Victims of Abuse Stay for Five Key Reasons

Victims of abuse stay due to a lack of financial and other resources

When domestic violence, dating violence, or intimate partner abuse is brought up, it’s not uncommon to hear someone say, “I don’t understand… Why not just leave?” There are hundreds of reasons victims of abuse don’t, won’t, or can’t leave. Here are five of the biggest.

One Reason Victims of Abuse Stay is That They Don’t Realize They’re Being Abused

For a variety of reasons, from the normalization of relationship violence in the media to a lack of education around the topic, many people don’t have a solid understanding of what constitutes abuse. In other words, what’s happening to them doesn’t meet their (misinformed) definition of abuse.

Myths & Misconceptions

Many incorrectly define domestic violence in a way that only includes assault and other personal, physical attacks.

“There was yelling, throwing things, and walls were punched, but I wasn’t touched.”

Among those who only perceive abuse in terms of physical violence, some go further by requiring a degree of severity in their definition:

“It was just a light push. I wasn’t hurt.”

“I was slapped with an open hand, not hit with a fist.”

“I wasn’t attacked. I was restrained.”

Others caveat abuse contingent on outcomes, gender-based stereotypes about abusers, or assumptions of who constitutes a domestic violence victim.

“I was punched and kicked, but it didn’t leave any marks.”

Beyond the lack of understanding about types of abuse (physical, financial, emotional, sexual), many have misconceptions around how many instances must occur before behaviors “add up to” abuse. To clarify, the answer is one.

“I was forced to do things I didn’t want to, but it only happened once.”

“It was a single instance, I don’t think it will happen again.”

Victims of abuse may stay because violence in the home has become normalized
Victims of abuse may stay because violence in the home has become normalized

Unfortunately, as a result of their childhood socialization, there are those who do not define what’s happening to them as abusive. Because they grew up in a household where domestic violence occurred, abuse doesn’t strike them as out of the ordinary, abnormal, or problematic. They might even believe it’s inevitable.

No One Ever Told Me

This is an expert from a post on one of my Facebook groups. It’s being shared here with the author’s permission.

Her words bring to light, in detail, how a lack of understanding and awareness about what constitutes domestic violence can contribute to people who are being abused remaining in their relationships. The author explained that she is still largely silent about having been abused, although she escaped those circumstances ten years ago. Guilt and shame have kept her silent. But, she decided to record and share these thoughts, in hopes that they might help someone who’s still being terrorized at home, still living in fear…

No One Ever Told Me

I really do wish that domestic violence was something that was talked about in schools, within families, or looked at with open minds. I had no idea that I was being abused… at first.

No one ever told me that slamming my phone on the wall, shattering it into pieces, because I put a password on it was abuse. Or breaking 5 other phones because I wanted to talk to my mother, wanted to ask for help, wanted to call the police.

No one ever told me that ripping my clothes apart with his bare hands because I received a compliment was abuse.

No one ever told me that him pulling a fist back, only to punch a hole through the wall two inches from my face was abuse. I mean, at least he didn’t hit me, right? And if it didn’t count then, it definitely didn’t count the dozens of other times either.

No one ever told me that taking my car keys, blocking the door with his body and telling me that if I touched him, I was the abuser… No one ever told me that’s what abuse looks like sometimes.

No one told me that stealing my money to buy more alcohol was abuse. And what type of self-respecting woman would keep paying all the bills because he blew all his money on beer already, right?

No one ever told me that when he tied a noose in front of me and threw it over the stairwell, telling me he would hang himself if I left counts as abuse. If I would have left when he slipped it over neck, it would have been all my fault, right?

I don’t think I started to recognize the abuse until coworkers pointed out the handprint around my neck. I had no idea that you’re allowed to say no to sex in a relationship. I don’t think I started to recognize the abuse until I curled helplessly around my pregnant belly with a loaded gun pointing to my head. I mean, he laughed so it was just a joke, right? […]

Maybe if they scared us about domestic violence the way they scare us about sex or drugs in school, I would have understood.

Maybe if my family would have listened to me instead of sweeping everything under the rug, I would have opened my eyes.

Maybe if the world asked, “How can I help?” instead of saying, “That would never happen to me,” I would have reached out.

Corin Newton, Domestic Violence Survivor

As harsh as those final words sound, quite often it goes beyond, “That would never happen to me,” into:

“I would never tolerate that type of behavior in a relationship.”

