My husband’s abuse wasn’t always so obvious.
Before the physical violence and the wanton death threats, before the temper tantrums that involved breaking or throwing things, before the hole he punched in the wall or the menacing texts or emails, or any of those often public displays of domestic violence, he was regularly abusing me in other, less visible ways. And yet, I stayed.
I stayed right up until he tried to kill me.
Abuse is complicated. It can be visible and obvious, as is many times the case in relationships with physical abuse, or it can be subtle and hard to spot, like with emotional or financial abuse. But once it’s been detected by friends and family of the victim, one of the questions often asked (even by the most well-meaning loved ones) is: “Why don’t you just leave?”
Putting such a simple query to something as complex as abuse is misguided at best, and actively harmful at worst. It implies that the solution to deeply traumatic pain and suffering is a simple matter of choice, which makes the victim feel ashamed for what they’ve experienced or even at fault for it. After all, if things were so bad, why did they stay?
The truth is, there are a lot of reasons a person stays with an abusive partner. For starters, it can be difficult to judge what’s abusive in a relationship and what’s just unhealthy. Not everyone is clear on exactly what abuse even is. While there are several names for abuse within a relationship (intimate partner violence, domestic abuse, and relationship abuse are a few examples), they all boil down to the same thing: a pattern of behaviors used by one partner to maintain power and control over the other.
The National Domestic Violence Hotline offers a list of common reasons that people stay in abusive relationships.
A person may be afraid of what will happen if they decide to leave the relationship. Such fears aren’t unfounded, either. The most dangerous time for domestic violence victims is immediately after leaving the relationship.
Believing Abuse is Normal
A person may not know what a healthy relationship looks like (perhaps from growing up in an environment where abuse was common) and they may not recognize that their relationship is unhealthy. I began dating the man who would become my abuser when we were teenagers. Our relationship was the only one I knew.
Fear of Being Outed
If someone is in an LGBTQ relationship and has not yet come out to everyone, their partner may threaten to reveal this secret. Photos from the relationship can become a source of blackmail, especially if the victim is a member of a culture or religion that opposes LGBTQ rights. Depending on a person’s country of origin, being outed can literally be a matter of life and death.
Embarrassment or Shame
It’s often difficult for someone to admit they’ve been abused. They may feel they’ve done something wrong by becoming involved with an abusive partner. They may also worry that their friends and family will judge them. Asking the question, “Why don’t you just leave?” certainly doesn’t help with this.
When an abusive partner constantly puts someone down and blames them for the abuse, it can be easy for the victim to believe those statements and think that the abuse is their fault. This is one of the ways in which emotional abuse can be especially dangerous — it can shape the way a victim interacts with the rest of the world by altering their self-perception.
So often, the victim feels love for their abusive partner. Abusive people can often be charming, especially at the beginning of a relationship, and the victim may hope that their partner will go back to being that person. They may only want the violence to stop, not for the relationship to end entirely. It’s hard to believe that the same person who was once a source of joy and excitement in your life is now the cause of pain and fear. As Meg Kennedy Dugan and Roger R. Hock write in It’s My Life Now: Starting Over After An Abusive Relationship Or Domestic Violence, “Most abusers have some genuinely good characteristics: the ones that made you fall in love.” Unfortunately, no personal quality can override control and abuse.
Traditional gender roles supported by someone’s culture or religion may influence them to stay rather than end the relationship for fear of bringing shame upon their family, especially when it comes to marriages. Many religions firmly oppose divorce, and fear of being excommunicated from the best or only support system they know can deter a person from leaving an abusive relationship.
Language Barriers/Immigration Status
If a person is undocumented, they may fear that reporting the abuse will affect their immigration status. This can be for a couple of reasons, including a fear of engaging with government authorities (such as police who could report them for being undocumented), or because ending their relationship could result in the termination of their visa if it was acquired based on their relationship to a citizen. Also, if their first language isn’t English, it can be difficult to express the depth of their situation to others.
Lack of Money/Resources
Financial abuse is common, and a victim may be financially dependent on their abusive partner. Without money, access to resources, or even a place to go, it can seem impossible for them to leave the relationship. This feeling of helplessness can be especially strong if the person lives with their abusive partner. For partners who are married, fear of expensive litigation that would come with divorce can be a motivator to stay. Debt can similarly be a driving force.
When someone is physically dependent on their abusive partner, they can feel that their well-being is connected to the relationship. This dependency could heavily influence their decision to stay in an abusive relationship. This can be the case with permanent disabilities or even short-term or temporary ones, such as a serious illness.
Of course, these aren’t the only reasons a person may remain in an abusive relationship. Staying in order to keep a family with children in tact is another common one (in other words, “staying together for the kids”). Tricky emotional dynamics can also come into play, like Stockholm syndrome, a fear of change, or a desire to preserve the sense of familiarity that a long term relationship creates. Some of the other survivors I’ve met who stayed with their abusive partners for years and years often explained it by saying “it’s all I’d ever known,” even if they also knew the abuse wasn’t normal or okay. They expressed a sense that they “couldn’t imagine a life without him.”
Ultimately, the reason for staying in an abusive relationship is deeply personal and unique to every victim. But some of the best advice (or perhaps, most accurate prediction) I was ever given in regards to the domestic violence I was experiencing was from a survivor who warned me, “It never gets better. But it does get worse.”
Abuse can come in many forms and from any type of person — regardless of gender or sexual orientation. If you feel that you may be in an abusive relationship, seek help. The National Domestic Violence Hotline can help victims and survivors of domestic violence. Call 1–800–799–7233 or chat with an advocate on their website.