Why The Abuse Victim Doesn’t Leave (In Six Words)

better-days-aheadThose who have never experienced abuse tend to be bewildered by the victim’s mindset. It does seem utterly ridiculous that anyone subject to physical or emotional harm would deliberately choose to remain one more minute with the jerk who is inflicting it. The outsider will reason, “Well, if she is so determined to stay, the situation must not be that bad.”

If things are so terrible, then why doesn’t she leave?

The shortest possible answer: She believes tomorrow will be different.

From everything I have witnessed and experienced, the abuse victim remains because of an undying hope that her magical moment is imminent – when her relationship and her life will be restored – and if not today, then tomorrow. She sincerely believes that she is only one small step from redemption, not realizing that there is, in fact, a chasm of extraordinary proportions that separates her from her imagined destination. Surely, the slightest change in her manner, his nature, or their circumstances will bring an end to this season, and these dark days will be remembered no more. It is only a matter of time. The promising future seems so real she can almost touch it.

If only it was so simple. But abusive relationships are insidious, a powerful concoction of mixed messages and twisted truth designed to confuse and control. There are a great many tender-hearted, well-meaning people married to those who put on a good show in public but thrive on oppression when others aren’t looking. Healthy people who have never been exposed to abuse cannot begin to imagine people they know and love living under the cold shadow of moral depravity where invisible wounds fester, and apologies and promises are offered easily, but glimpses of change quickly fade away.

She doesn’t believe it could happen to her.

Many abuse victims live for years in an abusive relationship and never mentally acknowledge their experiences as abusive. Abuse is often intermittent and minimal, particularly at first, which makes it difficult to identify. His unpredictability causes her to doubt her own senses. She accepts that every hostile episode is a singular circumstance or an unfortunate misunderstanding that can be remedied and forgiven.

She believes she may be responsible.

Oftentimes, the shock-and-awe component to the abuser’s tactics leads the victim to believe that either she unintentionally triggered his outburst or his actions are incompatible with his true nature. The victim might attribute the abuser’s actions to his history or stress, and for a while his excuses, apologies and promises seem genuine enough. But as the days, weeks, months and even years pass, the abuser begins to place the blame for his actions squarely on his victim. The victim believes that if she is causing the problem, she can work to fix herself and find a way to meet his impossible expectations. If she cannot, she will see herself as a failure – even deserving of his poor treatment.

When the abuser fails to embrace change, then his victim decides that his life circumstances might be the underlying issue. After all, he complains that he is unhappy at work, or he may have relational problems with family members, friends and co-workers who don’t seem to understand and appreciate him. So his victim comes alongside and strives to soften the blows that stir up his troubled spirit.

If the abuser plays the game well, he will occasionally toss out a compliment, a gift, or an unexpected privilege, a hint of promise to his tormented bride. The victim is certain that she has caught a glimpse of the man she fell in love with and reasons that the ups and downs must be consistent with a normal marital relationship.

She is wrong.

She fears that things might get worse.

When an abuse victim finally gets to a place where she can mentally acknowledge that the relationship is inherently dangerous, the lies and confusion inflicted by an abuser run so deep that his victim either doubts her ability to live without him or fears what will happen to her if she even attempts to break free. In many cases, veiled or direct threats are also part of the abuser’s mantra. “If you ever even think of leaving me, you will wish you had never been born.” “You have no idea what I might do.” “You don’t want anything to happen to your family [or the kids], would you?”  While staying is scary, leaving can be an even more frightening proposition.

She lacks validation and permission.

Because she carries no bruises or open wounds, her friends, family members and pastoral authorities almost always tell her that there is no reason her abuser cannot be won over through prayer, a godly life and generous measures of compassion and understanding (which she has already tried). She is told that her faith has the power to incur change in him. So the pressure is on her to fix the problem – and she stays.  She commits to a life of continual suffering with the belief that her faith will bring about repentance in her abuser.

In this, the church community unwittingly becomes one of the abuser’s most powerful allies. Should she be shamed into remaining with her abuser, he wins. And should she leave, he still wins – because the abuser and her church family will no doubt identify her as the one who “gave up on the marriage.”

Tragically, she has been lied to by her abuser, her heart, her friends, and her church. It is only her dwindling hope for a better tomorrow that sustains her.

But tomorrow never comes.

