9 Women Explain Why They Stayed In Abusive Relationships
Trigger warning: Descriptions of domestic violence.
“Why did she stay?”
It’s one of the most common questions asked in reaction to cases of domestic violence. We want to know, “If things were so awful, why didn’t she leave?”
And for people who’ve never experienced violence at the hands of a partner, the question seems reasonable enough. But it’s not that simple.
The question is loaded with implications. That if someone stays with a person who hits them once, it’s their fault if they’re hit again. That the person being abused is deserving of the abuse because they don’t try to help themselves by getting out of the situation. That people in abusive relationships have the option to leave whenever they wish.
But people who have experienced any of the many forms of domestic violence – physical, emotional, sexual or psychological – know leaving an abusive relationship isn’t as straightforward as it seems.
For one thing, between 50 and 70 percent of domestic violence homicides happen when the abused partner tries to leave, or after they’ve already left. So often, women stay in violent relationships because it’s actually safer than leaving.
As well as this, many women don’t even realize they’re in abusive relationships, because the abuse itself is often masked as love.
In a 2012 Tedtalk, domestic violence survivor, Leslie Morgan Steiner tells her story about being in “crazy love” with a man who regularly abused her and threatened her life. During her talk, she attempts to dispel common misconceptions people have about victims of domestic violence. It’s definitely worth a watch.
Because, asking someone why they didn’t leave a violent relationship isn’t only victim-blaming in its purest form, it also ignores the complicated nature of intimate partner violence.
To highlight just how problematic this question is, here are the reasons nine women give for staying in abusive relationships…
1. It builds up slow
“When I was with my ex, the manipulation was sneaky. He started slow. If I wanted to see my family members, he’d say something like, “Ok, but I’ll miss you.” It came off as kind of sweet, but it was manipulation. It slowly built from there. I’d go out for friends and he’d tell me to have fun, but when I’d come home, I’d be met with “I really missed you. What did you guys do? Where did you go? Who was there?”
After a while, it became easier to not go anywhere and see my family or friends than deal with his guilt trips and endless questions. When my friends and family saw what was happening and talked to me about it, my ex would pin us against each other, so I ended up resenting my family for trying to break us up.
It’s easy for someone who has never dealt with this to say “Well why didn’t you just leave him? but the way he did it was so sneaky. He acted as if he cared about me, and the well-being of our relationship, but he was just manipulating me. And on top of cutting me off from friends and family, he would throw insults and personal attacks into conversations with me.
This went on for years before the physical abuse even started. So by the time the hitting started, I was completely dependant on him. He was the only person I had. He was also a gaslighter. When I’d get upset with him about the way he was treating me, he’d say things like, “I just care about you. You have no reason to be upset. You’re acting like a crazy person.” I ended up really believing that I was in the wrong and that I should be grateful for the way he was treating me.
It was a very slow progression and I didn’t even realize what was happening to me. It’s really hard to walk away from a situation like that when you’ve been made to feel utterly alone, like a crazy person who should be thankful someone loves you.
To this day, almost seven years since I left, he still has that power over me. I don’t even know what a healthy relationship looks like anymore.”
2. It’s not all bad
“People seem to think abusers are always abusive, but they’re not. After all, you start dating that person for a reason. They’re not a monster all the time. Sometimes you’ll think, “this is it, I’m leaving,” and they turn around and do something incredibly sweet that makes you feel like you’re falling in love with them all over again. You weigh in your mind the good and the bad, and for some sick twisted reason, you decide that the good is worth staying for.”
3. You don’t believe they’re doing anything wrong
“My ex-boyfriend made me believe the sexual abuse was genuinely my fault because I didn’t display my love for him enough and as his girlfriend, I “owed” it to him. I’m by no means a shrinking violet, but he would act so wounded by my rejection, and add a combination of anger, sadness, pity, pleading and then outright abuse that in the end, I felt so awful for him that I would do whatever he had originally wanted. If someone had asked me at the time, I wouldn’t have thought I was in an abusive relationship, because I genuinely believed that I was the bad guy, not him.”
4. They manipulate you
“He made me feel like without him, I had no worth. He convinced me I didn’t mean anything to anyone if he wasn’t in the picture. He was sweet sometimes. When the good times came, they were amazing. He was wonderful. But when he was bad, I felt personally responsible because he blamed me for his actions. If I hadn’t said that, he wouldn’t have gotten so angry. If I hadn’t looked at him that way, he wouldn’t have made me cry, things like that. In retrospect, I feel like an idiot for staying as long as I did, but at the time it made perfect sense. Why would I leave the only thing that gave me worth? I had nothing to offer the world without him. It’s taken the longest year of my life to realize that I am my own person and I am worthy, dammit. I’m a stronger person because of it.
