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Many persons who have been beaten by their partner, no matter how violently, claims that they do not want to leave their abusive partner because they still love them. A common phrase is: "I love him/her more than anything."

Is there research into why these abused partners do not "fall out of love"?


I am specifically interested in the feeling of love, not in other reasons to stay with an abusive partner, such as the fear of further escalation of violence, common children, or material dependence.

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    $\begingroup$ for what its worth, I think pet animals (dogs in particular) show the same signs, for example signs of joy in seeing their destructive, violent masters again when they come home (just to be beaten later) $\endgroup$ – AliceD Jan 12 '15 at 0:13
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I long pondered the answer to this question myself. The short answer is: Cognitive Dissonance*

("Cognitive Dissonance" is a hypothesized mental process in which two conflicting ideas are resolved through rationalization / attitude change, instead of addressing the underlying source of the conflict that the person may not be consciously aware of. So here, we see two conflicting ideas - "I am being abused" and "I am not leaving" - resolved through a rationalization - "I love him", instead of addressing the underlying source of the conflict that the woman is not aware of - eg, "an addiction to the good times in the relationship." More detail and references below.)

Long answer:

Research approaches to answering such a question are limited by ethical concerns, so most data on abusive relationships comes from self-reports, and most studies are conducted after the fact, though a few studies do examine self-reports during such relationships.

Reports of "love", "romantic narrative", or "emotional attachment" are common in such interviews, and often cited as the primary reason for staying. However, like many other reasons for staying, victims often change their mind ("what was I thinking?") after break-up and recovery. This suggests the possibility that emotional attachment may be a rationalization.

Real reasons for staying:

The likelihood of remaining in or returning to an abusive relationship is well predicted by other factors, such as economic dependency, social support, cultural factors, and characteristics of the abuse and the abuser. This further supports the possibility that emotional attachment is a rationalization of an underlying reason that the victim is either unaware of or suppresses.

Consider another factor: In behavioural experiments, an intermittent reinforcement schedule is considered the most powerful schedule for addiction. Abusive relationships typically involve a "cycle of abuse" (ie, intermittent) pattern. Thus, "addiction" to the "good" periods of an abusive relationship may constitute the real reason for staying in some cases.

Rationalized reason for staying:

Dutton and Painter (1993) report that in their sample base, emotional attachment was highly correlated with intermittent abuse. As is typical of addiction however, victims do not usually recognize the real reason behind it (eg, an intermittent schedule of abuse), and rationalize other reasons instead (eg, emotional attachment).

Dare, Guadagno, and Muscanell (2013) review the role of Cognitive Dissonance in abusive relationships:

Women in abusive relationships may experience high levels of dissonance resulting from their negative attitude towards the abuse in the relationship and their inability to leave the relationship. If they feel "trapped" in the relationship, they may be inclined to change their negative attitude pertaining to the relationship or the abuse, whether they know it or not. ... Once the woman commits to an attitude change that results in her adopting positive feelings towards the abusive relationship, she will continue to have those positive emotions due to the human nature of wanting to remain consistent with our thoughts and actions; therefore, reducing dissonance. ... Eventually, her experienced dissonance will be at a minimum because her actions and attitudes have become consistent – she remains in the abusive relationship while developing a progressively more positive outlook on the relationship. This does not mean she thinks abuse is acceptable and wishes to be in a violent relationship, rather she feels most comfortable within the relationship whenever her cognitive dissonance is at a minimum.

Victims effectively convince themselves that they "love" their partner as a rationalization of their real reasons for staying in order to reduce their Cognitive Dissonance.

*-Note that Self-Perception Theory is an alternative to Cognitive Dissonance Theory that makes essentially the same prediction in this context, so there is no particular reason to prefer one interpretation over the other.

