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Why Do Adults Stay in Abusive Relationships and How Can I Help?

I watched my father stay in an abusive relationship for decades which ultimately cost him his life.

Many victims of abuse live in shame of their situation, and this keeps them from seeking help.

Many victims of abuse live in shame of their situation, and this keeps them from seeking help.

It's Painful to Watch a Loved One Be Mistreated

One of the hardest things some of us will ever experience is watching an adult loved one—be it a family member or friend—stay in an abusive relationship.

Questions we ask ourselves might include:

  • Why does she stay in this toxic relationship?
  • Why does he allow himself to be treated like that?
  • Doesn’t she have any self-respect?
  • Why doesn’t he just leave this relationship?

For decades, I watched my father stay in a relationship in which his wife abused him verbally, emotionally, and psychologically. To my utter confusion, it was as if he was oblivious to what was happening to him. As some would say, "He took it lying down." It took me decades to understand the dynamics that kept him from walking away from this toxic relationship.

Why Do People Stay in Abusive Relationships?

  1. They grew up with an abusive parent or guardian.
  2. They are afraid of the repercussions if they leave.
  3. They don't have the means to support themselves.
  4. They lack self-confidence.
  5. Their pride holds them back.
  6. They cannot bear to be alone.
  7. They love their abuser.
  8. They are physically unable to leave.
It can be hard to understand why people we love stay with an abusive partner.

It can be hard to understand why people we love stay with an abusive partner.

8 Reasons Why Adults Stay in Abusive Relationships

Adults stay in abusive relationships for many reasons. Usually, it's a combination or a domino-effect of reasons.

1. They had an abusive parent or guardian.

Some people are naturally drawn to an abusive partner because they were raised by an abusive parent or guardian. To victims of abuse, abusive behavior is normal, expected and even deserved. Toxic relationships are familiar and comfortable for them because it's what they're used to.

In my father's case, he was raised by an abusive mother. He told me once about a time when he was a teenager and his mother approached him with a knife while he was taking a shower. How frightening and humiliating that must have been for him.

2. They are afraid of the repercussions that may come if they leave the relationship.

This is especially the case if their spouse or partner has threatened retaliation against them if they leave. This may include filing for divorce and threatening to take all the assets, including the house. It may include violence or even death threats. If there are children involved, then these threats become even more frightening because the safety and well-being of the children are at stake.

3. They don’t have the means to support themselves.

If they leave the relationship, they're afraid they won't be able to make it on their own. They may have limited formal education which prevents them from earning an income they can live on. They often don’t have family or close friends to turn to for financial support. Their dependence on their abuser for basic needs such as food and shelter keeps them from moving on, especially if they have children to support as well as themselves.

4. They lack self confidence.

A person's self confidence is based greatly on their self-esteem. How they perceive themselves often determines how much they think they can accomplish in life, which too often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Abused adults have often been verbally abused for so long, they have bought into the lies they've been told by their abuser, such as that they are garbage or that they can't do anything right. How can you move forward in your life when you believe that?

Survivors of any and all abuse become very good at anticipating mood of others, looks, actions, all of it in an effort to survive. Believing that if we can be agreeable, be compliant and loving, do things how they want, that we will be safe. This becomes our way of life.

— Darlene Ouimet

5. Their pride keeps them from moving on.

If they walk out on their abuser, they would have to acknowledge that they made a grave mistake in having chosen and trusted this person as their spouse or partner. This can be tough to admit, especially if family and friends had previously warned them of “red flags” and advised them against pursuing this relationship.

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Leaving their abuser can also be difficult if they made great sacrifices for this relationship, such as walking out on a former spouse and children. This can be particularly hard if their current relationship cost them their relationship with children from the marriage they walked out on. By leaving their current relationship, they would feel they had lost everything.

Moreover, they may begin to realize that having abandoned their previous marriage and children for their current partner was not worth it. That's a hard pill to swallow after the fact. In many cases, the damage done is too deep and relationships with former family members are broken beyond repair.

