“Marcie”—a pseudonym—married “Jim” after dating just four months; she was 18 and he was 23. She’d been living at home with her mother and her bullying step-father and she saw marriage as a way out. It was, from the start, a volatile relationship because Jim had a temper, especially when he drank. His abusive behavior—calling her names, nitpicking her flaws—began right after they got married but she loved him and was sure “he didn’t mean it.” Five years into the marriage, during a heated argument, he hit her. He apologized profusely and said he’d never do it again and for the next six months, he didn’t. Then, one night, he slammed her against a wall so hard that she lost consciousness and he was forced to rush her to the hospital. When she saw her bruised and battered face the next morning—she had a mild concussion—she understood it had to stop. She was twenty-four years old.
It’s only with the benefit of hindsight—and therapy—that Marcie, now 35 and happily remarried, recognizes how lucky she was. As she put it, she was lucky because she had no children with Jim and that he scared her enough that she couldn’t deny what was going on. In her words: “I probably would have stayed if he hadn’t hurt me so bad. But the way in which the hospital staff looked at me and what they said to me was a forceful wake-up call. The nurse who was old enough to be my grandmother just stood there and asked me if I was ready to die for love? I wasn’t.”
Most of us, when we hear stories like Marcie’s, react with a certain amount of disbelief because we find it hard to imagine that anyone would even consider staying with someone who abused them in this way. But people do, all of the time, and there’s both scientific and evidence to explain why they do.
While it’s true that women are abusers too, I am focusing on male abusers in this piece. You are free to switch up the nouns and pronouns.
Why women stay in abusive relationships
Keep in mind that not all abuse is physical and that physical or sexual abuse always has a verbal and emotional component. Most important, abuse tends to be cyclical and that cycle explains why it’s relatively easy for the person being abused to become emotionally confused and conflicted. The cycle—first set forth by Lenore Walker in 1979 in her book The Battered Woman—posited that there were three stages: The tension-building stage during which communication begins to break down and the abuser becomes angrier and more agitated, and the person being abused does what she can to avoid conflict; second, the incident or moment at which the abuse takes place; and third, the honeymoon stage. It’s the latter that keeps the person being abused stuck.
During this stage, the abuser may apologize, ask for forgiveness, promise to never repeat the behavior, and make other gestures—being kind, giving gifts, appearing abject—that help to convince the victim of abuse that the abuse was an aberration, rather than a pattern. This may be reassuring to her in the moment, though it’s part of a dense psychologist trap that easily allows the abuser to shape-shift. He may begin to minimize the damage inflicted, telling her that she’s prone to exaggeration or too sensitive, or he may begin to shift the blame onto her by insinuating that she provoked him in some manner. These undercurrents can absolutely co-exist with gestures that appear to be loving and caring on the surface but are part of an effort to keep the abused person confused and in place.
Abuse is a tangled web, and it’s not hard to see how someone who’s afraid and still wants love and attention from her abuser could get caught losing sight of the exit.
5 reasons abuse can be so hard to see and escape
Abusers tend to choose their partners with a certain amount of care, homing in on the qualities that will be make it more likely that their partner will stay. Women with a childhood of emotional or verbal abuse are much more likely to find themselves in these relationships than those who had a loving and stable environment growing up. (How we are drawn to the familiar is explained in my book, Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life.)
Both a childhood history of verbal abuse or being picked on and a habit of blaming yourself make it much easier to rationalize, deny, and make excuses for how you’re being treated. This can range from trying to see it “fairly” from the abusive partner’s point of view (“He’d had a rough day and he didn’t mean to take it out on me”) to making it your fault (“If I’d done the dishes and cleaned up, he wouldn’t have lost his temper”) to minimalizing what happened (“He didn’t mean to hurt me. It was a mistake.”) Unfortunately, the carousel-effect of the honeymoon stage makes it easy to fall into this pattern.
Marcie points out that the tipping point sometimes requires that the person being abused can actually visualize the worse-case scenario without denial: “I have no doubt that if my injuries had been less threatening and if I hadn’t ended up in the hospital, it could have taken years for me to come to my senses. But ending up dead was not just some nutty fantasy. I could see that in the nurse’s eyes.”
Lack of trust in her own perceptions and low self-esteem
One of the legacies of a childhood in which your emotional needs weren’t met or your experiences were marginalized or criticized (“You’re too sensitive and can’t take a joke” or “You always exaggerate everything”) is a daughter’s inability to trust her own perceptions. That’s going to be multiplied exponentially if you have a partner who continually challenges your version of things (“That’s not what happened at all. You make drama out of everything”) or who gaslights you and denies having said or done things that actually happened.
Then, too, many women who find themselves in abusive relationships believe, deep down, that they don’t deserve any better. Unfortunately, they’ve internalized all of the negative things said about them as “truths”—which they are not.
Fear comes in all shapes and sizes, ranging from fear of physical harm to fear of being alone or fear that the next relationship will be the same or worse. In their study of women tweeting why they either stayed or left an abusive relationship, Cravens and her colleagues found that fear of worse things happening to herself, her children, or close others also were parts of self-reports on why women stayed. According to their study, this is closely allied to the next reason.
Need to protect children or others
According to these self-reports, women saw themselves as “stand-ins” for potential abuse to children or others; the faulty thinking here is to believe that children aren’t being affected by what they see. Science knows better.
Hope that he can change or “be saved”
Again, this was part of self-reports on social media. This is closely connected to the cyclical nature of abuse—the honeymoon phase—and the patterns of denial and rationalization. The bottom line? You can only change yourself, not another person.
Reason #6: money
All studies show that financial dependency is a large part of what makes women hesitant to leave. But money issues should and can be addressed separately and, if you are married, legal counsel can help you sort out what your husband owes you and your children, if you have them. There are resources and support out there.
All forms of abuse are unacceptable. If you are in physical danger, call 1-800- 799-7233 or go to http://www.thehotline.org/ or call local law enforcement. Get help and don’t hesitate. If you are staying, focus and ask yourself why and whether you believe things will ever get better. Speak to a therapist or counselor. And realize you deserve better.
Photograph by Pixel2013. Copyright free. Pixabay.com
Cravens, Jaclyn D., Jason B. Whiting and Rola O. Aamar, “Why I Stayed/Left: An Analysis of Voices of Intimate Partner Violence on Social Media,” Contemporary Family Therapy (2015), vol. 37 (4), 372-385