blame alone. Also check out “gas lighting” as to how the perpetrators often carry out the abuse. Little is often talked or known about these subjects in abuse.
    In my experience, the violence is often the last resort when the emotional abuse and control fails. Meaning the emotional abuse is a very much larger picture going on behind the incidents of violence, and more damaging in most survived cases.

  • Julia K.

    September 10th, 2014 at 2:44 PM

    Hi Zawn,

    Thank you for this article. I really appreciate that you pointed out about “Love for the Abuser.” I think this is a really big one. I’ve worked with many people who have found themselves in either an emotionally, psychologically, or physically abusive relationships and have a really hard time ending or leaving the relationship because the both feel love and connection to the abuser or the remember a time when things were “good” and they keep hoping the person will go back to the way they were before. I also agree with you – sometimes people who stay in abusive relationships are genuinely loving and caring people who see who the abuser ‘could’ be if they would just stop the abuse.

  • Stephanie

    September 10th, 2014 at 3:09 PM

    With all of the talk about the Ray Rice case I hope that the conversation in this country re: abuse both mental and physical does not go away just because the case does.

    I do not wish to judge anyone because we all make decisions in our lives that other people may not agree with. But for the abuse victim it has to be so much harder because here is a person that they probably do in some way still love and yet they are being told by everyone to run and leave. But then go where? Many have no where to go, there may not be a shelter for them and their children that is in their area, and the money can be ahuge concern.

    I want us to begin to support them but not make judgements about why they stay and do the things that they do. If you put yourself in their shoes for just one minute you might stop and realize that you one day might do the same exact thing.

  • Juliette

    September 10th, 2014 at 3:49 PM

    Most have been so torn down and worn down by their abuser that they have a hard time believing anymore that they can go through life without this person.
    They are left with little hope for themselves alone and many times they are scared of what will happen to them or their families if they do take the initiative and run. As a family member I know that you wnat to try to understand all of this and do what you can but be prepared that it takes them a long time to figure out that this person is not right for them so it could take multiple times before they are finally able to extricate themselves fully from this kind of situation.

  • malachai

    September 11th, 2014 at 3:51 AM

    Well my sister stayed with her husband for far too long and in the end it cost her her life so this is the story that women who stay with men who hit them should read. This is the truth of what could happen to them to if they don’t make the decision here and now to get out. This is nothing to joke about, they are never going to change, and if they think that they didn’t hit you hard enough the last time to make an impact then they will make sure that they do enough to make an impact on you the next time.

  • skeeter

    September 11th, 2014 at 3:19 PM

    There are families who are so caught up in the cycle of abuse that dare I say it feels normal to them because this is what they saw as children when they were young and now they have become a part of that same cycle. For the women it is all about staying and protecting their children and still being afraid of the abuse and for many of the men it is all about control and having that kind of power over someone that they otherwise don’t feel. It is a sick and endless cycle because the chain of abuse inevitably keeps going and going because there is so much fear that keeps people from ending it.

  • Jeri

    September 12th, 2014 at 4:02 AM

    Whether they choose to stay or to flee… that is their choice and theirs alone. I would be fearful if a loved one or friend did decide to stay in a situation like this, but there are going to be times when there will be nothing more that we can do besides stand beside them at all times and let them know that we are going to stay by them for when that time comes and they need us. I know that the feeling could easily be that if they are not willing to make that change then we are not going to hang around and wait on them but that does nothing for them except to lower their confidence and self esteem even further. No matter whather you think that this is the right choice for them or not, they have to be the ones to make the decision, and if they need you in the future, don’t desert them.

  • Diane I.

    September 12th, 2014 at 12:51 PM

    A number of interesting reasons for “staying with the abuser” are suggested. Recently I ran into yet another idea; that there are some personality characteristics which may be contributory. In some depressed persons there is a tendency to “stick with it” long past the point where others would have given up. The research I was reading (I want to say it was in the book “Listening to Prozac” – if you really are interested you can reply to me and I’ll go and look it up) anyway the conclusion was something to the effect that the researcher speculated that the last three people in any given long line (that had not been moving well) probably had higher than normal chances of being chronically depressed. Just a correlation that came to mind.
    Diane I. (Psych DNP student)

  • cara

    September 12th, 2014 at 1:53 PM

    have we mentioned that they are not only afraid for themselves but also for their kids? this can be a huge concern for them when they are weighing all of the pros and cons

  • Raine

    September 12th, 2014 at 2:03 PM

    Being a victim of domestic abuse and also an abuser to my abuser- yes those roles were in the same dysfunctional relationship- I find it concerning that abuse in this situation is only being directed towards Ray Rice. Yes, it is evident that his more aggressive form of physical abuse needs to be dealt with, but what of the different forms of abuse both parties displayed. They were Both yelling, shoving, slapping, getting in each other’s face and she spit in his face; different abusive forms but just as psychologically damaging and hurtful. The truth is evident- and clinically defined, They were both the abuser, the roles switched back and forth and the ugliness of mental pain was vivid and sickening.

