If you have ever witnessed a friend or family member in an abusive relationship, you likely feared for their safety, even their life and you would do anything to protect them. Yet, it seems that no matter what you say or do, many women remain in abusive relationships. Seeing them “choose” to stay with their abuser is very confusing.
So, why do women stay in abusive relationships? Is it really a choice, or is it their only option?
In this article, we
- Unpack the 4 Stages in the Cycle of Abuse impacting victims
- Share 9 additional, common reasons women stay with their abusers
- Provide steps you can take to support victims
- Give resources to help.
Ready? Let’s begin with the first four, a cycle that’s tough to get out of!
The Difficult-to-Break Cycle
Why do women stay in bad or abusive relationships?
It’s difficult to understand the depth of coercive controls and barriers female victims face when in abusive or violent relationships too. Deep within, they realize leaving could be too dangerous to be a possibility. In most relationships, women progressively feel more stuck as they go through this cycle in their bad relationships:
- Tension Building,
- The Incident of Violence
- And Calm.
Each stage impacts the woman’s decision-making process as the relationship progresses, often keeping her in place. The cycle is common in many abusive relationships but not all contain this exact cycle. Learning it however helps us to understand the difficulty many victims have leaving.
Here are the descriptions of each stage:
1. Tension Building
In this first stage, the abusive partner shows regular bouts of anger and frustration directed at the victim. Tension builds. The victim becomes hyper-vigilant and over-focused on their abuser. Everything they do is aimed at preventing blow-ups, raging, and other types of domestic abuse. They desperately try to avoid or appease their abuser to keep peace in the marriage.
Many times, the victim can’t pinpoint the source of tension, but feels foreboding, like the calm before a storm. This increases in severity the more the full cycle repeats itself over time. She becomes increasingly anxious and afraid for the next stage.
2. Incidents of Violence
The tension eventually erupts into many violent incidents in the next stage of the cycle. This is the most dangerous time for the victim, especially when there is physical violence, which escalates in intensity over time. If this were a stand-alone stage, it’s possibly enough to make someone leave. But abusive relationships contain patterns and cycles that work off of each other to manipulate and control the victim through fear and confusion.
Do not assume that abusive relationships automatically include physical or sexual assault. Psychological aggression is also violent.
Psychological Incidents of Violence
In psychologically abusive relationships, this phase includes overt and covert psychologically coercive behaviors intended to dominate and control the victim, such as lying, minimizing, threats, catastrophizing, withholding, etc.
Through repeated threats of physical or sexual violence intended to cause fear in the victim, the abuser solidifies their control. Threats are designed to convince the victim her abuser is willing and capable of following through with his threats. This fear also impacts her sense of whether she can leave safely.
The reconciliation stage is when the abuser either does everything they can to reestablish a connection with the victim, who is desperate for connection, or blames the victim. The abuser may apologize, buy gifts, promise to change, or do anything to win back trust and affection. Alternatively, they gaslight the victim, until she believes the abuse is her fault.
After a while, the woman develops low self-esteem and begins to believe she is the real problem in the relationship. She becomes increasingly dependent on the abuser for life, and is willing to do anything to please her partner. Her mate allows her to believe momentarily that her efforts make a difference, so she will regain hope and stay.
Ahhh, the peace. That’s what happens during this phase when the victim believes things might be changing. This reprieve creates an opportunity to forget about the tensions and issues in the relationship and erases the past, if only for a moment. This is how the perpetrator solidifies the trauma bond with the victim, binding her to the relationship.
The Most Common Reasons Women Don’t Leave Abusive Men
1. The Abuse Cycle Creates a Trauma Bond That’s Hard to Escape
Trauma bonds are intense emotional attachments between victims and their abusers. On the one hand, there exists complex abusive behaviors, control, and dependency along with deep feelings of love, admiration, and gratitude in the victim for their abuser.
The abuse cycle, with its stages of violence followed by positive reinforcement, forges a trauma bond that makes it very hard to leave a violent relationship. The back and forth between abuse and affection reinforces the victim’s attachment to and dependence on the abuser and enables the escalation of intimate partner violence.
2. Fear For Their or Their Children’s Lives
Over 70% of victims who are murdered by their abusers are killed after they leave the abusive relationship. Tactics of control and dominance within abusive relationships are designed to make the woman stay. Once they decide to leave permanently, the abuser loses that motivation and may resort to lethal measures of punishment for her departure.
Staying becomes a matter of safety. By staying, she is choosing her life over death.
What are other reasons why mothers stay in abusive relationships?
If there are children in the home, many abusers will threaten to hurt them if the kids’ mom leaves or seek full custody in a future divorce proceeding. Reasonable fear of losing custody or harm to her children compels a mom to stay.
3. She Doesn’t Realize She’s Being Abused.
“I didn’t realize I was being abused.” How many times do we hear this from survivors coming to MEND for help? All the time. This is particularly true when hidden forms of abuse are used to manipulate and maintain control over the victim.
Recurring covert or overt abuse puts the woman in a constant state of stressful confusion. Over time, her mind and body are significantly compromised, making it hard to put two and two together. When women are unable to recognize the abuse they are facing, it’s nearly impossible to get out of this state of confusion. They are unable to effectively discern or respond to what is really going on.
To learn more about how to identify the signs of abuse in confusing relationships, check out our workshop “Finding Clarity and Healing in Difficult, Confusing, Stressful or Abusive Relationships.”