The abuse victim will finally leave when her stores of excuses, energy and optimism have been spent. Regrettably, it is when she has no strength left that she needs it most. It will be a sorrowful certainty of conviction and a desperate determination that finally drives her out the door.

She will leave when she realizes that tomorrow is nothing but a phantom, a dream, a wish – and all she really has is today.

“Carrying a log across your shoulders while you’re hefting a boulder with your arms is nothing compared to the burden of putting up with a fool.”
Proverbs 27:3 (The Message)

Cindy Burrell

Copyright 2014

All rights reserved.

44 thoughts on “Why The Abuse Victim Doesn’t Leave (In Six Words)”

  1. Just a little post script with a revelation that really hit home with me yesterday. Since it is a goal of an abusive person to have control over the other, the most control they could have would be to somehow strip the victim of his/her self-defenses. This is common in some of the literature I’ve been absorbing during recovery, but you know how it is, at a certain point it becomes “real,” so to speak.

    The hardest part for me these days has been the feeling that having no contact is a mean or vengeful tactic of my own; whereas, I am doing this because I just don’t feel safe to have any more of a relationship with my ex. I don’t know what the future will bring. But for today, I feel safe and calm with no contact and fortunately, there is no need for any contact (grown children, split financial matters, etc.).

    A good way to strip me of my self-defense was to remind me of my kindness and compassion. His last attempt to pull me back with this, or so I believe, was to send me a Mother’s Day card last year with the note of appreciation for my k and c. Naturally I felt guilty, but things were too raw for that to have worked on me that time. And since then I have been gaining in strength and knowledge. Perhaps this will help someone else, too. WE GET TO DEFEND OURSELVES. And sometimes, this means getting away from the abuser, as nice as he/she may be at times.

    Something else occurred to me along with the above. The pattern of my recovery actually began not many years after I became a Christian, back in the early seventies. The first “words of wisdom” I “heard” through scripture, sermons, and everywhere else were to NOT engage with the enemy. NOT respond to anger with anger, not respond to a critical spirit fueled with alcohol. Sometimes it would mean simply leaving the room. Other times it meant just not feeding into a burst of anger. “Where there is no fuel the fire goes out” was one of my Scriptures along with “do not rescue an angry man or you will have to do it again.” The final “withdrawal” from his rage was when I left him completely.

    I think God gave me an extra little “gift” of affirmation that I was NOT being cruel or unforgiving to leave him and to institute no contact. I was following the pattern of how God had been leading me consistently and gently all those years.

    WE are NOT called to “turn the other cheek” to an abuser.

    1. I am glad you have found peace with yourself and your sense of obligation and agree with everything you shared. I think that when our Lord was talking about “loving our enemies and praying for those who persecute us and turning the other cheek,” His intent was that we not allow others’ evil behavior to incite similar behavior in us. I don’t think there is anything wrong with righteous anger, but unresolved anger turns to resentment, then to bitterness and then to hatred. Jesus never let anyone make Him become less than who He was. That’s what He wants for us – that we might be “perfect as the Father is perfect.”

      But that doesn’t mean we have to remain in the presence of unsafe and unhealthy people who are intent on harming us. How many times did our Lord escape when people sought to harm Him? When He finally gave His life, it was a willful surrender, submission for a higher purpose. Jesus was never a victim, only a holy, willing sacrifice.

      We are not being cruel or unforgiving when it comes to separating ourselves from an abuser. The truth is we finally allow our abuser to reap what he has sown. I told my then-husband when he pleaded one last time for me to return to him that I was giving him what he wanted – the freedom to do whatever he wanted whenever he wanted however he wanted with whomever he wanted. He didn’t even protest – he knew I was right.

      From my perspective, you owe him nothing. You gave him more than he deserved, and you need never bite on those “hooks” he leaves out for you, hoping to draw you in – where he can hurt you again.

      Cindy

  2. Great article Cindy! I also find that many women don’t leave because they don’t believe they can support themselves financially, especially if they have children. I went back to school and earned my Masters degree and began working on a Ph.D., before I felt strong enough and independent enough to leave. Many women don’t have the resources to go back to school and have been told by their abuser that they don’t know how to do anything, so they don’t believe in themselves and their ability to provide for their children.
    I recommend to women in this situation to begin to formulate a plan. The plan could include setting aside money, documents, and looking for employment. It can include earning an education or some form of job training. I can also involved creating a support system, a friends who will take her in temporarily until she can afford housing. It sometimes takes a couple of years to achieve all of these things, but with the support and encouragement of friends, it can be done! Freedom is possible!

