How to Help Domestic Abuse Victims Break Away

July 26, 2009 07:00 AM
by Shannon Firth
Abused women often separate from their spouses following a five-phase process of decisions and actions, according to a University of Illinois research study.

Identifying the Stages of Leaving

Jennifer Hardesty, a University of Illinois assistant professor of human and community development, explained that making a permanent break from an abuser sometimes takes years, she told ACES News, a university publication. “It can be a frustrating experience for the people who are trying to help [an abused woman], especially if they don't understand the stages that women go through,” Hardesty said.

Hardesty and Lyndal Khaw, a graduate student at the university, modified the Prochaska and DiClemente's Stages of Change model in studying 19 mothers who were requesting a divorce or a change in child custody arrangements because of domestic abuse.

In the first stage, known as “precontemplation,” the individual denies there is a problem. In the second stage, “contemplation,” a woman begins to acknowledge her situation. A diagram of the change model, available on the UCLA Center for Human Nutrition Web site, suggests certain counterintuitive strategies, such as “validat[ing] lack of readiness.”

In some cases, the third stage is triggered by an increase in abusive behavior, ScienceDaily  reported. According to ACES News, women may notice the effects of the violence on their children. At this time, women may begin to look for alternate living arrangements, or quietly put money aside.

During the fourth stage, women will either stop trying to save their marriage and assert control or revert to an earlier stage. And in the final “maintenance” stage, women “reclaim their identity,” ACES News reports. Because they often interact with their former spouses due to custody arrangements, the change model suggests establishing coping mechanisms in advance to prevent a relapse.

Related Topic: Abused Men

Women aren’t the only ones who struggle to leave abusive partners, reported. Denise Hines, a researcher at Clark University, asked 302 heterosexual men, ages 18 to 59, who were victims of partner abuse why they could not leave their female partners.

Answers included: "marriage is for life," love, "I think she'll change," "embarrassed others will find out," "she threatened suicide" and "she threatened to kill someone else." Other men said that they weren’t financially independent or didn’t have any place else to live. But the most common reason men gave for not leaving an abusive wife was concern “about the children.” One man told Hines, “She has promised to lie and accuse me of physical abuse against her, [and] sexual abuse of our daughter, if that helps her win custody.”

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