Why Some People Stay In Abusive Relationships

The complex and complicated reasons cover the practical and the emotional.

Of all of the types of clients I work with, the ones who truly make my heart ache are the ones, usually women, who come to Foundations because they are in an abusive relationship and are looking for the strength and courage to leave.

The thing about abuse is that it is deceptive and insidious. It is not something we typically talk about in our social circles, because often it is not something victims of abuse share willingly. For many reasons, abuse is attached to words such as “shame,” “guilt,” and “humiliation.” Abuse is a form of brainwashing. Additionaly, as life coach and award-winning blogger Barrie Davenport writes, “it slowly erodes the victim’s sense of self-worth, security, and trust in themselves and others. In many ways, it is more detrimental than physical abuse because it slowly disintegrates one’s sense of self and personal value. It cuts to the core of your essential being, which can create lifelong psychological scars and emotional pain.”

Abuse describes any behavior that is designed to control or subdue another person through the use of fear, humiliation, intimidation, guilt, shame, coercion, or manipulation. Emotional abuse can include anything from verbal abuse and constant criticism to more subtle tactics, such as repeated disapproval or even the refusal to be pleased.

Individuals who have endured any of the various types of abuse often struggle with feelings of powerlessness, hurt, fear, and anger, and they may “self-medicate.”

The victim of the abuse quite often does not see the mistreatment as abusive. They develop coping mechanisms of denial and minimizing in order to deal with the stress. The effects of long-term emotional abuse can cause severe emotional trauma for the victim, and side effects include depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

I am asked quite frequently WHY someone would stay in an abusive relationship. There is no one answer I can give; it’s a complex and complicated issue. No More, a national campaign to raise public awareness and engage bystanders around ending domestic violence and sexual assault, gives us a glimpse into some of the reasons.

Why do victims of domestic abuse stay with the abuser?

To a bystander who has not experienced an abusive relationship first hand, it may be next to impossible to understand why a victim of abuse, who is clearly mistreated, stays with their partner. Some people believe that the victims enjoy the suffering, are masochists, or are only truly happy when miserable. This could not be further from the truth.

Practical reasons

There is one immediate problem: where to stay. Not everyone lives close to a shelter, or the nearest shelter may have no room. Not everyone has family and friends who can provide housing for the victim (and her children), and the financial situation may not allow for the victim to pay for accommodation.

Hope

It can be difficult to give up hope for the relationship. Whenever the good times come around it can be hard, if not impossible, to grasp that the honeymoon period will not last. This is because there is an abuse cycle at play and the honeymoon phase is just a part of many.

Emotions

Most abusers are much more than just abusive. They also possess positive qualities that their partner initially fell for. Additionally there may be strong feelings of love between the abuser and the victim, and it is difficult leaving a person one loves.

Threats

Many victims have received threats from their abuser that he will take the children or kill the victim (and children). Far too often the threats prove to be more serious and dangerous than others outside the relationship would perceive. The fear of the threatened retaliations often prevents the victim from leaving the relationship.

Fear

Many times the abuse escalates when the victim takes steps towards leaving the relationship. The victim may fear her abuser so much that it appears safer to stay with him in order to monitor his moods and actions. If she chose to separate, she believes she would be living in constant fear of her abuser kidnapping her children, burning down her new home, kicking in the door in the middle of the night to assault her, or worse.

Loneliness and isolation

Abusers frequently isolate their victims, causing them to feel lonely, depressed, and sometimes experiencing anxiety attacks. Staying with the abuser may appear to be a the better alternative to being alone, anxious, and isolated.

Feeling paralyzed

After long term exposure to domestic abuse the victim may feel so worn out, helpless, and paralyzed that she is incapable of taking action. She no longer believes that she is capable of leaving or living life without him.

Economics

In relationships where the abuser is the sole provider it may seem financially impossible to leave him.

Shame

Victims may experience intense feelings of shame and humiliation. To give up on the marriage or relationship may seem as yet another failure.

Culture and religion

Depending on cultural background and religion, termination of the marriage may not be an option as it goes against cultural norms or beliefs. The victim risks strong disapproval from her family, friends, and her church if she divorces. Some cultures accept abuse of a woman as long as the abuse is not life threatening.

Denial and self-deception

After long term exposure to domestic abuse, the limit of tolerance changes. The victim may believe it is not really that serious, or the victim may believe that the abuse is caused by alcohol/drugs and can be brought to an end "if just…” Other victims cannot identify themselves with the stereotype of a battered woman: "I am not one of them, the issues in my relationship are very different from domestic violence."

Low self-esteem

Maybe the victim had low self-esteem prior to the relationship which feeds her expectation of mistreatment. One will accept mistreatment and abuse if it is in accordance with one’s self-image. Each abusive incident then becomes confirmation of being worth very little. The victim’s acceptance solidifies the abuse as okay in her head. Eventually she begins to feel responsible for provoking the abuse because she is unworthy and does not deserve any better.

If you or someone you love is a victim of abuse and needs counseling, please call Foundations today.