    We have to be educated on domestic abuse, the vicious cycle it creates, the emptiness in its destructive wake of ripped apart families and scarred children. We need to not point the finger, not say what is right in our judgement , but help. Not with words with actions. Are any aware that the programs for abused victims funding has been cut in half, that theses programs are overburdened with reduced and dedicated loving, courageous staff. Many staff who have been victim or victimized in their past. Staff that puts their selves on the line for victims who need help. I state that because the Atlantic County Prosecutor and it’s programs can only help if the victims reach out to them. Those programs should not and will not take the place of educated well trained psychologists, but they are also in need of our time and help. Don’t just believe me, do your research, contact an agency, educate yourself, -knowledge is power, volunteer, learn the signs of abuse, the look of despair and the haunting of fear-then take a look at the community around you. Abuse is not far away, unfortunately it never is once you knew what your looking at.

    Abuse is a disease; killing and damaging families and our community. Yes I said it , it’s a disease a mental disease, everyone involved needs counseling, education, awareness and love, but most importantly forgiveness.

    Sitting by and saying what you may or may not have done in the situation will help neither Ray nor his wife, nor the millions of women, Men and children who are daily effected by the ugly evil entity of domestic abuse. Forgive them and help us all.

    I challenge you to volunteer, educate yourself and help end this ravaging disease plaguing our lives. Speak the truth, know the truth- they were both abusive. Now let’s help them. The statistics are there, is our community? I volunteer and teach education on domestic abuse and daily advocate for the families, but I am only one voice. And I don’t do it for myself, although it has greatly helped in my healing I do it for my children. For my daughter to never be touched by someone who claims to love her as he hurts her, for her to never hit, yell disgusting names and humiliate a person she claims to love. For my sons to never endure the physical and psychological pain of being devalued or devaluing someone they claim to love. Those are my reasons, what are yours?

  • irishqueen

    September 12th, 2014 at 2:07 PM

    Sometimes, the ‘victim’ is powerless to leave. I.E,
    children of abusive parents…when a child is at the hands of a parent/s who is physically And/or emotionally abusing them, they have no recourse. No one pays attention to a kid, and where would that child go anyway? As abhorrent as it is to have adults beat the hell out of each other, it’s worse when it’s a child, for there is no choice, other than to leave and live on the streets, at the age of 7, 8 10, or even younger?? Why has this population been left out of the equation? I realize the focus is the abused electing to remain. The child has no choice. I understand. But, one can never speak of physical abuse without including the thousands of children who suffer at the hands of adults!! I know. I was one of them. And, even when I told other adults, nothing was done. Thank goodness, things have changed a bit. Still, I vowed NO ONE, absolutely no one would ever lay a hand on me when I went out on my own. And, no one ever has. I Did have that choice, and wherever the self esteem came from to honor myself, I somehow managed to have enough to never allow anyone to ever put a hand on me again… That’s my story, and no one has ever been willing to listen to it. I can be proud that I value myself enough today to have lived my adult life with no physical abuse.

  • Christina H.

    September 13th, 2014 at 1:28 PM

    I’m happy to hear that you Came out of it a with self esteem.. Congrats.. Yes you do have a choice.. When I was being abused in the late 60’s there were very few choices. Very difficult to get out. Luckily I finally had enough when he started to abuse my son that was Enough!!!. I’m happy to say my kids have never seem me beat up. I thank God for giving the strength to leave and for family who helped me. They loved me Unconditionally.

  • june g.

