Why Don't Abuse Victims Leave? Psychological & Practical Reasons She Stays
Setting the Scene
It seems so obvious—why would anyone stay in that sort of environment? But if it really was that obvious, we wouldn't see so many abused partners stay with the perpetrator. And it's frustrating. Maybe you know someone in this unfortunate situation, or maybe you are that person.
In this article, I will discuss the reasons why victims stay in an abusive relationship. For ease of reading, I will sometimes refer to the victim as "she", and the perpetrator as "he". This often reflects the situation in which the most serious and violent abuse occurs, but of course anyone, of any gender, is capable of experiencing or perpetrating abuse. We should also recognise that same-sex relationships aren't immune to abuse, either.
Vulnerability and Power
All abusive relationships involve a power differential. Not all imbalances of power are abusive, but an imbalance must exist for abuse to occur. The power wielded by the abuser can come in many forms, and in things that an outsider could never know about. This is one of the reasons why people don't understand - those outside the relationship don't even know that abuse is occurring (or they might not believe that it is, or understand that what the victim describes actually is abuse), and so they are unaware of how common it is.
Sometimes the power is used from the outset to coerce ad terrify a victim. This happens when the abuser has specifically looked for a partner that they perceive to be vulnerable. Other times, a relationship begins in good faith from both partners, but something changes. Maybe one partner ends up in a weaker social position and the other takes advantage, or maybe one partner justifies their controlling behaviour due to a transgression made by the other (like an affair, for example). However, there's no justification for abuse, whatever its background.
Many of my experiences in relationships were not great. Not all of them were abusive, but I'd learnt to accept poor treatment, because I'd found myself in these situations again and again, and it became "normal" to me.
Love You So Much It Hurts
I'm going to go in to more detail than just this, but there is one overriding factor that informs all of the other reasons why someone would stay in an abusive relationship. While we all make rational plans for our futures, of which a stable relationship may form a part, we enter into relationships for largely irrational reasons. Our emotions are far stronger than sensible ideas and good intentions. People begin, stay in, and leave relationships for reasons dictated by the heart as well as the head. This is nothing to be ashamed of, and we shouldn't try to suppress our emotions - this is also an unhappy route to take.
In an abusive relationship, the victim may love their abuser, and in their heart that might be reason enough, for now at least, to stay. But there is more to it than that. Every tactic in the abuser's armoury is designed to play on the victim's emotions, be they fear, shame, love, or whatever. The abuser knows how powerful emotions are, and so they use them to their advantage.
This leaves the victim in an even more vulnerable position, because their judgement is skewed by the tight grip their heart has on their mind. The only way to get the heart to loosen its grip is by a strong mind, and so it is a self-reinforcing cycle.
Insecurity and Fear
Look at the behaviour of any abuser, and you will see one thing in common: they do what they do so that they can maintain that power imbalance. They need to have control over the victim at all times, as they fear losing that power. This is driven by their own insecurity, and often having grown up believing that the way to get people to do what you want is to control them.
I learnt, from my own experiences as a victim, that this methodology is an effective way to get people to do what you want. It's the mindset a capitalist society is built on, and if you choose to treat your personal relationships like a profit-and-loss account, you will see results. But what kind of life is that? You would have the security of knowing that your nearest and dearest will never disobey you, due to fear, but how could you ever truly experience love? It must hurt the perpetrator to know that their lover is not there through choice. And I hope it does hurt them. Perhaps if abusers received the message that their actions are counter-productive, they'd stop, grow some empathy, and choose to change their behaviour.
Abusers can change. But they must want to, and they must deal with their own insecurities, and learn to accept setbacks, before they can start the process.
Characteristics of a Victim
Anyone can become a victim of domestic abuse. In an abusive relationship, there are traits that are common to all victims. Many of these are simply descriptors of the expected behaviour of someone trapped in an abuse situation, some of them are pre-existing. None of these are the fault of the victim: they should not have been put in this situation.
Being abused in and of itself makes someone inherently vulnerable. So even if an individual had no other personal problems up until now, and they were successful and supported, if they find themselves in an abusive relationship, they are now more vulnerable than they were before. The rules are changed, that emotional power comes into play.
Victims often conceal the abuse, and convince themselves and others that the abuse isn't really happening, or that it's not that bad, or that things will get better. From the outside looking in, it seems obvious that yes, it is abuse, and no, it won't get better. But an abused mind doesn't see things this way, and it is a self-defence mechanism, even though it appears delusional.
A victim may not have low self-esteem at the start of an abusive relationship. But by the time they have transitioned from "partner" to "victim", they will have. Unfortunately, no matter how confident a front you can put on, abusers seem to have a sixth sense for vulnerability. Or maybe it's that those with low self-esteem aren't as attuned to the signs of the abuser, or that they are so used to the pattern of abuse that it becomes normal. Having been in an abusive relationship for years, and out of one for years since, I know now that I'm far more likely to object at the first sign of a "red flag" than I was before I figured out how to put my needs and boundaries first. I think I just thought that it was normal to be treated badly by romantic partners. I'd been controlled and over-protected my whole life, and although it felt bad and restrictive, it also felt familiar and expected. I had grown up with the message that I wasn't as good as others, that my needs were secondary, and with no idea what a healthy relationship looked like. I had been conditioned to rely on others for my happiness, and to strive to please others. I'd been taught that to look out for my needs was selfish, and so my perspective was all wrong. And I had no awareness of this until I was able to figure it out for myself, with hindsight.
Those who become victims often rely on their partner for emotional validation, resulting from low self-esteem and previous neglect or abuse. It is a learned behaviour and most emotionally dependent people are unaware they possess this trait. Unfortunately abusers and the abused often have backgrounds that foster dependency, and the pattern repeats itself again and again. When I found myself in a relationship with a partner who did not want to control me, I realised then that my relationship expectations were completely distorted. Before then I had no benchmark for what a normal and loving relationship was. It's now apparent why I ended up in unhappy and unhealthy relationships again and again, and once I realised; the world looked so different.
For me, this was something that I had developed growing up in a suffocating home environment. I was not allowed to do things that normal teenagers did, I was kept indoors and safe from imagined harms, and I was not allowed to make my own mistakes. I was unprepared for adult life, and I was scared to do things for myself. I became over-reliant on other people, to the point that I needed someone to look after me. Being in a long-term relationship with someone of a controlling nature, this only became worse, as I had virtually all of my independence stripped from me. Now that I was told what I could do, where I could go, what I could wear, and what to think; I lost the ability to do those things for myself. Now I was reliant on my abuser not just for my emotional needs, but my practical ones as well.
What is Gaslighting?
Gaslighting is a psychologically manipulative behaviour where the abuser causes the victim to question their own memory or perception. The term is named after the play and film "Gas Light", in which a husband tries to trick his wife into believing that she is going mad, by convincing her that things she sees happening in their home, such as the flickering gas lamps, are a figment of her imagination.
The common view of domestic abuse is that it is predominantly physical violence. While that is not uncommon, the psychological element is ignored by many - and yet this underpins the whole thing. It's the reason why the abuse escalates to violence, the reason why the effects of domestic abuse are so long-lasting, and a major factor in why victims stay. Two of the models used to understand the abuser's method are Biderman's Chart of Coercion, and the Duluth Power & Control Wheel.
Biderman's Chart of Coercion
Biderman's Chart of Coercion was developed in the 1970s to describe the different aspects of torture used to weaken the will of prisoners of war. It is used nowadays to understand the tactics of domestic abusers. The table below has been constructed from the definitions stated by Amnesty International in 1994, and refers directly to prisoners of war. A comparison with the techniques used by abusers is given below the table.
Effect & Purpose
Deprives victim of all social support of their ability to resist. Develops an intense concern with self (this could be home environment). Makes victim dependent.
Complete solitary confinement. Complete or partial isolation. Group Isolation.
2. Monopolisation of Perception
Fixes attention upon immediate predicament. Eliminates information not in compliance with demands. Punishes independence and /or resistance.
Physical isolation. Darkness or Bright light. Restricted movement. Monotonous Food.
3. Humiliation and Degradation
Makes resistance more ‘costly’ than compliance. ‘Animal Level’ concerns.
Personal hygiene prevented. Demeaning Punishments. Insults and taunts. Denial of Privacy.
Weakens mental and physical ability to resist.
Semi-Starvation. Sleep deprivation. Prolonged interrogation. Overexertion.
Creates anxiety and despair. Outlines cost of non-compliance
Threats to kill. Threats of abandonment/nonreturn. Threats against family. Vague Threats. Mysterious changes of treatment.
6. Occasional indulgences
Positive motivation for compliance. Hinders adjustment to deprivation.
Occasional favours. Rewards for partial compliance. Promises.
7. Demonstrating Omnipotence
Suggests futility of resistance.
Confrontation. Showing complete control over victims face.
8. Forcing Trivial Demands
Develops habit of compliance.
Enforcement of 'rules'.
Biderman's Definitions Applied To Domestic Abuse
Denies participation in leisure activities. Restricts contact with family and friends. Excessive jealousy that reduces social interaction or discredits the victim to friends and family. Controls or restricts use of transportation, phone and/or finances. Confines to the home.
2. Monopolisation of Perception
Blames victim for the abuse, often reinforced by social and familial response. Victims become focused on how they “caused” the abuse and their own weaknesses. Unpredictable behaviour. Constant calling, texting or emailing.
3. Humiliation and Degradation
Public humiliation. Forcing participation in demeaning or degrading sexual acts. Verbal abuse, "put downs" or name calling. Frequently tells victim that they are “stupid”, “worthless” and unlovable.
Assaults to body image. Restricts finances for food and other necessities. Withholds access to medical care. Disrupts meals and sleep patterns with physical and verbal assaults, e.g. “you’re going to stay up all night and listen to me”. Rape and assaults during pregnancy.
Threats to kill her or her family. Threats to take children away. Threats of suicide. Threats of abandonment. Destruction of property or pets.
6. Occasional indulgences
Apologizes for the battering, sends flowers and gifts. Promises to change or it “will never happen again”. Becomes “Disneyland” parent.
7. Demonstrating Omnipotence
Physical assaults. Manipulation of legal system. Using male privilege. Stalking.
8. Forcing Trivial Demands
Punishes for noncompliance with "the rules" which are rigid and unrealistic. These rules often govern the victim’s appearance, housekeeping, parenting, timeliness, etc. Frequently changes "the rules". Plays “mind games”.
How Biderman's Assuaged My Self-Doubt
I wasn't sure whether or not what I was going through was "really abuse". My abuser trivialised the impact of the things he's done, and especially downplayed the significance of non-violent attacks. He also forced me to question my own memory and understanding of abuse, through gaslighting (I cover this later in the article). A support worker recommended that I look at Biderman's Chart of Coercion, and reading through each of the behaviours and definitions, I could see that all of them had happened to me, and that because I had something concrete to prove I wasn't imagining it, I was finally reassured that yes, it really did happen, and yes, it really was abuse.
The Duluth Power & Control Wheel
How The Duluth Model Allowed Me To Pinpoint The Exact Abuses I Suffered
The same support worker mentioned above also directed me to The Duluth Model. The way it categorises the abuse into eight distinct segments further helped me to understand what had gone on. Because the abuse was mainly psychological, I found it difficult to define the intangible abuses , or to understand that it was actual abuse. When I knew that this had been studied and defined by others, I knew that it was ok to label these terrible experiences as abuse, and that no-one had the right to doubt me.
The Hidden Danger of Psychological Abuse
My abuser was adept at convincing me that the abuse was "all in my head", that I was "doing it to myself", that I was abusing him, that I would "be locked up", that I was "mad", and that I would not be believed. The fear and shame that these beliefs instilled in me ensured that I would not tell. And so the abuse was allowed to continue, and these messages became more and more ingrained. Psychological abuse perpetuates itself, and encourages the victim to hide it.
To a large degree, the psychological aspect of the abuse I experienced isolated me in my own mind. But there are some other, more visible, ways that isolation occurs in an abusive relationship. The isolating tactic is designed to cut the victim off from help or escape. Sometimes the isolation is an illusion created by the abuser, but it has the same harmful effect - the victim feels so cut off that there is nowhere and no-one for them to turn to.
Isolation from friends and family. The abuser will restrict access to family and friends; anyone who might offer support or a way out for the victim. This may happen over a protracted period of time, or suddenly. It will involve things like:
- Monitoring the victim's use of email, text, social media or phone;
- Restricting who they can see and where they can go;
- Threatening friends and family, including making unfounded accusations about them;
- Spreading rumours about the victim, so that others choose not to associate with them.
Isolation from dissenting opinions. The abuser will swiftly remove access to people who question or oppose the abuser's behaviour, and prevent them from coming into contact with these people. This might include preventing them from seeing a doctor, social services, concerned individuals, or media that indicates that the abuser's behaviour is wrong or abnormal.
Isolation from information. This includes isolation from people that could provide the information, but also preventing the victim from accessing any information that may allow them to understand or escape their situation. It would also cover the abuser undermining the credibility of sources of information that present a counter-view to that which they wish to impose.
Isolation by character assassination. This is related to the first item on this list. The abuser wears down the victim by continually finding fault with aspects of their character, or things that they do, or things that they have said. The abuser will tell the victim over and over again how worthless they are because of these things, and then they will present this "evidence" to other people (e.g. colleagues, friends, family), with the aim of both cutting off contact, and reducing the trustworthiness and integrity of the victim.
Cultural & Family Pressures
It's difficult to say how much of a role this will play in any single relationship, even if you think there are obvious issues in place. You might assume that someone from a devout Muslim family might be encouraged to stay, because of the cultural importance of the family unit in Islam, and lessons on deferring to male power in the Koran. But you don't know that. Their family may be more progressive, or you might have the wrong idea about modern Islam. If you're not a caseworker with background knowledge on particular families, then you just shouldn't make assumptions. But you should be aware that such barriers can exist.
It has been frighteningly common in White British society to keep problems "behind closed doors", and we are only recently moving away from this. It used to be taboo to discuss domestic violence within the community, to the extent that the police wouldn't take reports of familial abuse seriously, not pressing charges against those involved in "a domestic", and often not even attending the scene.
There are some communities, and some strict families, in which this type of repressive behaviour is more likely to exist. But very often, this is irrelevant. It is the perception of family shame and dishonour that allows an abuser to frighten a victim into silence. Most relatives have only love and compassion for family members in this situation, regardless of societal norms. When it comes down to it, looking after our families and friends is more important than expectations of how we should behave. I wish that I had known that when I was subjected to this treatment.
A long-term relationship represents more than just a love affair. It can involve a home, financial obligations, children, lifestyle changes and the time given to the relationship. Giving up on that can seem like a huge risk, and a huge amount to lose. For me, it felt like ripping up a whole chapter of my life, and starting afresh.
And more than just the sense of loss, there is a practical concern here: some of those investments are essential to the victim's life: the home she lives in, the bank account she shares with her partner, the money he has taken from her. Leaving the relationship could mean losing that security. Now matter how desperately one wants to leave an abusive relationship, the fear of homelessness or destitution are often so great as to hold them back.
Frequently, there is a misguided view of relationships that you should stick at it no matter what, no matter how bad things get. The problem is that many of us have been conditioned to believe that abuse is one of those scenarios that we should just ride out, for the possibility that things will get better. There are many good reasons to work through problems in a relationship and stay together through bad times, but abuse is crossing a line. It is never acceptable, and no-one should ever feel that they are better off staying. But so many do.
Fear of the Unknown
Leaving a relationship can be hard for anyone, but more so if you have become dependent on your partner, and your self-esteem is in tatters. Leaving an abusive relationship is, and needs to be, a clean break. It is a step into the unknown, which requires a strong and prepared character - one that a victim of abuse is unlikely to possess. The is the fear of being unable to support oneself, and the fear of what the abuser might do as a result. As mentioned in the video at the beginning of this article, leaving an abusive relationship can be a dangerous thing to do. There is a realistic probability that the ex-partner will stalk, harass, and even kill the victim who has left.
After I had been worn down, taunted and relentlessly criticised for years, I had no faith in my own abilities. My ex-partner had taken over all aspects of my life, not allowing me to manage my own finances, choose my own clothes, or even decide on what meals to prepare. He had stolen every last shred of my independence, and I was frightened that I just wouldn't be able to survive on my own. We should never underestimate how much of a person can be stripped away by domestic abuse. I needed certainty, and I couldn't have it. But I didn't know that I didn't need it because I had been moulded to crave it.
With the end of a relationship comes the questions over what will happen to the relationship's assets. A home, possessions, pets, children. An abuser can, and will, use these to prevent a victim from leaving. Threats that she will never see a penny of her money again, that he will take the house and children. With decent legal representation, and a support network, those threats wouldn't play out in the abusers terms. But in the heat of the situation, cut off from reality, the victim doesn't know that. Ludicrous threats can seem realistic. And if the abuser knows how to play the legal system, he can make the process an absolute nightmare for the victim - which can make her fears seem justified.
Don't Tell Me What To Do
Somebody trapped in an abusive relationship might need to demonstrate the last fragments of their independence and free will by refusing help from others. It seems counter-intuitive, but when put on the back foot, it's a common self-defence mechanism: to not expose your weaknesses. The high-pressure environment of the abusive relationship can distort the victim's thinking, and make them sensitive to perceived threats. Even if the victim has friends and family who wish to support them, they may actually see them as the threat, especially if the victim is in the thrall of the perpetrator's mind games.
This can cause immense frustration to those who care. The important thing for friends and family is to not give up on them. It can be difficult to know when you are overstepping the mark, as you might feel it is necessary to intervene. But that could push the victim even further into the abuse, or even put them in serious danger. However you decide to handle the situation, there are two things that are always a good move:
- Keep a line of contact always open. Make your friend / relative aware of a route that will always be available for them to contact you. In the worst case, you might not hear from them for months or years. But be prepared for the call. Don't judge them, don't impose your beliefs on them, just be there.
- Help / allow them to come to their own decision. A choice is more likely to be followed if the individual made their own mind up. Telling someone what you think they should do is only effective if they agree and take ownership of that choice for themselves.
Everything else will play out over time. Be ready to deal with some complex and unpleasant situations. Know that you might bear the brunt of a victim's anger. Understand that they are acting under duress, and that their actions are the result of that pressure.
When Compassion & Forgiveness Aren't Enough
Let's return to one of the first things I mentioned in this article: that victims may love their abuser. You might wonder how this is possible, but emotions are complex and powerful. Love isn't always a healthy state to be in, but that's often not apparent when you are right in the middle of it. As a result, victims can feel sorry for their abuser, that they can help or "save" him, that no-one understands him like they do. The instinct for compassion and forgiveness is strong, and can hinder a victim from taking ownership of what is happening to them. This can be really tough to witness from the outside, and difficult to look back on if you've ever experienced it.
I have covered a lot in this article, with the aim of demonstrating the myriad complex psychological and practical reasons that a victim might stay in an abusive relationship. Even this lengthy article doesn't cover every eventuality. I hope that it encourages people to look past the defiant façade put on by a victim, to understand what is really going through their mind. If you are a victim in this situation, maybe it will help you to put a name to what you are experiencing. That is the first step in taking back control. If you know someone in this situation, perhaps you will be able to help them better, armed with this knowledge. Whoever you are, know that it is normal for victims of abuse not to play by the rules.
The first thing you can do, whatever your situation, is to educate yourself.
- Learn more about the psychological techniques used to control victims.
- Understand why victims don't behave in the way that they "should".
- Gather information & resources that can help victims.
In the UK, Women's Aid is the best initial resource. They provide information of their own, and can signpost to other services. Their website is www.womensaid.org.uk. Alternatively, their helpline is 0808 2000 247, available 24 hours per day in the UK.
Male survivors of abuse can find help on their website, too, on this page.
If you are being abused, you can seek help from your GP. They can offer you access to psychological help, and refer you to local services, including those run by Women's Aid. It doesn't matter what form the abuse takes - even if it's not physical violence, it's still abuse.
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.
Questions & Answers
© 2017 Katy Preen