At this point, the victim's options are to stay in the abusive relationship or be alone. For many victims of abuse, being alone is too painful an option.

6. They don't want to be alone.

The mere thought of navigating life alone, without their abusive partner, is frightening, particularly if being alone is not something they are used to. They may have always been in a relationship and would not know how to face life on their own. This is especially true for men. Sadly, many people would rather stay in a toxic, abusive relationship than be alone, even if they would be much better off alone.

I think this was very much the case in my father's situation. He had no friends nearby, and had been with a partner most of his adult life. The prospect of being alone was likely very depressing for him.

7. They still love their abuser.

In many cases, victims of abuse care about and want to help their abusive spouse or partner. If their abuser has an addiction problem, it's not uncommon for victims of abuse to want to rescue their abuser from their addiction. They tend to think that if they just try harder to help them, their abuser will come around. Unfortunately, in most cases, their efforts are ineffective and end up backfiring on them.

Many abuse victims suffer from Stockholm Syndrome (SS): an emotional bond between the victim of abuse and the abuser in which the victim defends the actions of the abuser as if in a subconscious attempt to survive both physically and emotionally from the abuse. Although SS most commonly occurs in hostage, prisoner-of-war, and cult situations, it is also very common in cases of domestic abuse.

My father was undoubtedly a victim of Stockholm Syndrome, and sadly, his situation became even worse when he had a stroke and was deemed incapacitated. His wife took his phone away and would not allow him to have visitors. She would confiscate letters and gifts from family members she did not want him to communicate with. She even refused to take him to speech therapy to regain his speech, which he had lost as a result of his stroke.

When I would try to help him by advocating for him and for his rights, he would become angry. He would gesture that he didn't want his phone, visitors, or the letters and gifts that were sent to him, and that he didn't want to go to speech therapy. Like so many victims of abuse, he condoned the toxic actions of his abuser.

Elderly and disabled people are at high risk of being neglected and abused by a spouse or partner.

Elderly and disabled people are at high risk of being neglected and abused by a spouse or partner.

8. They cannot leave the relationship.

If a person is disabled, elderly—or both—they are likely at the mercy of their caretakers and may be unable to seek help in the event of neglect or abuse. For example, they may have restricted mobility or impaired communication skills, which leaves them highly vulnerable to being mistreated without anybody finding out.

Signs of Abuse in Adults

ObviousLess ObviousSpecific Signs of Elder Abuse

cuts, bruises, burns

social isolation

stealing of money or belongings

restraint or grip marks


falling for financial scams

black eyes


unexplained bruises, burns and injuries

unusual patterns of injury


bed sores

repeated trips to the emergency room

anxiety, including panic attacks and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

poor hygiene

name-calling, put-downs

abuse of drugs or alcohol

overgrown nails on hands and/or feet

overt anger towards the victim / threats made towards the victim

vague medical complaints such as ongoing headaches, fatigue or stomach pain

social isolation / withdrawing from others

restricting the victim's actions



controlling what the victim says



overt jealosy or possesiveness of victim


sudden change in person's financial situation

delay between the time of injury and seeking of treatment

stress-related health problems, such as digestive issues or skin rashes

poor eating habits or loss of appetite

There are many ways you can help a victim of abuse.

There are many ways you can help a victim of abuse.

How Can I Help Somebody Who Is in an Abusive Relationship?

Although you may feel helpless to help a loved one who is in an abusive relationship, there is actually more you can do than you may realize.

Be a friend and offer a listening ear.

If you suspect a loved one is in an abusive relationship, offer your friendship and support. Invite your loved one for a walk in nature or to your home for a meal or coffee. This allows for a quiet and confidential environment in which they are more likely to confide in you with their challenges.

Share with them your own struggles with family and friends. This may make them more willing to share their personal struggles with you.

Offer them a safe place to stay.

Let them know your home is always open to them. If this is not possible, let them know you will help them find a safe place. Very often, victims of abuse don’t leave their abuser simply because they have no place to go. If only they knew that there was a warm, safe place for them where they could stay until they could get back on their feet, they would be more likely to leave their abuser.

