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What began nearly two decades ago as a visible gesture of support for survivors and victims of domestic violence, today has become one of the most widely recognized symbols of the battered women’s movement – the purple ribbon. Across the country, families and friends of victims have adopted the purple ribbon to remember and honor their loved ones who have lost their lives at the hands of a person they once loved and trusted. The display of purple ribbons conveys a powerful message that there’s no place for domestic violence in homes, neighborhoods, workplaces, or schools.

What is Domestic Violence?

The United States Department of Justice defines domestic violence (also known as intimate partner violence) as a pattern of abusive behavior in any relationship that is used by one partner to gain or maintain power and control over another intimate partner.  Domestic violence can be physical, sexual, emotional, economic, or psychological actions or threats of actions that influence another person. This includes any behaviors that intimidate, manipulate, humiliate, isolate, frighten, terrorize, coerce, threaten, blame, hurt, injure, or wound someone.

Who are The Victims?

Domestic violence can happen to anyone regardless of race, age, sexual orientation, religion, or gender, and affects people of all socioeconomic backgrounds and education levels. Domestic violence occurs in both opposite-sex and same-sex relationships and can happen to intimate partners who are married, living together, or dating. Women experience more than 4 million physical assaults and rapes because of their partners, and men are victims of nearly 3 million physical assaults. One in four women will experience domestic abuse in her lifetime, with more than 60% of domestic violence incidents happening in the home.

Domestic violence not only affects those who are abused, but also has a substantial effect on family members, friends, co-workers, other witnesses, and the community at large. Children who grow up witnessing domestic violence are among the most seriously affected. Frequent exposure to violence in the home not only predisposes children to numerous social and physical problems, but also teaches them that violence is a normal way of life, increasing their risk of becoming society’s next generation of victims and abusers.

(Sources: National Domestic Violence Hotline, National Center for Victims of Crime, and WomensLaw.org)

The high profile cases of domestic violence currently in the news helps bring the topic into the public forum. It is an opportunity to educate those who don’t understand abusive relationships (verbal, emotional, psychological, and physical), to explore our societal values around abusers and their victims, and to evaluate our collective response to these incidents.

Why Do Victims Stay in Abusive Relationships?

People who have never been abused often wonder why a person wouldn’t just leave. They don’t understand that breaking up can be more complicated than it seems.

Both men and women have many reasons for staying in abusive relationships. If you have a friend in an unhealthy relationship, support them by understanding why they may choose to not leave.

Conflicting Emotions

  • Fear of leaving the relationship. Someone who has been threatened by their partner may not feel safe leaving.
  • Believing abuse is normal. If someone doesn’t know what a healthy relationship looks like, perhaps from growing up in an environment where abuse was common, they may not recognize that their relationship is unhealthy.
  • Fear of being outed. Someone who is in a same-sex relationship and who has not yet come out may be threatened by a partner to reveal his or her secret. Being outed may feel especially scary for young people who are just beginning to explore their sexuality.
  • Embarrassment. It’s hard to admit being abused. A victim may feel they’ve done something wrong by becoming involved with an abusive partner. They may also worry that their friends and family will judge them.
  • Low Self-esteem. Constant attacks, put downs, and blame for provoking abuse can affect a victim’s self-esteem to the point where they begin to believe the statements being made by the abuser.
  • Love. Victims stay in an abusive relationship hoping that their abuser will change. Think about it — if a person you love tells you they’ll change, you want to believe them. Your friend may only want the violence to stop, not for the relationship to end entirely.
  • Learned helplessness. The victim has been taught to be powerless, buys into this belief, and therefore views the situation from that perspective.
  • Isolation. The victim is slowly isolated over time, does not recognize this until the violence begins, then feels stuck with the batterer and does not know where to turn.


  • Social/peer pressure. If the abuser is popular, it can be hard for a person to tell friends for fear that no one will believe them or that everyone will take the abuser’s side.
  • Cultural/religious reasons. Traditional gender roles can make it difficult for young women to admit to being sexually active and for young men to admit to being abused. Also, culture and religion may influence victims to stay rather than end an abusive relationship for fear of bringing shame upon their family.
  • Pregnancy/Parenting. Victims often feel pressure to raise their children with both parents together, even if that means staying in an abusive relationship. Also, the abusive partner may threaten to take or harm the children if their victim leaves.

