Why Women Stay In Abusive Relationships Even if They Know They Should Leave
I recently read a headline about a woman who was abused who had been killed by her husband.
He said it was an accident but, as the police investigated, they learned that her husband had been abusing her for years.
When I discussed what happened with some of my clients, many of them, while they pitied her, wondered why she didn’t leave her husband when he abused her.
The answer, I am afraid, is not a simple one. There are many reasons why women stay, many of them sometimes insurmountable.
Here are 15 reasons why women stay in abusive relationships even if they know they should leave so that we can all understand why they do so that we can show them compassion and not judgement.
Knowing these reasons might also help you see why you might be staying in a toxic relationship so that you can have some clarity about what next steps might be for you.
#1 – They are afraid to be alone.
One of the top reasons why women stay in abusive relationships is that they are afraid to be alone. They are afraid that they will be lonely. They are afraid that they will struggle to take care of themselves. They are afraid that they will lose their friends and their social group.
One of the reasons that we all subject ourselves to online dating is because we don’t want to be alone. We want someone to share our lives with.
When we have a bird in hand, someone we are in a relationship with, it’s hard to let it go because then we will have to start all over again. Who wants to do that?
#2 – They think no one will ever love them again.
I remember when my high school boyfriend broke up with me, I was sure that I would never love or be loved again.
I believed that, if he left me, there was no chance that anyone would ever want to be my boyfriend. I was incredibly insecure about myself and truly believed that I would be alone for the rest of my life.
Of course, I found a new boyfriend pretty quickly, this being high school and all, but the fear that I never would stayed with me and led me to staying in relationships that weren’t good for me later on in my life.
#3 – They believe that everything is their fault.
For many women who are in abusive relationships, they believe that everything that happens is their fault.
Many abusive men (or women) who are abusive are gaslighters. They go out of their way to convince their partners that everything that is wrong in their relationship is their fault.
That, if the woman didn’t do this certain thing, everything would just be fine.
That if she didn’t leave the bread on the counter but instead put it away, he wouldn’t have to yell at her.
That if she didn’t flirt with the car repair guy, he wouldn’t have to knock her around.
If she could just keep the kids quiet during the football game, he wouldn’t have to berate her for being a bad mom.
Because a woman in an abusive relationship believes that everything is her fault, she just doesn’t believe that things would be any different in another relationship, so she stays.
#4 – Those moments of happiness between abuse.
Every abusive relationship has those moments of joy. Those moments when everyone is being nice to everyone and feeling loved. And, often, because abusive relationships usually involve heightened emotions, in both directions, that moments are GOOD!
It is those moments, and the moments that they remember from the beginning of the relationship, that lead women to stay in abusive relationships. They want to believe that they can in fact be happy in it, because sometimes they truly are.
#5 – They are financially dependent on their abuser.
Another top reason why women stay in abusive relationships is because they are financially dependent on their partners.
Whether they don’t work or whether they don’t have enough money to survive on their own, leaving just isn’t an option because they can’t afford it.
#6 – Their abuser won’t let them leave.
This happens a lot to women who are in abusive relationships.
Sarakay Smullens, in his abstract: “Five Cycles of Emotional Abuse: Codification and Treatment of an Invisible Malignancy,” notes that “the abuser will become enmeshed, or completely absorbed, with their partner. They will become afraid to let the partner leave and will be overly protective. They will flower their partner with gifts, love, and praise.”
Quite simply, men who are abusers need their partners to stay because they need to maintain power and control and to not be able to do that is inconceivable.
#7 – They were abused as children.
For many women who are in abusive relationship, they had difficult relationships with their parents.
In early childhood, hopefully, one has a relationship with one’s parents that is loving and nurturing. If that kind of relationship exists, their emotional needs are met and their attachment styles are healthy.
If someone does not have a nurturing relationship with their parents but rather a neglectful, even abusive, one, women will develop an unhealthy attachment style, one that will lead them into abusive relationships as an adult.
