I think there are three broad reasons why people remain in abusive relationships:
- The victim doesn’t realize they’re being abused.
- The victim knows they’re being abused, but doesn’t want to leave the relationship.
- 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.
Doing the ‘Right Thing’ Isn’t as Simple as Leaving
As soon as I realized I was being abused, I felt pressured to run away from my 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.”
The 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.
A Long-Term Plan for Staying in the Abusive Relationship
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 (I still thought he would change and didn’t realize I was the one who needed to change). 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?