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  • Writer's pictureJane

But, why'd she stay?

Photo by Scott Warman on Unsplash

Abusive relationships are complex monsters, full of fog, confusion and fear. None of us enter a relationship with someone we suspect will hurt us in a way that we fear for our mental or physical safety. We were all born with a natural incline to protect ourselves from harm. As babies, we cry when put in the arms of a stranger or someone we feel uncomfortable with. Similarly, as adults, our fight-or-flight response is activated when we feel threatened, pushing us to remove ourselves from the threatening situation. So, it can be hard to understand why someone would stay in a relationship with a person who is causing them harm. Although it may seem not to make sense, it actually makes perfect sense.

There are many reasons people stay. Here are a few of them.

*My blog posts are based on my own research and experience. Please see my resource list for details.

Love doesn't start with abuse. When we fall for someone, we are falling for the initial characteristics they present to us - for their best, most loveable side. We don't see their darkness, only the light.

Most people have a lovable beautiful side, and this is the side we tend to present to a potential life partner when we're courting. This is the side that many of us also remember when our partner turns abusive. We try to understand why his/her behaviour has changed. Our minds play tricks on us as we explain away their behaviour and grab onto the memories of the love they once showed us - that quirky sense of humour that came with a smile that lit up every time they made us laugh, those eyes that were all ours, that electrifying touch saved just for me. How do we get back to that love? At times, that loving spark will show through again and, with a parched heart, we hang onto it like water in a desert. That love is what keeps hope alive in our own hearts - hope that our abusive partner will turn back into what s/he used to be ... if only we change a bit or do something to help that love return to us.

We love like that because we are beautiful souls filled with hope, and we like to see the best in people always.

Self-blame plays a big role in why people stay, and gaslighting techniques used by abusers reinforce it. People who are abusive don't spend much time self-reflecting. Instead, an abuser will blame their victim for the harm they are inflicting upon them. You may think, "You have gotta be an idiot to believe you're at fault for being abused," but you'd be surprised how easy it is for an abusive person to manipulate the perspective of someone who loves and trusts them.

In my own case, my ex would tell me that I forced parenthood on him therefore I didn't deserve his love and respect. Blame such as this plays with your head, as it involves a victim in an abuser's excuse for his/her abusive behaviour. It is gaslighting at its best. This kind of blame tries to rationalize the abuse by saying that if a victim had just acted differently then they wouldn't be at the receiving end of abuse.

Gaslighting techniques are used to control the way a victim responds to abuse by instilling a sense of guilt in the victim. In my case, I felt this incredible guilt for imposing biological parenthood on my partner and 'taking away his freedom.' Even though I had been a single parent to one child when we married (he had chosen parenthood when he had chosen me) and he had never employed birth control himself (it had all been "the woman's responsibility"), I still felt I somehow deserved his abusive behaviour because I had gone through with our pregnancy and I'd therefore 'deserved punishment' for 'deciding his future'.

My feeling of self-blame was immense. I tried hard to make it up to him by being an "ideal" mother and wife, allowing him as much freedom as possible, hoping that I could be redeemed and deserving once again of respect. Upon reflection, I see how naive I was and it angers me that I let myself down in this way. But my experience is not unique. Creating self-blame in a victim is how abusers excuse their behaviour and keep victims from leaving.

Shame keeps us quiet. Being abused is not something anyone wants to share about for a number of reasons, and feeling ashamed can keep victims quiet for longer. Often, victims feel a sense of responsibility for the abuse or/and feel embarrassed that they let it go on for so long (even though the abuse was NOT their fault, nor was staying, it may feel that way).

Values also play a role in feelings of shame. For example, someone who has been brought up believing that marriage and the nuclear family should be upheld at all expenses may have a difficult time leaving their abusive spouse as they may feel they'd failed and let down their family.

