Mental Health Declines After Abusive Relationships End

Mothers who leave violent, controlling partners still pay emotional toll

(RxWiki News) Ending a violent or controlling relationship may be a step forward for abused mothers, but emotional health often declines after the breakup, a recent Ohio State University study shows. Research indicates that mothers who terminated an abusive relationship within a two-year window showed poorer mental health, became more depressed and maintained high levels of anxiety to the same extent as women who stayed in volatile relationships.


Kate Adkins, a doctoral student at OSU and lead author of the study, said the research findings “really help us understand how unstable those first few years are for mothers who leave violent or controlling relationships.”

Mothers who received social support from family and friends tended to fare better than those who did not, however.

Stressors such as financial problems, single-parenting and custody-sharing impacted participants’ mental health.

Claire Kamp Dush, assistant professor of human development and family science at OSU and co-author of the study, said the findings do not suggest women should not leave abusive partners.

“These women still need a lot of support and a lot of services, even after they leave,” Dush said, clarifying the study’s findings. She said family members and friends tend to think things are OK because the mother has left the abuser, “but she still needs support, and she still needs social services.”

Data for the three-year study, which will appear online in the Social Science Research journal, was based on about 2,400 mothers who were married to, or co-habiting with, the father of their child at the end of the first year of the study. The participants were divided into three categories: those not in abusive relationships, those in controlling relationships and those in physically violent relationships.

Results indicated that women who stayed involved with their partners throughout the study, including those in non-violent relationships, showed higher levels of depression and anxiety by the end of the three-year study. Those who stayed in or left violent and controlling relationships showed marked increases in depression and anxiety compared to those who stayed in or left non-violent relationships.  

Adkins and Dush conclude the reason the women who leave abusive partnerships experience increases in depression and anxiety is because their children kept the women in contact with their ex-partners.

“Research shows that more than a third of women continue to experience physical abuse and 95 percent experience emotional abuse following the end of the relationship,” Adkins said.

Another influencing factor: Nearly all participants were low-income and minority women who had just become mothers.

The study -- supported by a grant from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development -- also looked at religious involvement, which, by itself, did not protect abused mothers from depression and anxiety, according to the research.

Adkins said people often wonder why abused women don’t leave their partners. “Things aren’t necessarily after you leave an abuser, at least not right away,” she said.

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Review Date: 
September 15, 2010