Why Do People Stay in Abusive Relationships?
It’s a logical question for someone who has never experienced physical or emotional abuse. Logic says if something hurts, you pull away; you avoid; you do whatever you can to keep from hurting again. Yet, complicated situations like these rarely enjoy a simple solution.
What Qualifies Me to Write?
I suspected, and a therapist confirmed, I experienced emotional abuse in one of my previous relationships. I include that explanation as a way of validating my observations, not as a means of claiming expertise. It’s my story, and the fact there are three sides to every story does not make my side any less legitimate.
It would be easier to relate my story in the form of a diary. I kept detailed accounts of what happened and could allow the story to reveal the signs of emotional abuse, but I have no interest in turning my narrative into someone else’s tabloid. I don’t need vengeance to properly heal.
Rather, I’m going to sift through a handful of general observations. Everyone’s story is different. If you are a victim, perhaps you will relate with a few of these observations. If you are the friend of a victim, perhaps you can use the information to better understand what your friend is going through.
Why People Wait to Share
It’s not uncommon for people to wonder why victims wait, sometimes years, to talk about their experience. Sometimes this curiosity spawns doubt. It must not have been that bad if a victim waited so long to talk about what happened, or worse, the victim must have been okay with the situation.
I am ashamed to confess I used to feel similar skepticism. Even as I was experiencing my own challenges, I was convinced I would never allow myself to be put in such a corner. It wasn’t until after the relationship ended that I could look back and fully recognize that I had been a victim. I cannot begin to imagine how a woman must feel given our societal imbalance.
I had a few reasons for postponing the writing of my own story.
- As a male, I am more accustomed to seeing my gender as the perpetrator of abuse than the victim.
- It was a mental exercise for me not to associate male victims with weakness.
- I felt my story would take away from someone else’s struggle.
That point is worth emphasizing.
Every relationship hits speed bumps, but emotional abuse has a way of twisting reality to such a degree that you start to believe that while your situation is bad, there must be people who have it worse. In my case, I started to believe that what we were going through was normal. Unless there were physical bruises, it hardly seemed reasonable to complain.
The Victim Card
If we have enjoyed any meaningful degree of interaction, you likely know I am no shrinking violet. I nudge rules. I love competition. I respect people who get to the point and let me know exactly where I stand. When loved ones come to me with their challenges, I am sometimes guilty of wanting to fix more than listen.
My work spouse and I joke we each have one feeling. It occasionally gets hurt, but we always bounce back, find a way to reconcile our differences, or chalk up the encounter as something not worth stressing over and move on.
I am also a stereotypical man who needed help getting in touch with my sensitive side. My friends and I joked about this as kids. Sensitivity does not go well with masculinity and certainly not with traditional Hispanic up bring, or at least, this is how we’ve been conditioned.
It took three years of counseling to work myself out of the idea that men are incapable of hurting. Even after recognizing this on a surface level, it took a little longer to be able to express that hurt.
Understanding my own emotions helped me learn to be more patient with others. Once my own feelings were validated, it was easier to see my situation for what it was and understand my own contributions to the problem.
When we think of victims, it’s likely we think of someone who is quiet, submissive, mild-mannered… So you’ll understand why it’s harder for outwardly confident personalities to admit we fell victim to abuse. It can feel embarrassing to admit that for all our public confidence, we were bested by someone stronger in such a demeaning way. Unfortunately, this contributes to the silence.
Emotional Abuse is Yours to Define
I’m sure somebody somewhere came up with a succinct definition for emotional abuse. In some cases I’m sure these definitions peg the feelings just right. I’ve not bothered to offer anything approaching a baseline, because emotional abuse is what you decide it means to you. Allowing someone else to define emotional abuse runs the risk of gas lighting.
Consider an example where your partner habitually does something they know makes you feel uncomfortable. Perhaps they routinely choose to watch a show they know will give you nightmares. That may not seem as compelling of an example as someone who constantly insults you, but emotional abuse can be a slippery slope. Someone else could chalk it up to you just being too sensitive, but you know your body better than anyone else and understand when your partner has crossed the line from oblivious to abusive.
Boiler plate definitions of emotional abuse create too much potential for comparisons. Just because someone else’s situation appears harsher does not mean your situation is any less worthy of attention.
Ultimatums Are Not a Clear Cut Choice
An ultimatum does not have to be a demand that you pick between two options. In my opinion, an ultimatum can also manifest itself in the other person’s reaction when you make the wrong choice in their eyes. Their reaction can be uncomfortable enough to coerce you into doing what they want, because it’s easier to see things their way than it is to create conflict by disagreeing.
Why go against the grain if you know that doing so will result in them sulking, slamming things, or sending an equally negative signal that they are displeased?
Hypothetically speaking, why would you go to a party you know they would not want you to attend? It’s likely the pressure of their disappointment would ruin the evening for you, making your attending that party not worth the repercussions when you get home.