I stayed because it made me feel like I had a purpose, even if it was doomed from the start.”
5. You think it’s an accident
“I didn’t realize it was abusive until after the fact. At first, I thought it was “just an accident”, “he didn’t know his own strength.” It slowly went to “he didn’t think before he spoke”, “he was just frustrated,” and at one point it was “the cops misunderstood the situation.”
6. You feel loved
“I couldn’t leave him because he was the only person who had ever told me he loved me. And when I say only person, I mean ONLY – not my parents, not friends, or anyone. When you think you’re unlovable, you hold like all hell to the one person who does. There aren’t words for how it feels to have someone tell you that for the first time. As cheesy as it sounds, imagine you’re drowning, and someone throws you a life raft. It’s like that.
And frankly, it felt like getting hit and strangled on a very occasional basis – once every few months – was a very small price to pay for that love. I felt like I had no family and when he told me, “That’s okay. You can have mine,” it was a moment that hit me so hard, it still affects me, to this day when I remember it. And I did become a part of his family. I was welcomed in with cousins and brothers, and I had a community for the first time. No one had ever hugged me on a regular basis before. And he was the one who was there to help me anytime I was down. He was also insanely controlling, jealous, and occasionally violent.
It really was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, leaving him. One of the best decisions of my life, absolutely. But it was hard.”
7. You think it’s all your fault
“I have always been a sane and clear-minded individual, and I still managed to suffer from Stockholm Syndrome. I allowed myself to be beaten, raped, and my human rights taken away by a man who I didn’t think was smart enough to manipulate me in those ways. I have gaps in memory from my abuse. The whole time, I remember thinking it was my fault. He made me feel like every ounce of it was my doing, my fault, and my responsibility. He was confident, social, and charismatic. My friends sided with him, which even further solidified in my mind that it was just me.
Now that I’ve broken the cycle, I can look back on that time and realize how wrong it was. But you don’t realize it at the time. You strive to do better in a situation where you can never, ever win. You keep trying and trying to make your partner happy, always thinking you are the “crazy one”.
He made me fear other men. I had been raped before, and he knew that. He also pushed my boundaries, slowly, and he would ask me to help him write messages to other women he wanted to meet online. It sounds crazy, but with smaller and smaller pushes, and the right kind of manipulation, it doesn’t seem it. This whole time, I was getting straight A’s in college, and my family thought I was going to marry him. The pressure to stay with him, even after I realized it was wrong, was astronomical.”
8. Because they’re “a good guy”
“He would always tell me all these really mean things and I would believe and try to change myself to please him. On the outside, he was a good guy and a good father to his children. He was so good to other people. But he needed to control me. A lot of the abuse was sexual shaming. Even when I walked away from him, I’d end up telling myself I was over-reacting and go back. It took 2 years for me to finally break the cycle.”
9. You stay for the kids
“I stayed in an abusive relationship because of the kids. It wasn’t because I thought it would be better staying as a family – I knew we wouldn’t – but because I was worried that the kids would have to be alone with him for extended periods of time. He wasn’t physically abusive. It was all psychological. I was worried about what would happen if I wasn’t there, or if he fought for custody and won. He had a high paying government job and I only had a degree.
I think I also hoped things would take a turn. Nobody wants to think their marriage has failed. Abusive people like this prey on and take advantage of a person’s existing vulnerabilities and insecurities. Once they’re in your life, they try to manipulate every decision you make. You have to be dependent on them.
I had threatened to leave once before, when I found out I was pregnant the second time. He made promises which, of course, only lasted for so long. Once my kids were old enough – late teens and early twenties – I left and filed for divorce. It’s been four years and the battle still rages. He doesn’t want to give me anything.
Two years ago, I didn’t even think I’d been abused. But I realize it now every time I hear his voice. I feel a sinking terror and helplessness whenever I have to answer a phone call from him, no matter how far away he his. He’s still stuck in my life.”
Image via tumblr. Statements were collected from interviews and reddit.com. All victims will remain anonymous.
Comment: Why did you stay in an abusive relationship? What do you say to people who ask, “Why didn’t you just leave?”?