Why do victims stay? Ah, the million dollar question.
I used to think that any victim who stayed with her abuser was dependent and pathetic. And then I found myself in that very situation. My husband never hit me but the verbal abuse was intense. Yet there I was, I hadn’t left yet.
Physical abuse is obvious and dangerous. Life threatening. When someone is beating you up, you know it. Verbal abuse is just as damaging but tougher to recognize because there’s nothing to look at. They wounds reside in your soul.
The patterns are so typical. First the abuser wins his victim’s trust and then systematically destroys it. With words or fists, he strips away her dignity, sanity and emotional stability. The trauma left from abuse lasts years and really never goes away.
Abusers are an interesting breed. They tend to be very selective in who they attack– someone that they can control. Someone that they perceive to be weaker than them or, with enough abuse, will become weaker soon enough.
Many abusers appear to be really nice at the beginning, which makes the abuse all that more confusing for the victim. How could this happen? Why? Victims spend far too much time and energy trying to understand and explain away the behavior.
After fights, abusers almost always become contrite and kind for a bit. The explosion has happened and there is a time of relative calm. This usually further confuses the victim. She might wonder if maybe the abuse wasn’t as bad as she thought? Maybe it was her fault? Maybe if she behaved differently, she wouldn’t have triggered the attack? Still, she lives by walking on eggshells, wondering when the next attack will happen.
The reality is that nothing a victim does will change the behavior of an abuser.
So why do victims stay?
The answers are complex and unique but the results are universally tragic.
Though my daughters spent too long living in an environment where their father abused their mother, there are lessons to be learned for them. Just last night, I asked them why they think victims stay with their abusers. They had some interesting answers, all of which I think are spot on.
Here’s an excerpt of their chat (I took very detailed notes!).
1. She loves him: Some guys are really charming and nice at the beginning. When he starts being mean, she really wants to believe he’s still that cool guy. She believes in him and when he apologizes, she hopes it won’t happen again.
2. For the kids: She doesn’t want the kids to be separated from their dad. Some guys are nice to the kids but really mean to their mom. Like Daddy. We love him and we really miss him. We know that you didn’t want to hurt us by leaving him and making us move. That must have been really hard for you. I mean, it’s really hard for us, too, but we understand.
3. She can’t afford to leave: Some moms don’t work or don’t make enough money to move.
4. She’s embarrassed: Like in our family, everyone thought you and Daddy were happy together and you probably didn’t want anyone to know what was going on. We remember that time the police came out and our friends saw. You were really embarrassed and tried to explain it.
5. She forgives him: Daddy apologized to you all the time and you always forgave him and then you acted like you were happy and in love. We saw you hugging Daddy and holding hands. That was really confusing to us.
Dang- if you ask me, I think my kids are pretty intuitive. I’m so proud of them. They saw some pretty ugly stuff but I believe they’ll be ok. Hopefully they’ve learned a powerful lesson of what type of relationship to avoid.
I will include a few reasons of my own on why I believe victims stay.
6. She doesn’t recognize it as abuse.
7. She feels sorry for her abuser: Marriage vows include that clause “in sickness and in health”. How can she leave a man she thinks is sick and needs help? She often tries to cure him and make him better. The problem is that it doesn’t work and putting his needs before her mental and physical safety is dangerous.
8. She’s too tired: At least for me, when I got home from work and finished all the things that needed to get done at home, I couldn’t fathom taking on a new project that included finding a new place to live, moving, hiring an attorney… I just wanted to go to sleep. I just wanted it all to go away.
9. Hope: She hopes the relationship will change and get better. But that almost never happens. In fact, it usually gets progressively worse while the victim’s confidence deteriorates more each day.
After our conversation, I asked my daughters if there was any good reason to stay with an abuser. It was a big loud NO!
Leaving is tough though. If you’re in an abusive relationship you must leave. Get help. If you’re in physical danger, get out now. Your life may depend on it. Start documenting the abuse. Tell people you trust. It’s time to start developing your exit strategy.