Difficult to Accurately Describe What is Going On
This makes it very difficult to accurately describe their circumstances to others, such as doctors, therapists, and other responders who might be able to intervene with proper protocols for abuse or PTSD.
When they don’t know they’re being abused, women begin believing their own problems are causing conflict in their relationship. If only they weren’t so depressed, sick, confused, afraid or anxious, then their partner wouldn’t be getting so angry with them. Their abuser happily encourages this false narrative putting all of the burden for the abuse onto the victim. Yet, the reason for her “problems” is the abuse. It’s not her fault, but she does not realize it because she doesn’t know she’s being abused.
4. No One Will Believe Her
By the time a victim is considering leaving, she is isolated and cut off from her family and their community by her abuser. In addition, most abusers are active in their own image management within the couple’s community, promoting their own image while tarnishing the victim’s, hoping others will see her as unstable or volatile. Abusive men and women author smear campaigns against their partners at school, the workplace, in the neighborhood, and with their and the victim’s families making them feel embarrassed for her and sorry for the abuser.
“Double Abuse” Occurs
Friends, family, or other outsiders may put pressure on the victim to remain. She realizes no one will help her if she reaches out. Her feelings of self worth are so low at this point, that she fears she will not be believed if she shares what is happening behind closed doors. Unfortunately, others are too willing to believe the abuser and respond in ways that reinforce the abuse and embolden the abuser because they do not understand abuse. The most important thing friends and families can do is to confront the abuser at the right time, not side with them.
Here at Mend, we call this Double Abuse.
One of the most common forms of abuse is financial. Abusers slowly but methodically exercise increasing control over the relationship finances until the victim loses all access to money. If she had a career, she’s been guilted into leaving it for the sake of the marriage.
When you don’t know how you will feed or care for yourself or your children, the decision to leave doesn’t seem like a viable option.
6. She’s Holding Onto Hope
She’s seen the cycles and remembers the deep apologies, the stages of peace and calm, the love bombing, and believes if she continues to try harder, maybe, JUST MAYBE, things will get better. They won’t. Yet, she is holding onto hope, and, to her and her friends, that seems like a valiant, wifely (even righteous) thing to do.
Women are wrong to believe they can change an abusive partner by changing themselves. Only the abuser can take the steps necessary to change his or her faulty mindset and abusive behavior patterns.
7. Because She Believes Staying is Better for Her Children.
“I thought my children needed their father, and they believed it was better for me to deal with the abuse, rather than lose their father.” We know, beyond any doubt, that children living in homes where there is domestic violence – even when the abuse is limited to psychological abuse behaviors – are harmed with a strong impact on their ability to engage and succeed well into their adult years.
Normally, staying is not better for the woman or the children, but many victims erroneously believe it is.
8. Their Religious Beliefs
Many faiths prize the institution of marriage above and beyond the safety of the individuals within the relationship. They push, guilt, and pressure victims to remain in violent, abusive relationships.
There are many forms of spiritual abuse that are used by friends, family and spiritual leaders to shame victims into staying silent while enduring violent partnerships. Defying the pressure of their faith community by leaving the relationship may seem like too big of an ask for the victim, who already is unsure about what she should do.
The victim may also have been taught that divorce is against the tenets of their faith unless their spouse cheats on them. Infidelity is the most common reason religions allow divorce. The victim might not realize that violence is a sufficient and faith-based ground for divorcing.
How can women still love their abuser after the violence?
Many women stay because they love their partner. They have seen a good side and believe that person is still there and can be healed. They often believe their own love can help change their abuser and through consistent patience and grace, the abuser might change. When you truly love the person harming you, it makes the decision to leave very hard.
Don’t Become One of These Statistics
Now, here’s the scary part.
- Recent statistics issued by the National Domestic Violence Hotline estimate more than 12 million people per year are victims of rape, physical violence, or stalking by a family or an intimate partner.
- 1 in 4 women 18 years or older have been victims of severe physical violence by their partner, with almost half of all adults experiencing psychological aggression, or emotional abuse, by an intimate partner.
Many men and women simply choose to stay in abusive relationships because the don’t know how to leave safely. For the many survivors who leave, they will return to their abuser 6.3 times on average before leaving permanently, according to a survey conducted by DomesticShelters.org.
Here are two ways to get help:
What can be done to help victims?
If you are a responder, it’s essential that you provide a non-judgmental, listening ear and an open heart. Allow them a safe place to share their concerns and stories free of judgment or criticism. Listen and validate their experience no matter what facts you believe are true. See MEND’s Healing Model of Compassion as a guide to help you respond with compassion to victims of abuse.
It’s important that victims get expert help and care. Therapists skilled and trained in domestic violence are important resources for victims. If they are too fragile, perhaps you can help them shop for a therapist skilled and experienced in treating victims of domestic abuse.
Resources for Victims of Domestic Violence
The most important thing victims in an abusive relationship can do, is to become educated. Join one of MEND’s courses for either survivors or people who respond to abused men and women. If you choose to get counseling or therapy, please make sure the therapist you pick is well-suited for your situation by asking him or her these questions.
Remember, it isn’t always the right time to simply leave an abusive relationship. It’s possible that it’s too dangerous and risky for you at this time. It’s wisest for domestic violence victims to develop a safety plan before deciding to leave. One of the first steps to take is to contact a good, local domestic violence shelter to put together a plan for leaving. Your and your children’s lives might depend upon it.