Walking out, a process both confusing and complicated, is emotionally taxing for abused women, say researchers.
"When a woman is disengaging from a relationship, she is often unclear about her family's boundaries. Is her partner in or out of her life," said Jennifer Hardesty, professor, University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign (UI-UC).
"A woman's spouse may be physically in the home but psychologically unavailable. He's not caring for the kids or being a loving partner," she added.
"Or she may have physically left him but still be psychologically connected. She misses him, and for the sake of her children, she'd like for her family to be together again," said Hardesty.
"It's not unlike the experience of having a child leave for college," she noted. "Your child isn't living at home, but you're still very connected emotionally. Yet, when they come home for visits, they may pay little attention to you while they make the rounds of their friends."
"In the first two stages, women begin to disconnect emotionally from their relationships. You hear them say things like, I started not to care for him anymore," said Lyndal Khaw, who co-authored the study with Hardesty, based on 25 abused women from varied backgrounds.
Stage three is often marked by a pileup of abusive episodes and noticeable effects of the violence on their children.
"Women make preparations to leave, such as finding a place to stay or secretly saving up money. This stage is important for women as they switch from thinking about leaving to actually doing something about it," she said.
"Then, at stage four, when women take action, we see a lot of what we call 'back and forthing' because when women leave, the emotions often come back. They need clarity. They want to be physically and emotionally connected again," said Hardesty.
The last stage, maintenance, is achieved when women have been gone for six months or more. "With continued contact through court-ordered child visitation, the potential for ongoing abuse remains as well as continued confusion over the abuser's role in the woman's life," she said.
"Children can be a powerful influence in motivating a woman to get out of a relationship and in pulling her back in," Hardesty added.