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Abusive Relationships – Why do victims stay?

I think there are three broad reasons why people remain in abusive relationships:

  1. The victim doesn’t realize they’re being abused.
  2. The victim knows they’re being abused, but doesn’t want to leave the relationship.
  3. The victim knows they’re being abused, but isn’t ready to leave due to finances, values, fears, or any other reason.

I certainly honor each group’s position. After all, I’ve been in each of the three groups at one time or another. This story occurred when I was unsure about leaving and making plans on how to stay married to my abusive husband.

Victims Want to Do the Right Thing

As soon as I realized I was being abused, I felt pressured to run away from my (mostly verbally) abusive marriage as fast and hard as I could. I thought that I “should” leave immediately – all the literature I’d read said so, and society doesn’t understand why anyone would stay in an abusive relationship. I wanted to prove to someone that I wasn’t making up the abuse, and I thought that if I stayed, then I was saying “the abuse isn’t real.”

warningThe pressure was high to “do the right thing”. For most onlookers, doing the right thing means leaving. For me, doing the right thing meant staying. At least temporarily.

Why I Stayed in My Abusive Marriage

I’d been married 17 years when I figured out that my husband abused me verbally and mentally. I knew that the three times he’d laid his hands on me constituted physical abuse, but I didn’t understand that the verbal and mental manipulation he used was also abuse, and I didn’t recognize the fact that the physical abuse was his last resort when the other types of control and abuse didn’t work to his satisfaction.

I’d blamed his alcoholism and temper – two negative traits that can be controlled if the person “suffering” from them wants to change their behavior. When I told him that he was verbally abusive, he said that was only the newest label I wanted to lay on him. He didn’t take it seriously at all. He didn’t care what I thought.

He told me he liked who he was and wouldn’t change. In my naivete, I did not believe him.

Tough-Love Plan to End Abuse

I decided that it was time for some tough love. I wasn’t going to put up with the abuse anymore, and I thought I owed him the opportunity to see the problem as I did and change his behavior.

Over the next year, I changed my responses to the abuse. I devised exit strategies and a safety plan. I had the sinking feeling he was giving lip-service to my concerns and fears. Nevertheless, I promised him I would stay and he promised that he would put our marriage first.

My Long-Term Plan for Abuse

I devised a shadowy long-term plan. I told my husband that I had opened a bank account in my name only. I planned to transfer a set amount of money into the account each month, just in case I ever needed to leave the house for an extended period of time due to the abuse. I told him that by our 25th anniversary, if there was no more abuse in our marriage, then we would use the money to go on a celebratory vacation.

During that time, I would go to school to complete my degree. I thought I needed to buy some time and begin a career so I could support myself and our children if the worst happened. However, I was hopeful that my income would contribute to the two of us, together.

He tolerated my plan. He said he didn’t agree with it, but he was willing to go along.

I believed that by being honest with him, he would see how serious I was. Having a plan for myself and our child had worked once before when I asked him to stop drinking (he was dry for 8 years). I thought it would work again. (In hindsight, I would have kept my long-term plan to myself!)

I went to work with my therapist devising new ways to deal with the abuse that I was sure would occur as he learned to control his behavior. My therapist supported my decision to stay; she didn’t judge. I was making decisions for myself, and that was a good thing.

All Plans to End Abuse Failed

Unfortunately, almost a year to the day he last physically abused me, he laid his hands on me again. During one of our discussions in marriage counseling, I had told him that if he did that again, I would leave and not look back. I decided to stick to my guns.

Looking back, living with the verbal and emotional abuse for that year was too much for me. Now that I could identify the verbal and mental abuse, I saw it all the time in almost every conversation. The marriage wasn’t the same; I wasn’t the same. He wasn’t trying to change, only trying to convince me that he didn’t need to change.

Physical violence ended my marriage, but I think it was over about the time I was making plans to stay.

Who else is planning to stay with their abusive mate in hope that they will change?

79 thoughts on “Abusive Relationships – Why do victims stay?”

