Many people often have difficulty understanding why victims of relational violence do not leave abusive relationships at the first sign of trouble, or return to an abusive partner after having left. We are often quick to think that, if we were in the same situation, we would simply leave – never to return. From our perspective, it seems simple: don’t engage with anyone who causes you harm, whether emotional or physical.
Yet many of us do not fully understand the complexity of the situation, or all of the factors that play into an individual’s decision to remain in an abusive relationship. In this lesson, we will discuss a few of the most common reasons why many victims have such tremendous difficulty breaking the cycle of abuse. Sometimes, just one reason is enough, while, for others, there are many factors at play.
Shame and Embarrassment
Being abused is an experience that can leave victims not only feeling hurt, either emotionally or physically, but also ashamed and embarrassed. It can be extraordinarily difficult to admit to yourself, or to others, that you have allowed a cycle of violence to perpetuate by choosing to remain in an abusive relationship. Perhaps you feel that, by leaving the relationship, you’ve given up.
Perhaps you believe you’re incapable of fixing it, you’re weak, or that you’ve failed. It’s also possible that a victim would feel ashamed about ever having entered into a relationship that was either abusive from the start, or became violent. Others, still, may convince themselves that the abuse was some fault of their own. “I was foolish. I should have known better,” may be a common sentiment.
It’s very common for abusers to put their partner down by making them feel bad about themselves, or blaming them for the abuse, as though some flaw or mistake of their own is what caused it. This sort of manipulation can cause victims to internalize their abuse, and truly begin to believe that they are worthless. They may start to believe that, somehow, they provoked it, or worse, deserved it, leading to a lowered self-esteem and in some cases, self-loathing. What is crucial to understand is that the abuser, and the abuser alone, is solely at fault.
Some victims of relational violence remain in abusive relationships because they subscribe to the false hope that their partner will change his or her abusive ways. This is perhaps because for many their relationships were not abusive from the start. “He used to be so caring, kind, and gentle… Maybe he can get back to treating me that way,” one might think. Or, “maybe it won’t always be this way.”
Victims often cling to the memories of what was. Compounded by false hope, love of one’s partner can often convince a person that his or her abuser is worth remaining in the relationship for, despite whatever may have happened between them. They want to believe their partner when he or she swears to change, and promises never to hurt them again. Many of us are innately forgiving. We want to see the best in people, and believe when they give us our word.
Unfortunately, perhaps because a majority are struggling with their own inner demons, abusers are rarely able to change their destructive ways for any one person. As such, abusive relationships are typically just that, for their duration – abusive.
Many victims of relational violence exist in denial that their relationship is truly abusive.
They may believe that a violent episode or outburst, was just an isolated incident, nothing more, and therefore, not truly abuse. Others might make excuses for their partner by blaming his or her actions on addiction to drugs and/or alcohol, or perhaps “just one bad, drunken night.” They may even believe that they provoked their partner, thus causing him or her to become violent, and thereby warranting his or her behavior.
Many abusers encourage such denial, either by blaming their victim, downplaying what actually happened, and/or convincing their partner that it never happened. Most of us, whether victims of domestic violence or not, don’t want to believe that the partner we’ve chosen could be capable of hurting us in any way. To truly believe that we are in an unhealthy relationship may take quite some time, and, unfortunately, many episodes of violence.
Throughout the world, there are millions of people who, for whatever reason, be it a particular religious doctrine or staunch conviction, believe that the covenant of marriage is sacred, and never to be broken. Perhaps, throughout adolescence, they were taught that you only marry once, and divorce is absolutely not an option no matter what your partner may have done. As a result, leaving an abusive relationship may not even feel like an option. To do so would be in direct opposition to their religion, for example, and would cause extreme guilt, shame, and perhaps even exile or rejection from their place of worship, family, and/or friends.
A majority of victims may be extremely fearful about what would happen if they were to try to leave their relationship. Many abusers threaten to seriously injure or kill their partner, or her family, friends, and/or pets. Many more abusers may threaten to seriously injure or kill themselves, should their partner leave. Unfortunately, these are not often empty threats.
After a victim leaves, abuse can very often increase and/or intensify. In fact, the majority of homicides involving those within in intimate partner relationship occur after the victim has left the relationship. This fact alone can be frightening enough to keep a victim from even attempting to leave his or her relationship.
Many victims may rely on their partner for financial support, perhaps because they have been economically abused. Some may have been prevented from making their own money, or having access to their own bank accounts while in the relationship. This could cause a victim to assume that if he or she were to try and leave the relationship that it would be impossible to provide even the most basic needs (such as food and shelter) for themselves and anyone they may support, such as children or elderly parents. Some victims, too, may feel like they lack the proper education or appropriate skills to find a job and earn income outside of the relationship.
Leaving an abusive relationship can be further complicated when the victim has children, either with his or her abusive partner or not. Many subscribe to the belief that children need both parents, particularly throughout adolescent development, regardless of whatever negative behaviors they may exhibit.
Many parents don’t want to break up their family. Some may fear that their abuser might kidnap and run away with their children. Often, an abuser will use children like pawns in a chess game to manipulate his or her victim into remaining in the relationship by threatening to hurt, or even kill, their children.
Feeling Isolated and Alone
In abusive relationships, victims are often isolated from their family and/or friends, and thus may feel like they have no support from them. Lacking a support group, feeling as though there is no support group, may make it much more difficult for a victim to leave an abusive relationship. He or she may feel like there’s no one to turn to, and/or no place to go. As a result of isolation, a victim’s relationship with his abuser may be the only one he has at all. It’s also likely that many victims are unaware of domestic violence programs support groups and shelters within their community.
These are only a few of a multitude of reasons why a victim may remain in an abusive relationship. Abusive relationships are almost always more complicated than they appear.
That said, no one deserves to experience abuse of any form, and there is no justifiable excuse for a person to abuse another.
Leslie Morgan Steiner gave a wonderful, if not difficult, Ted Talk a few years ago about why relational violence victims often stay with their abusers. Please give it a watch: