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How Culture Impacts the Decision to Leave Abusive Marriages

In all societies, cultural norms and factors shape this decision for women.

Key points

  • Cultural norms and beliefs determine an individual’s response to abuse and violence in a marriage.
  • Many women choose to stay in abusive relationships due to lack of financial independence and support systems.
  • After divorce, systemic discrimination and marginalisation prevent battered women from rebuilding their lives.

This post was written by Masumi Pradhan, a second-year BSc Applied Psychology student at NMIMS, Mumbai.

Marriages, as social institutions, are almost always profoundly influenced by cultural norms and values. Unfortunately, some marriages become arenas for abuse, creating a dangerous environment for those involved, particularly women.

When faced with such circumstances, the decision to stay in or leave an abusive marriage can be socially complex and deeply personal. However, domestic abuse— emotional, physical, or sexual—does not affect only the victim; it permeates communities and families for years, often unquestioned.

According to the United Nations, divorce rates have doubled since the 1970s, with around 4 percent of adults in their mid-thirties now separated or divorced. Many of these splits may be attributed to the disturbingly high rates of Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) as experienced by women worldwide. The World Health Organisation reports that between 2000 and 2018, around 1 in 3 women worldwide had been subjected to domestic abuse and violence at the hands of their partners. Such observations prompt us to explore the factors that may play a pivotal role in determining an individual’s decision to leave an abusive relationship. By examining these factors and drawing on evidence, we can better understand the unique challenges women face across various cultures.

Cultural Influences

Cultural norms undoubtedly shape individuals' perceptions and expectations of marriage. For instance, in collectivist cultures, such as most Asian, African, and Middle Eastern societies, marriage is seen as a communal affair, with particular emphasis on family satisfaction and stability. Consequently, women may face intense pressure to maintain the marriage, regardless of the abuse they endure.

A study conducted in the Limpopo District of South Africa revealed that women in the region internalized a cultural belief captured by a familiar saying: "lebitla la mosadi ke bogadi," which translates to "a woman's grave is at her husband's house." Although the decision to stay in an abusive relationship may seem personal, it is often swayed by cultural or religious beliefs.

Women from different cultures also exhibit diverse preferences for coping strategies. With a preference for passive coping, Japanese-born women display increased psychological distress in relation to active coping strategies when compared to American-born Japanese women. In such situations, speaking out against abuse may induce more anxiety than enduring the abuse itself. One way to slightly alleviate this fear is by establishing reliable social support systems.

Anoop VS/ Pexels
Weddings in Eastern countries are often considered communal affairs.
Anoop VS/ Pexels

Social Support Systems

It is through access to available and effective social support systems that abused women gather the strength required to advocate for themselves and leave violent marriages. In individualistic cultures, continued emphasis on personal autonomy and independence provides more avenues for women to seek support. The use of tangible support such as legal systems and women's shelters is, therefore, more common in these societies.

Conversely, in Eastern cultures, social alienation, and the lack of legal and institutional support may leave women feeling trapped in abusive marriages. For example, research indicates that immigrant women, due to the absence of social support systems in unfamiliar countries, often face additional obstacles such as language barriers and limited knowledge of available resources.

Although there are numerous commonalities in reasons for divorce from abusive relationships, it is crucial to acknowledge that each woman’s experience with abuse and domestic violence is unique and that there is no one-size-fits-all explanation as to why many choose to stay. Personal motivations for staying in or leaving abusive marriages are influenced by both social and cultural factors. In households where women are financially dependent on men, the lack of financial security may prevent women from separating from abusive partners. Moreover, the responsibility of children may add to the complexity of this decision-making process.

Flavia Jacquier/ Pexels
Many Western countries have experienced an upsurge in women’s rights movements.
Flavia Jacquier/ Pexels

The Adjustment to Divorce

A woman’s experience with abuse does not simply end with divorce or separation. Perhaps the most difficult part involves rebuilding one’s life and reclaiming one’s identity after years of being deprived of the resources needed to do so.

In societies where women face systemic discrimination and thus are at a constant disadvantage to their male counterparts, returning to normal routines can be particularly difficult. For instance, women from conservative cultures often face judgment following divorce, which manifests in the form of blame or demands for justification.

A study of Iranian women coping with separation after abusive marriages showed that sexual harassment occurring post-divorce was fairly common. In conservative societies such as Iran, divorced women striving to rebuild their lives by pursuing employment often encounter workplace sexual harassment, leading them to abandon their jobs.

Women who have endured abuse often experience depression, anxiety disorders, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Many even experience suicidal ideation. In non-Western cultures, the lack of counselling services coupled with the stigma associated with seeking psychological help can further deter these women from returning to their normal lives. A smooth and seamless adjustment to divorce post-abusive marriages, therefore, is a privilege that the majority of women in conservative cultures do not possess.

In conclusion, recognizing the diverse perspectives surrounding divorce from abusive marriages is an indispensable step to providing effective support to women from all backgrounds. Through carefully planned and culturally sensitive interventions, it is possible to challenge harmful cultural norms, raise awareness, and establish support systems that protect victims of domestic abuse, all while respecting the cultural context within which it occurs.


United Nations. (2011b). World Marriage Patterns [Dataset; Web]. In Population Facts.

World Health Organization. (2021, March 9). Violence against women. World Health Organization.

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