“Why didn’t you just leave?” People who have never been abused often ask this question. They don’t understand that breaking up can be more complicated than it seems. A bully uses strength or power to harm or intimidate another person. Intimacy is about being emotionally close and letting your guard down. An abusive bully uses your emotional blueprint to control you. At the beginning of your relationship you don’t realize you’ve walked into a spider’s web. Reasons you stay in an abusive relationship can include: fear, threats (direct, indirect or veiled), embarrassment, confusion, low self-esteem, cultural/religious reasons, financial reliance on your partner, children, etc. If you have a friend in an unhealthy relationship, support her* by understanding why she may choose to not leave immediately and be prepared that her moods may be inconsistent and therefore unfamiliar to you. Her appearance of instability directly relates to the emotional roller-coaster she’s become accustom to riding and one that she doesn’t know how to leave. If a child (or children) are involved the complexity multiplies. Witnessing a parent victimized is often more psychologically damaging to children than injuries from direct child abuse. Exposure to interparental violence is associated with bullying and victimization in school.
- Fear: Your friend may be afraid of what will happen if they decide to leave the relationship. If your friend has been threatened by their partner, family or friends, they may not feel safe leaving.
- Believing Abuse is Normal: If your friend doesn’t know what a healthy relationship looks like, perhaps from growing up in an environment where abuse was common, they may not recognize that their relationship is unhealthy.
- Fear of Being Outed: If your friend is in same-sex relationship and has not yet come out to everyone, their partner may threaten to reveal this secret. Being outed may feel especially scary for young people who are just beginning to explore their sexuality.
- Embarrassment: It’s probably hard for your friend to admit that they’ve been abused. They may feel they’ve done something wrong by becoming involved with an abusive partner. They may also worry that their friends and family will judge them.
- Low Self-esteem: If your friend’s partner constantly puts them down and blames them for the abuse, it can be easy for your friend to believe those statements and think that the abuse is their fault.
- Love: Your friend may stay in an abusive relationship hoping that their abuser will change. Think about it — if a person you love tells you they’ll change, you want to believe them. Your friend may only want the violence to stop, not for the relationship to end entirely.
- Social/Peer Pressure: If the abuser is popular, it can be hard for a person to tell their friends for fear that no one will believe them or that everyone will take the abuser’s side.
- Cultural/Religious Reasons: Traditional gender roles can make it difficult for young women to admit to being sexually active and for young men to admit to being abused. Also, your friend’s culture or religion may influence them to stay rather than end the relationship for fear of bringing shame upon their family.
- Pregnancy/Parenting: Your friend may feel pressure to raise their children with both parents together, even if that means staying in an abusive relationship. Also, the abusive partner may threaten to take or harm the children if your friend leaves.
Distrust of Adults or Authority
- Puppy-love Phenomena Adults often don’t believe that teens really experience love. So if something goes wrong in the relationship, your friend may feel like they have no adults to turn to or that no one will take them seriously.
- Distrust of Police: Many teens and young adults do not feel that the police can or will help them, so they don’t report the abuse.
- Language Barriers/Immigration Status: If your friend is undocumented, they may fear that reporting the abuse will affect their immigration status. Also, if their first language isn’t English, it can be difficult to express the depth of their situation to others.
Reliance on the Abusive Partner
- Lack of Money: Your friend may have become financially dependent on their abusive partner. Without money, it can seem impossible for them to leave the relationship.
- Nowhere to Go: Even if they could leave, your friend may think that they have nowhere to go or no one to turn to once they’ve ended the relationship. This feeling of helplessness can be especially strong if the person lives with their abusive partner.
- Disability: If your friend is physically dependent on their abusive partner, they can feel that their well-being is connected to the relationship. This dependency could heavily influence his or her decision to stay in an abusive relationship.
What Can I Do?
If you have friends or family members who are in unhealthy or abusive relationships, the most important thing you can do is be supportive and listen to them. Please don’t judge! Understand that leaving an unhealthy or abusive relationship is never easy. Try to let your friend know that they have options. Invite them to check out resources like loveisrespect.org, even if they stay in the abusive relationship. To learn more, check out our other tips on helping a friend
[*The way I use the feminine and masculine pronouns throughout my blog when writing about interpersonal/intimate bullying/abuse relates to statistics that the abuse of women is significantly higher than for men.]
Source: Love is Respect