Should abuse victims stay or leave an abusive relationship?
Go Back or Stay Away?
Two of the most frequently asked questions about abusive relationships ask should abuse victims stay or leave, specifically, (1) "Why do they stay?" and (2)"Why do they go back to their abusers?"
As a survivor of domestic violence, and someone who stayed for over seven years, I'll do my best to answer that question. I'm not a psychologist, counselor or therapist; so don't be misled to think I am. But, I've been there and lived it. My explanation is from the voice of experience, and from listening to other victims/survivors, and exchanging thoughts with them. My intent is to answer the question "why" and at the same time, tell you "why it doesn't work" from first-hand experience.
To understand the answer to these questions, you first have to grasp an understanding of domestic violence as a repeating and unending cycle. It is not simply about beatings and physical fights. It's a cycle involving systematic control that includes many other abuses.
Victims of domestic violence come from many varied backgrounds. They aren't all poor, they aren't all welfare recipients, some grew up in abusive homes and some didn't. Many are women; there are a lot more male victims than people realize, and sadly, many are children and the elderly.
However, all abuse victims share one thing in common in the beginning of these relationships. That is, we don't understand what is happening nor the dynamics and cycle of an abusive relationship. And so, we get dragged in. Once trapped in the relationship, we cannot "see" or it takes quite a while (and many abuses later) before we start to see. The answer to the question: should abuse victims stay or leave - lies in the roots in this phenomenon.
Believing or hoping they will change and we can help them. This is a biggie for many victims. It is the first big hurdle to overcome if a person is going to leave, and one of the biggest challenges for recognizing the need to stay away. In their heart, victims love the person they know the abuser can be. We want to help them, we see their struggle in life, and we want to fix the problem in the relationship and feel we are responsible to help. The person who becomes trapped in these relationships is kind hearted, giving, and empathetic.
When the abuse victim leaves or after abuses while they stay, the abuser goes through sorrows, desperate pleas for forgiveness and endless promises to reform. What we fail to recognize is the extreme emotional and psychological problem these partners have. We are not qualified to help them. What we end up doing, although it's not what we intend, is enabling the abuser to be what they are. We believe we understand, can help or make a difference, and so we stay or go back. The truth is we become the enabler. We are the one who enables the abuser to be what they are, by accepting and attempting to forgive these abuses over and over. The victim is so deeply involved in the relationship and the desire to help the partner, that we cannot see we are perpetuating the problem. In reality, we reinforce the behavior. Recognizing the fact that we cannot change all this is the first step toward ending the relationship permanently.
Children and Single Parenthood. This presents another problem and mental dilemma for victims. Most people want their children to grow up with both parents. This is our traditional belief that a child should know and have two parents, both mother and father. It's considered a shortcoming or misfortune that a child must grow up without one of these two parent figures. In addition, single parenthood brings with it financial challenges that are overwhelming for many. Everyone wants their children's needs met - good food, clothing, participating in activities such as sports or social groups and much more. Many abuse victims stay or go back in the hope of providing these things by making a personal sacrifice. They make this personal sacrifice because they cannot see a way to resolve a possible or existing financial problem - a problem that will affect their children's lives - without the partner.
And too, there is the threat of having the children taken away from them. Many abusers are given custody of their children. Yes, it's incredibly true, many court systems hand over children to be in primary custody of an abusive partner. Court systems and judges look at circumstances and say "Well, the abusive party was only abusing the spouse, but the children will have an upbringing with better financial means with that parent." Guess what? An abuser abuses children as well, brings them up to know abuse as a way of life, and perpetuates the violence and abuse by creating another abuser in the child. And yet, our child custody systems fail to see this and assign custodial parenthood to abusers repeatedly. Imagine being an abuse victim and facing the idea that you may have to leave your children alone with an abusive partner as a primary custodian, or in the best of circumstances, allow this person to have visitation with them through court order. Ask someone who's been through this and they will tell you it traps them into staying or going back - or it broke their heart to leave.
What we (society) fail to recognize is the costly emotional damage done to a child who grows up in an abusive home. These children learn to either become abusers themselves, or they learn to choose abusive mates. Oh, it's not a conscious thought for most. Instead it becomes a learned, sub-conscious belief. Sure, many children of abusive homes look back and despise the upbringing or the abusive parent. But, inside of them is someone who is conditioned to believe this is "OK", even if their conscious thought knows it isn't. There are well-documented studies concerning this psychological process and the result. See our Information Section to get links to these studies available online and read them.
