Opportunity to Abuse: Controlling Relationships--Why Don't They Just Leave?



Stages of Healthy Gay Relationships

Intro To Domestic Violence

Introduction to Gay Male Domestic Violence

Treatment Of Domestic Violence

Treatment Of Domestic Violence

DV Links


Domestic Violence in Gay Couples
History of Abuse

Power Differences




Gender Roles

Mental Illness

Some may respond to these issues by asking why men, and women, in violent relationships do not just leave the relationship. This question can be answered in two ways.

First, one response would be that there are many reasons why leaving may not be so simple during the relationship. For many, the violence did not begin until a year into the relationship. O'Leary and colleagues (1989) found that of men with a violent history prior to marriage, 51% were violent within the first 18 months of marriage. Similarly, Merrill and Wolfe (2000) found that for the gay men they sampled from abusive relationships, 79% reported there was no violence within the first three months, and 46% reported no violence within the first 12 months. Thus, for many victims of domestic abuse, the violence was a surprise, and not an incident they realized would be the start of an abusive pattern (56%). Many felt that they had invested strongly in the relationship and owed it to their partner to "stick it out" in support of their partner (31%), and maintained hope that their partner would get help and could change (75%). This sense of obligation and hope is why many husbands and wives stay with their spouses despite illness, substance abuse, and even martial affairs.

For gay men, this sometimes is tied to HIV status. Of victims who were HIV positive, 60% were doubtful of their ability to leave the abuser and care for themselves, while 50% of HIV negative victims partnered with HIV positive abusers felt guilty about leaving the abuser (Merrill and Wolfe, 2000). For some, when one partner is HIV+ and the other is not, the power differences and dependence that result could lead the HIV- partner to abuse his HIV+ partner in anger or fear (Hanson and Maroney, 1999). Others argue that the shame and guilt associated with HIV could be alleviated, for the short-term, with drug use, especially with drugs like methamphetamine, which can be absorbed two to three times faster for people taking certain protease inhibitors, a drug used to treat HIV. Thus, the drug is likely more addictive (Halkitis et al, 2001).

Further, part of "The Cycle of Violence" entails an abusive episode, followed by regret and guilt on the part of the abuser and a "honeymoon" period. Of Merrill and Wolfe's (2000) sample, 73% reported a honeymoon period after the violence. However, slowly the tension builds again and the abuser eventually becomes violent. Thus, many victims see true regret and guilt on the part of the batterer with promises to change, and actually see some change for a short time, and thus agree to stay in the relationship because of this.

For other victims, financial dependence, fears of violence if they leave, fears of violence after they leave, or fears the abuser will, in desperation, harm or kill himself are common. For other victims, the abuser's behaviors may have significantly isolated them from family and friends, leaving them with little support to leave the relationship. Merrill and Wolfe (2000) found 85% of gay victims felt trapped and that the batterer had interfered in their friendship and family relationships.

Second, another response would be that victims do leave. Herbert and colleagues (1991) found that two-thirds of the women they interviewed who had been in abusive relationships did leave. Similarly, Merill and Wolfe (2000) found that 90% of the gay men they sampled from abusive relationships had left their abusive partners, with 46% leaving a relationship of over two years length, and with 77% of them living with the abuser. Of note, 60% reported making three or more "significant attempts" to leave before being able to escape the relationship. A full 58% rated the continued harassment of their ex-partner after the end of the relationship as moderate to severe.

This is consistent with abuse and violence in straight relationships. Riggs et al (2000) report that the United States Department of Justice reported that statistics from 1998 indicated that incidents of abuse against women were three times higher after the divorce from an abuser.

Similarly, Davis and Frieze (2000), in their review of the literature on stalking, reported that 62% of young adults had experienced some stalking by an ex-partner. They note that physical and psychological abuse in the relationship, as well as substance abuse by the batterer, were strongly associated to stalking when the relationship was over, and women abused in the relationship were twice as likely to report being afraid of the stalker. One study they cite (Tjaden and Thoennes, 1998) noted that of women who were stalked, 68% felt less safe after the breakup than before, and 45% began carrying something to protect themselves. They also found that 81% of women stalked by ex-husbands were physically assaulted, and 31% were sexually assaulted.