By Laura Walls
When others hear about an abusive relationship, most people, who have never experienced one themselves, are shocked and confused. They often ask, “Why doesn’t the person just leave?” In fact, clients of mine report that is the question they hear most often both during and after the relationship. From the outside, it seems puzzling that a person would not leave immediately when things get violent or emotionally belittling, but there are lots of reasons (some of which are listed below) why a person stays. Of course, everyone’s story is unique and these reasons might not apply to every person but hopefully this list will give people on the outside a better perspective. With a better understanding, people can be more supportive of those in or leaving an abusive relationship.
It wasn’t all bad, all the time.
When people think of an abusive relationship, they picture the yelling, the hitting, the throwing things, the insults and the controlling behavior. But what people don’t picture are the good times, the love, the compliments, the support, the apologies, the bright moments. In a lot of cases, the main support system a person has in life is his/her partner, especially when the partner is controlling and isolating. I hear all the time that the first person people who suffer abuse want to share their pain with is the abusive partner, even if they were the one who caused the pain. People often describe feeling like they are living with two different people and the one that is abusive is only part of the picture. Of course, this does not excuse the behavior, but hopefully others can appreciate how hard it can be when the abusive behavior is not the whole picture.
They want to believe the abuser will change.
From a young age, people, particularly women, are taught that they can and should save a person who needs them, that if we see someone suffering, it is “our job” to nurture and maybe even “cure” them. If the abuser has a troubled past, an anger problem, or is experiencing a crisis, then it is often seen as an obligation to make them better. This is a deeply held belief and often holds fast despite knowledge that this person hasn’t changed yet. This is because our world also teaches us that we are somehow different from the previous romantic partners the abuser has had, as well as from the support systems the abuser currently has. We are taught to believe that we can see the solution when others have failed; we can help even when others could not. However, as most people who have tried can tell you, changing another person is impossible, but it does take time to learn this lesson.
They feel guilty.
Many clients are hesitant to leave or even discuss the past relationship out of guilt. When in a troubled relationship, people respond in very different, sometimes uncharacteristic ways. Clients often share how when they look back on their time with the abuser, they don’t recognize the person they were, that they behaved differently than they ever dreamed they would. This can be very scary for clients but it actually makes perfect sense. The brain reacts in a very specific way when in an abusive relationship. We have all heard of fight, flight, or freeze and that part of the brain is definitely highly active in an abusive relationship. As a result, people’s behavior can feel out of control as the result of being in survival mode. When people feel very guilty about their own behavior, they can feel they deserve how they were treated. Their own feelings combined with what an abuser may be telling them can make a person very wary to get the help and support they need to leave.
They are often isolated.
A very common feature of abusive relationships is being isolated. Often, the abuser is very controlling and his/her behavior results in the person who is abused having a seemingly limited or non-existent social circle. People need help to leave and if they feel they have no one to turn to, they can feel very stuck. Also, many people worry that their loved ones will be angry with them because they don’t understand why they stay or because they “allowed” themselves to be isolated. Therefore, people may worry even if they do have the courage to leave that they won’t have anyone to ask for help.
They may be very, very afraid.
The fear may be something the person thinks may happen based on past behavior or because the abuser directly told them there would be consequences for leaving or trying to leave. They have seen what the abuser is capable of and can imagine what could happen should they try to leave. Also, the toll of emotional abuse creates fear and doubt in many people suffering abuse. They hesitate to take action fearing escalation or because they may struggle to trust themselves after experiencing so much devaluing.
In the end, as hard as it may be, we need to focus not on why someone is not leaving but on how awful the abusive behavior must be. When people are focusing on why a person stays, that person will feel blamed/shamed, when really the abuser is the person who has done something hurtful and devastating. When you learn about all the factors involved, you can see how leaving an abusive relationship is incredibly difficult. Instead of focusing on the why of not leaving, focus on how to support him/her while in the relationship and when they decide to leave.