Personal guilt and the concept of personal failure. In the beginning, as I stated above, victims of abusive relationships believe they can help make a change. More than just a change, it is a change desired for someone we love. We become entangled and entrapped by this. When we try harder without the desired result, we redouble our efforts and try harder again and again. It is about belief in ourselves, and belief in the powerful goodness of kindness and mercy. Accepting the idea that we cannot change the relationship and the problem the partner has in dealing with others represents a huge personal failure. Here is something we want desperately - to help someone we love and change both our lives and the relationship - and to give this up is not acceptable to us. We don't want to fail those we love or ourselves.
Added to this is the guilt-laden tactics of the abusive partner. Abusers prey on this. They never miss an opportunity to "lay this in front of" the victim relentlessly. It is part of the cycle; keeping the victim in line by raising doubt about their intentions, using their guilt about the children and their personal intentions. This tactic works all too well on people who are kind, giving and understanding.
Fear of what the partner will do. Many abuse victims stay or leave and then go back out of fear. Here are some examples of these thoughts:
And of course, the abuser uses and feeds these fears as well. My abuser used to say, "If we split up, I hope I haunt you." When I ended the relationship; he stalked and assaulted me, threatened physical harm, death and more to my family and I (which we all knew he was capable of) to make sure this became a reality. I didn't go back, but this tactic works on many victims - they decide going back would be easier; their will is broken.
Depression, "burying of the soul". Domestic violence involves many emotional and verbal abuses. The other abuses (i.e. economic hardship, physical beating, sexual abuse, the children) are all used to add to or reinforce as further measures of control. However, it's the emotional and verbal abuse that can be hardest to withstand. The constant battering of the victim's self esteem, humiliation, belief in self, abilities and decision making take the greatest toll. It reaches the point where the victim cannot find them self anymore, cannot think, and is in utter confusion. The abuses do seem illogical and wrong. Something in the back of our mind says it's wrong, and yet it's real, its there. We cannot deny the fact that something is wrong which we are willing to take personal responsibility for.
After a while of living with this constant barrage on our character and abilities, we sink into a depression of sorts. Nothing we do is "right"; the result is never what we want or mean to accomplish. We cannot see the abuser doing this deliberately (making sure we fail and using it to control us). We lose our ability to relate to ourselves and see reality. We become convinced of our own inabilities and apparent failure. We think, "it must be true" because we look at the result and see it as our own failure instead of what it really is, the result of someone else's extreme measures to achieve power and control.
What we don't see is how strong we really are. It takes extreme emotional, mental fortitude and personal strength to endure these abuses and unreasonable expectations. What do you think is the "logic" behind the abuse of a war camp prisoner (i.e. people who are abused in prison camps)? The idea is to wear the prisoner down, work on their sense of anxiety and impending doom, and create despair and heartache beyond emotional and mental endurance. This is also what an abuser does in an abusive relationship. They wear the victim down with self-doubt, humiliation through verbal, emotional, physical and/or sexual abuses - and failure that brings depression and loss of self. It is a key element of overpowering and controlling. It is subliminal. And if you think my analogy to war camp prisoners is a "stretch", I respectfully submit to you that most domestic violence survivors are diagnosed with P.T.S.D (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), Depression, and Anxiety Attacks - the same things that many prison camp victims are diagnosed with.
Lack of intervention. There are a whole multitude of people and entities who are guilty of this lack of providing proper intervention. This is the trail in our cultures: some victim's families are non-supportive; the legal system is too slow to move on the cases; victims are viewed as "having something wrong with themselves"; people think they're too busy to get involved. In general, these attribute to one big societal problem - the general public and the legal systems (in most countries) just don't "get it". Most people (citizens of any culture) and family members don't understand the cycle of violence. And because it's so little understood, the cycle continues and repeats itself over and over again. Pardon my frankness, but well, "duh?" when are we all going to wake up???
Well-founded personal reflections….
I will never forget my personal frustration with this whole incredible societal problem from my own case. I'll give you examples, but understand my case was not unique, and it happens everyday to countless victims:
When I reported his harassment and stalking, police and legal authorities said, "well, he may be threatening, but until he does something we can't do anything". Hello! - threatening and stalking are the first step in "doing something" by the abuser! I remember the sinking realization that I might have to be dead before anything got done.
