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September 15, 2014
by Lisa La Rose, M.A., L.P.C.

The Dynamics of Abusive Relationships and Victim Recantation

September 15, 2014 07:55 by Lisa La Rose, M.A., L.P.C.  [About the Author]

Many of us have seen the video account of NFL player, Ray Rice, apparently striking his then fiancé, Janay Palmer, knocking her unconscious. The assault occurred seven months ago, and the video released on Monday has rocked the NFL.  It has once again brought the issue of domestic violence back to center stage.  While controversy swirls around the NFL’s response to Rice’s behavior, some may also have questions about the victim’s response to the events, and her apparent support of her new husband.  The psychological dynamics of domestic violence are complex, and it can be difficult to understand why a victim of abuse would defend and support an abusive partner.

This week, there has been a great deal of discussion and debate on social media about this case and the broader questions about why women stay in abusive relationships.  Many argue that the better question is why men batter women.  Both questions are important, and neither have simple answers. Domestic violence usually happens behind closed doors, often hidden from friends and family.  It reminds us, once again, of the abuse many women experience in relationships every day.  What is essential, however, is to understand that victims are not to blame for the abuse they endure, and perpetrators of violence are responsible for their abusive behaviors.

Even with increased awareness and decreased tolerance, domestic violence is still a significant problem.  According to the National Coalition against Domestic Violence (2014), almost 43 million women in the U.S. have experienced physical violence, rape, or stalking by an intimate partner at some time in their life. As many as 1 in 3 women have been physically abused by their partner, with over three million women enduring severe physical violence. Currently, intimate partner violence accounts for 15% of all violent crime, and women between the ages of 18 and 14 are most frequently victimized.  It remains an epidemic that impacts people regardless of age, race, gender, sexual preference, religion, or socioeconomic status.

The Psychological Dynamics of Domestic Violence

It is not uncommon for a victim of domestic violence to remain with an abusive partner, or return to the relationship one or more times after leaving.  Victims may also choose to support and defend their abusive partner.  On September 10, NBC news shared statements Janay Rice made on Instagram, supporting her husband.  She said, “To take something away from the man I love that he has worked his ass of for all his life just to gain ratings is horrific" (Jarrett, 2014).  While this is just one victim’s statement, it does provide some insight into the dynamics of abuse. Physical abuse is one type of domestic violence, and it is often what leads to legal interventions.  However, domestic violence, in any form, is ultimately about power and control. This power and control is not only exerted through physical abuse, but also emotional, sexual, and other types of abuse. The National Network to End Domestic Violence (2014) identifies these types of domestic abuse:

  • Physical Abuse:  Physical abuse is a powerful way for an abusive person to exert control and instill fear.  Physical abuse may emerge when a victim tries to leave, and this can be the most dangerous time for a victim and her children.  Physical abuse includes:  hitting, slapping, punching, licking, choking/strangling, using weapons, threats to use weapons, destroying property, denying medical treatment, and hurting of killing pets.  
  • Sexual Abuse:  This type of abuse is common in abusive relationships, but is often kept secret and not discussed, and the victim often experiences feelings of humiliation and shame.  Sexual abuse includes: physically forcing sex, making the victim fearful of saying no to sex, forcing participation in demeaning acts, forcing sexual encounters with other partners, violence during sex, denying use of contraception, or protection from sexually transmitted diseases.
  • Emotional Abuse:   This occurs in all abusive relationships, and can cause severe damage to the victim’s self- esteem. In fact, emotional abuse is so hurtful that many victims report that they would rather “be hit” than endure emotional abuse.  This includes behavior like name-calling, put-downs, threats, intimidation, isolation from friends and family, victim-blaming, making false allegations, excessive jealousy, and stalking behaviors.
  • Financial Abuse:  This type of abuse can trap victims and their children in an abusive relationship.  Victims often cite financial abuse as the primary reason they are unable to leave a relationship, and the reason they often have to return to an abusive partner (Forms of Abuse, 2014).

Every abusive relationship is unique, but all victims endure one or more of these abusive behaviors.  It is not uncommon, because of the psychological dynamics of domestic violence and issues of safety, for victims to not only support their partner, but to also minimize or completely recant their accusations of abuse. Victims may decline to participate in the legal prosecution of their partner, even testifying for the defense to help their partner.  How and why does this happen?  One theory that can help shed light on the dynamics of abusive relationships, as well as the psychological effects of abuse, is Battered Woman Syndrome, developed by Dr. Lenore Walker in the 1970’s.

Battered Woman Syndrome

The concept of Battered Woman Syndrome helps us understand the dynamics of domestic violence, and the emotions and behaviors of victims.  This syndrome addresses the experience of female victims of domestic violence, but assumes that male victims may experience similar symptoms.  While Battered Woman Syndrome is not a behavioral health diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the symptoms of the syndrome have recently aligned more closely with the symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (Battered Woman Syndrome, 2009).   Women experiencing Battered Woman Syndrome share some common characteristics:  

1. She believes that the violence was or is her fault.
2. She has an inability to place responsibility for the violence elsewhere.
3. She fears for her life and/or her children's lives.
4. She has an irrational belief that the abuser is omnipresent and omniscient.

