— Trigger warnings: physical violence, rape, mental illness, abuse —
I used to judge people in abusive relationships. I would think to myself, “They’re stupid. Why don’t they just leave? If a man ever put his hands on me, I would leave in a heartbeat.”
Well, I know now that I have to be careful about judging situations I know nothing about. People always wonder, “Why DO people stay with abusive partners? There are so many men and women in the world who wouldn’t lay a finger on someone they love. Why would they ever stay?”
This is the question that causes the most embarrassment and shame to women and men in abusive relationships. The entire time in the relationship I was asking myself the same thing Every time I called the police on him, I was asked why I continued to invite him over.
On one hand I knew that staying in the relationship was wrong, but I couldn’t stop. I didn’t want to “give up” on him or the relationship. In the end, I was left feeling dirty and bad. I felt like I was seen as a bad girl making poor decisions, and the police and everyone around me knew that I was making these bad decisions in my life.
I’m going to try to explain, in a way that will hopefully make sense, why someone might choose to stay, or really, why I stayed in an abusive relationship myself.
And please, if you know someone who is in an abusive relationship. Get help for them. They probably aren’t strong enough mentally, or too afraid to get help themselves. No matter how much they tell you everything is alright – everything is not alright; they are trapped and hoping someone will notice and care enough to ask them what is really going on.
Here are a few reasons why I (and many women and men) remained in an abusive relationship:
I met my abuser at a low point in my life.
Two years ago I entered myself into a psych ward because I was stressed about exams and also because I was slightly suicidal. I didn’t know at the time I was walking into what was going to be one of the greatest nightmares of my life. It all started with a simple ‘hello’.
Brad* was charming and sweet. He was honest and he listened to me. He was older than me and I was intrigued. When he told me about how he grew up in a group home, was molested as a child, and drifted in and out of jail for most of his life, I saw him as a broken butterfly. My empathy and his psychological games caused me to be trapped in a highly abusive relationship for a year.
It’s rare that a woman meets her abuser when she has her life sorted out and is stable, confident, and happy, surrounded by friends. For me, I was at a low point in my life. I had sunk into a deep depression and was desperate for anything that made me feel slightly alive.
When I meet Brad at the psychiatric facility, he was a distraction for me. He made me feel happy (in between the feelings of total stress and anguish he caused me). That false happiness became a lifeline for me. Instead of trying to work on myself, I would call him when I would get depressed, and the cycle of abuse would start.
I thought I had to date someone crazy like me.
I’ve had depression most of my life. Mental illness comes with a large stigma, displaying the sufferer being crazy and un-dateable. I believed this stigma, and it caused me to accept my abuser’s crazy behavior. I thought, “We understand each other. He has mental issues and so do I.”
The important difference between him and me, however, is that despite having a mental illness, I still treat people with kindness, and I don’t abuse others. He uses his mental illness as an excuse to be able to abuse others. In that sense, we were not the same at all. But at the time, I couldn’t see it that way.
He was “there for me.”
I think one of the bigger reasons why people stay in abusive relationships is the dependency. In our generational practice of ‘whoever cares less wins,’ it was refreshing to meet a man who wasn’t trying to play games. Brad always picked up when I called. He called me multiple times a day. He always texted back. He opened up to me quickly. He adored me. This adoration was, however, a ruse for his possessiveness. He didn’t love me – he owned me. And I let him own me because I was just happy that someone was there.
Uncharacteristically, I allowed him to do this, despite the fact that I had always prided myself on being very independent and very selective about who I dated. But again, this was not in a time in my life where I was feeling strong or the least bit worthy of attention.
He used my empathy against me.
Brad used my empathic nature against me. Every time I would get mad, he would bring up his “story.” Of course his own past was riddled with violence and abuse. I came from a sheltered, stable lifestyle. I couldn’t relate, or even fathom, some of the things he had experienced. Instead of realizing he needed serious help and letting him go, I tried to help him myself. I tried to be his counselor, parental figure, lover, friend, financial support, case worker, etc. But nothing was ever good enough for him, and he continued to take his anger and problems out on me.
