From outside an abusive relationship, it's often difficult to understand why the women being hurt don't just leave. Experts perform studies. Victims try explaining. But the answers are often hard for others to comprehend: The abused are terrified. They're financially trapped. And - confusing as it may be - they still love their batterers.

From outside an abusive relationship, it's often difficult to understand why the women being hurt don't just leave. Experts perform studies. Victims try explaining. But the answers are often hard for others to comprehend: The abused are terrified. They're financially trapped. And - confusing as it may be - they still love their batterers.

But blaming victims for staying, experts say, is as unfair as it is unproductive.

Women do try to leave. And then they go back-seven times, on average, before finally breaking free, according to Karen Days, president of the Columbus Coalition Against Family Violence.

A victim's instinct is to do what keeps her alive. And in many cases, that means staying in a physically or mentally abusive relationship, said Kristi Timbrook, director of the Legal System Task Force at the Coalition.

Research has shown that leaving is often more dangerous than staying. The chance that an abuser will kill his victim quadruples when she tries to leave, according to an article published in the American Journal of Public Health in 2003. Most victims know their batterers' rules, and try to avert trouble by obeying.

From the beginning of an abusive relationship, the batterer systematically manipulates his victim with romantic gestures and attention, Timbrook said. Over time, batterers methodically take control of their victims, isolating them from friends and family.

The relationship slowly evolves into a cycle of nightmarish manipulation, dominance and control, Days said. And leaving becomes even more complicated once a batterer has taken control of his victim's finances. But there are islands of blissful intimacy between the violent outbursts, reminding victims of better days.

It's possible for abused women to get out, with help. But advocates say they themselves are also fighting battles, and on two fronts-struggling to support victims and trying to make the public understand that leaving is more complicated than walking through a door.

"It's going to take those who are in healthy relationship to eradicate this," Days said. "Because they know what a healthy relationship is."

Editor's note:

In this story, we refer to victims of domestic violence as female and perpetrators as male. Although males can be victims and females batterers-and there are also abusive same-sex relationships-in the majority of documented cases, women are battered by male partners. Only the first names of some victims are being used in these stories.

"I'm going to kill your mommy"

Batterers often use an arsenal of abuses, and this southeastern Ohio woman's husband was no different. He did everything from holding a gun to her head to raping her, she said, before they were both imprisoned for neglecting their youngest child.

It was well past midnight when Tonya's husband awoke her four oldest children and lined them up in the living room, shivering in their pajamas. He pointed a gun at Tonya's head and made her children kiss her good-bye. "I'm going to kill your mommy," he told them. "And you are going to have a new mommy."

"I thought I was going to die," Tonya recalled. "And I thought about all the things I'd left undone."

Then, he pulled the trigger. But the gun wasn't loaded.

"He really liked to play mind games," Tonya said.

Tonya put her crying children to bed and watched as her husband chuckled and sat down to watch TV. Like so many other victims of abuse, though, Tonya didn't call the police. According to court records, her husband was never convicted of domestic violence. Tonya said she hid the abuse, both mental and physical, from everyone, including her family. She didn't want to endanger them, too.

Today, Tonya is serving an eight-year prison sentence in the Ohio Reformatory for Women.

About a year after she claims her husband put a gun to her head and pulled the trigger, sheriff's deputies, Children Services and EMS knocked on the door of Tonya's home asking to see her youngest child. What they found led authorities to charge both Tonya and her husband with child endangering.

According to court documents, the baby, who had been born prematurely and with a condition that required a feeding tube, weighed less than 10 pounds at 14 months. The other children in the house did not show signs of malnutrition or neglect. Tonya was sentenced to eight years in prison; her husband was sentenced to five.

Tonya said the man with whom she had fallen in love at church-and who initially opened doors for her and took her younger stepbrother with them to the movies-mentally and physically abused her during their 14-year marriage. She describes living in isolation and constant fear.

Tonya said fear of her husband, the overwhelming responsibility of caring for her other four children and a deep depression left her unable to properly care for her needy baby.

"I wasn't able to take care of him because I really wasn't able to take care of myself," she said. "I was focused on my husband." There were toys to pick up, dinner to cook, children to keep quiet. And if it wasn't done right, Tonya said, judgment was swift.

In an interview with Children Services in 2002, Tonya said her husband scared her, that he'd taken swings at her and that she'd woken up with him on top of her choking her. "When he gets stressed," she told the interviewer, "he lashes out."

Tonya's husband filed for divorce in 2008, shortly after getting out of prison. She happily signed the papers from behind bars.

With the clarity of hindsight, Tonya said the charges against her were appropriate. "I endangered all of my kids by staying," she said. "And I certainly endangered my son by not doing what needed to be done. Being a mother, it was my responsibility, and I did fail in that."

When Tonya arrived in prison, she rarely wanted to get out of her bed. Gradually, she took positive steps and gained confidence. She lost more than 100 pounds. She studied to become a boiler operator and hopes someday to get a job at a power plant or hospital. And she wants a relationship with her children, now ages 14, 13, 11, 9 and 8.

She's not sure what the chances of that are. She'll come out of jail a felon. And she doesn't know how her children will feel about her or what they will remember. Her four oldest children, she said, are living with her husband's parents. Although she sends cards at Christmas and on birthdays, she hasn't heard from them since 2003. Her youngest son is with her father and stepmother, and she occasionally talks to him by phone.

Tonya will be released next spring, and still fears her ex. "I know I'm going to run into him," she said. "So it does make me fear for my safety."

In retrospect, she admits, jail time is probably the only way she would have escaped her husband. She's sorry that's what it took. But she is happy her children are safe and alive-and that she is, too.

"It was worth it coming to jail," she said, "if it meant the health of my kids."

To have & to hurt

Most relationships - even abusive ones - begin blissfully. But when things go bad, women often struggle to escape. Deb Thorn was one.

Deb Thorn struggled to stay among the living: With her husband's hands wrapped tightly around her throat, she felt herself slipping out of this world toward the next.

"No, no-you can't do this," she kept telling herself. "If you die, he's going to kill the girls, and then he'll end up killing himself."

It was fear for the safety of her young daughters-then about ages seven and three-that Thorn credits with giving her the strength to take a breath when her husband finally unlatched his hands.

"After that strangulation, I had made my mind up that if I didn't leave, we surely were going to die," Thorn said. But she didn't leave right away. "You just can't have an incident like that and you just pick up and leave. Because of the abuse, you belong to that person. Everything you have and most of the people in your life also belong to [him]."

It would be several months before Thorn packed her belongings into 14 garbage bags while her husband was working and, under the cover of night, fled with her daughters to CHOICES, a Columbus shelter for victims of domestic violence.

Thorn was divorced with a daughter when she first met her husband around age 20. In love with the gentleman who was as protective of her young girl as a biological father would be, she married him and had a daughter with him the next year. "That was a joyous occasion," she said. "We were a complete family."

Slowly, her husband became more controlling; soon, he was pushing and shoving.

One night, her young daughters watched as their father shoved Thorn into a wall so hard that a clock fell and struck her on the head, she said.

At times, her three-year-old would pummel her father with her fists and tell him to leave her mommy alone. Sometimes, that stopped him. And Thorn said she did call the police-but in the 1970s and '80s, she said, some agencies didn't get involved in what was considered a family matter. "They told him to straighten up," Thorn said. "They never arrested him."

Thorn's family knew about the abuse. But she hesitated to get them involved-even when they wanted to-because she feared for their safety.

Thorn and her children healed at the shelter. She filed for divorce. She had no job and little money.

Eventually, she married again and moved the family to California-safely out of her ex's harassing reach-before resettling in Ohio. She began working in domestic violence prevention, first as a volunteer and then as an employee at CHOICES. Later she worked for a local law enforcement agency. Last year, she earned her bachelor's degree from Franklin University.