    1. I agree with your comments, Dee Anne. As an abuse survivor myself, I outline similar steps to freedom in my book, “Why Is He So Mean to Me?” Not everyone will have the opportunity to get their Masters, but I know that there are always options, and I can attest to the truth that sometimes less is more. I was the provider and primary custodian of my four children when we left. They were between the ages of 6 and 13. It was very difficult, but I wouldn’t have returned to my abuser for a million dollars. The collective harm he did to all of us cannot be understated, and it took all of us many, many years to recover – and the scars remain. If anything, I wished I had the commonsense to leave many years before, but fellow believers insisted our marriage could be saved if I was faithful.

      If you’re interested, you can read an excerpt of my books on my website at hurtbylove.com. In fact, I will be releasing the second edition of that book as well as “God Is My Witness: Making a Case for Biblical Divorce” very soon.

      1. DeeAnne and Cindy – thank you for your recent comments and inspiration. I wish I had had the fortitude and wisdom years ago to be prepared even as a home schooling mother. Now my health makes it very difficult to find employment and move out of the situation. (I have a college education and other financial training but require updates) Thankfully, God is putting certain souls in my path that are encouraging me to ‘finally take care of myself’ even though my children and extended family are not supportive of me because of Jesus Christ being my Lord & Saviour.

    2. Sorry to be a Debbie Downer, but it’s very hard to find friends willing to take you in. And what do you do with your possessions?—can’t be dragging stuff into their houses. And how does a woman with health problems and can’t get a job and her husband keeps the money from her suppose to get an education she can’t pay for? I’m older and don’t have the skills for today’s job market. I live far from family and life long friends thanks to him.

      1. Hello, Ann.

        You might be surprised to know that many women who contact me have found themselves in situations similar to yours. And I will tell you what I tell them: There are always, always options. Just because your husband currently controls finances doesn’t mean you’re stuck. I would encourage you to contact your local court for information regarding legal separation and/or divorce. Many provide meetings or in-depth paperwork to people who need information on these legal procedures. In the majority of cases, women in your situation would be entitled to a measure of financial support. From there, I would encourage you to contact friends and/or family and, if you must, move to be closer to them. Once family members and friends understand the situation, you never know if someone will consider allowing you to stay with them until you can get on your feet. You might want to consider renting a room. I know that it may not be easy or convenient, but sometimes the important thing is to keep educating yourself, look for every possible avenue of escape, any kind of employment and housing opportunity and take it. You will have to “mean it” and perhaps to pay a price in terms of your immediate comfort for the potential freedom it may yield.

        There is no perfect or ideal answer to your situation, and you will have to do your homework and do the work necessary to make it happen if you really want to leave.

        I apologize for the my delay in responding and hope this helps.

        All the best,

        Cindy

  3. Also, “She is afraid for the kids ”

    Since the days of mom getting sole custody are over, the fear of having to leave the kids in his care for visits is very real. I considered separating from my abuser last year after an incident, but would have had to have 50/50 custody with the kids being split every other week. That is terrifying and I stayed. Then, he threw our 8 yo out of the house one night. I called the police. But what if that happened while I wasn’t there? That was back in July and I still don’t have custody and the restraining order I have is useless because it was granted because he assaulted my family member. The day he was found guilty of assault on a minor, he was given daily unsupervised visits with that same child in our house. So I have to leave my home so he can visit the boys.

    So, yes, I am terrified for my kids.

    1. Hello, Anonymous.

      Wow. I can sure appreciate your fear, although I admit I am stunned that a court would allow unsupervised visitation considering your husband’s history. Every court operates under its own parameters generally established by the state. And the notion that you have to leave your home for visitation also seems unusual. I wish I had an easy answer to this and wonder if you have consulted an attorney and/or a mediator to talk about these very real – and documented – threats to your kids’ safety. It might be worth researching further to see if there are other options or precedents to push for supervised visitation or sole custody.

      I hope you will let me know what, if anything, you decide to do in this regard. I’ll admit that this one is a toughie.

      Cindy

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