Isolation is Not Just a Physical Separation
Sometimes the isolation element is hard to spot because it does not feel like isolation. Yes, a classic strategy of an emotional abuser is to physically separate you from all friends and family, but it can be just as detrimental to feel as though only certain people are allowed in your circle.
Perhaps your partner feels threatened by certain members of your circle. Their feelings are their feelings, but there ought to be a legitimate reason for why your partner does not feel comfortable with you in the company of certain people. It is not okay for this discomfort to stem from their fear of losing control.
This point is similar to the last in that negative reactions to you hanging out with certain people can be just as draining as your partner just coming out and objecting to the company you keep.
Sarcasm is a Poor Disguise for Aggression
I don’t mind people with a quick wit. I enjoy a good banter and would like to think I can take it as easily as I dish it out.
There is, however, a delicate line between teasing and demeaning. For example, employing a playful tone to soften an insult does not make the statement any less insulting.
When you fail to share in their amusement, it’s likely you’ll be accused of being too sensitive. Lighten up. Why can’t you take a joke, right?
And perhaps for a short while, the incident can indeed take on the spirit of an inside joke. Except, what happens when you start to notice the joke became a pattern and the pattern became the norm?
The Reverse Victim Strategy
If that subtitle makes this feel like a game, sadly it’s because sometimes the manipulation and pivoting can turn the relationship into a series of maneuvers.
Has anyone ever threatened to kill themselves if you left the relationship? That ploy is not as uncommon as you would think. It’s not until you start comparing notes with other victims that you learn some common tactics.
But, here again, it’s important to understand you’re not always dealing in extremes. Sometimes it’s the not so subtle signs that slowly heat the water until you realize it’s boiling.
The difficulty with this aspect of emotional abuse is that sometimes their claims are legitimate. The toxicity becomes so pervasive that you fail to see your role in contributing to it.
Abuse is Abuse Regardless of the Perpetrator
At some point in my experience I hit a breaking point. I was tired of feeling small and verbally fought back against what I perceived to be an oppressive situation. I felt pent-up anger, and as much as I would love to paint myself as the hero of my own story, I know I did and said things that perpetuated the poison in the relationship.
I learned in counseling that anger is the manifestation of deeper feelings. I don’t question the wisdom of that lesson, but I am also not interested in justifying what could be construed as abusive behavior on either side of the equation. This is what I meant earlier when I said I learned to recognize my contributions to the problem.
Abuse is a bad thing no matter who perpetrates it.
Overcompensating Does Not Solve the Situation
Acknowledging your contributions to a negative situation is healthy and a good sign that you are owning your part of the conflict; however, you do not have to move the needle all the way to the other side where you try to assume responsibility for everything that is going wrong. I was not perfect and wish I could have done things differently, but it was not okay to allow my guilt to justify the way I was treated.
One of my friends said it best when she chastised me for being a martyr. At first that bit of feedback did not sit well. The situation was complicated. My partner wasn’t always bad, and besides, what if I deserved what they were doing to me?
We can only control our own actions. At some point we have to learn to untangle our contributions from theirs and allow the burden of their contributions to stay on their shoulders. We cannot fix the sum total of what is a two-sided problem.
Leaving is Not the Easier Decision
I was sitting in church one evening and was listening to a sermon on relationships. The speaker admonished the congregation not to pick the easy way out by leaving, because that road was filled with heartache.
I would never advocate leaving is always the answer. There are perhaps some who might be too quick to give up, but what the speaker failed to recognize is that staying can actually feel like the more comfortable, and therefore the easier, decision. Disrupting the life you’ve made, removing yourself from the social circles you’ve established, completely upending the daily routines you’ve grown familiar requires a certain level of bravery, and if there are children involved, the sheer unknown associated with leaving can feel just as daunting for you as it can for them.
Something a different friend pointed out only rang true until after I left the situation. She said no amount of advice would propel me to leave. I would not leave until I was mentally prepared, and then it would likely happen over a minor incident.
She was right.
Closing Thoughts, for the Moment
Closing thoughts, not final thoughts, because this is likely a subject we’ll explore to one degree or another in our time together, if not in this blog then certainly in the pages of my future fiction. And no, not all of it stemmed from this particular relationship.
There was never going to be a clean way to end a post like this. There was more that could have been written, a lot that will never be written, but perhaps it’s enough to get us thinking.
For now, let me finish with two thoughts:
First, moving on from an emotionally abusive relationship is a process. I confess there are moments I overreact to things, because there is a skittish part of me that is frightened of repeating the cycle with someone else. Every day gets a little better, and we have to remember that while no one is perfect, no two individuals will manifest the exact same imperfections.
In other words, embrace every partner on their own merits. It’s not fair to let the past taint the future.
Second, it’s likely not healthy to chalk up the entire experience to a horrible chapter in your life. There were good moments, even if it is hard to remember those beneath the residual anger. Something drew you both to each other at one point. If you go through the rest of your life thinking of it as a completely terrible episode, it is likely you will blame yourself for the whole situation and never truly learn to forgive yourself, and them.
Any thoughts? I’d love to read them in the comments.