When we hear the stories of victims of abuse, we also hear comments like: “Why did she stay? Why on earth did she put up with that level of abuse?”
As if the situation wasn’t really complicated.
So why do victims stay; why don’t they leave immediately? There are many different reasons – but the key ones include:
1. What’s happening doesn’t match their definition of abuse: Think about some statements like the following:
“He was yelling at me, and throwing things around the room. But he never, ever laid a finger on me.”
“He didn’t hit or harm me. He was just restraining me. He was blocking the door so I couldn’t get away.”
“It only happened a few times. I wouldn’t say it was a pattern.”
“I was being unreasonable so it was my fault, too.”
“I didn’t know, that as a wife, I could say no to sex.”
Comments like these point to a lack of information, or to a lack of knowledge, around what is abuse. Also, the person may have grown up in a family or culture where these types of behaviours had been normalized – so the person doesn’t realize that they’re being abused.
2. It escalates slowly. Few people are abusive when they’re on the first few dates. And often the abuser is a charismatic person. They make you feel you’re special, that you’re wonderful, and loved. So, the switch is unexpected, and it comes out of the blue – and you tend to write it off as being ‘out of character’. Furthermore, they appear to be remorseful, and are shocked at what they’ve done.
This is usually how it starts … and from there it escalates.
3. You internalize the message that you’re flawed, inadequate, and deserve to be mistreated – for you aren’t good enough. When you caught up in gaslighting, you can’t judge realty. You question everything – and that includes your sanity.
Also, you’ve been attacked, humiliated, mocked, and treated like you’re trash. Your self-esteem’s demolished, and you struggle with self-worth. That is, you’ve internalized the messages and lies that you’ve been told, such as:
“No-one else would want you, or love you, anyway. You’re ugly … Stupid … Boring … And a useless parent, too.”
4. It’s not always bad. And during those few times when the abuser’s being ‘normal’, your life can almost feel like an amazing fairy tale. The abuser can be charming, and can treat you really well. You can feel like you’re a princess – with the gifts and holidays. First class travel. Lavish restaurants. Gorgeous outfits. Jewelry.
Then he switches – and life changes – and the demons reappear.
5. You are absolutely terrified of what they might do (if you ever break the silence, and you choose to walk away). You’ve seen the other side of them, and know what they can do. Of course you are afraid … both for your kids, and for yourself.
You know they wouldn’t hesitate to do the following: destroy your reputation; spread malicious, evil lies; distort and reveal secrets; destroy close relationships.
It all comes down to power, and them ruining your life. Hence, it takes a lot of courage to decide to walk away.
You are caught in a hard place, where all the choices feel unsafe. Remaining may be risky – but it’s dangerous to leave.