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Abusive situations are complicated. If you’re in one, take a deep breath and give yourself some compassion — you’re doing the very best you can.
Have you thought to yourself: Things are getting bad at home. But then you second-guess yourself. Is it really all that bad?
After all, there are some good times — really good times, in fact.
After a particularly tough period of time, you may even feel like you’re finally getting some of your needs met for love and emotional support.
So, why is it so hard to get a clear picture of what’s really happening? We asked the experts for a few reasons why people stay in abusive relationships.
Everyone’s situation is unique. If you, or someone you know, is living in an abusive situation, there may be several reasons why you (or they) stay.
- attachment style
- guilt or shame
- fear of retribution
- hope for a better future
- sense of obligation
- financial dependency
- lack of resources
- a limited support network
- protecting your children
- religious obligations
If you’re living in an abusive environment, you may see a sudden glimmer of hope every once in a while, or a brief reminder of the person you fell in love with.
This is called intermittent reinforcement.
These positive moments may come few and far between, yet they’re enough to provide some hope that the relationship may still work.
But these breadcrumbs, instead of the whole loaf, can often lay the groundwork for a trauma bond, or the feeling of being unable to leave someone who hurts you.
“One sign of a trauma bond is a cyclical nature, or a cycle of abuse,” says Holly Schiff, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist in both Connecticut and New York.
“Humans form attachments as a means of survival,” she says. “So, when someone’s main source of support is also the person who’s abusing them, a trauma bond can develop. Even if that person is who caused them pain, the survivor may turn to them for comfort.”
What’s the cycle of abuse?
Proposed in 1979 by Dr. Lenore Walker, the
- honeymoon phase
Trauma bonding is reinforced during step 3, the honeymoon phase. Your partner may insist that they’re going to change, or make promises to get help.
While researchers now know that the cycle of abuse is far more complex (and can’t be predicted), it still offers a basic framework for understanding why these dynamics can be so difficult to leave.
There’s an old saying that may ring true in this case: Better the devil you know, than the devil you don’t.
In an abusive situation, you may find that your dynamic takes on somewhat of a predictable pattern, which can provide an odd sense of security amid the chaos.
Then, when you try to cultivate the courage to leave, fear of the unknown is so strong that you may deny that the abuse ever took place in order to come back to the life that you know, over a future that you don’t.
If this sounds like your case, try to go easy on yourself. You’re not alone.
“Abusive relationships are exceedingly difficult to quit, and it requires a lot of guts to do so,” says Elizabeth Lombardo, PhD, a psychologist in Chicago, Illinois.
“Admitting that you’ve been mistreated or that you’re being abused can be challenging,” she adds. “You may believe you’ve done something wrong or that the violence is your fault. Remember that your partner may employ blame-shifting as a tactic, reinforcing a sense of responsibility for your partner’s abusive behaviors.”
In the United States, 15% of women and 4% of men have experienced intimate partner abuse, according to the National Domestic Violence Hotline.
Whether it’s one time or an ongoing situation, abuse can have a serious impact on your mental health.
- feeling like you’re going crazy (often from gaslighting)
- lack of self-confidence
- low self-esteem or self-worth
- post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
Even though things may be difficult, for some people they might also feel familiar or comfortable because, on some level, it reminds you of the behaviors modeled by adults in your childhood. This phenomenon is called trauma reenactment.
“Romantic relationships in adulthood often mirror the pattern that we see from primary caregivers and parents,” says Katie Ziskind, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Niantic, Connecticut.
But that still doesn’t make it OK.
“If you’re in an abusive relationship, seek counseling to gain back self-worth skills, positive coping tools, and to develop a strong, confident voice,” says Ziskind. “Setting boundaries is a great way to develop independence and self-care.”
No one deserves to be abused. Period.
Also, no matter what’s being told to you, know that this situation is not your fault. You’re worthy of being in a loving, safe, and healthy relationship.
To begin the healing process and make an exit plan, you may find it helpful to use our search tools and find a therapist.
If you’re in need of immediate support, you can try these resources:
- National Domestic Violence Hotline
- National Sexual Assault Hotline and chat by RAINN
- Love Is Respect
- Pathways to Safety International
- National Center for Victims of Crime
- Esperanza United (Spanish-speaking hotline)
- National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center
- Asian Pacific Institute on Gender-Based Violence
- The National Center on Violence Against Women in the Black Community
- National LGBTQ Task Force