“There’s no world in which I’d put up with that.”

“What kind of person would get involved with someone like that?”

But, of course, it’s easy to imagine what you would, or would not, do in a situation you’ve never been in. It’s easy to dismiss the impact of grooming. Judging allows people to distance themselves from the trauma, and the uncomfortable realization that some human beings can present themselves as kind and nice to others, then go home and torment their families behind closed doors.

Statements like these can keep those who have left abusive relationships silent and ashamed, sometimes for years, possibly for life. For people who are being abused, currently, being silenced in this way could be the difference between their reaching out to get help and remaining where they are.

Victims of Abuse Stay Because Abuse Begins Slowly and Escalates Gradually

Virtually no one hits someone else on a first date. Abuse doesn’t occur out of nowhere, out of the blue, it follows a predictable pattern. When someone knows what to look for, the warning signs are discernable fairly early.

In the Beginning

Grooming, the process of preparing a person for future mistreatment, begins the first time a potential victim and abuser meet. Perpetrators of sexual and domestic violence are often very charismatic. They present themselves as caring, concerned, generous. In short, the ideal partner. At first, they put the target of their attention on a pedestal, hang on every word, are kind and courteous, share interests and values, and seem to want the same things long term.

Fast-forwarding intimacy on all levels, he plays the victim, weaving a sad story of betrayal by his previous partner who you will later come to learn is also a victim. Faux innocence and an illusion of good-naturedness make for a stunning performance…

He pretends he’s never felt like this before, and his pity ploy feasts on the first taste of your empathy. Your sympathy is delicious, prime for a dinner date, your compassion will make for good dessert

Shahida Arabi
POWER: Surviving and Thriving After Narcissistic Abuse: A Collection of Essays on Malignant Narcissism and Recovery from Emotional Abuse

As the relationship progresses, usually very quickly, abusive partners start spending more and more time with their target. Eventually, they may be in nearly constant communication. Potential victims, while falling madly in love, swimming in new relationship bliss, will fail to notice they’re spending less and less time with friends and family. They’re too busy spilling all of their deepest secrets, exposing their vulnerabilities, to realize they’re systematically being disconnected, distanced, and isolated from those they’re closest to. By the time they need help, are considering leaving, they may be, or at least feel, estranged from everyone in their social circle.

Abusive Behavior is Rationalized, Justified, and Normalized

Abusive relationships don’t start out healthy then slip into abuse. Healthy relationships can, and do, deteriorate and end without ever becoming physically or emotionally damaging.

In the typical abusive relationship, the illusion of health and happiness is, at some point, interrupted. In those split seconds, the true nature of the relationship is revealed. This glimpse of what lies ahead is not only brief, it’s also relatively minor. Perhaps it comes as a condescending remark, disguised as a joke. Or, it may take the facade of a disrespectful action. Whatever it shows up as, it vanishes as quickly as it appears. The former charming partner returns, without missing a beat.

First dates quickly become fifth dates; months speed by as you spend weekends wrapped in his arms and the high of shared laughter, inside jokes, and exclusive worlds you’ve created. Worlds no one else in allowed entry to. You begin to lose touch with friends, and family members …

Until the first blow. Which comes like a gunshot in the dark as you are sleeping…

You rationalize it and minimize it, hoping it was just an off-color comment or a misunderstanding. You dismiss his rage as a “bad day”.

Shahida Arabi
POWER: Surviving and Thriving After Narcissistic Abuse: A Collection of Essays on Malignant Narcissism and Recovery from Emotional Abuse

At this point, the victim is left with a choice between calling out the minor infraction, when everything is going so well again, or to dismiss it, ignore it, let it go. Almost without fail, people choose the latter. When an abusive partner is lucky, skilled, or both, victims are left questioning whether they even remember the situation correctly. After all, what they’re recalling seems completely out of character.

Victims of abuse stay because they blame themselves for what is happening to them
Victims of abuse stay because they blame themselves for what is happening to them

Abuse Escalates Over Time

As the relationship progresses, instances become worse, more frequent, and the consequences more severe . It isn’t uncommon for what begins as control, possibly under the guise of jealousy, to give way to intimidation, devaluation, threats, and eventually violence.

He then begins to knit an intricate web filled with falsehoods, half-truths, the worst miseries of your past and the best insecurities from your present.