The general public hasn't got a clue. This still amazes me. People I talked with while going through this horrible ordeal had no idea what domestic violence is and the cycle it involves. Even myself, a victim for many years, was shocked and surprised to read how much that relationship had in common with the cycle of abuse. I found myself thinking, "It's so plain and clear, why haven't I ever seen this before?" Like most people today, I was educated and knowledgeable about many things, but not about domestic violence.
When my abuser continuously attacked, stalked, and harassed me, my family said, "Move! Move!" Well, it seemed to me that I couldn't! For as little as the legal system seemed to offer, at least I had some concerned neighbors and a police system that knew about the case. At least they could identify him, call police (neighbors) or "add it to the list" (in the case of police reports). Do you know how hard it is to bring evidence of domestic violence across State lines? I know, because I had to do it - plain and simple, it was nearly an insurmountable task. And worse, if I moved, it meant my family were sitting ducks! Once he couldn't find me, there was no doubt he would escalate violence against them. I certainly didn't want that!
Summary - should abuse victims stay or leave?
And so, I ask you sincerely, as the reader of this article, "Why is it so hard to understand why they stay or go back?" Everything is stacked against the victim - the relationship, the abuse, the need for personal fortitude beyond most human ability, traditional societal values, public ignorance, the legal system, even the victim's own beliefs and desires. And therein lies your answer to should abuse victims stay or leave, to the questions "why do they stay?" and "why do they go back?"
Victims have to accept the need to leave and stay away and forget the concept of seeing the abuser's problems as their own personal failure, and instead see their own true personal failure in the act of staying or going back - and society must understand the phenomenon and help bring change to what so unwittingly allows so many to inadvertently become victims and remain trapped there.
I accept my personal failures - failure to see that abusive relationship for what it was, my failure in unwittingly supporting the abusive behavior by the partner, my failure in taking so long to find my personal willpower and strength to leave, failing my family by bringing him into our family circle. The acceptance of my own failure is what brought me out of that hell hole and got me where I am today.
But, I also submit to you that the majority of victims who want to leave - or who think going back may be a poor choice - stay or go back because we have not taught people any better, and the victims have no knowledge nor a support system to help them break the chain of events. I mean no harm against the honest efforts of social programs, social workers, advocates, other professionals in the field and concerned family members. I'm just saying it is not enough. What few people and programs who are trying to help are not enough - it is as much a societal failure, just as it is a personal failure.
Your comments and questions about this article are welcome. Please leave them on the message board forum. Thank you.
In This Section:
Why Does He Do That?: Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men by Lundy Bancroft
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The long-awaited book from our very own Steve from the Hidden Hurt Message Forum as finally arrived!
THE JERK RADAR
Have you ever gone out with someone who seemed perfect at first, but ended
up being a nightmare? Do you find yourself falling in love but ending up feeling
disrespected and used? Would you like to make sure that something like that
never happens to you (or someone you care about) again? If so, this book is
written for you. There are lots of books about how to tell if you're in an
abusive relationship. This is book will keep you from getting into one in
the first place. Jerk Radar will help you see how a Jerk takes advantage of
common cultural expectations and romantic myths to blind you to his true intentions.
It will give you concrete ways to test out his intentions in the course of
a normal conversation. And the Jerk Radar Quiz provides an effective tool
to screen every partner for Jerky tendencies well before obviously selfish
behavior emerges. Full of true stories from abuse survivors, Jerk Radar pulls
no punches in exposing what Jerks do and why we fall for it. This is a useful,
down-to-earth, practical guide to avoiding a bad relationship instead of recovering
from one. Read it today - it just may change your life!
To order in the US: Jerk Radar: How to Stop an Abusive Relationship Before It Starts
To order in the UK:Jerk Radar: How to Stop an Abusive Relationship Before It Starts
Steve McCrea, MS, has worked for over 20 years with survivors
of domestic abuse and their children. He has participated in many local collaboartive
projects on domestic abuse, and has provided community trainings on working
effectively with domestic abuse survivors. He currently works as an advocate
for children in the foster care system. He has volunteered for the past 9
years as facilitator for an on-line abuse survivor community, whose members
contributed most of the stories in the book.
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