The Cycle of Violence


Chart courtesy of Domestic Violence Solutions of Santa Barbara County

In 1979, psychologist Lenore Walker found that many violent relationships follow a common pattern or cycle. The entire cycle may happen in one day, or it may take weeks or months. It is different for every relationship and not all relationships follow the cycle, as many report a constant stage of siege with little relief.

This cycle has three phases:

  1. Tension building phase—Tension builds over common domestic issues like money, children, or jobs. Verbal abuse begins. The victim tries to control the situation by pleasing the abuser, giving in, or avoiding the abuse. None of these will stop the violence. Eventually, the tension reaches a boiling point and physical abuse begins
  2. Acute battering episode—When the tension peaks, the physical violence begins. It is usually triggered by the presence of an external event or by the abuser’s emotional state—but not by the victim’s behavior. This means the start of the battering episode is unpredictable and beyond the victim’s control.
  3. Honeymoon phase—First, the abuser is ashamed of his behavior. He expresses remorse, tries to minimize the abuse, and might even blame it on the partner. He may then exhibit loving, kind behavior followed by apologies, generosity, and helpfulness. He will genuinely attempt to convince the partner that the abuse will not happen again. This loving and contrite behavior strengthens the bond between the partners and will probably convince the victim, once again, that leaving the relationship is not necessary.

This cycle continues over and over, and may help explain why victims stay in abusive relationships. The abuse may be terrible, but the promises and generosity of the honeymoon phase give the victim the false belief that everything will be all right.

How Can I Recognize an Abusive Relationship?

There are warning signs that can help you identify an abusive relationship before things get out of control. The more “yes” answers, the greater the likelihood for abuse and violence.

Do you:

  • Feel afraid of your partner?
  • Avoid certain topics out of fear of angering your partner?
  • Feel that you can’t do anything right for your partner?
  • Believe that you deserve to be hurt or mistreated?
  • Feel emotionally numb or helpless?

Does your partner:

  • Humiliate, criticize, or yell at you?
  • Hit, punch, slap, kick, or bite you or the children?
  • Criticize you for little things?
  • Act excessively jealous and possessive?
  • Control where you go or what you do?
  • Keep you from seeing your friends or family?
  • Limit your access to money, the phone, or the car?
  • Constantly check up on you?
  • Hurt you, or threaten to hurt or kill you?
  • Threaten to take your children away or harm them?
  • Threaten to commit suicide if you leave?
  • Force you to have sex?
  • Destroy your belongings or sentimental items?
  • Threaten to “out” you at work or to family or friends?

(Source: National Crime Prevention Council)

What Can I Do?

First, you can continue to expand your knowledge, including exploring the Center for Work and Family Life’s web site, www.usc.edu/worklife, to learn more about domestic violence. USC faculty, staff, and their benefits-eligible dependents can also meet confidentially with a Licensed CWFL Staff for more information and support. To make an appointment, call 213-821-0800, or send email to cwfl@usc.edu.

There are numerous shelters and outpatient clinics where victims and supporters can find assistance, including these resources in Los Angeles County:          http://www.cdph.ca.gov/HealthInfo/injviosaf/Documents/Los%20Angeles.pdf

There is also the 24-hour National Domestic Violence Hotline, 800-799-SAFE (800-799-7233).

It can be difficult to watch someone you love being hurt. However, many times the victim doesn’t realize he/she needs help, is too ashamed to ask for help, or does not know where to seek it. It can take 7-9 tries before someone actually leaves an abusive relationship. Be supportive and listen; let the person know that you are available to help at any point in time, and that you will respect his or her choices. Keep in mind that it can be very hard to admit or talk about intimate partner violence, even harder to leave an abusive relationship, and that ultimately it is the victim’s choice to leave or not.

Even if the person chooses to remain, if you offer support without judgment and encourage him or her to talk to people who can help, then you are helping improve the odds for overcoming an abusive relationship.

AndreaLS picby Andrea Bardack, LCSW and
Linda Snouffer, LCSW

bardack@usc.edu   snouffer@usc.edu