  1. One step forward and two steps back, or vice versa? That is what my therapist and I discussed last week. I am pralyzed by the difference in knowing what I ‘should’ do like you wrote about, and my codependent dysfunctional reality of not leaving. I can not bring myself to open an account. I could not sign the lease for the apartment. She gives me crumbs by buying me things or giving me a little positive attention and I go back into my little codependent controlled cave.
    Right now I disgust myself. I tell her I do not want us to buy expensive new stuff and she does it anyway. Then she expects me to be happy about it with her. I am justifying her behavior and not valuing my feelings enough. She will not change, but I am not leaving like I want to. I guess I do not value my own life enough yet? When will I put a stop to it and be free?

    1. You know, Steve, one thing you can do from a cave is observe the world outside. What if you stepped back and watched your reactions to her abuse for awhile without judging yourself to be “small” or “controlled” or whatever word you think you’re being? Right now it sounds like you’re internalizing her negativity about you. From inside the cave, you just may see that everything she says about you is what SHE is; you may find some of your power there in that cave. One day, you may find yourself saying, “Stop it!” when she gets going because you want to stop yourself from returning to the safety of your cave as much as you wish she would stop being abusive. Like PrincessLuceval said, you will reach a tipping point where your voice, your desires, cannot be silenced by her (or anyone else). You’re on the right path; you’re headed out of the cave.

  2. steve, you will know. When the misery of staying outweighs the fear of leaving. I have been there, I know. Keep educating yourself!

  3. Hi, Kellie, I just found your blog a couple weeks ago, just after I woke up to the fact that my husband has been verbally abusing myself and my kids for our whole marriage. I am at the point of deciding to stay or to separate – he is now “promising” he will do whatever it takes for us to stay together, but I do not think it will last very long. I feel like I should be separating, but I guess I’m scared to – I was just discussing this with my therapist this morning. She said I need to start putting myself first for a while, and see how it goes. It’s so hard – I have my older children telling me to leave, my youngest is terrified of him, and my 16 year old is wondering why I’m feeling this way now – if it’s too late. I am hoping my husband will change. He is seeing a therapist, but I don’t think his therapist truly understands the problem, and therefore probably will not help. Can he change? I feel like I should give him a chance, but my therapist is warning me that thinking that is thinking of him rather than thinking of what’s best for myself.

    1. My ex promised me a lot of changes too when he was deployed. He said when he came home, our marriage would be his priority. He was home 6 weeks before he put his hands on me and I left. Every abuser is different. Some abusers, like a regular reader named Todd, decide they want to change and work hard to do so. Some abusers, like my ex, ultimately say “I like who I am!” and will not change. Ever.

      I cannot tell you which type of man you’re dealing with in your marriage. He did go to therapy, and that’s a good sign. Try to let go of whether or not his therapist understands the problem or not. That doesn’t really matter to you. Besides, he may go through therapy and get his abusive behaviors under control (all good for him), but you could decide you cannot trust him or that you do not love him anymore. You may decide to leave him even though he “gets better”.

      What matters to you is similar to what your therapist said, “What can you do for yourself to find some peace TODAY?” What if you went to a hotel in town, with or without your children but definitely without HIM for Friday and Saturday night? By Sunday morning, would you feel at peace? Or would it take longer for you to relax and accept that he’s not going to interrupt you for awhile?

      Maybe that suggestion wouldn’t work for you, but it is time to explore what would be good for you, independent of what you think would be good for him. What would your best friend wish for you? Your mom? Ask them, get some ideas, then try something different.

      You don’t have to decide to leave or to stay today. You can take some time to decide. In the meantime, write out your exit strategies and safety plan.

      Perhaps your husband will be like mine and suddenly “crack” under the pressure. Be prepared; it’s better to have a plan for what you will do if he reverts to abuse than to be stuck there taking it.