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  • $\begingroup$ Thank you for this extensive answer, +1. What makes me hesitate from accepting it, is the following: I have me two women over the internet. One of these women achieves orgasm by being beaten. She looks for a relationship in which she is beaten in a sexual context (but not outside of sex). The other women is sexually aroused by beind verbally and physically degraded and (quite heavily) abused. She looks for a relationship that includes this experience. These are of course extreme cases that some may see as pathological, [contd.] $\endgroup$ – user3116 Feb 7 '15 at 10:55
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    $\begingroup$ [contd.] but what I wonder is if there is a continuum of these desires and wether some persons actively seek and bring about being abused. For example, it seems that in quite a few cases where women are being beaten by their partners, the first violent act (beating) was performed by the woman, effectively lowering the violence threshold in the male. I don't mean to imply that (all) battered spouses want to be beaten, but I do wonder if a submissive personality or low self-worth can lead to behavior that encourages the batterer. But this may be a separate question. $\endgroup$ – user3116 Feb 7 '15 at 10:55
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    $\begingroup$ Well, the original question was about battered persons loving their partner, rather than battered persons inadvertently encouraging their partner's abusive behaviour, so that may be a separate question indeed. On the other hand, the question of whether or not battered persons love their partner because of an (unconscious) affinity for abusive behaviour, is a very interesting one. The literature certainly seems to focus on other factors, but that may be for political / ethical reasons. A friend I discussed it with came up with a brilliant way to test this hypothesis: After [contd.] $\endgroup$ – Arnon Weinberg Feb 8 '15 at 6:04
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    $\begingroup$ [contd.] successful anger management therapy or giving up alcohol for example, do persons with formerly abusive partners who have stopped being abusive tend to stop loving them or leave the relationship? If they do, then I think that would support your hypothesis. Even if only some do, and this can be correlated with a certain personality type, then I think the hypothesis would still hold water. I believe however, that the general perception of successful anger management therapy is that it improves, rather than worsens relationships, so we are still left to speculate... $\endgroup$ – Arnon Weinberg Feb 8 '15 at 6:11
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The word "love" in this sense represents an addiction to strong emotional stimulation. As the provider of that stimulation the abuser is "loved". Continued abuse brings with it familiarity with the feelings and intensity generated, which may be interpreted as love.

Love is not necessarily a healthy thing as evidenced by cases of abuse.

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    $\begingroup$ Are you claiming they love the familiarity of being abused? $\endgroup$ – AliceD Jan 14 '15 at 3:11
  • $\begingroup$ I do not think they love the familiarity, but familiarity finds representation in the way love is constructed in this instance. $\endgroup$ – subjectivist Jan 14 '15 at 3:30
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    $\begingroup$ This makes sense, but do you have sources for this interpretation or is that your speculation? $\endgroup$ – user3116 Jan 14 '15 at 6:53
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There is a cycle to an abusive relationship. During this cycle, there are extremely happy moments (usually when the abuser is repentant and loving to the victim), fantasy segments (where the abuser fantasizes about abusing him/her again--s/he won't always admit to this section), the abuse (you know this part), and the apology and promise to never do it again. The last section is where the abuser promises all kinds of things to get the partner to stay--counseling, moving...whatever it is that the other wants.

In reality, abusive behaviors can be addictive. The abuser feels powerful when abusing the other person. Even before the cycle begins, the abuser is laying the ground work through manipulative arguments and psychological/emotional manipulations; then, when the abuse begins, the victim believes that it might actually be his/her fault. As odd as it sounds to those who have not been in this situation, the thought patterns have been slowly changed over time in order to achieve this.

It is a terrible cycle that takes a monumental amount of work to combat. For counseling to really work, both parties have to buy into it and really work at it. Even then, both parties may conclude that they bring out the worst in each other and dissolve the relationship.

Love does not mean abusing, nor allowing oneself to be abused. Sometimes, two people bring out the worst in each other. In these situations, it is better to part ways.

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Some of the information contained in this post requires additional references. Please edit to add citations to reliable sources that support the assertions made here. Unsourced material may be disputed or deleted.

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    $\begingroup$ Do you have any references to back this up? $\endgroup$ – queenslug Apr 6 '17 at 12:10

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