Make sure they have your contact information and that they know they can call you at any time.

Give them a confidential telephone number they can call for help.

Victims of abuse may be unwilling to share their struggles with you as much as they may want to because they may fear their abuser finding out and the repercussions that may follow. They may fear that things may get worse for them if they say too much, or that the abuser will come after you if you know too much.

Offer them a hotline they can call to report domestic abuse on a confidential basis. Don't attach your name to the telephone number you give them. This way, if the abuser finds the number, he or she won't associate you with seeking help for the victim. It is simply a way to protect yourself from unwanted consequences you may suffer for doing the right thing.

An invitation for coffee or a shared meal may be all it takes to initiate conversation with your loved one, which may result in offering them life-saving help.

An invitation for coffee or a shared meal may be all it takes to initiate conversation with your loved one, which may result in offering them life-saving help.

Instill confidence in them.

So often, victims of abuse have been put down and treated poorly for so long, they are blind to their strengths, gifts, and abilities. Bring out their strengths by complimenting them for abilities and skills you notice they possess. Tell them they are beautiful.

Help them get back on their feet. Encourage them to enroll in college classes or other training specific to their abilities and areas of interest. Assist them in writing or updating their resume. Once they feel empowered to make it on their own, they may feel able to leave their abusive relationship.

Keep in touch with them.

It is common for victims of abuse and neglect to push you away, especially if they know you suspect or know they are being abused. They are often embarrassed about their situation and their pride won’t allow them to acknowledge they need help. Don’t lose touch with them. Even if they don’t respond to your phone calls or emails, keep trying.

It’s important for them to know you are there for them if, and when, they decide to seek help. This doesn’t mean you should call them or email them every day. Call once a week, send a card periodically, and remember them on special days such as birthdays and holidays. You may be the only person reaching out to them who knows about their situation, so you may be the only one they ultimately reach out to for help.

Notify authorities if you see signs of abuse in elderly or disabled adults.

Elderly and disabled people are especially vulnerable to neglect and abuse from family members and other caretakers. Contact the adult abuse hotline or your local senior protective services agency to report signs of abuse and to seek guidance on your next steps.

In some cases, reports of abuse or neglect of seniors results in a welfare check in the home of the suspected victim. This is normally done on a confidential basis, so the family of the senior would not know you were the one who reported the suspected abuse. If the victim is in a nursing home or in an assisted living or rehabilitation facility, report your observations and concerns to the patient's designated social worker as well.

In my father's situation, I was very proactive about expressing my concerns to the social worker in the rehabilitation facility where my father stayed after his stroke, and to the next social worker in the next rehab facility where he stayed after a fall he suffered not long after. I also spoke several times with his County Senior Services Office to report incidents of neglect and abuse I had witnessed in his home.

Things Don't Always Turn Out the Way You Hope

Unfortunately, even when you do everything you can to help or to try to help a victim of abuse, things may not turn out the way you hope.

When my father's wife suspected I had reported allegations of abuse and neglect concerning my father, she no longer allowed me in her and my father's home. Of course, I knew when I made the allegations that there was a good chance she would suspect it had been me and would likely shut me off from him. And that is exactly what happened: she turned my father against me to the point where he no longer wants to see me or take my calls. Sadly, such is often the outcome in situations of abuse.

The main thing is that at the end of the day, and certainly once my father is no longer alive, I will have no regrets about what I did and didn't do to try to help my father.

Your Efforts Can Make a Difference

I am glad to report that since I wrote this article several months ago, my father has been moved to a one-level home where he has a home-care provider during the day.

There is no doubt in my mind that my persistent efforts in advocating for him through my contacts with the social workers and social services organizations for the elderly have played a key role in his change in circumstances.

Another encouraging report is that a family member reached out to me and allowed me to speak to my father by phone. My dad seemed so glad to hear from me, and I am already planning my next visit.

Never think that your efforts to help a victim of abuse are in vain.

You may not see the results you wish for, at least not immediately, but your attempts to help your loved one are never wasted.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2018 Madeleine Clays

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