While in the grip of an abusive relationship, women may blame themselves, believing that they have done something to trigger or provoke the abuse. They have difficulty blaming the abuser, and minimize or make excuses for their partner’s behavior. Of course, victims also fear for their safety and the safety of their children, which may motivate them to behave in ways that seem, from the outside, to be irrational. Dr. Walker asserts that women with Battered Woman Syndrome go through identifiable stages as they work toward leaving an abusive relationship (Lon, 2014).

Denial:  The woman may be unable to admit, even to herself, that she is a victim of abuse or that there is a problem in her relationship. She may describe abusive incidents as “accidents”, while offering excuse’s for her partner’s behaviors.  At this stage, she believes that the abuse will never happen again.  

  • Guilt: In this stage, the victim begins to recognize and acknowledge that there is a problem; however she blames herself and believes she is responsible for the abuse she is experiencing. She may even believe that she deserves to be beaten, or otherwise abused, because there is something inherently wrong with her.
  • Enlightenment: The woman now stops assuming responsibility for her partner’s abusive behaviors.  She recognizes that abuse is not acceptable, and no one, including herself, deserves to abusive treatment.  She may still be committed to the relationships, and may stay with the hope of working things out.
  • Responsibility: In this final stage, the woman is able to accept the fact that her partner cannot, or will not, change his abusive behaviors.  At this point, she makes the decision to leave the relationship. Again, this can be the most dangerous time for the victim of an abusive relationship (Lon, 2014).

It takes time and a great deal of effort for victims to move through these stages, and they often need counseling or other support to disentangle themselves and their children from a dangerous relationship. It is a difficult process, and sadly, many women are unable to escape before they are seriously injured or killed by an abusive partner. In fact, the National Network to End Domestic Violence (2014) reports that every day three women in the U.S. will be killed by a current or former intimate partner. This very real threat of harm or death may explain why victims of domestic violence will sometimes deny abuse, change their stories about violent incidents, and even completely recant allegations of abuse. This can be difficult to understand, but it makes more sense when we understand the intimidation, confusion, and fear these victims live with every day.

Victim Recantation and Domestic Violence  

Ohio State University researcher, Amy Bonomi, published a study in the journal Social Science and Medicine in 2011 that gives us insight into both the psychological and relational dynamics of abusive relationships. It sheds light on the interactions between a victim and an abuser that can lead a victim to recant her accusations, and even work against the prosecution to help the perpetrator.  The study analyzed jail recordings of phone conversations between inmates charged with domestic violence and their victims.  Both parties knew the calls were bring recorded.  It would be easy to assume that victims recant their allegations because of threats of violence by the abuser.  And while this may certainly be a factor, this study reveals that there may be more sophisticated psychological dynamics at work (Grabmeier, 2011).

During the jailhouse phone calls, researchers identified a five-step process that occurred, culminating with the victim’s willingness to recant her allegations, and support efforts to get her partner off the legal hook.   In the first and second phone conversations, there were typically heated arguments about the events leading to the arrest for domestic violence. At this point, the victim is strong, and resists the perpetrator’s account of the incident.  However, the victim’s strength and determination begin to deteriorate, as the calls continue.  The second stage is critical in understanding victim recantation.

In stage two, the perpetrator appeals to the victim for sympathy. He may tell her how much he is suffering in jail, and minimizes the abuse to convince the victim that it wasn’t really that serious.  He may say he is depressed, and misses the victim and their children. He successfully portrays himself as the victim, while the real victim often responded by comforting him. The perpetrator may even threaten suicide to elicit fear and concern from the victim. By the third stage, the abuser has the sympathy of the victim, and they both assert their love for each other, as they align together against those who “don’t understand them” (Grabmeier, 2011).

Finally, in the fourth and fifth stages of this process, the perpetrator asked the victim to recant her allegations, and stop cooperating with law enforcement and the prosecutor. The victim complies, and they start to create a recantation plan and details of the stories they will both tell. This can be as specific as going over what each of them will say in court. They end the process feeling united against those who want to keep them apart.  In her study, Bonomi doesn’t believe the fact that the calls were recorded is what kept the perpetrator from threatening violence.  Instead, he understood that more sophisticated psychological tactics would be more effective in getting him released from jail (Grabmeier, 2011).

The psychological dynamics of abusive relationships are complex, and sometimes difficult to understand.  Theories like Battered Woman Syndrome help give us a framework to understand what victims feel and experience. It helps us understand why victims sometimes recant their stories, support men who abuse them, and stay in dangerous relationships.  Understanding these dynamics and the reasons victims behave the way they do also enables counselors and advocates to more effectively help victims and their children stay safe, and hopefully escape abusive situations.  



Battered woman syndrome: Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network. (2009). Retrieved September 12, 2014, from sexual-assault/battered-woman-syndrome

Domestic violence. (2014). Retrieved September 11, 2014, from

Domestic and sexual violence fact sheet. (2014). Retrieved September 13, 2014, from

Forms of abuse. (2014). Retrieved September 11, 2014, from

Grabmeier, J. (2011, August 15). Jailhouse phone calls reveal why domestic violence victims recant. Retrieved September 12, 2014, from

Jarrett, T. (2014, September 10). Why she stayed: Ray Rice video sheds light on domestic violence - NBC News. Retrieved September 12, 2014, from

Lon, V. (2014, February 20). Battered Woman Syndrome. Retrieved October 11, 2014, from


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