Why They Stay

stayingMany ask why a victim of domestic violence stays. This is not an easy question to answer. There are a number of resources which help make sense of domestic violence situations. An excellent one is Hidden Hurt, which contains much of the information below. My next post will deal specifically with how to help.

I have been told many times that victims should “just get out,” and that there is nothing that outside parties should do to interfere until the victim asks for help. But it is not that easy. Abusers have waged a long war to convince their victims that they have no choices, or that they are the ones who cause the problem. Some of that emotional mess has to be detangled before victims can extract themselves from the situation.

Most of us who have been victims have an optimistic viewpoint of other people. We believe that people are generally good. We find it almost impossible to believe that someone we care about could do those kinds of things to us just to control us. We hope for change, we rationalize their behavior, we believe that if we only try harder, give enough time, the person will recognize the damage they are doing and change. And there are often good times between the bad that give a victim reason to hope.

Religious Conviction
For me, my religious convictions were both my curse and my blessing. I believed that once a person promised marriage to someone, they deserved unconditional love and unquestioning loyalty. This belief kept me in an abusive relationship when I might have otherwise gotten out before marriage. However, when my ex-husband decided to push the boundaries of control over my Church attendance, he finally hit the line that I would not allow to be crossed. This was the beginning of the end for my marriage, and happened only a few months before he finally left.

Abusers play games with the minds of their victims. Socially and externally, they are often charming, calm, and charismatic. They often live for attention from others, and have no problems with anger. The person they present to their victim is Mr. Hyde to the public Dr. Jekyll. This usually means that victims doubt their own perceptions of the abuser’s behavior, and come to believe that it is their fault that the abuser acts this way. This also means that even if a victim tries to feel out family and friends for help, they are met with disbelief and rejection, which aids the abuser in subjecting the victim.

Any time I tried to discuss our marital problems with my ex, whether alone or in counseling, I left feeling like everything was my fault, that I was a horrible person who couldn’t communicate or do anything right. When I had a conversation with my ex and he tried to discuss it later, he would claim that I said things I didn’t say, or meant things I didn’t mean. He would get angry if I tried to clarify, or denied saying something. I thought I was inconsistent and stupid. It wasn’t until our communication became written-only that I was able to see that the discrepancies were due to him reinventing the past, not to my faulty memory.

The abuser often goes from being calm to being violent with little forewarning. Something that sets them off today might cause no problems tomorrow, and vice versa. An abuser will often set some standard by which they can be pleased. If a victim manages to reach the standard, the rules change. It is all part of the abuser’s plan to keep the victim’s feet on shifting sand, to keep them disoriented. This disorientation robs a victim of the ability to make decisions. Simple decisions seem impossible, such as which color of shirt to wear, or which restaurant to go to. This makes a serious decision such as the decision to leave completely unthinkable.

Shame, Guilt and Fear
Victims feel like everything is their fault, or that they should have known better than to get into an abusive relationship. They feel guilty, shamed, and trapped. By the time others notice external indications of abuse, the victim is already thoroughly convinced that everything is their fault, so they work to defend and protect their own abuser. They often also protect their abuser for fear of the consequences to themselves and other loved ones.

Often, abusers threaten suicide to maintain control over their victims, or threaten violence to pets or to take children away from the victim. Sometimes these threats are explicit; sometimes they are implied. Often, abusers will use trigger words and phrases, words that seem benign to an outside observer, but carry threatening meanings to the victim. Even endearing pet names can carry threats. Then, the victim looks crazy for reacting to things that others can’t see and the abuser can carry out the manipulation in full view of the public. This also sends the message that no one will help the victim; that no one cares.

There are many reasons why an abuse victim might stay, some I haven’t even covered here. But these are mostly psychological traps that are easy to detect once you’ve fallen into them, but can be nearly invisible to others. In my next post, I will outline a scale of what you can do to help a victim untangle their thinking and begin to see their situation clearly themselves.

8 thoughts on “Why They Stay

  1. SR, this is great, great stuff. Wow, does it hit home for me from my first marriage.

    One thing I would like to add is that, in my experience, abusers do not have the usual boundaries that most other people have when it comes to discussing issues. They will tend to retain the most personal, sensitive subjects for you and then, when they want to manipulate you, out comes that line of attack. To give an example, I know an abuser who would keep a mental file folder of all of her victim’s weaknesses. The victim may have a fear of something or may have shared something very personal with the abuser. When the abuser wants something, she will bring up this personal detail and use it against the victim. The bottom line is that people who love each other would never do this — it is the behavior of a sociopath.

    The good news is that I can tell you from personal experience that the best thing to do if you are being abused is to get out now!!! There is life after abuse. And you will feel like a weight has been lifted off your shoulders. And, the best thing of all is that there are really, really nice people out there — you don’t need to settle for your current situation.

  2. That’s a great item to bring up, Geoff. That is something that often comes out in relatively neutral discussions outside of the relationship that others may be able to identify. My ex did that all the time. I told him once that I had had issues with teenage depression and every time we had an argument, he blamed it on that and suggested I get medication to fix our relationship issues. I went to counseling twice to get treatment for depression because of what he said, and neither counselor believed I was depressive.

    Exactly the sort of thing you are talking about.

  3. Yeah, lots of resonance here too. In many ways, I was a different person, then. Thinking about it still fills me with a deep sadness, for everyone involved. I still wonder how I’m going to handle talking to my kids about it, since they were far too young to know any details, and will likely have conflicting stories about it. Best I can think of to do is to talk about my own perspective without laying out blame. Makes me avoid really writing about the time autobiographically, since its not a time I really want my kids learning about, but I will tell them some, if they ask.

    Very good post, and important to note that these reasons vary widely from situation to situation.

  4. SR, I do think abusers have a lot in common. They follow very similar patterns. Your example of teenage depression is exactly spot-on. When abusers can’t get their way, they will bring in *anything*, including the most sensitive, difficult, personal subjects, to manipulate. As I say, this is truly sociopathic behavior.

  5. SR,

    I’m really curious what can be done to ‘help.’ Even though I totally agree with everything you say, there is still a part of my that feels that the person involved needs to ‘ask for help’ first because there are often compensating factors that make it difficult for an outsider to understand.

    If I really knew a person was being abused for sure, that would be different. But it seems like a lot of times you can’t really know if a relationship is truly abusive or not. Or, more to the point, I’ve seen some abusive relationships that I didn’t have the foggiest idea were problematic (due to the false front that is put up) until after the abused person fled.

    I feel bad about all this, but I honestly don’t know how to go about helping.

  6. Bruce, SR can offer her own theory, but I think this is like any other problem that people get themselves into: they need to get themselves out. I would say one area where you can help is if you recognize the patterns of abuse you can point it out in a friendly way to the victim. I know somebody who had a therapist do this for him and this created a real breakthrough that allowed him to move out of the relationship.

  7. Thanks for this post.

    I think there are really important messages that can still be sent. Not discussing a person’s specific situation and what they should do. But it’s important to send the message that no one has the right to be abused. That abuse is always complex, but no one “deserves” it. That it is okay to leave an abusive relationship; that leaving is healthy and it’s not your fault.

    Talking about what is abusive, in general, is also helpful. Often people feel physical abuse is the only type of abuse, but there are many kinds.

    Finally, each person has the right to have non negotiables for where they are in a relationship. It is okay to have a non negotiable of hitting, everyone knows that’s a line. It is critical that after a line has been crossed, consequences happen. Helping the abused face those consequences is key.

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