My partner and I touched briefly on this topic in our second episode of our podcast, but it definitely felt important to dig a little deeper.
When it comes to people staying in abusive relationships, I have heard a lot of snap judgments about it. One of the main things I hear asked is “why did they stay?” The question may sometimes be genuine, but is usually asked in a way that is implying the victim of abuse is somehow at fault because they didn’t “just leave”. Even when the question is asked in a genuine manner, it can still perpetuate victim blaming. In all honesty, it’s not really up to anyone else to judge someone for staying in an abusive relationship no matter what their reasoning is. The bottom line is the person who is doing the abusing is in control of their actions.
Before we talk about some of the reasons why people stay in abusive relationships, we will talk about what abuse is. When some people hear about abuse, they think of someone (usually a man) hitting their partner (usually a woman.) It’s important to note that abuse can happen to anyone by anyone, regardless of gender. Abuse is also not just physical. It can be sexual, emotional, financial and other things as well. It also is not exclusive to romantic relationships. It can include people staying with abusive family after they’re old enough to leave, or even abusive friendships or other relationships. It can be hard from an outside perspective to understand why someone may stay in an abusive relationship. I am going to talk about some different reasons, but please know that this does not cover all of them and that no matter what, an abuse victim should never be judged for staying. And someone who has managed to leave should never be questioned about why they didn’t do it sooner.
Now, there are a ton of different reasons people stay in abusive relationships. All of them are valid. I am going to divide them into categories, while realizing that many of these reasons may fit within more than one of these categories.
The first of these categories is conditioning. This is specifically about ways that a person may have been conditioned to accept abusive behaviour, before they were with their abuser. Some people may have been conditioned to see abusive behaviour as normal within a relationship. This could be because they learned about toxic behaviours from society, or from their family. One of their parents might have been abusive to the other, so they received the message that it’s expected that someone you love might treat you that way, and that it shows their partner loves them.
They might also be conditioned to see the abuse as something they deserve. This may be due to previous trauma they have been through, which makes them feel unworthy of a relationship without abuse. They may have been in a different abusive relationship, where the abuse seemed “worse,” so they feel their treatment in the current relationship is “not that bad.” The abuse they are suffering may not be physical abuse, and they might have been conditioned to believe that emotional, financial or other forms of abuse are not “really abuse.” All forms of abuse are real and valid, and can be just as traumatizing as physical abuse. Some conditioning may be due to messages that are very common in society.
Family or Social Pressures
That brings us to the second category of reasons people don’t leave abusive relationships, which is family or social pressure. Some of these reasons are due to messages many of us internalize without ever realizing it. For instance, society promotes the idea that we should be “loyal” to our partners, and “stick it out through the hard times.” While this often applies to relationship problems that have nothing to do with abuse, such as disease or financial difficulties, it can be interpreted by those in abusive relationships as a reason they need to stay. Getting divorced is often described as having a “failed” marriage, and these terms rarely take into consideration the reasons for divorce - they can make people feel the failure is as much theirs as their partner’s. Family often backs up these ideas. A person’s religion may also play a part. Divorce can be described as a sin, and many women in particular are told by the leaders of their faiths that they have a “duty” to support their husbands, regardless of any abuse. (This is not true of nearly all religions or religious people, but it can be a factor.)
Society also pushes a message that love “conquers all.” Some people believe this means if they love their abuser strongly enough, they will be able to change them and end the abuse. If their abuser has had a hard life or has been through trauma or abuse, the abused person may believe it is not their abuser’s fault. In such a case, even more, they may believe if they give enough love they will be able to heal their abuser. In these situations, an abuse victim may feel the abuse is their fault because they aren’t giving enough love to their abuser.
Society’s influence may make an abused person feel the need to deny their abuse, perhaps because they don’t fit with the image society or their own family have given them of an abuse victim. For example, they may consider themself extremely strong, and have always been told that only weak people get abused. Or, they may be men partnered with abusive women, who have always been told that only men abuse and only women get abused. I said it before, but it’s worth repeating: anyone can be abused, no matter how strong they consider themselves and no matter their gender or the gender of their partner.
An abuse victim may also find it harder to leave because of more subtle messages from society, such as thinking that ending the relationship would mean they prove a stereotype, such as if they were in a gay relationship and had been told gay people can’t have stable relationships.
This also relates to pressure they may feel from messages their family has given them, such as thinking leaving would mean their family would make judgemental comments because family had told them in the past that their partner “was bad news” or they “knew that relationship would never work.” The abused person may feel their family will judge them because they disapprove of divorce, or look on them with pity, or otherwise think badly of them. They may also worry that their family or friends will be disapproving or unsupportive because their abuser might tell information that the person has kept secret. As one example, an abused person might be in a relationship with someone of the same gender, but not out to their family. They may fear if they leave, their abuser will out them, and their family will react badly. Abusers often manipulate their partners to make leaving much more difficult.
