My newspaper this morning contained a terrible story about a local man who drowned two of his children. As usual, it appears he was getting revenge on a woman who was trying to extricate herself from an abusive relationship.

She was trying…but not hard. It seems she still wasn’t sure.

The man has a history of family violence. He has drug problems, though he had just completed rehab and been declared ready to be a “pro-social and productive member of society.” He has violated his probation.

In one incident, he choked the woman, dragged her by her hair, and threatened to get a gun. He then dragged her back to the car where he held her for three hours, threatening to kill her.

Police intervened but she refused to cooperate with them.

And in July 2010, when the man (and I use the term loosely) was picked up for probation violation, the woman blamed authorities, posting on her Facebook page, “Im <sic> upset because my family has been forcefully broken. Its just the MAN trying to keep us down.”

Wow.

Just yesterday I read about research out of Ohio State University in which recorded jailhouse phone calls were analyzed in order to try and understand why women recant on felony charges of domestic violence. (Washington state routinely records inmates’ phone calls, and these may be released for research.)

The title of the study is evocative in itself: “Meet me at the hill where we used to park”: Interpersonal processes associated with victim recantation

Listening to 30–192 minutes of conversation for each of 25 heterosexual couples in which the victim recanted, the researchers identified a five-step process that the accused abusers used to wear down the victims.

The press release reads like a movie treatment:

Typically, in the first and second conversations there is a heated argument between the couple, revolving around the event leading to the abuse charge. In these early conversations, the victim is strong, and resists the accused perpetrator’s account of what happens…

…In the second stage, the perpetrator minimizes the abuse and tries to convince the victim that what happened wasn’t that serious. In one couple, where the victim suffered strangulation and a severe bite to the face, the accused perpetrator repeatedly reminded the victim that he was being charged with “felony assault,” while asking whether she thought he deserved the felony charge.

“Finally, he wore her down and she agreed with him that he didn’t deserve a felony charge,” (lead author Amy) Bonomi said.

What happens next in this second stage, though, is the critical step in the process of recantation.

“The tipping point for most victims occurs when the perpetrator appeals to her sympathy, by describing how much he is suffering in jail, how depressed he is, and how much he misses her and their children,” Bonomi said.

“The perpetrator casts himself as the victim, and quite often the real victim responds by trying to soothe and comfort the abuser.”

In one case, the accused perpetrator threatened suicide and said in a phone call to his victim, “Nobody loves me though, right?”

At that point, the victim’s tone changed dramatically, and she sounded concerned that he might actually try to hurt himself, Bonomi said. From then on, the victim promised to help him get out of jail.

In the third stage, after the accused abuser has gained the sympathy of the victim, the couple bonds over their love for each other and positions themselves against others who “don’t understand them.”

The fourth stage involves the perpetrator asking the victim to recant her accusations against him and the victim complying. Finally, in the fifth stage, the couple constructs the recantation plan and develops their stories.

“They often exchange very specific instructions about what should be done and said in court. They seal their bond as a couple and see themselves as fighting together against the state, which they view as trying to keep them apart,” Bonomi said.

The couple also imagines life without each other and reminisces about their relationship, which is what the article’s title refers to.

It’s all very sad and chilling.

Researchers thought they would hear threats of violence during these calls. But when you think about it, threats wouldn’t really serve the purpose, which is getting the victim to recant and withdraw charges.

It’s difficult for many of us to imagine being sucked back into a life-threatening relationship by nostalgia and sweet words, or being persuaded, as these 25 women were, that the abuser is actually the victim.

I understand that drugs and poverty are often entwined with women’s inability to leave violent relationships. But setting that aside, there are also some powerful emotions involved.

What I figure is that many times, bursts of violence are an aberration within a relationship that is passionate and intense in many ways. Abusers have to crank up the love to 11 in order to keep women interested in between those hair drags and pops in the mouth.

And in a culture where romantic love is often portrayed as tumultuous and hurtful, and compassionate love dull and sexless, the lure of “I can’t live without you” and  “it’s you and me against the world,” sounds an awful lot like love.

The emotional bond between abusers and their victims is not news to people who work in the field of domestic violence. What this new study did is break down the process of persuading a victim to recant. It also identifies a point of intervention, which is in the second stage, when the abuser appeals to the victim’s loving and needy heart.

If you were sitting next to one of the victims during those conversations, what would you say to her at that moment of truth?