How many times do you hear, ‘If I were in an abusive relationship I would leave’?
Did you know that the above statement may even force someone deeper into an unhealthy relationship rather than encouraging them to leave – but why is it that people don’t escape at the first signs of toxic behaviour?
In this article I want to begin by unpicking some of these reasons, both to offer help and support if you are struggling but also to educate those who with the best intentions don’t understand why you might stay.
Firstly, it’s normal to question why someone might willingly stay with another who is abusive but hearing this can shame somebody into not speaking out or seeking help for fear of being judged. It’s difficult enough to tell someone else that things are not all that they seem to be behind closed doors and it’s even harder to think that the only advice that will be given is to leave. If it were that simple the victim would have already escaped, but now, the possible shame and guilt from an outside source is an additional thing that they might have to cope with so it’s far easier to keep quiet and say nothing.
The best thing that you can do if the discussion moves to domestic abuse or coercive control is to first acknowledge this fact and tell the other person that you are listening to them. Secondly, you can state that if any friend of yours were to tell you anything in confidence you would support them and help them to make sense of the situation and work out a plan to be able to cope that best suits them and their individual circumstances.
When children are involved
Children complicate things and whilst nobody would ever agree that it’s healthy for kids to grow up in a hostile environment, sometimes that is the better option. You have to balance what sort of a message you are giving your children with keeping them safe.
Children absorb what they experience and they can grow up believing it is ok to beat or to verbally abuse their partner or they may believe that it’s ok to accept abuse. If their role model is a woman who takes all the blame and responsibility for everything that goes wrong, the children don’t learn to stand up for themselves and may find themselves in a similar relationship years down the line BUT it is when the children themselves are targeted that things get really complicated.
If a child is at risk of abuse (physical or emotional) and the relationship breaks up, there is an obvious worry that they will be placed with the abusive parent under a custody agreement. By choosing to stay within an abusive relationship the victim parent might believe that they are protecting the children. If they have no option but to share custody from a legal point of view then they cannot be around to influence or protect their child.
A manipulative partner will often tell the other that they will go for full custody and will lie if necessary to get it by claiming that the other is unfit to parent; maybe due to a fictional drug or alcohol problem, or even that they will harm the children if they are removed from the home.
The police and social services do a great job however there are too many incidences when the courts decide that it is in a child’s best interest to spend time with the other parent for the victim to be confident that their fears will be listened to.
This is manipulation at its finest and is a psychological response to abuse. The person experiencing abuse may develop sympathy for the abusive person and rather than hate them they form an unhealthy bond with them. Trauma bonding is reinforced with cycles of abuse, followed by remorse. It comes from feelings of attachment or dependence and often a belief that there can be no escape.
The abused person will often defend or deny the abuse and whilst not impossible to break away and leave it can be very difficult to do so.
There are not many people who are so financially stable that they can simply walk out of one home and set up another. Logistically it is bad enough and can take time when two people willingly separate but factor in the very real fear of reprisal when someone is abusive and it’s hard to even contemplate where to begin.
Everybody has heard of refuges for women fleeing abuse but who really knows where they are or how to access them? More importantly, if the victim has no independent financial means and can’t see beyond their time in a refuge or staying with friends, then they may become resigned to the situation and stay. It can sometimes be a case of ‘better the devil you know’ rather than risking becoming homeless.
A low sense of self-belief and self-worth
A person’s self confidence and self belief is often one of the first things to disappear in an abusive relationship. Belittling and demeaning is one of the main tactics of a controlling person both because it makes them feel powerful and important but also because it will make the victim even more dependent on them. When you have little confidence in your ability to cope alone or you believe that you are to blame for the abuse, it can be incredibly hard to then pluck up the courage and to step outside of your comfort zone – even though that comfort zone is making you incredibly unhappy.
Social and family expectations
Even today, with divorce so easy (in theory) to obtain there can be huge pressure placed on individuals to work at a relationship. Maybe the pressure stems from a cultural perspective where the entire family feels a sense of shame or there is a religious reason or an outdated view that once you commit to a person you commit for life and you should simply try harder to be a better partner – these can be powerful reasons why it’s not easy to walk away.
Sadly, even relatives who are unhappy in their own relationships might encourage you to stay, just because that is the way that things are and this can only make things worse. In some cases, these relatives threaten to withdraw their own love and support if you go against their advice which only compounds the situation
The most dangerous time for a victim in an abusive relationship is in the weeks and months when she (or he) first leaves. The media is full of stories of (mostly) women who are stalked, harassed, injured or even killed by their ex. It may seem crazy to outsiders but no matter how bad the abuse gets, the fear of it escalating further can be paralysing and it can trap the victim where they are.
There are too many instances of people calling the police in fear and the police responding inadequately – and the consequences are too difficult to even think about when you are in that situation.
Abusers do an excellent job of restricting and limiting their victims’ social lifelines. Moving to a different part of the country, preventing friends or family from visiting or stopping their partner from having any sort of a social life or even a job reduces the chances of their partner leaving or telling anybody else what is going on.
Making excuses for, or not recognising the abuse
Too many times physical abuse is fobbed off as an accident or a belief that it must have been deserved or is the result of too much alcohol. Emotional abuse is even harder to accept because it can be more subtle. Excuses are made for unreasonable behaviour such as explaining that someone often gets moody or doesn’t like mixing with people or ‘it’s just the way that they are’.
Gaslighting* can send the victim into an almost permanent state of confusion so that they don’t question what is right or wrong and while they might know things to be wrong on a subconscious level, to bring it to consciousness will require action and then any of the above scenarios can come into play.
Moving forward from abuse
If you suspect that someone is being abused what can you do to help?
It depends on the type of relationship that you have with the other person, but the last thing you want is for them to push you away, either from shame or embarrassment or because they are afraid of their abuser causing problems.
You could highlight the suspect behaviours, ask how frequently they occur, and confirm how they make your friend feel and then present an alternative viewpoint of how a non-abusive person might act or react in a similar situation.
Make it abundantly clear that you will be there for support if needed and that you will never judge, blame or shame them for any decisions that they make.
If you are the one who thinks that you are in an abusive relationship, you should educate yourself. Confirm your suspicions and find out what help and resources are available to you locally.
Make an escape plan but if you find yourself stalling with this, ask yourself which of the above reasons is holding you back. There may be more than one but there are solutions to each of them – however when you are stuck in drama and trauma your thinking can become muddled and confused.
Build up your self-belief and self-confidence so that you can learn to trust your instincts and your capabilities. Once you are less fearful of how you will cope and you know that you are able to deal with any difficult situation it becomes a lot easier to make logical choices.
Find a coach or a counsellor who is experienced in dealing with domestic abuse, build a support network and design that escape plan. You may not be in a position to act upon it but often knowing that you have things in place can be enough to ease some of the emotional turmoil that you might be feeling.
Remember, many survivors of domestic abuse experience PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) akin to escaping a war zone and the psychological effects can be extreme. You need and deserve understanding, support, kindness and non-judgment. There is help out there and you will not be alone.
*Gaslighting: means to manipulate by psychological means someone into doubting their own sanity.
Freedom Programme: https://www.freedomprogramme.co.uk/
Women’s Aid: https://www.womensaid.org.uk/
If you would like a chat in total confidentiality with me about your situation please reach out and we can arrange a time to talk. You can be assured that there will be no judgement, only understanding and I can help you to make sense of your situation.
If you have a story about abuse that you would like to share, then take a look at the information at this link: Abuse Stories