While Rihanna and Chris Brown's reconciliation after an alleged abuse incident has shocked family and friends, domestic violence experts say it's all too common for a woman to return — often repeatedly.
In fact, experts say, it's unrealistic to expect women not to go back to their abusers, be they husbands or boyfriends, as the victims grapple with feelings of guilt, fear, isolation — even love.
"It never surprises me," says Violent Partners author Linda Mills, who believes therapists and people close to couples in abusive relationships must accept this seemingly fact. "If you start with 'You shouldn't go back,' you very often lose the person [you are trying to help]. They won't talk to you."
Rihanna, 21, and Brown, 19, reunited last week in Miami about three weeks after he allegedly battered the singer early the morning of Feb. 8 in Los Angeles.
No charges yet filedPolice continue to investigate the case and no formal charges have yet been filed against Brown, who was booked on a felony criminal threat charge. Brown has no known criminal background, and though people close to the pair say they've had a tumultuous relationship at times, there had never been any indication of violence until now.
After the arrest, Brown and Rihanna spent time apart. Brown released a statement at the time, saying, "Words cannot begin to express how sorry and saddened I am over what transpired" and noted that he was "seeking the counseling of my pastor, my mother and other loved ones."
According to experts, there was nothing surprising in the reunion between Brown and Rihanna, who after spending time in Miami both returned to Los Angeles on the same plane Monday morning.
Reconciliation periodAccording to psychologist and author Lenore Walker, the average battered woman endures three to five violent incidents, from having her arm grabbed to an all-out beating, before she gives up on the relationship.
The reconciliation usually happens during what experts call the honeymoon phase in the cycle of violence, that cooling-down period after the attack when the abusive partner often expresses remorse and begs for forgiveness.
"The man is saying he's sorry, he didn't mean it, that it'll never happen again," says Walker. "It's the loving behavior that reinforces a woman to stay, because they believe the violent act isn't a true reflection of their man."
If anything, the victim will often blame herself — and the attacker will agree with her. "The abuser also tries very hard to convince the victim that the attack was their fault," says Dr. Elizabeth Miller, a Sacramento, Calif., pediatrician and domestic violence expert. "It's common to say, 'Honey, if you hadn't upset me, this would've never happened.' "
In many cases, financial pressures draw a woman back, particularly if she has children and doesn't work outside the home. But even among those with money, there's still "psychological warfare," says Jeffrey Gardere, a clinical psychologist. "[An abuser says:] I'm going to isolate you. I'm going to put you completely under my thumb, under my power so if you leave me, then you are going to be in big, big trouble because you won't be able to take care of the kids or yourself."
Isolation and loveBut it's love, in all its complexities, that can often be the most powerful force for reconciliation for a battered woman. "They have insight into somebody in a way that none of us do," says Mills, who runs a program in Arizona that brings together couples with family members and a volunteer from the community to talk over what actually happened in a domestic-violence event. The process usually goes on for months.
"The ideal might be that we can separate people who are in a violent relationship, but the problem is that that's not the reality," Mills says. "I address the reality, which is that people go back, and they're looking for avenues for the possibility of working through this issue like any other rupture in a relationship, working through this issue to the point where the violence could stop."
For more on Rihanna and Chris Brown's reconciliation, pick up this week's PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.