Why would someone stay with their abuser?

There are many reasons some people chose to stay in a relationship with an abusive partner. Scott Olson/The Canadian Press

How can a woman who accuses a man of abuse also admit to sending him love letters?

That question has dominated the last few days of proceedings in the case against former CBC radio host Jian Ghomeshi in a Toronto courtroom.

Ghomeshi’s defence lawyer Marie Henein grilled complainant Lucy DeCoutere around why she stayed in — apparently affectionate — contact with a man she claims slapped and choked her.

Ghomeshi has pleaded not guilty to the four charges of sexual assault and one count of overcoming resistance.

His judge-only trial continues this week.

Meanwhile, the defence’s line of questioning has re-kindled a larger debate around the way people who’ve suffered emotional, physical or sexual abuse stay with an abusive partner, and what that says about the abuse.

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READ MORE: Why Canada still has a long way to go in tackling domestic abuse

In the fall of 2014 #WhyIStayed and #WhyILeft started a conversation around the reasons people stay or go when in an abusive relationship. That was prompted by a video showing then-NFL player Ray Rice knocking unconscious his fiancé Janay — who chose to then stay and marry Rice.

Janay Rice came under intense scrutiny for her decision; she said the attack was an isolated incident that wouldn’t happen again.

WATCH: Janay Rice stands by Ray Rice after abuse video

Experts say there are many reasons abuse survivors stay.

It could be denial the abuse even happened; minimizing it as a one-off; fear of retribution or what comes next; the desire to feel loved even by an abuser; shame of being a victim.

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Some survivors will chalk it up to a bad day, decide it’s a one-off.

“If they don’t recognize it as part of a pattern of behaviour, and they haven’t been exposed to it before, they can’t really process it,” says Dr. Patricia Janssen from the UBC School of Population and Public Health.

“They don’t recognize it as a red flag for a pattern.”

Fear plays a factor in just about every situation, and it can affect each victim differently.

“It may be shock and it may be often an attempt to act like nothing’s wrong,” said Diane Hill, director of public management at the Canadian Women’s Foundation and a trained counsellor for assaulted women.

READ MORE: Domestic violence in Canada: limited resources for those who try to leave

She compares the mental state of abuse victims to someone who has just suffered a great shock such as a car crash.

“This is an assault, it’s a trauma, it’s a violation.”

“Women might behave almost like nothing happened,” Hill says. “The behaviour is unpredictable.”

She says when you look at the symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), some of that behaviour can begin to make more sense.

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“Denial, too, of what has happened can be a powerful dynamic,” Hill says, adding that abuse often happens at the hands of someone familiar.

“There’s a betrayal involved. It can be very hard to admit someone would do that, someone that you trusted.”

Victims sometimes start to blame themselves for their partner’s abusive behaviour. And often convince themselves it won’t happen again.

READ MORE: Provinces make changes in year of domestic killings

“There can be a strong desire to believe that this is the last time and this is never going to happen again. But in terms of domestic violence, it not only usually happens again, but escalates,” Hill said.

A Statistics Canada look at women’s shelters found that abuse is the reason most women seek shelter, and that one in four are repeat users.

Many abusers are adept at picking the people they see as easy targets.

“People who are predators are very good at choosing vulnerable women, and so they’re good at selecting women who are likely to stay, to have lower self-esteem for some reason and to feel inclined to end this relationship,” said Jenssen.

WATCH: Victims of domestic abuse urged to seek help

Some survivors want that relationship, partner and love so desperately they will deny anything that gets in the way, even abuse.

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There can also be an internal struggle: Nobody wants to identify themselves as an abuse victim.

“There would be resistance to that idea, denial of that idea and some hope that it wasn’t really true,” said Jenssen.

It can also be a cycle of a person growing up observing abusive behaviour, and seeing it as normal.

“Some of these kids grow up and they’ve never seen normal family interactions,” Janssen says.

She stresses it’s important education begins early for both genders, starting with teens learning about healthy dating relationships.

Here are some resources for those in need:

Canadian Mental Health Association
Child Welfare League of Canada
Public Health Agency of Canada, Family Violence Prevention Team, Centre for Health Promotion & Family Violence Initiative
Neighbours Friends & Families

If you are in immediate danger, call 911.

With a file from the Canadian Press