She wasn't her ex-husband's last victim, though: He was eventually convicted of raping a young girl and served 13 years in prison.

In a photo album on one of her shelves, Thorn, now 54 and retired, keeps a faded snapshot of a young couple in love. A slender girl with strawberry blond hair wraps her arms around the waist of the young man next to her and looks at him devotedly. He stares jauntily into the camera, wisps of blond hair in his eyes.

It is a reminder to the young women in her life that relationships always start beautifully. "No one," she says, "marries a batterer knowingly."

Young, in love and manipulated

Often, abuse isn't as obvious as a swollen eye or bruised arm. Abuse doesn't have to be life-threatening-which may be why mental abuse is easy to get away with. The story of this young Central Ohio woman represents that of many: She was a typical teen dating a charming boy who eventually found herself in a mentally manipulative relationship she couldn't seem to escape.

Jessica was sitting on her boyfriend's knees on a sofa one afternoon after school, talking like teenagers in love do. But when she lost her balance and accidentally hit his nose with her forearm, he kicked her as hard as he could in the hip. She backed away in fear. "Get out!" she demanded. But he wouldn't-and he wasn't apologizing. "He wasn't even sorry," Jessica said. "He was just like, 'Get over it. Whatever. You're being a baby about this. I'm not leaving.' "

It was far from the treatment she'd received on their first date that summer, when the guy-who was class president-brought her more than two dozen roses and took her to a street fair and dinner.

Over the course of the two-and-a-half-year relationship, Jessica would get more flowers as her boyfriend's behavior became more erratic. "When I wanted to go to school for engineering, he told me that I needed to have a backup plan," she said, "because I wasn't smart enough."

At 18, it was her first serious relationship. She wondered whether such treatment was normal but worried that if she spoke up, she'd be accused of blowing the situation out of proportion. "I made up a lot of excuses for him," she said. "But I just sort of thought it was OK."

The abuse continued when her boyfriend left for college. Once, Jessica told him she was too exhausted to sneak up to visit him after giving blood. "He told me that if I didn't come up that that was a sign to him that I didn't love him," she said. So she made the trip. When she arrived, she slept for half an hour before he sent her home.

When she tried to break off the relationship, her boyfriend started sobbing. "He said, 'You can't leave me. I don't know what I'd do without you. I'll kill myself,' " she said. "When they threaten to hurt themselves, you still love them. You still want to protect them."

The tactic worked. Emotionally exhausted, Jessica agreed to stay. It wasn't until she went to college that she discussed her problems and was encouraged by friends to end the relationship. "I didn't realize [how bad it was] until I started surrounding myself with people and it was like, 'Oh, I can laugh. I can have fun. You're nice to me.' "

She finally called her boyfriend, told him things were over, and hung up before he could respond. When he eventually got through on the phone, "He screamed at me," she said. "I'd never heard such hurtful things." His eventual apologies didn't work. And because he always made Jessica come to him, he didn't know where she lived.

Through the experience, said Jessica, now 24, she gained strength-and learned what is and is not acceptable. "Physically hitting someone is not OK," she said. And on an emotional level, if you feel you're not equal, there's something wrong, she added. That, she noted, is a message young people need to hear.

Yet she fully understands why it's difficult for women to leave such situations. The first time he abuses you, she said, you think maybe it's a fluke. The second time, you think you can change him. "You're not dating the jerk, you're dating the nice guy you met," she said. "It's hard to separate the two when you're looking at an abusive situation."

If you are a victim of domestic violence and need help, call CHOICES at 614-224-4663 or the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233.

Domestic violence: by the numbers 166,000 people in Ohio reported being physically or sexually assaulted by an intimate partner in 2007 30% of female homicide victims are killed by intimate partners 40% of female victims of intimate-partner violence live in houses with children younger than 12 20-24 are the ages during which females are at the greatest risk of experiencing nonfatal intimate-partner violence 47% of teens report their boyfriend or girlfriend exhibiting controlling behaviors Sources: The Health Policy Institute of Ohio, U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Teenage Research Unlimited