Why leaving an abusive relationship is incredibly hard
Are you or have you been in a relationship with a partner who is regularly putting you down, telling you what you can or can’t do, belittling what you do or someone who is physically violent? If the answer to this question is yes, your relationship is likely to be an abusive one.
What is domestic abuse?
We describe domestic abuse as a set of behaviours in a relationship where one partner holds power and coercive control over the other. The abuse can be of a physical, sexual, psychological, emotional or spiritual nature. All of these acts are threatening to the partner who is at the receiving end. If you frequently feel subjugated, belittled, criticised, blamed, manipulated or intimidated and if you are often in a state of fear in your relationship, then you are likely to be in a relationship that is abusive.
Usually, one form of abuse rarely occurs in isolation. An abusive partner who intimidates through physical violence for example is likely to also display a range of emotionally abusive behaviours. In many abuse situations, perturbators use physical violence only intermittently rather than continuously in order to maintain control.
Survivors of domestic abuse may find it more difficult to recognise abuse if it is of an emotional or psychological nature. For example, it may take a while to recognise that your partner denies your privacy, is isolating you from family and friends, is constantly critical or derogatory or is neglectful in their emotional availability to you. The main purpose and outcome of persistent emotional or psychological abuse is to corrode your sense of self and your self-worth.
Contrary to popular myth domestic is not the preserve of any one class. It occurs across ethnic, gender, socioeconomic, sexual, religious or cultural boundaries. Men can abuse women and women can abuse men. The same is true for people who identify as non-binary. Statistically, there is a higher rate of men who abuse women but men can be survivors of abuse too. Abuse happens in hetero as well as same-sex relationships.
There are factors that are likely to contribute to making a person more perceptible or vulnerable to choosing an abusive partner or staying in an abusive relationship for longer. These are usually down to earlier victimisation, neglect or other forms of developmental trauma in childhood which resulted in an insecure attachment style.
However, this does not mean that a survivor of domestic abuse is somehow defective or responsible for the abuse. It is important to remember that survivors of domestic abuse are usually not weak or fragile; on the contrary, they have learned to use a very wide range of coping strategies to build the strength that allows them to stay in the relationship. This is why we use the term ‘survivor’ rather than ‘victim’; it highlights the capacity for survivors to have strategies at their disposal that help them manage the abuse.
Abuse in relationships doesn’t usually happen overnight. It develops gradually and initially almost unnoticeably. In the early stages of the relationship, you are likely to experience your abusive partner as attentive, interested, caring and maybe even charming. If the perpetrator has strong narcissistic tendencies, you are likely to experience love bombing in the initial stages of the relationship: you can be bombarded with compliments, wonderful gestures or gifts and the promise of everlasting, incredible love.
Once you are hooked on your partner you are kept in the relationship through a cycle of abuse. The abuse cycle has four typical phases:
- the tension-building phase
- the crisis point/assault
- reconciliation/honeymoon phase
- the return to 'normality'/calm phase
The tension-building phase
Your partner lashes out in response to an externally stressful situation. Frustration and anger intensify over time. You notice that you are getting more anxious and hyper alert to your partner’s needs. You tend to tiptoe around them, fearful to set them off.
The crisis point/assault
Your partner attempts to discharge their tension and tries to regain control for example by calling you names, denigrating you, or physically or sexually harming you. They hold you responsible for all the problems in the relationship.
The reconciliation or honeymoon phase
Your partner reassures you that the assault was only a blip. They may apologise and tell you that the assault will never happen again. They may shower you with promises or gifts.
The return to normality/calm phase
Your partner managed to blame another person or circumstance for the abusive behaviour. You feel intense relief and are reassured that the external factor that led to the abuse won’t happen again. In time, the memory of the assault fades and gets minimised.
Another vital factor that makes it incredibly difficult for survivors to leave the abusive relationship is a phenomenon that is called ‘trauma bond’ (also known as ‘Stockholm Syndrome'). It is the trauma bond that effectively super glues together perpetrator and victim.
How does this work? As human beings, we are socially oriented. Our first instinct when threatened is to turn to the human being closest to us for soothing. The threat might be real (our life is at risk) or perceived (we feel very stressed at the moment). In a healthy relationship, our partner can enable us to feel calmer and to feel safe again. In an abusive relationship, however, we are stuck in a double bind: the very person who can soothe us is also the person who threatens us. This causes enormous emotional confusion in the survivor.
Over time, it creates more and more anxiety and dependency. The reconciliation phase in particular plays a key role in the ‘trauma bond’: the perpetrator seemingly affirms their love. The threat has passed. Survivors thrive in this situation and the hope for a better future in the relationship is reinstated and secured.
When threatened our sympathetic autonomic nervous system instinctively kicks in: we can fight, flee, freeze or fawn. Survivors of domestic abuse either tend to be in a 'freeze' or ‘fawn’ state of the fight/flight/freeze response. The safest way to survive the abuse is to either 'play dead', to shut down or dissociate or to ‘fawn’, to appease and placate. A sympathetic nervous system that is chronically activated often leads to a number of physiological manifestations: low mood, stomach pains, chronic headaches, breathing problems, high blood pressure, chronic fatigue or pain, depression, panic disorders and many other PTSD symptoms (post-traumatic stress disorder).
Survivors of domestic abuse often find themselves increasingly isolated as their partner actively controls their contact with other people. As there is no one to talk to, this intensifies the doubt that they are at the receiving end of abuse. If you are regularly put down, controlled, threatened, physically assaulted or made to engage in any sexual contact against your will, the chances are that you are in an abusive relationship.
Another factor that may stop you from talking about your experiences may be an intense feeling of shame. You beat yourself up for staying in the relationship and for putting up with the abuse. Survivors often take on the shame of their abuser.
It helps to talk to somebody else in order to clarify what is actually happening to you, validate your experiences and (safely) consider your next steps. This is where counselling and psychotherapy can help.