To those kind of people, abuse is the norm, not the exception, and so they stay.
#8 – They are trauma bonded.
According to MedicalNewsToday.com, “trauma bonding occurs when a person experiencing abuse develops an unhealthy attachment to their abuser. They may rationalize or defend the abusive actions, feel a sense of loyalty, isolate from others, and hope that the abuser’s behavior will change.”
Breaking the cycle of trauma bonding is incredibly difficult without professional help so, unless women recognize that they are trauma bonded, they tend to think what is happening is the norm and they stay.
#9- The kids.
This one is very obvious. They stay because of the children.
For mothers, the instinct to protect their children is primal. They will do whatever they need to do to keep them alive.
Unfortunately, this might mean staying in an abusive relationship to keep their kids from growing up in a broken family or in poverty.
They also want to make sure that they can protect their kids from the abuse and so they stay to make sure they can do this.
Of course, exposing kids to an abusive father will only set them up for attachment issues when they are adults so staying is, most often, counterproductive.
#10- They want to fix their abuser.
There isn’t a woman I know who doesn’t believe that she can fix a damaged man.
That if she just loves him enough, he will change and they will be happy.
Unfortunately, no one changes unless they truly want to. No amount of love will stop a man from being abusive and staying to try to change them will never work.
#11 – They have no support.
For many women who have been abused, their abuser gets between them and their family and friends. As a result, these women feel completely isolated and believe that they will have no support if they leave the relationship.
Furthermore, resources to help abused women are not available to everyone so knowing how to leave, even if you want to, might be out of reach.
#12 – They have no place to go.
Just like being financially dependent on someone, so women who are being abused might be reliant on their abuser to keep a roof over their head.
Their survivor instinct might be willing to put up with anything to keep themselves, and their kids, warm and dry.
Again, women’s shelters might be few and far between and, if they are accessible, hard to get into. This would lead a woman to stay as she has no other options.
#13 – They have no self-respect.
One of the saddest things about women who are in abusive relationships is that the pattern of abuse has destroyed their self-esteem.
Being on the receiving end of words of derision, of physical violence, of being told that everything is their fault, leads women to feel worse and worse about themselves.
As a result, they don’t believe that they would be able to survive without their abuser. That they would never be loved again. That they only deserve what they have now.
And so, they stay, not believing that they deserve to be treated better and be happy.
#14 – They don’t believe that they are in an abusive relationship.
Sometimes, when we are in the middle of a toxic situation, it’s hard to see clearly what is going on.
Abuse can show up in different ways. Abuse can be physical, it can be emotional and verbal, it can be sexual and it can involve gaslighting.
For many women, they believe that physical abuse is the only thing that categorizes abuse and they don’t see that being on the receiving end of verbal or sexual abuse might not be okay. And so they stay.
#15 – They are afraid.
The final, and perhaps most obvious, reason why women stay in abusive relationships is because they are afraid of what will happen if they leave.
They are afraid that their husband will hurt them, a reasonable fear considering the abuse they have been subjected to over the years.
They are afraid they will be poor. They are afraid that their friends and family won’t believe that they have been abused. They are afraid their children will suffer.
It is natural human instinct to not do things that we are scared of. In ancient times, this fear kept us alive. In more modern times, fear is something that keeps us in the line of fire instead of safely out of it.
So, there you go – why women stay in abusive relationships even if they know they should leave.
From the outside looking in, it can be hard to understand why a woman might stay in an abusive relationship but now I hope you see why they might.
No one is immune from an abusive relationship – they happen across all socio-economic lines. The stereotypes that we see from TV and movies aren’t necessarily accurate – its not just physical, it could be sexual, verbal or emotional abuse as well.
It’s important to recognize if you, or someone you love, might be in an abusive relationship so that you can figure out how to take next steps to get out of it.
Here is a resource to help you, or your loved on, learn more about abuse in relationships and what your options are.
You can do it!