  4. When i was 18 years old i left my foster parents home , who treated me like a slave from the age of six . So i just wanted a family of my own for someone to love me for a change ,i met someone straight away he was all sweet to me so when he asked me to marry him i said yes and was married at just nineteen, that is when it all started the verbal abuse and the beatings, for over a year i thought this was how a marriage should be the hitting with a fire poker the strangling he even used to throw me against the walls of the house , till one day he was arrested for steeling a car and was sent to prison, then everyone said i should not put up with the abuse i managed to get out of that relationship. NO WOMAN SHOULD HAVE TO ENDURE ABUSE .

  5. I have been married to Wayne for almost three years and we have a 2 year old. My husband is an alcoholic and verbally and mentally abused me increasingly during our marriage. He would shoot his guns off outside when he was mad at me and has beaten our pets. I was afraid of him and kept a gun hidden just in case. One night, he forced me into sodomy because he was so drunk and angry at me. I felt like I had deserved it, until one day I woke up and realized that what had happened to me was rape. I left him and filed for divorce and never felt happier. However, Wayne constantly texted me, trying to make me feel guilty and take him back, swearing that he would change. About a month later, one night he kept my son away from me and wouldn’t let me see him. He told me names of people who would testify against me in court and say that I was a bad mother so that I wouldn’t get custody. I have never been anything but a caring, loving, even overprotective mother, but his texts still rattled me. With my confidence shaken and my resolve gone, I decided to “give him another chance to prove himself” the next day, trying to convince myself that I’ve taught him a leason amd that he really would change. I was even stupid enough to “propose” to him in front of all of our mutual friends. Now we’ve been back together for a week. I told him that I wouldn’t run again if he keeps his end of the deal- not drinking and not verbally abusing me. He has gotten drunk but hasn’t been verbally abusive to me so far. My divorce will be final on Jan. 13 unless I file a dismissal. I’m terrified that things could go back to how they once were, if not soon then years down the road. I wish that I hadn’t made such an emotional decision to take him back because now I’m starting to regret it. It makes me feel weak, vulnerable, and stupid that I took him back. My friends and family are appalled and are scared for me and my son. I do feel like I love Wayne and missed his good attributes when we were split, and I hate for my son to grow up with divorced parents. I’m very loyal and hate to break promises, and I hate feeling guilty or feeling like I’m causing someone pain. I am so confused. Do you think that there is any hope for him to change or should I run again?

    1. Vivian, you need to run and run fast. Your son will be so much better off with divorced parents than parents caught in the cycle of violence. Reread what you wrote. Would you want your mother living with a violent rapist?

      He caused YOU pain. You have nothing to feel sorry for.

  6. Kellie,

    I’ve been married for over 20 years now…and it wasn’t till about 6 or 7 months ago, that a family member of mine (that I haven’t seen or spoken to, in years) helped me realize, I’ve been living in a vebally and emotionally abusive marraige. I’m like the #1 person on your list – I didn’t realize I’ve been a victim. I’ve just felt that all our problems have been my fault. And, my husband see’s it that way too…he actually tells me it’s all my fault. That, he’s the one trying to help and I’m not. And, it’s my fault when he gets angry and blows-up. That I need to obey and respect him. (Sorry, I have so many questions for you) but I’ll start out slow. So my question is…now that my kids are all grown, and my husband and I are (revolving-door empty nesters) is there any hope for fixing and healing things? Do I stay, do I leave? My family member (knowing what she knows, and has seen) thinks I should leave the situation I’m in, that it’s not healthy. Part of me wants to run and never look back…and other parts of me…just can’t leave. I do have another question, (not sure how to phrase it, but I’ll do my best)why when my husband feels he’s “helping his family” to solve a problem or do something…that it always comes back and bites him in the butt – and he can never win? I’ve asked him to explain what he means by that, but he never does.

    1. Abusers typically feel everyone is out to get them and no good deed goes unpunished. It doesn’t matter how grateful you are to them for their efforts, they still think you’re not grateful enough. Part of the problem is that the abuser doesn’t have any empathy for the person who has the “problem”. When they try to “fix” the problem, it is rarely the right solution for the one needing help – however it IS the right solution for the abuser who needs to maintain his his/her image of being a great person. Abusers are self-serving, and that’s why the feel like they’re always getting bitten on the butt when others don’t acknowledge their greatness.