In my case, I felt ashamed that I'd once again ended up in an abusive relationship. My parents had thought I'd finally found the "perfect" partner and were over the moon when we married. How could I tell them that I'd 'fucked up' once again? And, 'maybe it was my fault,' as what were the chances of me ending up with yet another abusive person? Shame is what kept me there at first. I tried hard to change his abusive behaviour by altering my own behaviour, with the hopes of getting back the person I'd known before we'd married. If I could only correct his behaviour, I'd have succeeded in making my parents proud and shame would have no place, right?

Normalizing abuse happens when our bar rises as we become used to certain abusive behaviours. Some normalizing can happen during our childhood if we grow up in an abusive environment. Other normalizing can happen during a relationship with an abusive partner, as we deal with gaslighting and self-doubt.

Growing up in an environment where abusive behaviours occur and are tolerated on a regular basis makes it hard for someone to understand what a healthy relationship looks like. If a child often witnesses one parent being verbally degraded by the other parent, that behaviour can become normalized - the child may not interpret it as abusive but rather as just how parents interact. When this child enters a relationship of their own, s/he may exhibit or tolerate the same behaviours to/from their own partner. Abuse can become so normalized that it is difficult to identify and may be tolerated to a much higher degree than by someone who had grown up in a healthier home.

Abuse can also be normalized within a relationship as an abusive partner tries to convince their partner that the abuse is "all in your head" or "your fault." This is especially so during emotionally and sexually abusive relationships. In my own relationship, although I could see other married couples treating each other with love and respect and communicating in healthy ways, I still thought that I may be misinterpreting my husband's behaviour (as he kept telling me my feelings were wrong and my experiences didn't really happen the way I remembered them) and that somehow I deserved wrath so his punishing behaviour should be "expected." I mean, if I just behaved myself the way 'other wives behaved', then we'd have no problem, right? His reactions towards me were turned into a "norm" as he blamed me for them - 'I mean, who wouldn't react aggressively when faced with my behaviour, right?'

Isolation keeps people from maintaining connections with their support network (friends, family, community). Someone can easily become isolated from their support network as their abusive partner demands an unreasonable amount of attention and emotional energy, and tends to place barriers between their victim and her/his support network. It's challenging to seek help and find resources without access to a support network or if you don't feel included any longer in a support network. At the time I left my abusive partner, my communication with friends and family had become dismal, and I was unsure about who I could lean on for help. As my ex worked for the only family support provider in our small town (making every counsellor and support worker his colleague), I also felt I didn't have access to community support services.

Dependence happens especially in the case of disability and old age. When someone depends on their partner for basic-needs support, to feed themselves and be mobile, s/he may put up with a lot of abuse in order to appease their partner as they can't survive without help, may feel isolated and without a strong support network, and may not be able to afford external help.

Fear is a fascinating creature with many heads. Meant to protect us, fear can act in quite the opposite way when stuck in an abusive relationship. Often, abuse has to get to an utterly unbearable point before the abused person finally musters up the strength to leave. This has much to do with the fear that leaving will have a worse effect than staying.

I called fear a monster with several heads because that's the image that comes to mind, each head named after a terrifying thought that keeps someone from leaving.

  1. Loss of life. In the case of a physically abusive partner, a person may fear for her or her children's lives. Physically abusive men often maintain control via the threat of a physically aggressive response that aims to cause harm or even death. People who are emotionally abusive are just as controlling and may threaten to hurt themselves as a response to a partner trying to leave, which can make it challenging to leave as we try to keep everyone safe.

  2. Self-doubt. After having an abusive partner drill into you (over years) that a) you are not worthy of love, respect and support, and b) everything you do and think is wrong, you eventually begin to believe it. When you don't have faith that you can make it on your own, when you don't trust your instincts or trust others to have your back, leaving seems not only scary but almost impossible.