The next category of reasons someone might not leave an abusive relationship is manipulation by their abuser. This may be manipulation that the abused person can see, such as telling them that if they leave, the abuser will hurt them or hurt their children. The abuser might threaten to take the abuse victim’s children away, because they have money or influence that gives them an advantage in court or otherwise gives them control. The abuse victim might also feel they need to stay to protect the children. This manipulation might be more subtle, such as getting the idea that children are always better off living with both parents. In the case of an abusive parent, this is not true, but it is hard to see this from inside an abusive relationship.
The abuser’s manipulation is often less obvious to their abused partner. The abuser might be the one who makes all the money in the relationship. In some cases, the abuser might state clearly that the abuse victim would have nothing if they left, but in many cases they just let their partner realize for themselves that leaving would mean losing financial support. Abusers also often work down the self-esteem of their victims, so the abuse victim has a very hard time thinking about what it would be like to be on their own. The abused person may believe they would not be smart enough or good enough to find a way to support themselves. They may believe no one would ever love or want them except for their abuser, and find it overwhelming to think about being alone - especially if they would also have kids to support.
Abusers often are not abusive at the start of a relationship. They may only become abusive after their victim is tied to them more strongly, such as by marriage or financial dependence. They may make their partner more dependent by isolating them from family and friends. They also can be very skilled at making abuse seem like a rare event and not a major factor in the relationship. There is a common “cycle” of abuse, where after someone is abusive, they apologize and act kind and loving, and make it seem like the abuse will never happen again. This is known as a “honeymoon” period, and it almost always ends, eventually continuing the abuse. The abuser may make their victim feel that the abuse is due to a temporary situation, such as the added stress of losing a job, so that the abused person feels an additional reason to excuse the abuse.
Abusers are often very skilled at getting their victims to excuse abuse, possibly even share the guilt of the abuse. They may tell the abused person that the abuse only happened, “because you had to do that thing which you know I hate.” Abuse victims often come to believe the abuse is their fault for provoking it. Abusers also may gaslight their partners, insisting that their partner’s memory of events is wrong. For instance, when a victim speaks of something cruel their abuser said, an abuser might say, “I didn’t say that. I would never say that. How could you think that about me?” The abused person might grow to question their own memory. In this example, they might think, “No, they love me. They're kind. They’re right, of course they wouldn’t say that. I must be remembering wrong.”
Between the guilt their abuser has pushed them to feel, the cycle of abuse where the abused person might always think, “this time is different, they’re going to be better now,” and the fact that their abuser has made them feel dependent and afraid to live without their abuser, one can understand how mentally difficult leaving could be. This is made worse by the realities of leaving an abusive relationship.
Difficult to Leave
The last category of reasons I will discuss is the practical ways it can be difficult to leave. The first is that, as mentioned, abuse victims often have little or no money of their own. Between this and the fact that they have been isolated from family and friends, they may not see how they can afford to leave. There may be no community support for them, either. Sometimes there is support, but they do not know about it. This can be made worse if their abuser is someone with power in the community, such as a holder of political office, a member of law enforcement or a member of a rich or otherwise influential family. This may make other people in the community even less willing to help an abuse victim, or willing to do more for the abuser to protect them from consequences or try to push the abused person to return to the relationship.
On a more basic level, being in a long term relationship often means that peoples’ lives are entwined in ways that make them difficult to separate, especially if they have been together for decades. The abuser and their victim may share friends, who might be reluctant to believe one friend could have been an abuser, or refuse to “pick sides,” even though that refusal means in practical terms supporting the abuser. They may share bank accounts, the mortgage on a house, and children. These are all things which make it more difficult to leave and completely break contact from an abuser. They may even have shared lives outside the home, such as both working in the same place or both going to the same school. An abused person may feel that to leave their abuser, they would have to leave their job or drop out of school, which seems very unfair. Children can lead to a lot of conflicting emotions - for instance, an abused person may feel they should stay “for the sake of the children.” In truth, chances are their children would be better off far away from an abuser, even if it meant growing up with less luxuries.
For all of these reasons, leaving is extremely hard. Abuse victims usually make several attempts at leaving, and go back to their abuser, before they manage to break free. Worse, the risk of an abused person being murdered by their abuser is significantly higher in the weeks after they leave than at any other time during the relationship.
People outside a relationship rarely have a full picture of what a person going through abuse is going through, and they should never blame a person for not leaving, no matter what reasons that person might give. The only one who is responsible for abuse is the abuser, and they can control themselves and choose to stop. Some may claim they lose control, but the fact is if they truly were not in control, they would abuse their victims in public. The fact that they are able to restrict their actions to private places shows they have more control than they might claim.
If you are in an abusive relationship and are having trouble leaving, you are valid. I hope you are able to find a way to leave. I hope that happens soon, but however long it takes, I believe you are being abused and that it is not your fault.
People need to believe and listen to the victims of abuse. If more people, when they heard a friend or family member’s story of abuse, reacted with compassion instead of judgement, perhaps people would be more vocal about what they were going through and be given the support they needed to leave. Maybe abusers would then lose some of their power, and survivors of abuse would gain some.