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Women who live with abusive men often still see them as dependable and affectionate, which factors into why they stay in the relationship, says a new study co-authored by researchers at St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto.

"Not all abusers are homogeneous, and we shouldn't necessarily treat them in the same way," said Patricia O'Campo, a director of the hospital's Centre for Research on Inner City Health.

The study, published in last month's issue of the journal Violence Against Women, looked at the experiences of 611 low-income American women from a 2000 survey funded by the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health.

Forty-three per cent reported being abused by their male partners in the previous year; psychological abuse was more common than physical or sexual attacks.

Despite the high number, many of the women felt the abusive men had good qualities: 54 per cent saw their partners as highly dependable, either financially or emotionally (the men were "good to confide in"). Twenty-one per cent of the women also felt the men were patient, affectionate and even calm.

The researchers divided the abusers into three groups: "Dangerously abusive" men (18 per cent) were the most violent both to families and others around them; "positive and controlling" men (38 per cent) scored moderately high for violence, dependability and the positive traits; "dependable yet abusive" men (44 per cent) were the least controlling and violent.

"Past literature has shown that some abusers abuse because of situations: They become unemployed, or there are certain stressors in their lives, and they're acting out their frustrations. Not that it's acceptable to be abusive, but they would be a different kind of perpetrator than the dangerously abusive ones," said Dr. O'Campo, who co-authored the study with researchers from Adelphi University in Garden City, N.Y.

The surveys were conducted face to face in Maryland in locations convenient for the women. Most interviews spanned an hour and a half. Respondents were 35 years old on average and nearly half had children under 18. Forty-seven per cent had not completed high school and nearly three-quarters had a per capita income of less than $300 (U.S.) a month. Forty-five per cent were also HIV-positive.

"These women were chosen because they were at high risk of violence," Dr. O'Campo said.

Still, she believes the findings are applicable beyond the high-risk population: "I would not be surprised if the characteristics non-low-income women report about their partners fall into similar categories as these."

According to a 2005 report from Statistics Canada, 7 per cent of Canadian women and 6 per cent of men reported experiencing spousal violence at least once in the previous five years.

Dr. O'Campo noted that the public often imagines abusers as "being abusive one day and being nice for five days." She said the study presents a more complex picture and yields "another level of explanation to why women stay," because it focuses on the perpetrator, not only the victim.

Another important facet of the cohort, Dr. O'Campo said, was that none of the women were seeking counselling for the abuse.

"The proportion of women who actually get help for their abuse is a small one, so when you study that group of women it's a very select group. ... This is more what's going on in the population."