More threads by David Baxter PhD

David Baxter PhD

Late Founder
How Emotionally Abused Women Decide to Leave
Thu 09-Sep-2004

When an emotionally abused woman, living apart from her mate, moves back in with him she may actually be deep into the process of leaving him.

That’s one finding from interviews by University of Denver researchers with women who ended emotionally abusive relationships.

“Leaving an abusive relationship is often characterized by breaking up and getting back together several times before terminating the relationship for good,” says Barbara Vollmer, director of the Counseling and Educational Service Clinic in the College of Education at the University of Denver. “In fact, the ‘getting back together’ is an important piece of the process in which many women test out the relationship and themselves to discern if the choice is a good one.”

Vollmer and seven of her students presented a paper on their research at the American Psychological Association convention in Honolulu in late July. They conducted in-depth interviews with ten women who successfully ended emotionally abusive relationships to learn more about the process. These relationships did not involve physical abuse.

They urged therapists who counsel emotionally abused women in relationships to be aware that leaving an abusive relationship is a process. Typical steps include women becoming less tolerant of their partner’s behavior, a conversation or incident with their mate that serves as a turning point, new social involvements, and creation or strengthening of social support systems.

They noted that most of the women interviewed saw their mothers as sources of strength. Oddly, however, few shared with their mothers anything at all about their partner’s mistreatment.

The emotionally abused women also chose carefully the time to leave.

“Most women knew that they planned to leave well before they actually left,” says Vollmer, “sometimes years before they left. Most wanted to leave on their own terms and when the time was right for them.”

After leaving their abusive partners, most of the women had to resist attempts by their partner to return and some had to deal with stalking behavior. Most blamed themselves for staying too long in the relationship and felt they had learned important lessons about what constitutes a healthy relationship.

One of the surprises for the researchers was how quickly subtle shaming and manipulation can immerse women into an abusive relationship.

“Women often report that they found themselves farther into an abusive relationship than they realized in a short amount of time,” says Vollmer. “It’s important for counselors to understand that.”
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Good post. And so true for so many woman.

(I was involved off/on for 13 years and finally ended "in person" contact ..... with a major geographical move to another province a few months ago)

I feel very free ... but not about to easily or blindly jump into direct involvement without paying a lot of attention to "signals" of what to expect down the road. I even "test" a little ... just to see how people handle/cope ... if I don't like it? I back away PDQ.
My "observer" mode is pretty strong ... but that's okay, this is MY life and I have to live with what I allow into my life (whereever I have that power to choose)

It really DOES take a lot of attempts to leave ... people who have been abused or have very low self-steem don't always trust their own judgement so well either, and when "in love" or "bonded" then issues become very cloudy and confusing. Pushes and pulls ... time outs can help get a clearer picture on just what is really happening and that its unlikely to change ...

Emotionally abused women are used to their "mate" turnth tables on them so it appears as though theyare the ones with the problem ...

Sorry lover, it ain't me at all, it really IS you, it ain't gonna change ... I gotta go. bye.
What IS emotional abuse? Is there really such a thing? I've been reading about it on the internet and some of what is called emotional abuse just seems normal to me. How do you differentiate between what is harmful and what is just someone else having a bad day?


Playing on peoples' emotions in a negative way is emotional abuse, Janet. Telling people they are stupid, worthless, unimportant, bereft of worthy opinion, in the way, or otherwise not up to par, is emotional abuse. It is ALWAYS emotional abuse. There is no excuse for it....ever.


Denigration is NEVER "for your own good". If a child does something that could be done better, to call them stupid doesn't change anything. To point the right way, and to teach by example...those are the ways we make changes. When one becomes an adult, the same thing holds true. You cannot make a better person by telling someone they're worthless. That offers nothing.


great article

The right information at the right time.

Amazing how emotional abuse twists even the most intelligent gal into thinking she's the one in the wrong. And glad to know my hedging was part of the plan and not the problem!

Thank you.


Dr. Meg, Global Moderator, Practitioner
Emotional abuse also includes behaviour like restriction, where the person is not allowed access to money, cars, friends or anything like that, and humiliation. It's about having power over and domination of a person, as far as I can tell. Those things are not going to lead to anything good.

Good for you, Helena! I'm glad that you realise that what happened wasn't your fault. Take care :)




Thank you for your encouragement.

It's pretty rough going, I still go through phases thinking it was MY fault, if I had been more perfect, better behaved, more understanding...oh it goes on and on.

He emailed me yesterday. I couldn't make myself delete it but I managed to not reply. It was a step in the right direction. I start therapy to help me keep from going back to him (again) next week. I hope it helps. I PRAY it helps. I feel very very damaged.

Hugs to everyone here...
Keep up the good work Helena!!! It is truly heroic for any woman to leave their abusive spouse or boyfriend. A study found that the more emotionally abusive the male batterer was, the more likely the woman was to leave. Women tend to shift from fear and sadness to contempt for their spouse. Studies have shown that the less emotionally abusive husbands were, the more likely they were to decrease the frequency and severity of battering.

In terms of the women leaving abusive relationships:

There are a number of deterrents to leaving:
Economic Dependency
Continuing Love
Traumatic Bonding

Please consider:

Getting professional help as soon as you have decided to leave or even before. The process of leaving should not occur in isolation from a network of community support. There are people in every state and in Canada who are trained to provide aid and support to battered women. Develop a safety plan with the consultation of trained people. There is help for you. No one deserves to be mistreated by anyone in any situation no matter what.

You are not alone! There are people who are ready to help you at: 1 (800) 799-7233
National Domestic Violence Hotline

If you are calling for help on a phone that stores the numbers you call, please make sure to delete this number. Safe planning is important. Take care,


Those lingering feelings of "It's all my fault" are normal during this phase of your recovery, hon. Those are learned behaviors...learned through the years of abuse. It will take some time, and therapy, to better cope with them and, finally, drive them from your thinking forever. Just keep putting one foot in front of the other and doing what's best for YOU. That's the way to freedom.


Dr. Meg, Global Moderator, Practitioner
You're very welcome, Helena.

Good luck with the therapy hun, I hope it will give you some of the support you need to break free. Well done for not answering his email, you're right it's a great step to have taken! I was abused as well (though not emotionally) and, while everyone's situation obviously is different, I can relate to the feelings of guilt and wondering about where the blame lies. Therapy has provided a lot of the validation that I needed in that respect, and has also made it easier for me to share my experience with some friends who are being absolutely wonderful in encouraging me from day to day. I hope that therapy will help you to achieve your goals too. I really wish you all the very best and hope that things will work out soon!

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