Shahida Arabi
POWER: Surviving and Thriving After Narcissistic Abuse: A Collection of Essays on Malignant Narcissism and Recovery from Emotional Abuse

Victims of Abuse Stay Because They’ve Internalized That They’re Not Good Enough

Cut off from friends, family, and financial resources, victims begin to feel helpless and alone. Immersed in their abuser’s narrative, they begin to develop a distorted view of that person, the relationship, and (perhaps most importantly) themselves. They start to question anything and everything, from their skills and abilities, to their value and worthiness. When gaslighting is involved, they may even question their sanity.

What people are focusing on, when they ask, “Why don’t they leave,” is the explosive episodes, threats, and violence. What they often fail to notice are those acts that have stripped victims of their dignity, humiliated them, and chipped away at their self-esteem. By the time the relationship becomes explosive or violent, it’s not uncommon for the victim to have internalized the worldview of their abuser. Most notably, the lies that insinuate they deserve their abuse.

“You brought this on yourself.”

“You make me act this way.”

“If you wouldn’t provoke me, this wouldn’t happen.”

These types of messages are often paired with others that are more directly meant to discourage leaving.

“No one else will ever want you.”

“No one else will love you the way I do.”

Inside a Victim’s Mind

Although the approach and tactics may vary, the purpose of manipulation does not. Abusers seek to gain and maintain power and control. Stripping away another person’s control requires an all out effort to undermine them, both internally and externally. Emotional, psychological abuse carries one consistent underlying message… “You’re not good enough.”

You’re “not good enough” is a theme that cuts across EVERY topic, interaction,
and area of an abusive relationship.

The victim may be “not good enough” at parenting, shopping, interior design, cleaning, dancing, driving, selecting movies, or sex. People who are being abused are told, over and over, in a multitude of ways, that their personalities are flawed, their dreams are silly, and their needs are trivial. “You’re not good enough” extends to physical appearance also: body shape, specific body parts, even posture might be targeted as inferior. The abusive partner dislikes or disapproves of clothing choices, mannerisms, morning and evening rituals, family traditions (and family members), favorite songs, and proposed vacation destinations (in reality, proposed ideas in general). Nothing about the victim escapes judgement, begging the question, “What attracted them in the first place?” Although the question is likely not ever voiced. The victim has learned not to ask, not to challenge, not to stand up or speak out. Having a voice leads to conflict, and conflict leads to abuse.

Victims of abuse fall short every time, in every way imaginable. This is because the abuser’s expectations are unrealistic or constantly changing. There are double standards in place for behavior. Nothing short of perfection, and mind reading, will do.

Abusers will make sure victims know that they aren’t fast enough, smart enough, punctual enough, patient enough, or attentive enough. They are incapable of learning, fall far below average, and are “lucky” to have found someone who can (begrudgingly) tolerate them. The longer victims are in an abusive relationships, the fewer redeeming qualities they’ll have in their partner’s eyes.

Words become weapons. When comments aren’t critical, they’re contemptuous, patronizing, or insulting. An abuser’s target may just be trying to catch a breath amidst an onslaught of passive aggression.

At times, criticism is disguised as praise, particularly sarcastic praise. Sometimes, compliments offered to others are used to make victims feel small and insufficient by comparison, a tactic referred to as triangulation.

When someone is receiving the same message, over and over again, in different ways, inevitably they’ll begin to internalize it. Even if people who are being abused are able to get away, the abuser’s voice may follow them, in the role of their inner critic. Victims may spend years in therapy or support groups, unraveling the layers of emotional wreckage left behind. Some will spend a lifetime trying to remember, and revert back to, a time when they believed they were good enough.

Victims of Abuse Stay Because They See a Prince | Princess Who Becomes a Beast

Without the knowledge necessary to recognize all the manipulative tactics occuring during the “peaceful” times, most victims assume the charming, wonderful person that they fell in love with represents their “true nature”, and the abuse that occurs, on occasion, results from childhood trauma, anger management issues, addiction, etc. Domestic violence victims may stay as long as there is a tiny shred of hope that they might find, reconnect with, and ultimately save the person they fell in love with.

“This is a type of love story where the happy ending lies not in finding Prince Charming. Rather, it lies in the realization that he never existed at all.” 

