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The Dynamics of Abusive Relationships

Institute Working Paper 71 | Published April 24, 2023

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Abi Adams-Prassl University of Oxford
Kristiina Huttunen Aalto University
Emily Nix Visiting Scholar, Institute
Ning Zhang University of Oxford
The Dynamics of Abusive Relationships


Domestic abuse encompasses a range of damaging behaviours beyond physical violence, including economic and emotional abuse. This paper provides the first evidence on the impact of cohabiting with an abusive partner on victim’s economic outcomes. In so doing, we highlight the systematic role played by economic suppression and coercive control in such relationships. Using administrative data and a matched control event study design, along with a within-individual comparison of outcomes across relationships, we document three new facts. First, women who begin relationships with (eventually) physically abusive men suffer large and significant earnings and employment falls immediately upon cohabiting with the abusive partner, which translates into a total household income loss. Second, this decline in economic outcomes is non-monotonic in women’s pre-cohabitation outside options. Third, abusive men impose economic costs on all their female partners, even those who do not report physical violence. To rationalize these findings, we develop a new dynamic model of abusive relationships where women do not perfectly observe their partner’s type, and abusive men have an incentive to use coercive control to sabotage women’s outside options and their ability to later exit the relationship. We show that this model is consistent with all three empirical facts. We harness the model’s predictions to revisit some classic results on domestic violence and show that the relationship between domestic violence and women’s outside options is crucially linked to breakup dynamics.