“Why Don’t They Just Leave?” Understanding Victims of Abusive Relationships
When I was young and saw abusive relationships and domestic violence portrayed on television, I would wonder at how the victim could allow it to happen. “Why don’t they just leave?” I would ask in complete bewilderment, trying to imagine myself in a scenario where I would want to stay with a cruel partner. At the time, it seemed impossible to understand why anyone would remain in an abusive relationship when the solution seemed so simple: Leave.
It’s easy to distance oneself from a one-dimensional television character and think, “I would never make those mistakes.” On television, abusive relationships tend to appear black-and-white, especially since viewers know to be wary of ominous music playing when a certain character is onscreen, or recognize that when a camera pans too long on a stranger’s icy stare, they’re going to be the ‘bad guy.’
The Difference Between Television and Reality
In real life, there is no director behind the scenes, carefully making stylistic choices that foreshadow the nature of the relationship. There are just two people, and only one of them is pretending to be someone they’re not. Abusers generally don’t display red flag after red flag when first meeting someone. At first, they’ll be charming, attentive, and seemingly too good to be true. The tell-tale music that denotes danger in a thriller film does not play. Instead, it is replaced with good conversation and bursts of laughter.
The abuser is likely to continue this facade as the relationship develops and the other person becomes attached to them, both physically and emotionally. Using the illusion that they are the perfect partner, abusers can often rush forward in a relationship, quickly entangling their lives with their partner’s. They often quickly decide to move in together, get married, or have a child, all of which complicate the relationship and prevent the victim from easily leaving. Furthermore, by being a loving and attentive partner, the abuser strengthens the victim’s emotional ties to them, and makes them less likely to walk away at the first signs of trouble.
If you’re watching a television show with two flat characters who have only been seen together on two dates before the abuse begins, it’s hard to comprehend how a victim could be so invested in their partner. In reality, however, there’s significantly more depth to the relationship, and the love that a victim feels for their abuser can alter their judgment of them.
Even as red flags, threats, and violence enter a relationship, victims tend to downplay the manipulation, often making excuses for their partner’s behavior. Since they remember the compassionate and kind person that their partner initially seemed to be, they can be unwilling to hold the abuser accountable for their actions, and often blame themselves for their own mistreatment.
Isolation is a common tactic used to make the victim dependent on their abuser, and it encompasses more than just dictating what the couple does socially or becoming jealous of their partner’s other relationships, though these are huge components. They further isolate the victim by encouraging them to put less energy into goals such as work or school, making themselves the center of the victim’s life, and ensuring that the victim will become dependent on them.
When meeting people, however, the abuser will likely revert back to the kind and confident self they initially pretended to be. By keeping up a likable persona outside of the relationship, they make it less believable that abuse might be taking place. Without any outside connections to turn to, the victim is more likely to keep quiet about the abuse out of fear that they won’t be believed.
In movies, abusive relationships tend to spiral downward fast, with every encounter escalating towards a climax. For a viewer, the terrible ending is obvious, and it’s comparable to watching a horror movie and screaming at the hero to get out of the house, only for them to open up the creepy basement door and unleash the underworld instead.
In reality, abusive relationships don’t plummet so drastically. They behave more like a roller coaster, with alternating highs and lows. A partner displaying brief periods of kindness can restore a victim’s hope, and convince them the relationship has the capacity to be repaired. The victim may become so desperate to restore the relationship that they pour all of their energy into pleasing their partner, giving the abuser the control that they desire.
It’s obvious to an outsider that those small moments of happiness do not make up for the long stretches of sadness, and that the only way things will become better for a victim is if they can safely escape the bad situation. Unfortunately, not only does the conflicting emotions of the victim make this less obvious for them, but they face a host of other problems that can stand in the way of leaving.
On average, it takes a victim seven attempts before they leave a partner for good. A number of factors can influence their decision to stay, including both physical and societal fears. A victim is at their highest risk for violence when they first leave a relationship, and even if they aren’t concerned for their own safety, they may be afraid the abuser will harm a pet, a child, or themselves in an attempt to maintain control.
Ultimately, they fear they will be alone in a society that doesn’t believe them and doesn’t support them.
Societal fears can be equally poignant. Victims who have been isolated may worry that they’ll be ostracized after ending the relationship, especially if the abuser is well-liked and popular. The accumulation of mistreatment and misdirected blame can leave them feeling unlovable, and like they’ll never find anyone better. Ultimately, they fear they will be alone in a society that doesn’t believe them and doesn’t support them.
What Do I Do If They Confide In Me?
For this reason, when someone opens up to you about being in an abusive relationship, you must try to understand the myriad of conflicting feelings they are dealing with, and refrain from being judgmental. Be patient, understanding, and aware that the person is coming from a place of severe vulnerability and desperately needs to have the autonomy that their partner has taken away restored to them.
The best way to do this is simply by listening to them, being there for them, and making sure they know that you believe them. Instead of questioning their choices, simply try to understand the nature of what they have experienced, and act as a structure of support.
I used to think that abusive relationships would be obvious from the start, and that I would never find myself in one. I did not realize how naive this viewpoint was until after breaking up with someone who had lied, manipulated, and controlled me with threats of suicide. Even as my other relationships crumbled, as I faced repercussions at work for constantly leaving in order to see them, and as I became too exhausted to maintain my good grades, I failed to realize I wasn’t the one at fault.
Only when we broke up, and my hopes that the perfect relationship we seemingly had were shattered, was I able to fully process that individual’s behavior, and realize the true nature of the relationship. There had been moments where I had sensed that something was wrong, but the erroneous periods of happiness, and a belief that I could fix my partner, had prevented me from realizing I was in an abusive relationship for nearly two years.
The most important question to ask is simply, “what can I do to support you?”
Once I became aware of the tactics used to manipulate and realized how often they go unnoticed, I started paying more attention to relationships around me. I discovered that I was far from the only person who, until I experienced it myself, had an incredibly naive idea of how abusive relationships worked, and I witnessed a collective lack of understanding as to how abusive relationships occur. Whenever I discuss the issue, people often tell me that they just don’t understand why a victim would stay.
While I hope the above explanation provides an example to answer this question, I want to emphasize that it is not the important thing bystanders should ask. Restoring a survivor’s comfort and autonomy is paramount when a victim of abuse confides in you, and it will not occur if they are judged or forced to explain themselves. As a bystander, you should not focus on the reasoning behind the victim’s choices. The most important question to ask is simply, “what can I do to support you?”