I went from being a strong, well-rounded girl to a scared, weak, and lost shell of the girl I used to know.
He stripped me of my strength and self-esteem.
Brad said things to me that were so cruel and unusual that I don’t even want to type them out here. In some of his recurring ones, however, he called me the devil, a psychopath, a ‘hoe,’ and so on. Even though I knew he was just saying these things to be cruel, it came to the point that I heard it so frequently that I started to believe it.
As the abuse continued, I began to just accept it. I accepted the fact that he was most likely going to kill me. I accepted it when he would force me to have sex. I accepted it when he hit me. I accepted it when he cheated on me.
And through it all, I grew so tired. I became so mentally and physically exhausted that instead of leaving, I gave in to the fact that this awful life with this awful man was my ‘fate’.
It’s like being in a boxing ring with someone you love. You don’t want to fight them but when the gloves come on, you just do it. And after a couple rounds you’re incredibly tired, but you get up and keep fighting because you feel like you have to.
In between the abuse, he was an amazing boyfriend.
Brad was my second relationship and my first time. I didn’t know what normal was. But I knew that, in between being a complete monster, Brad was the kindest, smartest, and most respectful man I ever knew.
I kept praying that if I stayed, the scary Brad would leave and the amazing Brad would stay. But as it is with abusers, the two characters are inseparable. There are only the two extremes. After he punched me in the face for the first time, I knew that he wasn’t going to change and that I needed to get out of the relationship.
I had Stockholm syndrome.
Stockholm syndrome is very real, and if someone you know is being abused, it is highly likely that they unknowingly suffer from it. Stockholm syndrome is when a person seeks out love and affection from the same person who is doing them the most harm. It’s a strange psychological phenomenon, but it is one of the reasons I stayed.
I couldn’t make sense of the fact that someone I loved and who said they loved me could hurt me in such tremendous ways. That confusion caused me to seek out my abuser for answers. I wanted to know WHY he hurt me, WHY he hit me, WHY he chose me to be the one he was doing this to. I wanted to know why, as if his reasoning would make what he was doing okay.
I stayed for the intimacy.
The sex was a big part of why I stayed. Brad took my virginity, so he introduced me to a whole new side of my body I wasn’t, let’s just say, acquainted with. I never understood the saying ‘once you pop you can’t stop’ until now. Now I completely understand. On lonely nights after I had broken up with him for, let’s say, the 6th time, I would think about having sex with him. That thought would quickly turn into action. I know now that it wasn’t the sex I was craving; it was the intimacy and the false love that I would experience afterwards.
I was afraid to leave.
Fear is one of the main factors that can keep someone in the cycle of abuse. The reaction of their partner when they threaten to leave can be so frightening that it causes them to stay in the relationship for fear of what leaving might do. Brad never stalked or threatened me when I wanted to leave, making my decision to leave that much more confusing.
Most of the time, I would go back to him. However, Brad made it clear several times that if he wanted to hurt me, he would. That fear caused me to not only keep going back (Stockholm syndrome), but it made me afraid to stand up for myself when I tried to leave.
These are a few reasons why I stayed, and they may be some of the reasons why other people stay. Every situation and every person is different. Abuse is not black and white. I think that it’s important to understand that one of the hardest parts, and one of the reasons someone will stay in an abusive relationship, is the judgement from others. If someone feels like no one understands their situation, they will most likely stay in it.
If you are reading this and you are in an abusive relationship and don’t know how to get out, please know that I understand what you are going through. The first step is to recognize that you want better for yourself and for your life. The second step is to get help.
If you are a student, reach out to your school’s victim advocacy group. If you are not a student, there are a ton of resources in your area; there are places you can stay once you decide to leave safely. There are professionals who will make sure you are safe and understood.
If you, or someone you know, are in an abusive relationship, do something now. Don’t wait, like I did, until your abuser leaves you with a black eye. If you know the relationship is toxic, seek help. You deserve so much more.
*Names have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals
Resources: The National Domestic Violence Hotline