Shahida Arabi
POWER: Surviving and Thriving After Narcissistic Abuse: A Collection of Essays on Malignant Narcissism and Recovery from Emotional Abuse

Some of this results from socialization, the relentless “beauty and the beast” messages about love conquering all, and having the capacity to change who another person is, at their core. More frequently, it’s the result of trauma bonding, a form of conditioning created and reinforced through unpredictable and inconsistent experiences that trigger a flee, fight, or freeze response.

The environment necessary to create a trauma bond involves intensity, complexity, inconsistency, and a promise. Victims stay because they are holding onto that elusive “promise” or hope. 

Sharie Stines, Psy.D
What is Trauma Bonding?

Abusive partners are both the cause of pain and the source of comfort after. They have a “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” quality to their behavior. There is no middle ground, they go from kind to cruel, from helpful to harmful, and from loving to terrifying.

Most victims spend a lot of time trying to convince themselves, and sometimes others, that the abusive behavior doesn’t reflect their partner’s personality. They’re sure that the manipulation, animosity, and violence they see, some of the time, doesn’t represent the “essence” of the person they’re dating, living with, or married to. Victims may feel they can save their partner from inner demons through unconditional love and understanding. They may even believe that what they experience during the “good times” is worth suffering through the bad times.

If and when a victim, during a moment of clarity, realizes that “the charmer” is the aberration (who was created to bait them), they may stay anyway. At this point, some remain in the relationship because of the commitment they’ve made, perhaps their faith doesn’t allow for divorce. More frequently, if they don’t leave once the illusion is gone, they’re afraid.

Victims of Abuse Stay Out of Fear, in One of Its Many Forms

The inability to predict, or avoid, abusive episodes causes domestic violence victims to constantly feel as though they’re walking on eggshells. Somewhere, deep below the surface, victims know they’re fighting a losing battle. It’s not unheard of for people who are being abused to push their partners, attempting to either bring an end to the tension building phase or just assert some measure of control.

One of the reasons victims of abuse stay stay is that they feel worn down and unable to muster the strength to leave
One of the reasons victims of abuse stay is that they feel worn down and unable to muster the strength to leave

People who are being abused may wake up one morning, look into the mirror and find an empty shell of their former self – once full of light, laughter, and dreams, that person has been replaced by a prisoner. Blinded by a “cloud of chemistry”, they willingly walked into a torture chamber. Now the exits are blocked.

Victims of abuse live in constant fear. They may have measures in place, while living with an abusive partner, to (hopefully) ensure safety. Looking in, from the outside, it’s easy to wonder why someone would continue to live in a situation where there is constant emotional upheaval and a lingering threat of violence.

Those who perpetrate abuse often spend quite a bit of time explaining to their victims that things will only get worse if they attempt to leave. This may include threats, such as:

“I will find you. There’s nowhere you can hide from me.”

Or threats against themselves:

“I couldn’t go on without you. I wouldn’t go on without you.”

Threats are also commonly extended to siblings, parents, children, friends, and pets.

When victims confide in abusers, revealing personal details they’re not fully transparent about, their secrets may be used to keep them from walking out:

“I’ll tell everyone what you’ve done.”

“I’ll tell your father you’re bisexual.”

“I’ll call immigration.”

“I’ll get you fired.”

When there’s no real dirt to reveal, abusive partners may threaten to create fake dirt.

“I’ll say you’re unfit, and fight for full custody of the children.”

“I’ll spread rumors about you. Everyone will believe me.”

“I say you were the one who hit me.”

Even if a victim isn’t threatened while attempting to leave, they may know, inherently, that ending the relationship would be dangerous. How do you tell someone you want them to leave when you’re afraid to ask them to do the dishes? The feeling that things could get worse is not unfounded. The most dangerous times in an abusive relationship are while the victim is leaving, and the month after.

Fears about leaving may be greater if a domestic violence victim has tried, and failed, to leave before. People asking, “Why don’t victims leave?” haven’t accounted for the possibility that many are trying to just that, actively planning their escape. Ending an abusive relationship is no easy task, often requiring assistance from crisis advocates, shelters, law enforcement, and the legal system.

Most women try to leave an abusive relationship. Three-fourths of homicide victims and 85 percent of women who had experienced severe but nonfatal violence had left or tried to leave in the past year.

Carolyn Rebecca Block
How Can Practitioners Help an Abused Woman Lower Her Risk of Death?

To put it bluntly, victims of domestic violence are caught “between a rock and a hard place”. Staying is dangerous. But, leaving is dangerous as well…