Even the most well-meaning person, if not the survivor, can ask themselves why did she not leave the situation? (Or he of course, since men are targets of abuse too) After all, it’s a logical question, particularly when the target stays in the relationship sometimes for decades. It’s so incredibly hard to understand if you have not lived it, but for those of us who have, there are four common reasons behind why we stay.
The Common Theme Is Fear
Fear of the unknown is sometimes far greater than fear of the known evil, and abusers capitalize on that mercilessly. Targets hear over and over how no one else will ever love them, how they are so impossible to live with, so hard to get along with, unable to keep a job, crazy, bitchy, picky, mean… the list is almost endless. The reality is that there are specific fear levers the abuser uses to keep a target under his or her control:
# 1. Fear of ending up alone and unloved
The abuser is quite skilled at making you grateful for the abuse. He/she works hard to make you believe that no one else on this planet would even throw you a bone. It is part of the gaslighting that alters your entire sense of reality and creates the trauma bond/Stockholm Syndrome that keeps a target mentally entrapped. Once we are out, it’s easy to see. While still not liberated from the abuse, it is a deeply entrenched belief that we are worthy of nothing better.
# 2. Fear of ending up penniless
So many of us have been made reliant on our abuser’s financial resources or control that the thought of trying to make it on our own, especially if we have children, is terrifying. We may have had great careers and been self-sufficient for years before the abuser came along, but it doesn’t matter. We have been made to believe that we will end up with absolutely nothing. In some cases, that does prove true, simply because the abuser makes it his/her business to financially destroy you if you leave. I know from personal experience.
# 3. Fear of losing all other relationships
Captain Crazy once said to me, “If you killed yourself, everyone would know just how crazy you really are and they would feel sorry for me.” This was the underlying theme of “I’m the victim, you are making my life hell” that he used to make me believe without him I would have no one. I’m not just talking intimate relationships. I’m talking about my mother, my closest friends, my social circle, and my church. He ingratiated himself with those people to the extent that, when I decided to go public about my experiences, I did it with the full knowledge and acceptance that I would likely lose many people from my life. At that point, though, I was strong enough to be willing to let anyone go who did not believe me. Funny thing is, I can count on one hand the number of people I escorted out of my life because of it.
# 4. Fear of the “dead end”
Because we have been manipulated to think that we are “nothing” without the abuser, we come to believe that our life will lose all meaning if we try to escape. In other words, we cannot fathom that we will ever return to sanity. We might look at our resume and think how we “used to” have a career, but be convinced it is worthless. We might see degrees hanging on our wall, but have been convinced (as I was) that being intelligent or educated is not valuable. We might know we are good parents but have been convinced that the only reason is due to the presence of the abuser – in other words, we can’t do it without their “guidance.”
In summary, we come to believe that our lives will become a giant sucking vortex of nothingness without the abuser.
F.E.A.R.—False Evidence Appearing Real
Those four core dynamics, all rooted in fear, are what keep us from leaving a situation we know is bad. We have internalized these thought patterns as part of our altered view of reality and it becomes a belief system. The same can be said for an abusive dynamic with a parent. “I brought you into this world and gave you everything you have. You owe me!” This programming appears real to us after so much effort by the abuser to imprint it in our brains. The very hardest part is that we learn to rationalize the abuser’s behavior to justify our own fear-based choices. We are faced with the choice between the known evil and the unknown afterward. That’s scary stuff.
The Leap Repeats
Once we have found the strength and courage to liberate ourselves from abuse, the first leap is not the hardest. It’s the continued leaping of staying away and out of the relationship. This isn’t because we are gluttons for punishment or “it wasn’t so bad.” It is because we are still detoxing from those false beliefs and the abuser still has the ability to manipulate us. That’s why, on average, it takes a woman 7 tries to leave an abuser and stay gone. It’s nothing short of tragic to assume that she does so because it “isn’t really abuse” or it “isn’t that bad.”
The question of why someone stays in an abusive relationship only happens when someone with no understanding of abuse raises the challenge. Education about the abuse dynamic is key to changing this common misinterpretation of a target’s choices.
Because that “choice” is the result of believing we have none.