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Aug. 13, 2014

Amy Bonomi: Why Does She Stay?

August 13, 2014

Amy Bonomi is chairperson and professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies in the College of Social Science. Her research focuses on the long-term health effects of domestic violence, dating violence, child abuse and the intimacy dynamics/processes that keep violent relationships intact.

My research focuses on one of the most complex and hidden social pandemics of our time: gender-based violence—including physical, sexual and psychological abuse in intimate relationships. In the United States, 44 percent of women and 28 percent of men are the victims of such violence, with medical, mental health and lost productivity costs exceeding $8 billion annually. Two-thirds of the nation’s teens are also the victims of gender-based violence, such as stalking by a dating partner via cell phones and social media.

No matter the setting, as a researcher of gender-based violence, the universal questions I’m asked include: 1. What drives my choice to engage in “such a depressing line of research;” and 2. Why do people “choose to be in a violent relationship/why do they stay."

The answer to the first question—why I chose this line of research—is easy. I am motivated by an underlying philosophy that to be a good citizen in the world during this lifetime, my work should concentrate on undoing societal injustice and reducing inequality—particularly among society’s most disadvantaged. Victims of abuse in intimate relationships fit the bill, both because they require special protection from the tyranny in their own intimate relationships and because they require protection and advocacy against ubiquitous societal pressure to sweep their experiences under the carpet. As a critical reminder, violence does not discriminate: people of all ages, ethnicities and social classes experience gender-based violence. My work is about ensuring that victims of relationship violence, from any background, have an equitable voice and decision-making power in the world.

This said, as a feminist, my draw is to unravel the injustices faced specifically by women in abusive intimate relationships—a group that experiences equity disadvantages across all societal realms. For example, to date, the Equal Rights Amendment put forth in the 1970s, which would provide women with the same rights as men, still has not passed.

Within my own life, as a young girl, I was expected to adhere to societal expectations of what it means “to be a girl”—slender, lady-like, quiet/passive, socially-oriented, and deferential to boys. Social justice-minded back then, I resisted these societal scripts, preferring to spend time building motor-cross bikes than playing with dolls.

As an adult, I conform to certain societal rules, such as “what women should wear,” but my passion to fight injustice resists societal expectations that, as a woman, I remain quiet and passive, not ruffling the status quo. Returning to reasons to concentrate on violence towards women, there is compelling reason—studies consistently show women suffer far higher rates of abuse and worse health consequences than men.

Depressing line of work? At times, yes. Addressing social injustice, including violence in intimate relationships, does not come without personal consequences. Concentrating on this line of research requires delving into painful narratives from victims and abusers and often being the lone voice, or one of a small number of voices, fighting against societal minimization of the injustices faced by disadvantaged groups, especially women. This requires a constant recalibration through activities such as yoga and meditation and connecting with like-minded scholars working to undo societal injustice. In the mid 2000s, I lived for a brief time in a monastery in Japan, with long-term plans to become a monk, as a means of making sense of the pain faced by those affected by violence and related injustices. I still incorporate meditation into daily living. Without these recalibration tools, basic survival in my work is a mental, and at times physical, challenge.

The answer to the second question—why people “choose to be in violent relationships”—is complex. My research concentrated on the dynamics between domestic violence offenders and their victims—funded by the Ohio State University Criminal Justice Research Center and the Group Health Foundation—shows that abuse victims’ choices are coerced. Namely, abusers use an interlocking pattern of abuse to tyrannize victims and wear them down, thereby compromising victims’ “choice”—for example, intimidation (threatening to harm the victim and/or her children); harassment/stalking (tracking the victim’s whereabouts and harassing her in person and by cell phone); social isolation (forbidding the victim from interacting family, friends, and coworkers); and humiliation (calling the victim names).

In a second line of research funded by the Agency for Health Research and Quality, our data from more than 4,000 women and men in the U.S. showed long-term adverse physical and mental health consequences of such violence, particularly for women—including depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and head injury, all known to impact victims’ decision-making.

Taken together, our research provides a glimpse into “why victims choose/stay in an abusive relationship.” Compounding these dynamics, ours was one of the first lines of research to show strategies abusers use, in real-time phone conversations, to subtly coerce and solidify their connection to the victim in the face of relationship dissolution following severe violence.

One abuser in our study wrote his fiancée a letter from jail, in which he traced the outline of his hand and drew a ring on the traced finger; he then wrote “I love you and I miss you, my beautiful wife, from your husband.” This couple was not married, but through the letter, the abuser put forth the hope of a solid romantic connection after jail.

Finally, in a third line of research, we are investigating the ways in which societal messages about how girls and boys “should behave” are represented in popular culture (such as in the blockbuster fiction series, "Fifty Shades of Grey," which is rife with abuse patterns consistent with national definitions of gender-based violence), and how those messages affect females’ experiences of abuse in their own relationships. Published studies using these data are forthcoming in September 2014.

In conclusion, to slightly reframe the questions I am asked most frequently, in my role as researcher: Why does the victim stay (in a violent relationship) and why do I stay (in this line of research on violence). The evidence points to clear processes that serve to coerce victims “to stay.” For me, I will continue along this line of research until the injustices can no longer be seen, heard or felt.