Why did I stay? The difficulty of leaving an abusive relationship
Most people in an abusive relationship at some point ask the question of themselves; “Why on earth did I stay in this relationship, when it was clearly so bad for me?”
Obviously, I cannot answer this question for you, each situation is unique and different and we all respond in our own particular way. However, there are often some commonalities that I have come across with people that have been in an abusive relationship.
Note: I am speaking from the perspective of an intimate partner relationship, but many of the points below will be applicable to other abusive relationships within friendships and families too.
This might seem like an odd one to start with, but it is very commonly missed. An abusive relationship, as any other relationship does or should, meets a particular need or set of needs. The problem with the abusive relationship is not the emotional needs that it is meeting (eg acceptance, feeling valued, laughter, connection), but that these needs cannot be met by this person at this time without abuse also being present.
The belief that the person will change, will ‘go back’ to being themselves - or the self that they presented at the beginning of the relationship. It is often (although not always) the case the good parts of the relationship will outweigh the bad. Because the abuse seems like an aberration, it is easy to discount it until it literally takes over the relationship, which it very often does.
This can be a sane and reasonable fear of the perpetrator; what they will say, do or think (which after all, you will have learned to anticipate in order to survive).
Or it may be fear of the unknown; how you will cope, how you will survive. It is totally understandable to fear these things, often abusers chip away at the support networks and the self-esteem of their victims, leaving them isolated and lacking in self-belief.
It may actually be unsafe to exit; if you suspect that you are in danger from your partner, it is important to trust that. Research shows that the most dangerous time in an abusive relationship is the ending and the months immediately after.
Abusers tend to try to control those they are in a relationship with; they prevent, discourage or undermine attempts to continue a life outside of the relationship, including friendships, family relationships, work and education. Therefore, their victims often do not have much in the way or financial or social resources which can leave a person very vulnerable.
Moreover, if you have been in a controlling relationship for any length of time, it can compromise your ability to make decisions for yourself and you might not believe that you even can look after yourself.
You may also be suffering from the after-effects of abuse, including mental health problems such as PTSD, addiction, eating disorders, depression, anxiety and panic disorders, to name but a few, or physical health problems caused either directly by the abuse or the stress your body has been under.
Even if you have not been isolated from your work or you have some financial wherewithal, it can be enormously hard to disentangle your shared lives. Homes, families, friends, children; these are complicated arrangements and the administration of dismantling them can feel overwhelming even to contemplate. Let alone when you’re battered emotionally or physically by the abuse you’ve undergone and the resulting blows to your self-esteem and ability to trust yourself.
It is very common to worry about the disruption to your children, if you have any, of a breakdown in the relationship. You may feel that even if your partner is awful to you, that they are at least a good parent. You may have a spiritual or religious belief in the sanctity of marriage if you are married.
Again, this is a situation that is for you and you alone to resolve, but it is worth weighing up how much your children are being affected by living in a home where one of their parents is the target of the other’s abuse. Not only this, but they are often seeing and hearing much more than they let on or you know about; research shows that something like 90% of children living in households have heard and/or witnessed it.
Your partner may also undermine your relationship with your children, which is abusive in itself and can have long term effects on their relationship with you.
As you can see (and probably know from your own experience), leaving an abusive relationship is complicated. If you are considering it, it can be useful to get specialist help; call the National Domestic Abuse Helpline on 0808 2000 247 for options in your local area.
If you hold shame or are confused about why you stayed in your abusive relationship even when you knew it was bad for you, it might help to speak to a therapist or a specialist support worker from your local Women’s Centre or Domestic Violence Support Service.
Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.
About Jo Baker
An experienced UPCA registered psychotherapeutic counsellor, Jo specialises in individual therapy for women. She has worked with survivors of domestic and sexual violence for a number of years in various projects. She now works from her private practice in Lewes, East Sussex.… Read more
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