Why Women Stay in Abusive Relationships Based on What They've Told Me

Michelle Jaqua

woman looking through sheer curtainPhoto by Claudia Soraya on Unsplash

If someone has never experienced intimate partner violence, it’s difficult to understand why a woman stays in an abusive relationship, even when she knows she’s being abused. Leaving may seem as simple as walking out the door. However, leaving abuse is not that easy.

Women have practical and valid reasons for staying; finances, increased safety risk, legal problems, or lack of support. An abused woman already knows the personal obstacles she will face from her abuser by leaving, more so than anyone else could possibly understand who aren’t in her position.

A woman in an intimate partner violence (IPV) relationship is held as an emotional and psychological hostage through gaslighting, blaming, and manipulation, along with other emotional and physical intimidations from her abuser. The psychological stress involved in leaving is complex. She WILL have repercussions from her abuser if she leaves, and some of those repercussions can be physically harmful or even deadly.

When I talk to women in abusive relationships, they rarely mention the above reasons why they stay with their partners. Instead, women come across as either indifferent and detached, or ashamed and embarrassed by their circumstances, depending on who they’re talking to and how long they’ve been in the relationship.

I have been there, and I’ve reacted similarly. The behavior is self-preservation. Before a woman has self-realization (usually caused by a trigger that changes how they see their partner), she can’t mentally live with the day-to-day abuse without numbing herself to her abuser’s attacks.

The woman instead stays focused more on the positive aspects of her relationship. Focusing on how bad she is, or how good he is, is her way of being in denial and deflecting insinuations from others that she would be better off by leaving.

I’ve talked to women who stay in abusive, controlling relationships and have asked why they don’t leave. The answer depends on where they are in the abuse cycle with their abuser. They may be in crisis or walking on eggshells, while other times, they are in the love-bombing or honeymoon stage of the abuse cycle. All of them can’t or won’t leave, no matter where they are in that cycle. Here are the most common comments I hear from women in abusive relationships:

1. “I love him”

“I love him” is the most common reason women choose to stay in an abusive relationship. Her unhealthy attachment is through trauma bonding and the hope her abuser will return to “the way things used to be.”

She hangs on to the first part of their relationship; the time when her abuser made over-the-top romantic and loving gestures, and trauma bonded with her. In their trauma-bonding, he may mention his terrible upbringing or how crazy his exes were. He might tell her how other people in his life didn’t understand or love him. Most likely, she’s had her own negative life experiences, and they’ve bonded together over this.

He made her feel like she was unique and was the one woman who understood him. This is their bond together and it’s what he uses as ammunition when he starts his cycle of abuse.

Slowly, that loving feeling changes into arguments, walking on eggshells, and an overwhelming feeling of discontent. As the abuser works on controlling her, he will intersperse the abuse with love-bombing, especially after a terrible blow-up. He’ll give her gifts, tell her how much he loves her, is affectionate with her, makes love to her, or whatever way he’s studied her and knows which loving acts will keep her hooked.

This love bombing will keep her attached enough to tell herself that she loves him. The answer “I love him” shuts down any other reason to explain why she doesn’t leave, as if love will conquer all.

It will not.

The abuser is not using love in this relationship, and he never will. He uses power and control with whatever tactic works for him. He’ll weaponize the “I love him” against her.

When an abuser starts the abusive process, it’s extremely rare to change back to a normal, healthy relationship.

A woman with a good amount of self-esteem would not tolerate this kind of behavior towards her, even if she loved the guy. You must love yourself more than you love your abuser or anyone else who wants to mistreat you.

You must love yourself enough to have boundaries with people and how they treat you. You must love yourself enough to commit to taking action on giving others repercussions when they manipulate, lie, gaslight, threaten, yell, punch, scream, hit, slap, choke, or otherwise abuse you.

You must love yourself enough to walk away.

2. “ He’s not completely a bad person”

When someone says this to me, it tells me that some bad shit has gone down, but the abuser has apologized every single time and love-bombed the woman or made a ton of promises and will be the perfect partner…for a while…until he abuses her again.

For the record, nobody is a completely bad person. Nor is anyone a completely good person. We all have bad and good parts about us.

The abuser is no different.

Being a bad or good person isn’t the point. The point is whether you feel safe, respected, and loved in your relationship. Everyone has disagreements, arguments, fights…whatever you want to call it. But it’s how two people conduct themselves and treat each other during those conflicts.

Yelling, calling names, making threats, punching walls, throwing things, trying to scare you, hitting, choking, recklessly driving when you’re in the car, gaslighting, punishing, withholding (emotions, money, food, a car, clothes, a job), isolating…these are the “bad parts” that none of the good parts of a person should override.

Mostly, it’s about having the respect, love, and trust in yourself that you would never excuse the inexcusable and let another person get away with this kind of behavior towards you.

3. “It’s as much my fault as it is his”

When the relationship has gotten to the point where the woman believes she is the problem in the relationship, this is when you know she has been gaslighted into thinking she is the cause of all the pain she’s experiencing. It’s the “if I didn’t do ____, he wouldn’t yell at me” reason. Abusers will make it really easy by giving this excuse to their victim, ie. “If you didn’t argue with me, I wouldn’t smack you” or “If you weren’t so frigid, I wouldn’t sleep with other women.”

On writing this, it sounds incredulous that someone would believe they were to blame for another’s bad behavior. Still, the abuser is an expert at twisting his abusive incidences into being the victim’s fault.

I believe most all abused women go through this. Once she realizes it really is his doing and she is not at fault, she will be one step closer to breaking free from her abuser. Unfortunately, most people can tell her over and over that it’s not her fault without success.

Change only happens when you, the victim, internally realize that this is all bullshit and you’re not going to be a scapegoat anymore.

4. “I don’t want to go through another divorce/breakup”

At this point in the relationship, it’s understood that the abuser is the one who instigates and creates the cycle of abuse. The woman knows his triggers and mostly tries to walk on eggshells, not causing a commotion in the relationship.

At this point, she may remember the last time a relationship ended and knows how painful and difficult it is breaking it off with an abuser.

The woman feels she can tolerate the abuse with this partner because she’s familiar with his patterns. She may think she has some control over the abuse by her actions/reactions. She may also believe he is the best she can find, because her entire life has been wracked with abuse. She believes if she leaves this relationship, she’ll only choose another of the same (women who are abused typically have a pattern of choosing abusive men).

So, why leave?

You can break this cycle. You will need to start healing through certain avenues such as self-help, therapy, group gatherings/meetings (mine was Al-Anon), or any outside support that works for you. Find what works for you. You can start when you’re still in an abusive relationship.

Look at your repeated negative patterns within a commitment. Seeing your negative patterns will shed light on why you stay. It’s damn hard because you have to look at all the ugly parts of yourself, accept them, embrace them, then decide you want better in relationships. If you’re committed to recovering from the cycle of abuse, you can get through the pain. Self-love, self-healing, and self-respect is where you’ll find you are more valuable than what that relationship ever gave you.

Regardless of where you are in your relationship, if you are giving these answers as to why you stay, then reread the last paragraph and decide if you’re ready to make a change.

You can do that. I believe in you.

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I write about happenings in the Pacific Northwest. Subscribe to my page and get my info in your email.

Lake Oswego, OR

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