  3. Financial insecurity. If an abused person doesn't feel they have the financial means to support themselves, leaving may not seem feasible. This often happens in the case of stay-at-home moms who either don't work or work part-time. This was my situation. My husband and I had decided long ago, for situational and personal reasons, that I would be the primary caregiver (working part-time) and he would be the primary breadwinner. Although this meant that I would give up my career, I was happy to be the primary caregiver - it's a special kind of awesome to be able to be there for your kids. However, when things got unbearable for me, when I needed to leave, one of my most significant barriers was money. How would I support myself in a small town with limited job opportunities and low wages? I had one remaining child living at home. How would I ever be able to afford a place big enough to have my son live with me? I knew my husband would refuse to leave our house. I knew that if I wanted to leave, I'd have to leave without financial support from him. And I knew this meant leaving one of my children for a while. All these fears came true. But, what I hadn't predicted was the support network that met me at my new door after I left. There's always a way, but it can be hard to see it before you leave.

  4. Retaliation. Abuse is about power and control. When someone leaves an abusive partner, there is a high possibility that the abusive person will retaliate by re-asserting their power and control in some way. Losing your children or ending up without a roof over your head is a real threat and, for most, it's a threat not worth the risk - until things get significantly unbearable.

  5. Leaving your children with an abusive partner. Often, the only way to leave is to leave alone. Even if your abusive partner has not been abusive to your children, there is a fear that he'll turn his abusive behaviour towards them once you leave. Every parent wants to keep their children safe and will do so even if it means staying in an abusive relationship.

  6. Deportation. Immigration status can keep someone who is not yet a Canadian citizen from leaving, as leaving their Canadian spouse could mean deportation. If children are involved, there may also be a threat of separation from your children. Or the threat may be deportation back to a country that you had escaped from for good reason.

  7. The fear of not being believed or supported. Many abusers have two faces - a home face and a social face. These two personas can be very different. The way the outside world experiences a person can be quite different from how their family experiences them. The fear of not being believed or supported by friends and other community members can be overwhelming. What if you're not believed, accused of "crying wolf"? What if you're gossiped about and criticized for staying in the relationship so long? What if your family or friends turn against you? What if your community abandons you? What if your kids are ostracized and bullied because of your accusations? What if you (and possibly your kids too) are left isolated and alone?

Photo by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash

What if, what if, what if...

There are a million scary what-ifs, and none of them have predictable endings. We just don't know how others are going to react and how the reactions of others are going to affect us (and our kids), and that is fucking terrifying.

People stay because we hope, we sacrifice, and it can be fucking terrifying to leave. Everyone who finally leaves an abusive partner has mustered up a strength, over years, that is unmatched. So, really, the question should be: Wow, what's her trick? How did she manage to escape that mind-fuck?

If you think that you or someone you know is being abused, call (in Canada):

BC: VictimLinkBC: 1-800-563-0808 AB: Family Violence Information Line: 1-780-310-1818 SK: Mobile Crisis 24/7 Helpline: 306-757-0127 MB: Domestic Abuse Crisis Line: 1-877-977-0007 ON: Victim 24/7 Support Line: 1-888-579-2888 QC: SOS violence conjugale 24/7: 1-800-363-9010 (bilingual service available) NB: Chimo Helpline: 1-800-667-5005 PEI: Island Help Line: 1-800-218-2885 NS: Neighbours, Friends and Families (Abuse and Violence Support Line): 1-855-225-0220 NL: NL Sexual Assault Crisis and Prevention Centre 24/7 Support and Information Line: 1-800-726-2743 Nunavut: Kamatsiaqut Nunavut Helpline: 1-800-265-3333 NWT: NWT Help Line: 1-800-661-0844 YK: VictimLinkBC: 1-800-563-0808

Resource list

Canadian Women's Foundation

"Why Women Stay in Abusive Relationships"

National Domestic Violence Hotline

"Why People Stay: it's not as easy as simply walking away"

Institute for Family Studies

"Eight Reasons Women stay in an Abusive Relationship." Jason Whiting.

Women Against Abuse

"Why it's so difficult to leave"

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