    September 13th, 2014 at 11:02 AM

    First of all, let me attempt to clarify something, emotional abuse is devastating as well as physical abuse, but you DO NOT die or end up in the hospital from emotional abuse. In a physical abusive relationship there is always emotional abuse also- which includes verbal abuse, belittling, and degrading. I have been in a abusive relationship and have been able to get out. I am older and wiser now, but at the time I wasn’t. I have been in a couple abusive relationships actually. No Fault of my own. I took the abuse like I deserved it, I knew better deep in my heart that it was wrong, but I was raised with no self esteem and my abuser tore away what little self esteem I did have. That is where they start, tearing you down and then beating you up. The abuser is the ONE whom is bad, not the victim. Let me give you an example of what the victim feels. I felt embarrassed of what was done to me by the man whom I loved and I thought loved me. I felt betrayed by the man whom I slept in the same bed with every night. I felt afraid of the man whom I lived with, who knew all my fears, secrets, etc.. I felt humiliated that I Still loved this man after all this. I could not tell anyone exactly what happened cause they would judge me. I had no money because he took all my checks and left me with no money in hand.I then again felt even more humiliated because I was a “strong woman” or so I thought. I had 3 daughters, so I was even more ashamed which made it even easier for him to abuse me. And you know what I still loved this man, which was even more humiliating. But I gathered myself together, kept saving any money I could and finally was able to take my daughters and leave. With out any outside help. I once went to the police and do you know what they said “well ma’am you must have said something to upset him.” I am now happy on my own and continued to raise my daughters on my own. One just graduated from law school, one going back for her masters in public health, she also volunteers in a domestic violence shelter, the youngest in a holistic health therapist. They are my pride and joy and I left that unhealthy relationship for us all. My daughters saw abuse and it made an unforgettable impact in their lives. One of my daughters got into an abusive relationship and I stood by her side and would not leave her to the abuser. I was able to get her away from him, but I never once belittled her. They have enough self-worth and confidence and support to not get involved in an unhealthy relationship. I also taught them once a significant other verbally or physically abuses you, you HAVE to WALK AWAY, because THEY WILL DO IT AGAIN. There are NO excuses or apologies to be accepted. It is TOTALLY UNACCEPTABLE Behavior.

  • MAureen

    September 14th, 2014 at 4:47 PM

    Yes, the abuser will continue to abuse! He would need longterm professional counselling . And the victim would have to be out of the picture for a long time.
    The chances of the abuse ending is still small !!!

  • SG

    September 13th, 2014 at 3:11 PM

    Pray for those that are feeling as though he/she is stuck in this type of life style. Turn it over to God and pray that the strenght he or she feels they don’t have comes to light. It was bright for me. I’m strong(er). I made a promise to myself “No one will never show signs of abuse to me never ever again! Its a choice that you made that comes with excuses!

  • Aminah

    October 13th, 2014 at 3:28 AM

    Im one of them.

  • Heather

    September 14th, 2014 at 9:56 PM

    I was an abused child had anxiety attacks since i was in nursery school btw no help at that time then picked every long term mate that was abusive both physically & mentally for 25 years the last one got out of a prison term by sheer manipulation 12th hour strategy with courts after a year if lawyers etc & shame on me Im an accumulation of all these comments I was not the one to turn him in yes liw self esteem people look at me & cant figure it out ! Im just now getting it after a year of counseling. I asked him why? The only answer he could give over phone was he lost it cuz something i did. It was always my fault its all about control cuz they lack inner control & peace most have been narcassistic personality disorders bordering on sociopathic tendacies the judge had to prompt him to his ‘apology’ & i had to ask him if he was even sorry or aware that he almost killed me. I have decided something basic to remember if they hit or hurt u they dont like u would u hurt or hit ur friends or would u be around them if walking on egg shells was reoccuring situation. So still feel love for the good times & even him on occasion but i know from years of abuse it always gets worse and more frequent

  • Jara

    September 15th, 2014 at 4:02 AM

    I read the best article this weekend that talked about thsi very thing, why so many people stay in this kind of relationship even though it can hurt so bad. The woman who arote it had once been in an abusive realtionshio before and she wrote about how it all felt so passionate and strong and that this was why he hit her becaus ehe loved her so much. Look, I am healthy enough that I don’t have to buy into all of that, but think of the backgrounds that many of the abusers and their families come from and you can see that this is probably the reality that they have lived all of their lives, and yes, that abuse can feel like passion and that they care about you so much that this is why they do what they do.

  • ROD

    September 16th, 2014 at 3:52 AM

    There is always this enpty promise that he is going to change, and while we all know that this is probably not going to happen, there are families who hold out hope against hope that this will be the case and that this person can change their life.

    What they fail to think of is that this is such a pattern and a cycle that one incident, one promise, will not change things for the good.

    Oh it could change for a little while but after that most of us, any of us, would go back to our old habits and then the pattern would begin all over agin.

  • matt

    January 31st, 2018 at 3:20 PM

    i agree

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