      The part of you that “just can’t leave” is the part that believes what the abuser tells you or implies. Your husband implies that you’ll never have it so good if you leave, you can’t make it on your own, he’ll keep all the money and leave you with nothing, you vowed to stay with him for life, … anything that will make you question if leaving is really in your best interests.

      I agree with your friend that leaving is ideal – but you can’t do what you don’t feel, no matter who tells you to do it. Well, unless it’s your husband because he has a lot of control over what you think, say and do after so many years. I suggest a very long vacation or separation from your husband. Once you get out from under his daily spell, you’ll see things more clearly. Is it possible for you and your friend to take a vacation together this spring or summer? Without your husbands? Getting away like this and devouring books on emotional and verbal abuse could leave you feeling like a new woman.

  7. Kellie,

    Since you have been through these things yourself, is it possible for me to chat with you about some other personal things (via email, one-on-one)instead of in the Blog?


  8. Kellie,

    Since you have been through these things yourself, is it possible for me to chat with you about some other personal things (via email, one-on-one)instead of in the Blog?


  9. I need help. I’m
    Married for 23 years have kids oldest 23 youngest 14 my husband abuses me regularly. He tells he I’m good for nothing I’m lazy he says I can find a new wife and kids. I work part time as a nurse and he complains that I don’t pick up all the extra shifts I could. My husband is a work a holic he has 2 jobs works 13 hour shifts everyday I’m told that I should cook his breakfast lunch and supper. Screw cleaning the house he says he don’t Need that. I tell him I enjoy a tidy house so he yells at me tells me I’m good for nothing and go cook
    Me dinner. I was abused many times even spit on I don’t have friends I can talk to cuz I made sure no one ever comes around since I didn’t want people saying what a dink he is etc. so I elected very early on in my marriage I would stay alone I didn’t want the risk and embarrasent of people knowing what I put up with I just don’t know what to do. I’m tired of being told I’m
    Nothing and sick of walking on egg shells. I never know when he is going to blow a fuse that’s another reason I stay alone. I remember a saying god only gives what u can handle. I can’t handle more. I’ve thought of just taking lots if sleeping pills and never waking up but then I think if my kids just having a work a holic abusive dad in their life and think they need and deserve a mom. I’m so stuck. I don’t think I need to leave. Why shouldn’t he. ? I right now sleep in my daughters room to be away from him. I need advice

    1. You can call the National Suicide Hotline at 800-273-8255 if you continue thinking about suicide. Your children need you – I hope you don’t seriously consider killing yourself, ever again. People need to know about your pain so they can help you! You can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-SAFE or contact a mentor to talk to at Help With Domestic Abuse.

  10. Kellie,

    My 23 yr old sister is in a abusive relationship with a drug addict. She stays with him because he’s always promising to quit but ends up back at it. He’s very clingy, always thinks she is cheating, eavesdropping on phone calls. Doesn’t let her talk to friends . My sister has a 10 month old with him. Just decent she tried running away and he tried beating her. My sister went to a neighbors..where we waited outside with a shotgun. Police were called but he was gone before they arrived. He somehow convinced her to go back. (I live 2hrs away). She went along with it and is planning on running away with the baby as soon as she can. She will be staying with me..I’m just worried he will remember where I live. I worry for her everyday!

    1. Yes, it can be dangerous to take in the victim of domestic violence. You could be calling the abuser’s vengeance upon yourself and your household. It is very important that you have a safety plan even though you and your family are not the target of his abuse. Your sister also needs to develop a safety plan. The one I will link to in a minute is perfect for her, and I think it will give you some ideas as to how to protect yourself, too. The second link is for advice on how to help an abuse victim, which I think will also help you.

      Safety Plan
      How to Help An Abuse Victim

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