Many people think that the obvious answer to abusive relationships is to leave. We jump quickly to caustic victim-blaming of people who stay. “She must want it.” “He must be trying to work something out in his past.” “They lack the courage to make a change.”
Patriarchal cultures are permeated by abuse. Every day, we fight abuse, flee abuse, and make compromises to meet our needs. Some people tolerate abusive work conditions for needed money. Some people tolerate abusive doctors for needed medicine. Some people tolerate abusive relationships for needed housing, respectability, or companionship. Some people buy products and services created in abusive conditions.
Life is complicated
People stay for the good parts, to learn something, to understand how they got there, to avoid going there again, or to fulfill an internal or societal story about what life and relationships look like.
Abusive situations are rarely clear-cut and unambiguous. An abusive spouse can also be genuinely loving at times, especially early in the relationship. The abuse may be subtle, laced with gaslighting so victims believe they are imagining or causing it.
If an abusive situation is unclear to the people involved, it is even less clear to outside witnesses. Even when a survivor does name abuse, mutual friends often refuse to “choose sides.” This false neutrality compromises with an abuser to maintain comfortable community interactions for everyone except the survivor.
Safer to stay
Some people stay in abusive situations because they correctly assess that the abuser is more dangerous if they leave than if they stay. They stay to protect themselves and others they love from violence, blacklisting, and other reprisals.
Some people stay because they have (temporarily) surrendered their power to make choices and changes in their life. Learned helplessness is an injury caused by abuse. Any shame associated with it belongs to the abusers who caused it, not to the person who suffers through it.
We make commitments to people and organizations without full knowledge of what is involved. Some abusers use the bait of intense love and care to encourage premature commitments, knowing that integrity will hold the victim in place for more abuse.
Society, the abuser, and the victim’s Inner Critic say in chorus, “You haven’t tried hard enough. You haven’t fixed yourself yet. Have you looked at your part?” The victim continues to try harder instead of saying, “Wait a minute. This isn’t my fault at all.”
Even when someone cautiously waits to make a commitment, a relationship can change over time. Gradually the balance shifts from occasional minor infractions (“no one is perfect”) to larger blowups (“please forgive me“) to ongoing abuse (“you provoked me”). It is painfully easy to believe that if we do the right thing, the relationship will change back to its pleasant beginnings.
Abuse is rife with secrets and extreme experiences. This shared world forges a bond that is hard to leave behind, because it seems that no one on the outside will understand. Sadly, even the most extreme experiences are understood by many others in the world. Pain, trauma, and abuse are part of the human condition just as much as sunshine and rainbows.
In search of a door
We can fiercely and creatively seek non-abusive ways to meet our needs. Simply the act of looking can reveal a way out, or it can require years to pry open a door. Discrimination and injustice such as racism, sexism, heterosexism, and economic inequality conspire to limit avenues for escape. Starting over is hard. Without access to money and social power, it can be impossible.
Disability and chronic illness can also limit available options, and can be intensified by abuse. Abuse causes depression, PTSD, vicious self-criticism, and bone-deep exhaustion. It is painfully easy to believe that if we are being abused, we deserve abuse, even though no one deserves abuse for any reason.
Leaving is a process. From the outside, a decision to stay and a decision to leave look the same until the moment of separation. It takes many internal and external acts of preparation to build up to that moment.
Some people stay because they correctly assess that they do not (yet) have the emotional and physical resources to leave. Change and risk are frightening for everyone, especially when past risks have turned out badly. Waiting is a valid strategy in abusive situations.
Express your trust
If you know someone in an abusive situation, affirm that they are doing the best they can with the available information and resources. Express your trust in their essential strength and capacity to find their way. Help them notice what they are doing well.
Consider doing the same for yourself, if you are or have been in abusive situations. How does it feel to send gentle encouragement back to a younger self?
Have compassion for your judgments and fears around people in abusive situations. It is difficult to witness someone’s pain with the knowledge that they do not deserve it and there is no immediate solution.
“Helping Her Get Free: A Guide for Families and Friends of Abused Women” by Susan Brewster is a practical, compassionate guide when you know someone is being abused.