Why Do People Stay in Abusive Relationships
From the outside, breaking free of an abusive relationship may seem simple. If you’re unhappy, just go! But it’s not at all simple when it’s happening to you.
There are many reasons why people choose to stay in abusive relationships, even those that are very abusive.
An individual’s reasons may be complex and deeply rooted in personal, religious, and cultural patterns or it may simply be that they know of no practical alternative.
14 Reasons Why People Don't Just Leave an Abusive Relationship
The following reasons are answers to the questions: Why do abuse victims stay with an abuser? Why doesn't she/he leave?
You may be wondering why a friend or relative is staying with someone who is abusing them, or you may be wondering for yourself "Why do I stay in an abusive relationship?"
A person may remain in an abusive relationship for one primary reason, or for a combination of reasons.
1. Hope that things will be better
If the abuse comes and goes in cycles, lulls in the abuse or promises of change keep reigniting hope that the abuse is finished.
For more on the abusive relationship cycle, click here.
2. Love for the abusive partner
An individual may love their partner’s non-abusive qualities, behaviors, and attitudes displayed at an earlier phase of the relationship, or positive personality traits that show up currently in cycles.
People often find it difficult to admit to themselves that they are abused.
This is especially true for male targets of abuse by women and LGBTQ targets because there is widespread cultural denial of partner abuse in any configuration other than male-to-female.
Additionally, LGBTQ partners may be drawn to denial as a protection against cultural negativity about their relationships.
4. Over emphases on certain qualities
The abusive partner may use the abuse target’s attachment to positive qualities (i.e. commitment, patience, compassion, perseverance, forgiveness…) against them. For example, a person may feign illness or helplessness to trap a compassionate responsible partner into providing all the financial support for the family.
I recently attended a class put on by counselors from the Association for Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) and Psychopathy Survivor Treatment, Research & Education. While their association title includes only narcissists and psychopaths (AKA sociopaths), they point out that what they have found in cases involving abusers who have either of those 2 diagnoses is also true for the other Cluster B personality disorders: Borderline and Histrionic. (Cluster B personality disorders is a grouping of personalities that are "erratic and dramatic". They make for particularly difficult partners who are often very abusive.)
The association studied people who get into and stay in the relationships with Cluster B personalities and found that these abused people tend to be in the high healthy range for 2 qualities: agreeableness and conscientiousness. By "high healthy" is meant that they aren't in a mental illness state regarding these traits, but they may be off-balance and primed for being pulled into and staying in relationships where they are taken advantage of.
While being agreeable can be a very good trait under many circumstances, a very high level of agreeableness tends to make these people too trusting, too tolerant, too giving, too empathetic, too loyal, and too cooperative with their abuser.
While being conscientious is a good trait under many circumstances, a very high level of conscientiousness tends to make these people too driven to avoid failure, too solution-focused, too driven to reduce chaos, too responsible, too attached to fulfilling commitments, too perseverant, and too quick to blame themselves for bad outcomes when they are partnered with a manipulative abuser.
This class reaffirmed something that I figured out several years ago and incorporated into my Relationship Booster card set: each skill that we think of as qualities, virtues, or attributes can be put on its own continuum from too little to too much. Both ends of the continuum are unhealthy. Healthy lies in the middle of the continuum in what I call the green zone. Here's an example of one of the cards from the set:
Abusers may blame their partner for the abuse, or virtually everything, leading the target of the abuse to become conditioned to accept blame.
An abused partner may stay to avoid feeling shame connected to giving up or failing.
An individual may fear losing their children, losing their place in society, being ostracized by their community or group, being alone, the unknown, retaliation, or a myriad of other negative outcomes if the relationship ends.
Repeated experiences of there being a “price to pay” when the abusive partner feels challenged, or direct threats of consequences, can increase fear of a breakup.
Straight men and LGBTQ targets of partner abuse may fear public ridicule if they talk about their experiences. Closeted LGBTQ targets may fear being outed by a jilted partner or by others if they seek help.
Worry over the cost of a separate household or the cost of ending the relationship may keep someone from calling it quits. They may be concerned about the financial impact on themselves, children, and/or even their partner.
Abuse is isolating. A manipulative partner may work at isolating the target of their abuse from friends and family. The shame of being the target of abuse can also be isolating.
On top of all that, the Don’t Talk rule of man-law and desire to protect the LGBTQ community from discrimination adds more isolation for male and LGBTQ targets of abuse.
10. Pressure to stay
Social or philosophical pressure to stay in an abusive relationship may be exerted by an individual’s:
- community, or
- other sources.
11. Lack of support
A common abusive tactic is to undermine relationships so that the target of abuse is isolated from a support system.
Additionally, some targets of abuse don’t feel represented in the bulk of information about partner abuse or by organizations set up to help “victims of domestic violence.” Male and LGBTQ targets of abuse may fear not being believed or taken seriously because their experience goes against society’s prominent view that partner abuse is sourced in patriarchy and is about male dominance over women.
12. Benefits of the relationship
An individual may put up with an abusive partner because they are attached to, or blinded by, the benefits of being with the partner. Benefits could include access to sex, the partner’s income or position, prestige, having a partner (any partner), or potential for having children.
Abuse is very confusing. It can drain abuse targets and leave them immobilized. It can throw them into a foggy trance. There may be confusion about what’s happening and confusion about what to do about it.
The mental spinning of confusion experienced by abused partners can create anxiety that they may identify as "stress," "feeling overwhelmed," . . . or as anxiety. For more on anxiety and anti-anxiety self-help resources, check out this post: What are Anxiety Symptoms?.
14. Low self-confidence
Abuse undermines the target’s sense that they are an OK person and that they can manage on their own. Being berated, criticized, and told in so many ways that you are not good enough often makes a person feel not good enough: not good enough to manage on their own, get another partner, or be OK.
More Partner Abuse Information and Resources
I've learned lots about partner abuse from academic study, personal experience of being the target of abuse, and decades of helping clients as individuals and couples who are dealing with abuse in relationships.
- Ann Silvers