Risk and Coping Among Women with Abusive Partners

The way women cope with intimate partner violence (IPV) varies based on a number of factors. In a recent study, Lauren Bennett Cattaneo of the Department of Psychology at George Mason University in Virginia tested a relatively new coping model on a sample of 142 female survivors of IPV. The women were recruited after they had filed a legal complaint against their current or former partners. They were assessed for levels of psychological, physical, and sexual abuse and stalking that they had experienced. Their family status and income levels were evaluated as well. Cattaneo followed the women for a year to determine which category of risk they fell into, and how that risk influenced the type of coping strategies they employed. She found that the participants fit into one of three risk categories based on types of abuse endured and whether they had a child with their partner.

The low-risk category was represented by 34% of the participants and included women who had experienced low levels of all types of abuse. These women had a 40% chance of having parented a child with their abuser. The moderate-risk women had experienced more severe abuse, especially psychological and physical abuse. They still had low levels of sexual abuse and had a slightly higher chance of co-parenting with their abusers. This group was represented by the majority of participants, with just over 44% of women falling into this category.

The third and final group was made up of 20% of participants with high rates of all types of abuse, including sexual abuse. They had the lowest probability of co-parenting with their abusers, but also had the lowest probability of losing custody of their children to their perpetrators. They were not significantly dependent on their abusers financially or otherwise. In general, these women had the least to lose by choosing extreme coping measures such as leaving the relationship. However, these women had the highest rates of depression and posttraumatic stress. Despite that, they tended to seek help more than the women in the other groups, but were less likely to have all of their immediate needs met.

Cattaneo found that the biggest risk factor that influenced help-seeking behaviors in victims of IPV is having a child with the abuser. Rather than low abuse and co-parenting motivating one to take drastic action, it leads to less extreme action. But these findings also contradict existing research that indicates the most-abused women are less likely to get help because of the risks involved. “These findings suggest the opposite; that despite potential obstacles and high risk, women are still engaging in more and more coping strategies as the severity of violence increases,” Cattaneo said. Taken together, these results demonstrate that current survivor-centered models of IPV are critical for assessing what risks will prevent and promote coping strategies in women.

Zanville, Holly A., and Lauren Bennett Cattaneo. The nature of risk and its relationship to coping among survivors of intimate partner violence. Psychology of Violence 2.4 (2012): 355-67. Print.

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  • Lucy f

    Lucy f

    November 14th, 2012 at 4:02 AM

    I have so much sympathy for these women who find themselves in these abusive situations and then somehow find that they have no way out of the situation. Luckily most of the time when you are with a man like this he won’t really hang around too much to co parent with you which can be a good thing. But the bad thing is that men like this then have this habit of showing up in your life over and over again when you don’t want or need them to. Why don’t they just realize that they made a mistake, but that by showing up time and again and inflicting their own special brand of harm that they are causing more trouble than what anyone ever needs to have to deal with?

  • Marian


    November 14th, 2012 at 7:15 AM

    I think the answer to Lucy F’s question is that the men who abuse women are just as damaged emotionally as the women. That observation is not an excuse to abuse women, but it’s just that-an observation. A healthy man without emotional scars of his own would have no reason to abuse another person.

  • Albert


    November 14th, 2012 at 7:17 AM

    Do these women stay in abusive relationships because of the children? Since the beginning of the divorce era, people often stay together “because of the children.” When are people going to realize it is better for the children for people to go their separate ways rather than stay in a toxic relationship? I pray I never walk a mile in an abused woman’s shoes, but it is hard to understand why they stay.

  • melissa dean

    melissa dean

    November 15th, 2012 at 3:54 AM

    I guess I have such a hard time understanding this kind of relationship because I have never been in one. But why not just walk out the door? I don’t think that I could ever love someone this way who I knew wanted to hurt me. And don’t you think that deep down many of these women know that this is what they have gotten themselves tied up in? I can’t believe that they are so stupid that they don’t realize this.

  • Laura


    November 17th, 2012 at 8:10 AM

    I was in a mostly psychological abusive relationship for 15 years. Something you have to understand, when you have children, as a woman you put everything you have into the relationship. I hoped he would come around eventually. He would say and do enough to keep me hanging on. Now, that I left him he blames me for the abuse, he blames me for his anger. I realized quickly in a co parenting factor, I raised the children. They exhibit very little of his behaviors, good and bad. Why did I stay? Support, financially and emotionally. He was charming and lovely around my friends and family. I was afraid of being alone in this. Once my kids were ready, I bolted. Some of my family did support him and I lost friends, but I realize now, I have my real supporters surrounding me. I called it filtering. Every step was frightening and painful but not as much as being with him. A person living in an abusive situation finds a way to defend, which is creating abusive behaviors as a self defense mechanism. I had to question my actions and realize they were not my nature. They went away quickly, but the regret and guilt did not. What differentiates me from him is I identified my and his behaviors immediately, where he continues to point the finger and play games to get me back into his web of abuse. I will be working on the healing process for a long time and, in all honesty, he will never start.

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