Why people stay in abusive relationships

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By Michael Abrahams

Many of us know people who are being emotionally or physically abused but remain with their partners. The victims are most often women, and the perpetrators men, but it can be vice-versa, and abuse also occurs in same-sex relationships.

We see these scenarios and ask, “Why don’t they just leave?” The question is a reasonable one, as it is perplexing and frustrating to watch someone remain in a situation in which they are miserable. We often judge them as being stupid or weak. But we ought not to. Unless you have been in such a situation, it is difficult to understand why these people stay.

However, there are many reasons why people remain tethered to their abusers. One of the commonest reasons is lack of self-worth. For example, if a little girl’s father is absent from her life or is abusive to her, or if she is abused by other caregivers, her self-esteem may be shattered, and it is likely that she will enter adulthood with that mind-set. The absence of a loving father who will protect her may leave a void that makes her vulnerable to not only end up with an abuser, but also stay with him or her.

To make matters worse, the abuser often contributes to the victim’s poor self-esteem by gas-lighting them. In other words, they manipulate them psychologically into doubting their own sanity. This type of mind-control, with or without childhood trauma, can seriously damage a person’s self-esteem, leading them to believe they are worthless and do not deserve better, or that the abuse is their fault and that they bring it on themselves.

The manipulative behaviour can wreak havoc on a person’s psyche, making escaping from the clutches of an abuser a formidable task. Cycles of abuse are common, where abusive behaviour alternates with periods where the abuser appears to be remorseful and lulls his or her partner into a false sense of security. Indeed, research from the USA has found that on average, a person in an abusive relationship will attempt to leave seven times before finally leaving for good.

In some instances, people may not even realise they are being abused. If a person is raised in an abusive environment, such as one in which their parents are regularly involved in verbal and physical confrontations, they may not recognise that they are being treated unjustly. Aggression may be all they know, and they may even think that being roughed up is an indication that they are loved. Many people in relationships are being physically, emotionally, verbally, sexually and financially abused and are absolutely unaware.

Dependence is another reason. If one person in a relationship is financially dependent on the other, leaving may not appear to be a viable option. Also, if one partner has a disability or a debilitating illness and depends on their partner to take care of them, they may feel trapped, and tolerate the abuse.

Conversely, in some cases the abuser is the dependent one, such as some persons with mental illnesses who occasionally become violent, and the abused partner, who is also the caregiver, may be riddled with guilt if they run away. In many cases people stay because of the children in a relationship, as they feel obliged to do their best to maintain an intact family for them, even if the union is fraught with tension.

Some people stay because they truly love their partners and keep hoping they will change, or see themselves as saviours and are convinced they can help to effect the necessary changes. The expectations of others is another reason.

The opinions of people such as family and friends is a big deal to some people, and knowing that leaving a relationship would disappoint them is a deterrent to their departure. In some cases, religion plays a role, as some religions and Christian denominations frown on or prohibit divorce, and many persons have been encouraged by clergy to remain in toxic marriages.

Fear is also a major factor. For example, the fear of Hell or being shunned by their church keeps many firmly planted in dysfunctional marriages. In same-sex relationships, some fear being outed if they leave. In cases where a person is an undocumented immigrant, the fear of being reported to the relevant authorities is also a factor.

But perhaps the greatest fear is fear of being attacked or even killed by their partner. For example, a study published by the Domestic Violence Intervention Program in the USA in 2016 found that the most dangerous time in an abusive relationship for women is post break-up, and that a woman is 70 times more likely to be killed in the weeks after leaving their abusive partner than at any other time during the relationship. Many women have been told by their male partners, for example, that if they leave, they will kill them, and many have unfortunately made good on their promise.

The hard truth, that many do not realise, is that one of the main reasons why people do not leave is that they have nowhere to go. Abusers often do their best to isolate their partners from family and friends. Therefore, when the situation becomes intolerable, their options for safe spaces for refuge are severely limited, and may seem to them to be non-existent. Shelters for abused women are a possibility, but many women are unable to access these. For example, in Jamaica, which has a population approaching 3 million and the second highest femicide rate in the world, there is only one shelter for battered women … with a mere 8 beds.

The dynamics of abusive relationships are complex and there are many reasons why people remain hostages. Hopefully, understanding the reasons why people stay will lead to more empathy and less judgment.

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